This blog entry is part of a series introducing LVA employees and exploring what they do day-to-day. If you’re interested in reading more, entries in this series are collected under the tag 7 Questions

Errol Somay

Errol Somay

Director, Virginia Newspaper Project

What is your background?

I was born in Newark, N.J. (I know, but also born there is Shaquille O’Neal, Jerry Lewis, Ice-T, Whitney Houston, the author Philip Roth, and the notorious Aaron Burr, among others) and then moved to a smaller town in the area. Spent a lot of time in Manhattan and Brooklyn as I had aunts and uncles living in NYC. Father was an R&D textile chemist so we moved South when I was about 10. First to Danville (!?!), then to Greensboro, N.C. Culture shock from north Jersey to Danville? Yeah, you could say that, but Danville had a great little league and Babe Ruth baseball program and that created some great memories.

I received my undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina and got the MLiS from Columbia University. I attended some classes with Terry Belanger, who later moved the Rare Books School to UVA after Columbia closed down the Library School.

Prior to coming to the Library of Virginia I had worked in libraries at Columbia University and the New York Public Library. Also, while in NYC, I had a stint writing for popular music magazines including Rolling Stone. I also worked for the entire life (one year) of a newspaper called the Racing Times, a horse racing publication that attempted (and failed) to compete directly with the venerable Daily Racing Form. I worked on page layout and writing brief descriptions of individual horse races for the past performances.

How do you explain what you do to others?

After dealing with the “shhh” and Dewey Decimal jokes, I just say “newspapers” and that gets their attention because most people know a newspaper when they see one. I also hint at the complexities of today’s library and archival work that often involves the conversion of originals to digital formats.

But my quick description of the job is that the Virginia Newspaper Project is simply trying to find, catalog, and make accessible the newspaper record in Virginia. If they ask for details, then I offer more. I have to say many are quite fascinated by what we do at the Library of Virginia, and newspapers are a great entrée into describing our various jobs and projects.

Have you held other positions at the Library? If so, what?

The only other position I have held at the Library is manager of the LVA softball team. We had a winning record during my one-year stint and my coaching career ended when I overreached and demanded a 3-year extension with performance bonuses and a buyout clause.

How has technology affected your current job?

Technology has created nothing but wonderful opportunities for the Library and the VNP in providing better access to Virginia newspapers. From cataloging and microfilming to full-image and full-text searching has been a game changer that unlocks access to thousands of pages and millions of articles, all accessible via our online database, Virginia Chronicle.

Consider: The VNP began as a cataloging and microfilming project. Actually, at the very beginning when we had nothing in terms of an overall workplan, in the early 90’s, it was still considered reasonable to center the project around union listing. That would mean letting the world know the original and microfilm holdings of, say, the Pamunkey Regional Library, and so forth for every institution in the state. If I give myself credit for one thing, I decided that was insane (in terms of the best use of time and resources) and that a database of the larger, more significant repositories of newspapers was the way to go – and the Library and VNP staff had the know-how to create an online database thanks to the burgeoning possibilities of the internet. From cataloging and microfilming to full formal digitization is quite a shift in core operational principles but that’s what many in the library world and LVA have dealt with, so there it is.

Describe your best day at the Library of Virginia.

Working with the Virginia Newspaper Project’s smart, collegial, and motivated staff has made the job extremely rewarding. They are the best! To single out a best day, that would be seeing the rehabilitated Richmond Planet post bound with every page in a Mylar sleeve. That represented the combined efforts of many people including the excellent folks in the Conservation Lab. Many of the pages were in pieces and it required a true labor of love to remake it. Of course, it was subsequently microfilmed and digitized and 40-plus years can now be viewed and searched. It’s stuff like this that drives home the feeling that you are serving a social good.

What was your first paid job?

My first paid job I got within 48 hours of getting my Social Security card when I was 16, and my dad made sure I got there on time by driving me to my first day at McDonald’s.

Now that doesn’t sound like a very interesting job as many boys of my generation worked in a Micky D’s at one time or another but now that the word is out that I am over 39 years old, let me explain why I had a pretty cool job: After failing miserably at the front counter, I excelled on the grill but then moved to making the french fries. Back in the day, just after the Reformation, french fries at McDonald’s were made from scratch: I dragged a 50-pound bag of Idaho potatoes from the basement, peeled, sliced, washed, blanched, fried, and finally salted and bagged them. It was great! When I learned a few years later that fries were now delivered frozen in boxes I was appalled!

One day my manager said, “Somay, be here at 7:30 pm tonight.” I said ok, and when I got there, just about every staff member at my Greensboro, N.C. McDonald’s was there. We piled into a couple of vans and jumped out at a featureless business building on the other side of town. We went in and sat in a small theater-like space and a nameless middle manager said, “We’re going to show you a film. You are not to tell anyone what you’re about to see.” Whoa, this is weird but kind of exciting. The lights dimmed and the 16-mm film rolled and we watched the birth of…The Big Mac. The grill guys were freaking out trying to figure how to build this architectural monstrosity. No one had done anything bigger than a double cheese, so this was big! The cloak and dagger corporate secrecy thing helped to make it memorable.

My summer job was at Cone Mills working shifts in the carding and weave rooms. Incredible experience. The weave room was so big you literally could not see the other end of the room with thousands of looms creating the sound of a Boeing 707 taking off, but Cone Mills created the best selvage denim that people today pay hundreds of dollars for.

What would people be surprised to find out about you?

People might be surprised to know that I love opera. While living in NYC, I was for a few years a member of the Metropolitan Opera Guild. The good news is I won’t bore you with the how and why I became an opera lover. I often say, as an art form, there is nothing better than great opera and nothing worse than bad opera.

Vince Brooks

Vince Brooks

Senior Local Records Archivist

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