Archives + Audiences: Dan Lindsay and Ben Piner on “LA 92” (Part 2)

“LA 92” theatrical and TV release poster.

This is the latest entry in our Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work.  In this post, we feature Part 2 of COPA member Nick Pavlik’s conversation with Dan Lindsay and Ben Piner about their work on the acclaimed documentary LA 92, which examines the 1992 Rodney King protests in Los Angeles entirely through archival footage.  Lindsay co-directed the film, while Piner was a producer and archival researcher for the project. Remarks have been edited for length and clarity from a transcript of the original telephone interview.

See Part 1 of the interview here.

NP: Are there any other major challenges that stand out to you, separate from the ones you’ve already referenced?

BP: Just from the acquisition and licensing side, the one that comes to mind was when, about halfway or maybe three quarters of the way through the post-production, we got wind that CBS had applied a new restriction on raw footage. And with the emphasis that we had on raw footage, that we had already cut in minutes and minutes of that content [into the film], that was a major alarm for us.  And we ended up having to take some very significant proactive measures in order to try and claw back the content that we had taken for granted as being available, and pay them for it and include it in the film. I just remember, in actually clearing footage [generally], there were many little things that could threaten a piece of footage’s viability. And when you start to think about that over the course of an entirely archival film, it was just a real bear to get it out the door.

NP: Yes, I can imagine!

DL: Now I think about the “aha” moments. When I think of the progress that has been made, in terms of digitizing stuff and making things searchable on databases online, I don’t think there is a world in which we would have been able to make this film fifteen years ago. It just wouldn’t have been possible to pay to create screeners for all these things, and to be able to search the archives the way that we have. It’s something that TJ [Martin] and I have talked about. I think this form of documentary filmmaking is going to just become more and more prevalent as technology progresses. Not only on the side of us as community members [increasingly] filming our own lives, but also in terms of being able to digitize a lot of this stuff, and make it searchable in databases so it’s not so cumbersome to try to go through what exists. I think that’s really exciting as a filmmaker. So, hats off to the archivists in the world that do the work to actually preserve that stuff.

BP: That’s a good takeaway too. The level of appreciation you feel when an archivist can deliver a moment in the archive for the film. It’s a lot of years between [the creation of footage] and making sure that it’s something that can be sent in a WeTransfer link, for instance. We try not to take it for granted. It’s an interesting combination of being frustrated and also being grateful for what exists.

NP: That’s certainly gratifying to hear as an archivist, and I certainly hope we see more films of this type and of this caliber. They really are shining a light on that raw footage, things that have never actually seen any commercial broadcast before and really get to the heart of the stories. The footage in your film is really disturbing, powerful, and heartwarming all at the same time. And it’s just really amazing stuff that I feel most people have never seen before in relation to the Rodney King events.

DL: The other thing that comes to mind, in terms of what the future looks like and these types of films, is that I think there are going to be interesting moral questions that will present themselves. In terms of, like you said, things that were not broadcast, moments in between interviews, when maybe the subject isn’t really aware that they’re [on film].  I think now we have a better awareness of when we’re being filmed and when we’re not. There’s less of an understanding of privacy. But when you go back to something in the mid ’90s or late ’90s, and it is that raw, really human moment that says something about us as human beings but maybe that particular person wouldn’t want to be used.  I think there are going to be a lot of interesting questions that will arise out of those decisions that both filmmakers and archivists will have to make, making judgments in that regard.

NP: Yes, absolutely. In the latter half of the twentieth century, up until the social media explosion, video and film were heavily in use as a medium of course, but as you said, there wasn’t that expectation necessarily that the product of that film or video would ever be made public.  Whereas now, it’s almost a given that we’re all just expecting, “certainly this is going to wind up online somehow.”

BP: One last thing – just thinking about what made the film work in the way it did, I think we’d be remiss not to bring up the role that the score played and how it was married with the archival footage in a way that had a lot of intention.  The composers and directors worked really hard on that piece of it.  The footage itself was compelling, but I think without the score to accompany it, it was a really different experience, obviously. That’s true for any film, but I think it’s especially true for LA 92.

NP: That’s a great point. The score was fantastic.

BP: It augmented the archive in a way that I didn’t really appreciate until I saw it in its finished form.

NP: Do you have any tips or advice for other documentarians or filmmakers utilizing archival footage in their films?

BP: I would just go back to, from the acquisition standpoint, just [building] relationships, thinking of these archives and the people who run them as people and treating them respectfully and having gratitude for what they’re doing, needing to go out of their way, of what their normal day might be, to field these kinds of requests.  At the end of the day, that just paid off over the long haul.  And I think that if relationships are one of the top pieces – instead of just thinking about giving me what I want, thinking about it more in the terms of collaboration with the archives – I feel like that’s appreciated, and it’s this build on itself to a place where you can get further than you could if you didn’t prioritize it.

DL: I think on a creative side, the one thing that pops up in my mind is having personal responsibility for what you’re going to use, to not use stuff just because it’s provocative, and to know that your duty is to tell a story that is hopefully enlightening something about us as people, not just for shock value.  It’s irresponsible if that’s all you care about. Again, some of this footage is captured without people necessarily knowing that it’s going to be later used in a film.  Just keep that in mind as you’re progressing forward.

NP: Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience doing archival research or using archival footage in LA 92?

DL: I think the recognition of the people that go out of their way to save things and preserve things, because the history of our civilization is wrapped up in our artifacts. And to be able to have more and more of those primary resources, I think, just allows us to learn more about ourselves, to hopefully have our history inform the current time that we live in.  I think the recognition of the people that do that is really important.  I had that appreciation before we made the film, but it’s definitely grown as a result of making it.


Dan Lindsay is an Oscar and Emmy winning director of documentary films. Along with his directing partner TJ Martin, Lindsay’s films include Undefeated, which won the 2012 Academy Award for Best Feature Length Documentary, and LA 92, winner of the 2017 Prime-time Emmy for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking. They are currently in production on a feature length documentary on the life and career of Tina Turner, which is scheduled for release from HBO in 2020.

Ben Piner is a documentary producer and archival researcher. In addition to LA 92, his most recent credits include the Netflix Documentary Series’ Flint Town and Dogs.  He is currently co-producing an upcoming HBO feature-length documentary on Tina Turner.

Archives + Audiences: Dan Lindsay and Ben Piner on “LA 92” (Part 1)

“LA 92” theatrical and TV release poster.

This is the latest entry in our Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work.  In this post, we feature Part 1 of COPA member Nick Pavlik’s conversation with Dan Lindsay and Ben Piner about their work on the acclaimed documentary LA 92, which examines the 1992 Rodney King protests in Los Angeles entirely through archival footage.  Lindsay co-directed the film, while Piner was a producer and archival researcher for the project. Remarks have been edited for length and clarity from a transcript of the original telephone interview.

NP: What made you decide to do a film about the Rodney King protests?

DL: The idea of the film was brought to us by the producers, Simon Chen and Jonathan Chen.  They had set up the project with National Geographic and, when they came to us, there was an idea of doing a look back. The twenty-fifth anniversary of the civil unrest was coming up, and the thought was to revisit that moment. Simon and Jonathan approached TJ [Martin] and I to direct the film. TJ and I took some time to think about it, and eventually came back and said we’d be interested in doing it, but we would want to make it using exclusively archived material and not do any original interviews or shoot any new footage.

If I remember correctly, there was some discussion of a “plan B” of doing interviews in case it wasn’t possible to make the film out of just archives. Obviously we’re not the first people to do something like that, it’s a difficult thing to do. But I don’t think TJ and I had ever considered that back-up plan to be viable. We were going to make this film the way we wanted to make it.

NP: Following up on that, what was it that made you want to make the film entirely out of archival footage and dispense with creating any new footage or doing present-day interviews?

DL: There were multiple reasons. One was to allow the audience to be back in that moment of time and not have contemporary interviews in retrospect that would possibly create a distance for the audience between this event and their experience of watching it. We also didn’t want such a complicated topic – not only the civil unrest itself, but the events leading up to it and all of the underlying issues that led to it – boiling that down to a ninety-minute film felt a little irresponsible to us. So, we wanted to take that moment, the footage that existed, and present it in a way that people could come into it unfiltered and hopefully draw their own conclusions or spur a conversation.

We also come from a background of what’s referred to as vérité filmmaking, or direct cinema, where we are going out and just being a “fly on a wall,” and then putting together a film from that. So we thought that if we could think of these archives as if these were videographers that we had sent out to help us shoot this event while it was happening, it would be like making a film like that. Essentially, you shoot what you can shoot, and then you try to create the narrative and the edit. That felt like a way to be able to do that with a historical film.

NP: Regarding all the archival footage that you used, where did you end up finding all of the footage? And how did you go about securing the permissions to use the footage?

BP: We started out, I think, where most productions like that would start out, regardless of whether it was going to be archival only. And that led us along a path that we continued on for the duration – it was months of time – of trying to find content. I think along the way, when we were in Los Angeles, we also had the luxury of contacting some of the people who had recorded stuff on their own outside of the news entities here. And that was one of the more interesting parts of it, and I think we got some content from people who were literally down at Florence and Normandie [Avenues] filming. You can get some stories from them that inform the way the footage might get used as well.

But we had a relationship with one local news company called KTTV and KCOP.  They were part of the Fox Family that we were a part of with National Geographic, and that opened the door – a pretty significant door – to getting in there and getting some air checks, just bits and pieces of the way that archive has been retained by a guy named Mitch, who was a really diligent archivist and still is there. He has taken a lot of time over the years to make his archive date-searchable, and you can come to him, time after time, with different requests and he would always find what was available and send it back out.

With all of these, you need to get the information about what’s licensable and the rates, and what’s restricted and how it’s restricted – is raw footage restricted? Every local place like that, and the national places too, all have different sets of rules that apply to how the footage can be incorporated. So it was a lot to keep track of, and we just kept at it, chipping away. You’d see something in one clip that would make you want to go check into something else. We often would see moments that would be clipped, or were somehow cut away at a moment that we wanted to see more of. It’s a lot of following back up and just bugging people to look again, to look deeper, to turn these people who are in charge of these archives into collaborators. It was a lot of relationship building and maintaining relationships with these folks, over the course of months. And you really do have to ask them a lot.

DL: We went to the “usual suspects” at the beginning. What they sent back was the standard clips that a lot of people like; it’s almost like the greatest hits, so to speak. It did take a while to get a lot of the people – the archivists, the different networks – to wrap their heads around that what we really wanted was this raw material. And that’s not something that is often desired. [Usually when] somebody’s doing a historical piece on anything, they can just say, “Give me a thirty-minute reel of the best stuff,” but we were really looking for the stuff in between that.

NP: That’s very interesting, because that happens a lot as an archivist or working in archives, when somebody has materials they’re interested in donating, for instance, they’ll [often] bring out what they think are the “greatest hits” among the things they have to show as a sampling. A lot of times those’ll be artifacts, say, a pistol that was used in a famous [historical] battle or something. But knowing the types of things that other researchers are going to be [more] interested in, you’re really looking, as an archivist, for that raw material.  So I really relate to that.

DL: To use your analogy of the pistol that was used in some battle, that stuff – the “significant” stuff – exists out in the world because lay people understand that it’s significant. But it’s the everyday stuff that doesn’t seem as significant that is really, when telling the full story, the hardest stuff to find, and it’s the fabric that connects the dots between the real big moments that we tend to as a society.  These things get filtered down into bullet points.

NP: Yes, exactly. And tragically, so often that’s the stuff people end up throwing away because they don’t realize the significance of it.

DL: Right. For sure.

NP: Going off something that you had mentioned – the things that, when you were doing archival research, you would see in footage that would really interest you, but then [the footage] would cut out, and you’d try to go looking for where that [footage] picked up amongst the raw materials. Were there things that you were hoping to find in your research that you ended up never finding?

BP: The first thing that comes to mind that falls in that category, I think, was news content, specifically from the Spanish-speaking community here in Los Angeles. We looked very hard and made a lot of calls to, I think it was Univision and [some] other places that we were trying to source content. We were literally on the phone with folks in Mexico, at one point, trying to see if their main location in Mexico could have retained any of the broadcast. We were able to get some radio, I think, that was in Spanish and a little bit more and that POV was addressed a bit, and we wanted more of that. We wanted more options from that. So I think what we included, ultimately, was from a very limited stash of content that could have been included. It’s always tough.

There was an interesting situation with a guy named Reggie, who, similar to a lot of these folks at the time, had stuff go out to different channels.  He had done a deal right after everything had happened, and was a little confused about whether he retained the rights to his footage. He had seen bits and pieces of the stuff that had been included in the hard copy. Ultimately, we ended up finding out that he did have rights to his footage, and he had the original tape. That was an instance when we had a glimpse of something that was pretty interesting, because he was right at Florence and Normandie. He was down there right at the tail end of some of the most famous violent scenes that made their way out. And the raw tape that he ended up getting ended up being pretty powerful and we were able to include it in the film. So, they weren’t all in vain, but there were definitely some pursuits that just led to nowhere.

NP: Continuing in that vein, was there anything about the archival research process that surprised you, or did you have any major “aha” moments in the research process?

DL: Just from direct insight, I think there was a bit of naïveté on our part in thinking that more stuff would be archived in its original form. Just knowing what is required on our side when we deliver something, in terms of deliverables to a network, all the different versions [we make], making sure that there’s a textless version and there’s a version with the audio split out on one track, etc. You make all that stuff that you give to these places, and then when you go to the archive you find that they only have the main version with the titles all over it.  That’s the only thing for me that was surprising, just how there wasn’t more raw material out there.

BP: I can tail up on that too, just to say that I had never really pushed as hard on archives as we did for this film, and I guess I ended up being surprised at how much more there was sometimes after having been told that everything had been spent as it related to what we’d asked for. A level of persistence, in that sense, really did pay off over the course [of the project]. But you really have to have the time in order to allow these people to do what they’re doing and to go radio silent for a month, and then all of a sudden they’re back and they’re providing interesting content again.

[Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview with Dan Lindsay and Ben Piner!]


Dan Lindsay is an Oscar and Emmy winning director of documentary films. Along with his directing partner TJ Martin, Lindsay’s films include Undefeated, which won the 2012 Academy Award for Best Feature Length Documentary, and LA 92, winner of the 2017 Prime-time Emmy for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking. They are currently in production on a feature length documentary on the life and career of Tina Turner, which is scheduled for release from HBO in 2020.

Ben Piner is a documentary producer and archival researcher. In addition to LA 92, his most recent credits include the Netflix Documentary Series’ Flint Town and Dogs.  He is currently co-producing an upcoming HBO feature-length documentary on Tina Turner.

There’s an Archivist for That! Interview with Joel Thoreson, Archives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

This is the latest post in our There’s an Archivist for That! series, which features examples of archivists working in places you might not expect.  In this entry, COPA member Anna Trammell brings you an interview with Joel Thoreson, Archivist for Management, Reference, and Technology at the Archives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. 

Joel Thoreson 2019

Joel Thoreson, Archivist for Management, Reference, and Technology, Archives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

AT: How did you get your job?

JT: I was just finishing up a grant project at the Nebraska State Historical Society scanning glass plate negatives when I was hired here as assistant archivist for reference. We reorganized in 2005 and I took on additional management duties with the title Archivist for Management, Reference Services, and Technology. My M.A. was from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, with a double major in history and museum studies. My original intention was to work in museum collections, as I had worked in that department of the Minnesota Historical Society for nearly five years prior to grad school. We had some coursework in archives in the museum studies program, but I’d spent much more time in the archives while working on my history degree. I also had a Lutheran church background, growing up as a pastor’s kid, and attending Augsburg College in Minneapolis, where I’d done some work in church history. I also had library experience and worked with microforms and digital imaging.

TALC_1961_MLK_Q&A

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. answering questions at The American Lutheran Church Luther League convention, Miami Beach, Florida, 1961.

AT: Tell us about your organization.

JT: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was formed by a merger of three predecessor church bodies in 1987, with two of those bodies formed by mergers in the early 1960s of four church bodies each, several of which had even earlier mergers. Our archives collects materials from the headquarters (aka churchwide) level of the church, with the main building about eight miles away from the archives. The ELCA is divided into 65 synods, essentially districts, most of which have grouped together into nine regions with an archives serving each region. Those regional archives collect materials from the synodical offices as well as records from dissolving congregations. Each of the more than 9,000 active congregations are also charged with maintaining their own archives. We provide guidelines and advice to the congregations regarding both archives and records management, as well as to the synods and regional archives. The ELCA also has a long tradition of global mission work, so we work with international partner churches regarding their archival records, as well as with the Lutheran World Federation Archives in Geneva, Switzerland.

ELCA Archives indulgence

Papal indulgence, 1516. Presented to Lutheran Church Productions, producers of the Martin Luther film by German Lutherfilm, GmBH, in 1954.

AT:Describe your collections.

JT: When the ELCA was formed in 1987, the archives was also formed by merger of three predecessor archives, all with their own organizational systems. We now have nearly 16,000 linear feet of records, including a large amount of audiovisual materials, including photographs, audio records, video recordings, and motion picture film. The oldest material dates back to 1812 and the migration of Pennsylvania German Lutherans into Ohio. Older material resides at ELCA regional archives at seminaries in Philadelphia and Gettysburg, Pa.

Our reference inquires tend to be divided evenly between genealogical, historical, and administrative, receiving roughly 2,000 inquiries per year. We are open to the general public and try and make our records as accessible as possible. Our main genealogical resource is a set of microfilmed congregational records that were filmed from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s. We have recently worked with Ancestry to digitize, index, and host the pre-1945 material. These records only cover congregations from certain ancestor branches of the ELCA, so quite a lot of work is also helping researchers find the right congregation to contact to locate records.

ALC Chaplain Conrad Walker - Communion Service in Viet Nam, 1967

American Lutheran Church Chaplain Conrad Walker conducts Communion service in Viet Nam, 1967

AT: What are some challenges unique to your collections?

JT: Since many of our predecessor church bodies were formed around ethnic identities, many of the records we have up to the 1930s are in various languages, including German, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Spanish, Finnish, Slovak, and Icelandic, with global mission records in an even wider variety of languages.

With the dispersed archives system in the ELCA of regional and congregational archives, much of our work at the churchwide level is to direct traffic, helping people find the right repository to find the information they are seeking.

Being isolated away from any educational institution, we also are limited in our supply of volunteers and students. We do have some on-site researchers, but we provide quite a lot of resources to remote users, as well. Since we are separate from our main churchwide offices, we also struggle with being visible to staff there and have to work at making our services and collections known.

Also, with declining membership numbers of many religious organizations, we’ve faced budget cuts, declining from a high of eight staff members here in the archives, including a couple of grant positions, down to the current three staff members. We also have taken on additional responsibilities for managing the records management of the ELCA churchwide organization, as well as managing the art collection.

BMD ULCA 61.5.5 b2 f9 deaconesses with biplane

Lutheran deaconesses from the Baltimore Motherhouse of Deaconesses pose with a biplane, 1920s

AT: What is your favorite part of your job?

JT: Handling the reference questions, I always say that my job is like detective work, finding the right answer or the right document for the patron. Every day there is some new inquiry with a new direction to explore. Perhaps there are fewer fist fights or car chases than on Mannix, but in some ways my childhood aspirations have been achieved.


Stay tuned for future posts in the “There’s an Archivist for That!” series, featuring stories on archivists working in places you might not expect. If you know of an archivist who fits this description or are yourself an archivist who fits this description, the editors would love to hear from you—share in the comments below or contact archivesaware@archivists.org to be interviewed for ArchivesAWARE!

Archival Innovators: Helen Selsdon, Archivist, American Foundation for the Blind

This is the latest post in our new series Archival Innovators, which aims to raise awareness of the individuals, institutions, and collaborations that are helping to boldly chart the future of the the archives profession and set new precedents for the role of the archivist in society.

Helen Selsdon. Photo courtesy of the American Foundation for the Blind.

In this installation of Archival Innovators, we bring you an interview with Helen Selsdon, Archivist at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), highlighting her work coordinating a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded project to digitize the AFB’s Helen Keller Archive and make the digital collection fully accessible to blind, deaf, hearing impaired, deafblind, sighted, and hearing audiences alike.  This groundbreaking project serves as a model for providing truly inclusive access to digitized collections.

AA: Where did you get your idea and what inspired you?

HS: The American Foundation for the Blind’s Helen Keller Archive is the world’s largest repository of materials relating to Keller’s life and work as a deafblind author and activist who dedicated much of her life to advocating for people with disabilities.  Keller served as an early leader of AFB, beginning in 1924 and continuing to work for the organization for over 40 years, and she has been the main inspiration for our project to digitize the Archive and make it fully accessible online to blind, deaf, hearing impaired, deafblind, sighted and hearing audiences alike.  The project has enabled us to bring Keller’s archive to the very audiences whom she tirelessly served throughout her life. Please visit: www.afb.org/HelenKellerArchive!

As for the original idea for the project itself, I certainly cannot claim credit for that!  The idea was a truly collaborative one developed throughout AFB over the course of several years, and is indeed a natural outgrowth of our mission to promote accessibility, equality, and opportunity for people who are blind or visually impaired.  As the project coordinator, I am simply grateful to be a part of this project and to help make Keller’s extraordinary archive universally accessible online.

AA: What kind of institutional, administrative, or financial support did you have for the project? How did you go about securing that support?

HS: First and foremost, this project would not have been possible without the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which has provided principal funding for the project through a series of four grant awards. In March 2015, AFB received a Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant for Phase I of the project; two additional, smaller grants were awarded for Phase One of the project which ended in December 2017. In March 2018, an additional Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant was awarded for Phase II of the project which is projected to end in October 2020. Success is contagious! As the result of securing the NEH funds, other private funders, most notably American Express, have also joined this project to support it financially.

As I mentioned previously, AFB is also completely behind the project and has provided substantial institutional support and resources to see it through.  AFB’s administration understands how highly unusual it is for such an organization to have the opportunity to steward such an invaluable and historically significant collection as the Helen Keller Archive, and they see firsthand how Helen Keller continues to serve as a powerfully inspirational figure for the rising generation of disability advocates.  They are committed to ensuring global online access to the collection for the many audiences – from scholarly researchers to children – who contact us every day wanting to learn more about Helen Keller.

AA: What barriers or challenges did you face?

HS: The technical customization required to ensure full accessibility to the digital collection for the blind, deaf, hearing impaired and deafblind was, and continues to be, a challenge.  A great deal of the NEH funding has gone towards the development of customization tools that can take a standard finding aid hierarchy, which provides the structure for the digital collection, and configure the underlying code in such a way that enables access for people using assistive technologies.  Fortunately, we were able to engage a wonderful group of programmers from Veridian, a management software design company, to develop those tools for us.  It was definitely a learning process, even for the coding experts!  But it is my hope that more experts like Veridian learn how to enable access to digital collections for assistive technologies, this in turn will result in accessibility becoming a standard component of archival digitization projects.

Another challenge concerned optical character recognition (OCR) of digitized handwritten documents in the Helen Keller Archive. While standard OCR software can make written documents text-searchable, this utility is largely restricted to type-written documents.  The standard tools are much less effective when it comes to handwritten documents.  This challenge required us to come up with a solution, which we did! As the result of posting an advert requesting volunteer transcribers on Idealist.org we now have an amazing team of volunteers from around the country who work remotely to transcribe handwritten documents that can then be read by OCR. All these transcribers are trained by Toya Dubin, the president of Hudson Archival, the company entrusted with digitizing the collection. The first phase of this transcription work started in March of 2018, and the first public launch of the project was in June 2018.

AA: Do you have collaborators? If so, how did you find them?

HS: It’s no exaggeration to say that the entire project is one immense collaboration.  At the last count, we had 22 people from all different walks of life and expertise working on this project.

Choose your collaborators well! It’s a key step in making sure your project goes smoothly and is a success.  I reached out to the archival community using listservs to find recommendations for a digitization vendor, and I came upon Hudson Archival. I now consider Toya Dubin at Hudson Archival as my “partner-in-crime” on the project. She and her team are as invested in the work as we are. And of course, we work very closely with our software team Veridian, and our army of transcribers. I can’t stress enough how collaboration has been the be-all and end-all of this project!

AA: Have you received media attention for your project? If so, how did you make that happen?

HS: Fortunately, yes!  To promote the project, AFB’s public relations manager contacted Felicia Morton at Morton PR, who helped attract the interest of several media outlets, and we’ve received substantial media coverage of the project as a result.  One of my favorite moments from this entire project was when media outlets showed up at a celebration event we held for visually impaired fifth graders at the New York Institute for Special Education whom we had previously taught to navigate the Helen Keller Archive site using assistive technologies.

AA: Is there anything about the project you would do differently?

HS: To be honest, in the big picture, the entire project has gone exceedingly well, and overall I’m happy to say that I would run the project in much the same way again – with one major exception – metadata! If there’s something important we learned it’s that metadata takes a very long time to create – and certainly far longer than we anticipated. My advice to others is to schedule more time for this aspect of your digitization project and increase your budget accordingly.

AA: Do you have any tips for budding archival innovators?

HS: My first piece of advice, for those who are seeking external funding for their projects through an agency like the NEH, would be to never give up on pursuing grant awards!  I know how difficult it is; we went through ten years of unsuccessful proposals to the NEH before finally receiving our first grant for the project.  I’m convinced that we never would have secured funding if it wasn’t for NEH Program Officer Joel Wurl, who graciously and patiently worked with us to continually improve our proposal and encouraged us to keep applying.  Once we finally received funding, Joel continued to work with us every step of the way, and thanks to his help we were able to secure additional grants to help sustain the project.  None of this would have happened without Joel’s help.

My second piece of advice involves the technical process. Customization of the digital site was an important and complicated task. AFB does not have the staff nor time to undertake this aspect of the project on its own. AFB’s amazing technical team worked hand-in-glove with Veridian to get the job done. Securing the assistance of an outside software company proved essential and I advise others with limited staff and resources to do the same. Everybody wins!

Some other tips I would offer based on my experience are:

  • Don’t panic – know that you’ll need to take things one step at a time and problem-solve as you go. Everything takes a lot of time, usually longer than you think it will.
  • Be inclusive; bring in people who do not think like you.
  • Do a lot of usability testing with diverse user groups who bring different ways of thinking. We’ve had a wonderful group of users– people who are sighted, blind, low vision, deafblind, and who have paraplegia – from various backgrounds, including  scholars and academics, testing and providing feedback on our site throughout the project, and their input has been invaluable.
  • Never, never be afraid to ask for help. If you don’t ask for help, you’ll never get your project off the ground!

Helen Selsdon has served as the archivist for the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) since 2002. She manages the Helen Keller Archive, the Talking Book Archive, the AFB Archive, and the M. C. Migel Rare Book collection. She serves as a grant writer and spokesperson for AFB’s historical collections.

Most recently she was the project director for a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded initiative to digitize and make accessible a large portion of the Helen Keller Archive. Selsdon coordinated the work, including AFB’s efforts to pioneer an online digital archive that can be a model of accessibility for other repositories: the Helen Keller Archive. On the heels of completing this project in December 2017, AFB was awarded a second grant to digitize the press clippings and scrapbooks in Helen Keller’s Archive.

Prior to her work at AFB, Selsdon worked as an archival consultant and created archival collections for organizations as diverse as Pfizer pharmaceutical company, the Chapin School for Girls, and a private family collection in Manhattan. Selsdon first became interested in archival work in 1988 when she worked as an assistant to the archivist at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in London, England.

Selsdon holds a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts, Painting, from Camberwell School of Art, London, U.K., and a master’s degree in Medieval History and certificate in Archival Management from New York University.


Do you know an Archival Innovator who should be featured on ArchivesAWARE?  Send us your suggestions at archivesaware@archivists.org!

Outreach and an Archive’s Purpose: Finding Users as Well as Donors

This is a guest post from Andrew Harman, Archivist at the Center for American War Letters Archives at Chapman University.

Archives have two main functions: to preserve and to make available materials of historical value.  This is the purpose of an archives and its archivist – the “why” of what we do.  Each are equally important foundations of the profession as well as functions of individual archivists’ daily work. Without preserving materials, there is nothing to make accessible. Without making materials accessible, what is the point?

Since the inception of our repository, the Center for American War Letters Archives, outreach has been primarily curatorial in nature, focused almost exclusively on donors and what materials we can add to the collection.  We reach out to potential donors, conduct speeches and meetings at historical societies, and publish articles in targeted newsletters and columns.  Our current campaign, titled simply the “Million Letters Campaign,” was established in the hopes that we can continue to build our holdings to such a level that we are the preeminent repository for American war letters in the United States.  We are hopeful and look forward to the work we continue to conduct in processing and preserving these collections in this endeavor.

The work of the existing program, however, covers only the first function of an archives.  Our repository already houses the largest collection of its kind in the western U.S.; however, there is a lack in exhibit visits, researchers, student use of the materials, and general awareness of our existence.  Our outreach efforts need to shift toward scholarship and making these materials available to a wider audience.

I have begun a push for more researcher-driven outreach, including getting our name and brochures out to other academic institutions and similar repositories.  My motivation behind this initiative is to give our archives “purpose.”  In communicating what that purpose is and why we should reach for it, I have encountered some obstacles from our library administration.  Some administrators, whom I will note are not archivists or historians, have raised some questions that not only did I have a hard time answering, but that I could not adequately justify answering.

Their questions consisted of overall purpose-related questions – “why reach out to researchers?” – as well as specific expectations-related questions – “what is it that we hope to achieve by increasing use of the collections?”  These are valid questions.  Outreach costs money as well as time.  The organization must present a professional face, and it is the administration’s job to understand an initiative’s purpose, its cost, and its yield.  But while I found myself having a hard time adequately explaining the importance of outreach to our administrators, I have since been able to elucidate it this way: an archive preserved but unavailable, in this case because of lack of awareness of the collection, is essentially a room full of blank pages.

Yet the questioning continued, with administrators asking what a reasonable expectation would be if such outreach was conducted.  Do we want two researchers a week?  Ten each month?  A new research interaction, or pulling materials for a scholar or student every day?  What was it that we were seeking in the end?  Once again, I found myself without words.  I could not picture coming up with a specific number, only maintaining what I know to be true about the two functions of archives and wanting “someone” to use them.

As I contemplated these questions, I came to a couple of conclusions.  First, the purpose should be self-explanatory.  As I laid out above, I should not have to answer the question of why we would want researchers to use our archives.  My question is, “why not?”  I understand that the administration of an academic institution looks not only at scholarship, but also expansion.  Sometimes simply having the collection is enough.  But as an archivist and historian, inversely, I feel saddened when invaluable primary sources go unused and uncited in the writing of scholarly works.

The second conclusion pertains to the question of specific expectations.  I have none, nor should I.  I cannot know how many people are going to come in to see these invaluable historical collections.  I cannot know to what degree twenty researchers in a month, as opposed to five, constitutes a significant or worthwhile count for foot traffic or online downloads.  The principle of making these materials accessible – to conduct outreach so that others may view and hear about them – is all that matters.  It should be imperative that we make every researcher in the U.S. aware of our holdings, within reason, and if it turns out only five want to see them, then I did my job.


Photo courtesy of Andrew Harman

Andrew Harman is a native of Orange, California and earned a BA in History and MA in War and Society at Chapman University, with archival training through the Society of American Archivists and Society of California Archivists. He currently works as an archivist for the Center for American War Letters Archives and Huell Howser Archives at Chapman, and has several published articles in history and on the archives profession.

Keeping ArchivesAWARE: News and Highlights

This is the latest entry in our series Keeping ArchivesAWARE: News and Highlights, a recurring roundup of some of the latest archives-related news stories, features, commentaries, announcements, and projects that have caught our eye, with links to the original sources.

On Al Jazeera, Patrick Gathara argues that the path to colonial reckoning in Africa lies in the return of colonial archives – the “thousands of official records and documents that trace the history of subjugation, oppression and looting of the continent by the European powers” – to the continent.

In late March, St. Louis firefighters’ rescued the majority of the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum’s collection while subduing a major fire that damaged the museum building.

Cornell University’s Department of History and the Cornell Institute for Social and Economic Research recently launched Freedom on the Move, a crowdsourcing project compiling a database of “runaway ads” documenting fugitives from North American slavery.

The Council of State Archivists has issued its Statement on Texas Legislative Records to express concern on House Bill 1962,  which would change “existing statutes governing archival records of the Texas legislature” and place those records at risk.

The Verge reports on the Internet Archive’s efforts to preserve Google+ posts before the service is permanently shuttered this month, a move Google announced in October 2018 after a major security breach exposed user data.

Ernie Smith writes in Associations Now about how the Arms Control Association tapped into its institutional archives to mark the fortieth anniversary of an influential 1979 article co-written by its then-executive director, William Kincade, describing the effects of a potential nuclear attack on St. Petersburg, Florida.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on Housing Our Story: Towards Archival Justice for Black Baltimore, a project launched by scholars and students at Johns Hopkins University to correct “systemic archival neglect.”

William J. Maher, representing the Society of American Archivists, recently presented a statement to the World Intellectual Property Organization’s Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights at its meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, stating that WIPO “must step forward to establish broad standards for exceptions that recognize the non-commercial work of archives to preserve and make available the world’s cultural heritage.”

In March, it was reported that the social media site Myspace permanently lost all data that had been uploaded to the site prior to 2016, the result of an apparent faulty server migration.

The Library of Congress recently acquired a collection of artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s letters.  The collection had been discovered by a couple while cleaning out their new home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which had previously belonged to the widow of O’Keeffe’s friend and documentary filmmaker Henwar Rodakiewicz.

The Catholic News Agency reports that the Vatican will be be opening the secret archives of Pope Pius XII in March 2020, making the records of the leader of the Catholic Church during World War II – totaling approximately 16 million documents – available for research.


Have some interesting archival news items or highlights you’d like us to share?  Email us at archivesaware@archivists.org and we may include it in our next Keeping ArchivesAWARE roundup!

There’s an Archivist for That! Interview with Lilly Carrel, Archivist, The Menil Collection

This is the latest post in our There’s an Archivist for That! series, which features examples of archivists working in places you might not expect.  In this post, COPA member Vince Lee brings you an interview with Lilly Carrel, Archivist at the Menil Archives, part of the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas.

Archivist Lilly Carrel outside of the Menil Archives. Courtesy of The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Anthony Flores.

VL: How did you get your gig?

LC: I joined the Menil Archives in July 2018. Previously I worked as a project archivist at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan. I earned my Master of Science in Information Studies from the University of Texas at Austin and since graduating my goal has always been to return to Texas. After two project positions, I applied to the archivist job opening at the Menil. I was particularly drawn to the position because of the diversity of job responsibilities including records management, digital preservation, and all aspects of the archival enterprise. I also felt a deep connection to the institutional mission to make art accessible and a commitment to social responsibility and justice. I have no background in art, but I love that as an archivist I am able to apply my expertise in records theory and practice to different content and promote this extraordinarily rich collection of art-related records.

VL: Tell us about your organization.

LC: The Menil Collection is an art museum located in Houston, Texas in a 30-acre neighborhood of art, and houses the art collection of founders John and Dominique de Menil. The Menil Collection includes the main building, designed by architect Renzo Piano and opened in 1987, the Cy Twombly Gallery, the Dan Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, and the Menil Drawing Institute, designed by Los Angeles-based architects Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee (Johnston Marklee) and opened in November 2018.

The Menil Collection and its diverse neighborhood of art is governed by the Menil Foundation, established in 1954 by the de Menils. Prior to the opening of the Menil Collection, the de Menils had active partnerships with the University of St. Thomas and Rice University and organized many important and influential art exhibitions. The Menil Archives is the institutional repository for the Foundation and is responsible for acquisition, organization, preservation, and access to museum records and special collections.

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VL: Describe your collections.

LC: The Menil Archives was founded in 2000 and its primary function is to identify, collect, organize, preserve, and make accessible records of informational and evidential value to the institution. The Archives primarily document the functions and activities of the Foundation including records of the board of trustees, exhibition history files, building projects, and museum departments such as Curatorial, Collection Development, and the Business Office. The Menil Archives also holds a number of special collections including the papers of art critic and collector Rosalind Constable, curator Jermayne MacAgy, and artists Jim Love and Roy Fridge; family papers of John and Dominique de Menil; and research papers from Menil-funded publications including the René Magritte and Jasper Johns catalogue raisonnés.

The Archives total approximately 2,500 linear feet and includes records in all formats—textual, audiovisual, born-digital, photographs, film, architectural drawings, ephemera, and some objects. The Menil Archives has a limited number of inventories available on its website and in 2019 will begin contributing finding aids to Texas Archival Resources Online (TARO), a state-wide consortium of archives, libraries, and museums.

VL: What are some challenges unique to your collections?

LC: Museum archives are an interesting type of archives. Often departments need to maintain physical and intellectual ownership of their records because, in a sense, they are always active. Example include conservation records which may document treatments of artworks, or artwork object files frequently referenced by curators and registrars. This can lead to confusion as to what records “belong in the archives,” but also offers opportunities to collaborate and facilitate a post-custodial approach to recordkeeping. Since joining the Menil, I’ve been exploring ways to improve records management practices with a particular focus on electronic records and digital preservation. I think digital preservation offers creative ways to enhance the post-custodial approach and ensure important records are preserved.

VL: What is your favorite part of your job?

LC: The Menil Archives is an exciting place to work! Every day is different and I love the dynamic nature of working in a two-person shop. I am fortunate to collaborate with excellent colleagues including Lisa Barkley, Archival Associate, who has been with the Menil since 2008. Every day presents new opportunities, projects, reference inquiries, and I am always learning. I also feel fortunate to work for an institution with a keen sense of its own history, that values and seeks out the rich archival resources available to staff and the public.


Original captions for the photographs included in the slideshow had to be shortened in order to fit into the slideshow window.  The full original captions are provided below:

  • The Menil Collection. Photo: Kevin Keim.

  • Dominique de Menil and artist Jim Love, Rice University, 1972. Courtesy of Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston.

  • The De Lux Theater, Houston, 1971. Courtesy of Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston.

  • Peter Bradley (center) and others installing art for “The De Lux Show” De Lux Theater, Houston, 1971. Bradley, an artist, curated the exhibition. Courtesy of Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston.

  • Installation photography of “The De Lux Show” De Lux Theater, Houston, 1971. Courtesy of Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston.

  • Exhibition history records, Menil Archives. Courtesy of The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Anthony Flores.

  • Creating an inventory for a recent accession. Courtesy of The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Anthony Flores.