Alumni Feature: Cynthia Bachhuber

By Cynthia Bachhuber

At my job, I regularly come into contact with maps from the 16th century, letters, and papers from the Civil Rights Movement, and many rare books (Hamilton fans? I just held an original printing of “the Reynold’s Pamphlet”). It really is a pretty amazing spot to find oneself. My path from Hope College history student to North American History Librarian at the Wisconsin Historical Society never felt linear though.

I came to Hope for the dance program, but figured I should take on a second, more practical major – history. Thankfully, no one ever told me that history wasn’t practical or tried to steer me toward a more conventional “backup” degree. I fell in love with the study of history – the reading, the discussions, the research; all of it fed me. In a class my junior year with Jeanne Petit, both of my interests collided. I dove into researching a conflict that occurred in Kalamazoo dance halls during the 1920’s. Through newspapers and archival research, I unraveled a tale about feisty teenagers, frightened adults, and controlling laws – it was essentially Footloose set to a jazz soundtrack. Coming in contact with the physical stuff of history and being able to piece together a story from those objects was a landmark in my understanding of how history is done.

This project also nudged me into the library profession. I worked closely with a Hope College librarian during the research process and watched in awe as she took a scrap of information from a newspaper index and spun out multiple ways to track and flesh out the story. She always seemed to find a next step when I felt I had hit a dead end in my research.

After graduating, I lived in New York for several years and spent time volunteering at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. That experience solidified my desire to work in the library field, so I pursued a Master’s in Library and Information Studies. I couldn’t quite reconcile my love of history and archives with my desire to serve students in a similar manner to how I had been helped at Hope. Unfortunately, these are two different tracks in the field. So, as had became my M.O., I did both. I completed a specialization in Archives and Records Management as well as coursework and internships in academic reference and instruction.

After graduating, I landed a job at a small, academic library. I wasn’t working with the historical materials I really loved, but I was doing other fulfilling work like helping people navigate their research. I knew I didn’t want to remain at that job for the duration of my career, so I worked to develop marketable skills and stay active in my network.

Seven years (and a few life changes) into the job, I felt like I had hit a ceiling and starting sniffing around for other opportunities. Lo and behold, I saw a posting that advertised an opening at the Wisconsin Historical Society focusing on instruction and outreach. It sounded too good to be true – doing instruction and outreach centered on history topics! The historical society is a state agency and as such the application process is long, rigorous, and pretty demoralizing. After a lengthy and nerve-wrecking interview process, I was thrilled to accept their offer.

So what made me stand out? I think it was a combination of my educational background, professional experience, and the soft skills you learn as a performer. My history degree gave me the necessary knowledge base for the job and indicated my enthusiasm for the subject matter. My experience in a small academic library mean that I could jump quickly into providing instruction and would bring new ideas to the team. And my background as a dancer has taught me how to give public presentations and think quickly on my feet. In the end, none of my academic studies were impractical. The broad liberal arts base and hands-on experience I gained as a Hope student made me a compelling candidate for what just may be my dream job.

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