Campus News

Who is Crystal Willer?

March 11, 2022

Yvonne Gay

A portrait of a woman wearing a sweater and glasses
Crystal Willer, special collections librarian and curator of the James R. and Susan Neumann Jazz Collection.
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones '97

Crystal Willer didn’t really know what an archivist did when she was growing up, but she knew she enjoyed saving and organizing things. Today her job as special collections archivist in the conservatory library not only involves storing, arranging, describing, and sharing a rich variety of material, but she has found a unique way to combine her love of poetry writing with the work she does. Find out more about Willer in this installment of Who Am I?


Full Name: Crystal Willer

Department and location on campus: The conservatory library located in Bibbins Hall

Job title: Special Collections Librarian and Curator of the James R. and Susan Neumann Jazz Collection

How many years at Oberlin? 3 ½ years—I was a project archivist before my current position.

What does your job entail? I manage the conservatory library’s special collections. We have a rich variety of material and formats, from 16th-century music theory books to more than 42,000 jazz LPs. My job involves storing, arranging, describing, and sharing these items.

Have you always wanted to be an archivist? I doubt I knew what an archivist was growing up, but I’ve always enjoyed saving and organizing things, and snooping around in other people’s houses. (Kidding! but I do get to read letters, diaries, and other personal items in our collections.)

What is it about this career path that appeals to you the most? I get to see and handle interesting and historical items every day, which means I’m always learning something new. I love being able to share our collections with students, faculty, and outside researchers. Seeing other people get excited about what we have reinforces my whole reason for doing this work.

You also held a position at the Circus World Museum’s Robert L. Parkinson Library. That sounds like it was a lot of fun! What did you do there? It was fun! I inventoried and described photographs (learned some terms such as "candy butcher"), created digital collections, and recorded oral histories with former circus performers during a reunion weekend for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.

You have taught undergraduate poetry writing workshops. Is there a correlation to your poetry writing and your career as an archivist? In a broad sense, both are interested in detail, description, care, empathy, and memory. As a writer, I'm interested in how we try to make sense of ourselves and others through language and memory, and how often we fail. As an archivist, I'm interested in how our collections (both individual items and collections as a composite whole) document history or tell a story. And of course, the flip side to that is investigating archival silences: how do items or collections fail to tell the whole story, and who gets left out of the archive and why?

This might be a long-winded way of saying both areas require creative participation. I think the same muscles that can craft and analyze poems can serve primary source objects well by being open to many modes of inquiry. Or maybe I think there's more connection between the two than there is since I’m always thinking about both.

Do you have a favorite movie? I watch a lot more TV shows than movies, but I’ve recently gotten into the documentaries of Les Blank, like A Well-Spent Life (about Texas blues musician Mance Lipscomb) and In Heaven There Is No Beer? (about polka festivals in the US in the 1970s and early 1980s).

Favorite places in Oberlin? Thini Thai, Oberlin Public Library, walks in Westwood Cemetery and surrounding neighborhoods. 

Favorite childhood memory? Summers spent on the Oregon coast with my extended family. 

Best vacation ever? Hopefully, the best is yet to come! I'm saving up for a trip to Japan.

Any recent achievements you would like to tell us about? During the height of the pandemic my husband successfully went through chemotherapy treatment for lymphoma, and I gave birth to our daughter, who is now 15 months old and a budding percussionist.

Hobbies? Spending time with my family and friends, eating out, and going to used bookstores.

Favorite food? A steamed artichoke with melted lemon butter

Favorite Quote? "Almost every person has something secret he likes to eat,” by Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher.

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