Documenting History


At MCLA, Jennifer Beaton '05 of Plainville, MA, was introduced to what she considers her "dream job." She's an archivist and the oral history coordinator at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, one of 13 presidential libraries administered by the National Archives and Records Administration.

For the past year, Beaton has been working on a collection of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' papers. In February, the Library opened the first portions of newly available papers that focus on Mrs. Kennedy's years in the White House.

The documents cover a broad array of topics: redecoration of the White House, travel, State visits, arts and culture, and press coverage, as well as Mrs. Kennedy's involvement in a variety of cultural projects, organizations, and associations. They are part of a larger collection that spans the years from 1926 to 2002, and consist principally of staff files, correspondence, clippings, photographs, scrapbooks, and albums, as well as other materials accumulated by Mrs. Kennedy during the course of her lifetime.

From the start, Beaton knew she wanted to do something with history, and considered elementary education.  

"My parents were a little concerned when I told them I wanted a degree in history, because a lot of people don't know what the practical application of a degree in history is. But there are a lot of avenues open," she said.

A "Local History Methods" class at MCLA introduced her to working with archives.

"My history program at MCLA was eye-opening," Beaton said. "The classes were excellent and I was introduced, for the first time, to primary source records that you actually write history from. Before, I was only learning about history from textbooks. I wasn't actually seeing the primary documents, the research you can do with it, the discoveries that you can make.

"The fact that I already had experience in working with primary source material, and could say that I was familiar with archival materials through my courses at MCLA, really bolstered my graduate school application for the Archives Management Program at Simmons College."

After graduating from MCLA, Beaton began an internship at the Library while attending Simmons College in Boston, where she earned dual Master's degrees in History and in Library Science with a concentration in archives management. In 2007, she became the Library's oral history coordinator, and has been at her current position for the past four years.

As an archivist, she collects personal papers from historic figures and goes through them thoroughly. The papers then are organized, arranged and described so those who need information on a specific subject can find it.

"It's doing something I love every day," Beaton said. "I love being able to work with historic documents and history on such a level. We're not just reading it in a book. We're actually processing the papers to make them available to influence how people write about history.

"It's a tangible connection to the past," she continued. "Every day I encounter a folder, can open it and see something that is 60 or 100 years old, or from the Cuban Missile Crisis or that has a direct connection to the past. It's fascinating to me to walk into an archive and to know that a paper has lasted for 100 years and hopefully will last for 100 more. Every time people look at it, they make different connections with something else they've seen, and history gets rewritten and revisited."

By choosing MCLA, Beaton said, "I got an excellent education and was able to further my education because I wasn't bankrupted by my undergraduate degree. It allowed me more options so that I could go straight into graduate school, and from there, I could build upon what I wanted to do."

To read Beaton's blog about her work regarding Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, go to