Faculty Profile: Karen Gracy, Ph.D. – Archival Studies

Karen F. Gracy, Ph.D.

Before becoming a professor, Karen Gracy received a dual degree in English and French from the University of California, Berkley. During her time at Berkley, Gracy worked in the Bancroft Library and was introduced to archives work. 

“The library had amassed amazing special collections of manuscripts, rare books and unique materials,” Gracy said. “I had the chance to work with a lot of fascinating collections and understand the importance of making archival material accessible to researchers.” 

In addition, Gracy was able to study abroad in Paris to learn about the world of film archivists through exposure to screenings of restored films. 

“This sparked a burning desire to work in this highly specialized field,” Gracy said. 

Gracy’s newfound passion for moving image archiving ultimately led her to be accepted into the MLIS program and Film and Television Critical

Studies program at the University of California, Los Angeles. While completing both of her master's degrees, Gracy contemplated her future as an archivist. 

“I loved working with moving images, but realized there was a great need for educators in the archives field.” 

“I saw the opportunity to share my enthusiasm for archives and preservation work, particularly moving image archives, with the next generation of cultural heritage professionals.” 

Two professors look at old nitrate-stock film
Karen Gracy and colleague inspecting nitrate film

Gracy began her doctoral studies at UCLA focusing on moving image preservation work for her dissertation research. However, an ethnographic methods course would serve as an “aha” for Gracy.

“It allowed me to become enmeshed in a community of practice,” Gracy said. “I found out how archivists work and communicate methods that are not often easily captured in surveys.” 

Taking this class allowed Gracy to embrace a new persona as a qualitative researcher and explore the obscure world of film preservation. 

Despite her busy career as a professor in the iSchool, Gracy continued to work directly with archival materials and their user communities, particularly moving images. 

“I satisfy my desire to stay engaged with the work by consulting on projects with archival institutions locally and nationally,” Gracy said. “I also am a part of the Association of Moving Image Archivists where I present my work specific to moving image archivists and keep tabs on current trends and information in the field.” 

Since 2007, Karen Gracy has been a part of the iSchool to develop and support the challenges of preserving digital information and cultural heritage. 

Ten years later, Gracy received a grant from the CCI Research and Creative Activity Fund to collaborate with four universities and study historical materials linked to the May 4th tragedy. 

“Our project investigated an event-based model of description that will facilitate search across archival inventories and textual documents found in archival collections, Gracy said. “We’re also developing a software tool that allows scholars to more easily discover and use hidden nuggets of information about events.”

Overall, Gracy hopes that this project can help historians and other humanities scholars effectively access data hidden in the silos of digital archival collections to craft narratives about significant developments and critical junctures in historical events.

With advances in digitization, artificial intelligence and machine learning, the field of archival studies has evolved tenfold since Gracy began specializing in it. The idea of “dusty archives” is completely out of touch with what most archivists do daily. 

“We have expanded our world by engaging and expanding user communities,” Gracy said. “We are actively encouraging record users to help shape the content, organization, and interpretation of their collections.”