Behind the Scenes with Our Digital Archivist

When your company has more than 175 years of history, the artifacts, photos and memorabilia really tend to pile up.

“I thought I wanted to be an archaeologist, but a school trip to the Smithsonian Institution had a profound effect on me.” – John Deere’s Digital Archivist, Wade Ellett.

That is, unless you have someone like Wade Ellett, Digital Archivist for John Deere, to preserve, organize and create a story with them. We sat down with Wade to get his thoughts on what it means to be a historian, what surprised him about the company’s history and why he’d want to have lunch with John Deere himself.

How did you come to choose history as your career?

Growing up, I always liked history. I read a lot about history as a kid, and in my teens, I thought I wanted to be an archaeologist. I traveled to Washington, D.C., with a school group to visit the Smithsonian Institution, and that had a profound effect on me. In college, I pursued a research project on Southern Illinois folklore, which really piqued my interest. After graduation, I worked as a historian in a few different capacities before I started working for John Deere.

As historians, we’re always discovering new evidence about the past, which allows us to look at history with better context and interpret it more accurately. In that way, history is always changing.” —Wade Ellett

Tell us about your role as a Digital Archivist.

I spend a lot of my time working with John Deere’s historical photos. We have roughly two million in our collection—some of them are digitized, but many are not. When our teams are looking for a particular photo, for advertising or for use on a licensed product, for example, it’s my job to track down the right photo or negative. If the photos have been digitized, I can find them quickly and easily through our content management catalogue. But, more often, it takes a little more hunting, which can involve pulling photos from different boxes and comparing negatives on a light box. I also work with preserving the photo collection. Over time, photo negatives can deteriorate, turning acidic and damaging other materials they are stored with. I’m the person who finds these deteriorating negatives, and either rehouses them to prevent further degradation, or separates them from the rest of the collection.

What about history is most interesting or exciting to you?

People think history is static—that it’s just a lot of facts, and that they don’t ever change, but that’s not necessarily true. As historians, we’re always discovering new evidence about the past, which allows us to look at history with better context and interpret it more accurately. In that way, history is always changing.

From your perspective, what about John Deere’s history sets it apart?

I’m always amazed that in spite of being such a well-known and beloved brand, there’s a lot about John Deere’s history that people don’t know. Many people don’t know that John Deere was a real, historical person. Others believe that John Deere invented the tractor when in reality he built the first commercially viable steel plow. I look at this as an opportunity to teach people the history of our company. What’s really fantastic is that internally at John Deere, our history is a big part of our culture, and is such a point of pride.

At John Deere, our history is a big part of our culture, and is such a point of pride.”

—Wade Ellett

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about John Deere’s history?

I had no idea that during the Great Depression, the company was losing money, but decided to carry debtor farmers as long as necessary, until they were back on their feet. I also didn’t know that John Deere produced aircraft parts, military tractors and ammunition during World War II, while 4,500 employees served in the John Deere Battalion, which saw service in Europe. To me, this shows how much John Deere’s history is really part of the larger agricultural and industrial history of our nation.

What’s your favorite thing about your job?

Beyond working with a great team and some really talented people, I love exposing people to historical content that they may have never seen before. I really enjoy projects that allow us to share history with employees and our customers, and that’s something I hope we can continue to do.

Why do you think curating history is important?

For some people, history is overwhelming, because there is so much information. But, that’s where archivists and historians come in and filter out extraneous information, contextualize the figures, and place them into a narrative that makes sense. Historians tell a story, and in John Deere’s case, it’s our story as a company that evolved from a village blacksmith to the international enterprise we are today.

If you could have lunch with any historical figure, who would it be and why?

There are so many things in history I’m curious about, and that I would love to ask questions about in cases where we can’t see the full picture. I’d be really interested to speak with Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin to get a better understanding of how they made some really tough decisions. I’d also love to chat with John and Charles Deere, and dig into their hopes and aspirations for their business, and see what they think of how the company has evolved since their time.



Behind the Scenes with Our Digital Archivist


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