Archival Innovators: Valerie A. Metzler, Independent Archivist/Historian

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.

Valerie Metzler

In this installation of Archival Innovators, SAA Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) member Sami Norling interviews Valerie A. Metzler, independent Archivist/Historian. On hearing from Valerie that she believes herself to be the first full-time private practice archivist in the U.S., we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn more about her career, and to feature Valerie as an Archival Innovator!

SN: Valerie, could you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your path into the archives profession?

VM: I was halfway through college as a psychology major when I realized that, while the subject was interesting, I thought I might not like it as a career. I looked at what courses I liked best—English and History—and chose the latter and thought I might work in a museum. This was 1974 and I barely knew the word “archives.” But, when an internship at the State Archives of Pennsylvania became available my senior year, I hopped the train three days a week and worked there as a 3-credit course. I loved it!

My first job in the field was as an archives technician at the U. S. Army Military History Institute (MHI, now USAHEC, the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center). In this role, I worked with personal papers and oral history interviews of members of the Army and their families from Revolutionary War to the present. Because MHI was a public repository, I helped researchers from around the world. During this time, I maintained memberships in the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC) and SAA. After taking courses in paper and photo conservation, I then became the in-house conservator at MHI.

After seven years at MHI I sought to expand my expertise and went to MARAC and SAA conferences to make connections for jobs. The position I ended up in certainly fit the bill in providing new experiences to expand my knowledge of the field—it was a brand new archives with a well equipped in-house conservation lab, and a business archives. I wanted something different—and I got it!

After starting my new job, I missed the interaction with the public more than I realized I would, and I missed working with personal papers. The good news was that by living in Chicago, I had the benefit of joining the Chicago Area Archivists and the Chicago Area Conservation Group and by doing so, networked with professionals far more than were present back home in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

SN: Was there a specific project, event, or other development in your career or the archives profession that inspired you to strike out on your own as an independent archivist? What were the steps that you took early on to establish your independent practice?

VM: It was the networking in the Chicago area that led me to start my own business. I kept hearing about families, historical societies, and businesses large and small who wanted to preserve their history. And, while there were several employed archivists who moonlighted as consultants, they could never devote the time and hands-on assistance that these projects needed and still keep their day jobs. I decided to enter into full-time private practice as a freelance archivist, not just a consultant. I did do consulting work, but the majority of my work was (and remains) the hands-on establishment of archives and training of staff to maintain the archives after I have gone.

Early on, I realized that to remain completely independent, I should never devote full time to one project, i.e. instead of being a contract archivist always chasing the next gig, I took on any jobs that came my way and staggered my days or even hours among my various clients. That has remained my operating procedure these 34 years in private practice. Neither did I limit my work to just archives. Since 1985, I have also conducted oral history interviews and edited them and have done a variety of historical research for clients, including genealogy. I also teach in lecture and workshop settings.

One significant early step in establishing myself as an independent archivist was to find a name for my business. I never liked the “Metzler Associates” model, especially when you knew it was only one person! And, I wanted a name that clearly stated what the business was rather than some contrived invention. I figured that most folks were unfamiliar with the specifics of what an archivist does, so I had better not confuse them with a cutesy name. So, I followed the “Valere Metzler, Attorney-at-Law” model and came up with Valerie Metzler, Archivist/Historian (VMAH).

SN: Having worked as an independent archivist since 1985, you must have had the opportunity to contribute to some pretty interesting projects, and worked with a variety of archival materials and collections. What have been some of your favorite projects?

VM: My favorite projects are those which include all three aspects of my work. A good example of that is when a family business asks me to establish their archives, conduct oral histories with founders, and research their family history. Without naming the 500 clients of VMAH over these years, my favorites are those which take me into subject area new to me. Also, I love to travel, so the ones that take me far afield–especially to other countries–are definitely on the top of my list.

SN: The Committee on Public Awareness was formed in 2014 to assist SAA Council and SAA members in promoting the value of archives and archivists to a variety of communities and the broader public–something that the field as a whole has struggled with for some time. As an independent archivist, have you ever struggled in communicating this value to potential clients or project partners?

VM: I would have to say that I have not struggled much in communicating the value, since I can only think of two potential clients who contacted me in 34 years who did not move on to hire me.  Sadly, to my knowledge, those two never did get an archives started.

SN: Do you have any tips, or have you developed an elevator speech to communicate the value of your skills as a professional archivist?

VM: I have not perfected an elevator speech but always give the person who asks what I do (followed by the inevitable variations of, “What??”) all of my attention and answer to the questions they pose.  Also, this point is not exactly about my skills, personally, but I always urge folks to consider public repositories over keeping historically valuable items in their own homes where they may be lost to fire or the whims of future generations.

SN: Is there anything else that you’d like archivists and archival students to know, or tips that you’d like to share about building a career as an independent archivist?

VM: Join all of the professional member associations that you can afford and attend their conferences—and volunteer for positions within those organizations.


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

“What Do Only You Know?”: A Conversation with Davia Nelson of the Kitchen Sisters (Part 3)

Since September 2018, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva of The Kitchen Sisters have featured archivists in their series The Keepers. In December, Committee on Public Awareness chair Caryn Radick spoke with Davia Nelson. This post shares the final Part 3 of that conversation (see Part 1 here and Part 2 here). Remarks have been edited for length and clarity from a transcript of the original telephone interview.

CR: Recently, archivists have started doing podcasts. What advice would you give them about communicating about their work?

Keeper of the Day, No. 13 The Emma Goldman Papers Project. Photo courtesy of the Emma Goldman Papers

DN: I love the thought of archivists and librarians podcasting. I think it’s a great idea. I hope more and more people do.  I think people are hungry for great podcasts. I think that librarians and archivists have a huge community of listeners and a waiting audience. So I urge all of you to think about it. I think that finding the oral medium — you don’t want to go too long. If you find yourself wanting to host one, think about really saying the most important things, I mean finding your voice. I think so many archivists have such great personalities and are great storytellers. So really honing who you are, what your voice is, really making good judgement calls. When you put something in a case to show the public, you’ve really thought a lot about what’s going to go in that case and what’s going to resonate and why it’s important, and I think the same thing is true for a podcast. Just because you have it doesn’t mean it’s going to be a fascination to the rest of the world, or maybe the rest of the world doesn’t understand why they should be fascinated and then that becomes the job.

I think just kibitzing back and forth is fun. I think people would have a good time doing it. And I think that often times people don’t have enough time to get to tell stories and speak, but I think you want to go lean, better to leave people wanting more than feeling like this is going on too long. We’re always working with those constraints, and we are always trying to discipline ourselves. And keep it lively—use a lot of different kinds of materials and different voices. One person going on for a really long time is hard. And highlighting the treasures in your collection or highlighting the things that you feel are injustices that you want to bring to the fore, highlighting each other.

We always ask, “What do only you know?” That’s what led us to some beautiful stories with archivists.

CR: It’s a good question. I know that I’ve come across papers where you would find yourself saying “I’m going to go to so and so’s office and just tell them what I found because I can’t be the only person on the planet who knows this.” And it’s always a pleasure when you can connect somebody new and in the wider world outside of the archival community to that kind of material.

DN: Oh, we live for that moment.

CR: Sometimes you just find random things in places that you don’t necessarily expect to find them, and as you know, it can send you down a complete rabbit hole.

DN: So many times we think we’re working on a story about X, but we find a piece of archival audio and it leads us completely down a new road, and I always feel bad for the story that got abandoned. But you know, I think it’s just the truth, and for us, as I told you, the “always relied on the kindness of archivists” was going to be in 2001. So here it is.

CR: I was going to ask which episodes of The Keepers moved you the most.

DN: Well, I think the interview with Mary Schuler Dieter [Pack Horse Librarian] because she was starting … she’s lost a lot of her memory. She remembered so little of the present but she could go back to the past and it was a voice … Rolling Stone reviewed that story—who would have guessed that Rolling Stone would review it, like we were Amy Winehouse with a new record. They reviewed that story and they talked about her voice sounding like someone beyond time, and it took three and four members of her community going to her to help us record that. I found her on the telephone, but she could not tell me where she was, and I wound up calling the city government of her town to try and help me find this woman who I’d been talking to … the whole community became galvanized and during the course of the interview she broke out weeping … the poverty and the hard times that she lived through, it all roared up in her, but she persevered to tell the story and I think that interview was the one that tore me apart the most.

But I’ll tell you, being with the hip-hop archive, being with all those young people at Harvard—so many of them people of color, kids who just, they were there at Harvard, but they didn’t really feel like they’ve quite belonged at Harvard, and there was the hip-hop archive and they were in there doing these fellowships and these studies, and these investigations. And in these papers and this research were the rigor and the commitment and that feeling of place. That was another just profound discovery, and the power of an archive to bring an 18-year-old out of some community where they had so little growing up, and to give them a feeling of place and belonging and purpose and their own history being honored. That was just stunning.

CR: That’s great … I think that’s what we hope to do.

DN: Well, in our book you do it, we cannot thank … When Nikki came to the Society of American Archivists [conference] last year, that was one of the first forays for the project and she just came back so ignited and we still have that well of material that we’re drawing on, and it helped shape the whole vision of the project. We’ve continued to go to various archivist gatherings and do presentations and talks and recordings there, and we hope to continue to work with the community in the coming year. We’re 44 Keeper of the Days into a year-long project. So I hope people will contribute and follow them and appreciate all the people that we’re trying to highlight and pay homage to.

CR: I was going to ask how you choose your keeper of the day.

DN: We have this epic notebook, a big binder where we log all the calls that come in or transcribe all the emails—there’s hundreds of them that we’re pulling from—and people we meet at a party, people that we know, you walk into a library and you meet someone, the museum knows we’re doing this project. They reach out to us. Lawrence Ferlinghetti is turning 100 in March, and someone told us about the Urban Forester of San Francisco who every year on Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s birthday walks to all the sites that were primary in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s life and he reads a Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem at every site as he makes the pilgrimage to City Lights Bookstore. And then this year on the occasion of Lawrence’s hundredth birthday, he’s going to plant most likely an olive tree and it will become Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day in San Francisco. So now we know what we will be doing on March 24th as Keeper of the Day. It happens spontaneously and it happens pre-planned. People are on the hunt for us. Sometimes we find the story, sometimes the stories find us, right?

Feel free to suggest please. Send us emails or call The Keeper hotline,  415-496-9049, or go to kitchensisters.org and you can suggest there.

CR: What’s next for the Kitchen Sisters?

DN: We’re doing a slew of Keeper stories. We have probably 10 in progress right now. We are doing a collaboration with SFMoMa on a big project that’s going on here that involves stories of urbanization and gentrification. We’re doing stories in collaboration with Wendy MacNaughton, the graphic novelist [recently featured in ArchivesAWARE], and with Laurie Anderson. We have collaborated with Wendy and we’re going to do one about her, we’re going to make a Keeper out of her stories of the San Francisco Library that she did from [her book] Meanwhile in San Francisco and then Frances McDormand, the Academy Award-winning actress, is going to host our hour-long Keeper special.

CR: Wow. She’ll be our celebrity spokesperson?

DN: She has been the host of two or three of our Hidden Kitchen specials, and she is sort of our muse.

Your community has been so supportive. I would just like to say in closing: thank you to the Society [of American Archivists], to all of you for the work you do and for being open to us and supportive and igniting us. You all launched the series. So thank you for that.

CR: Thank you. I think that our Committee on Public Awareness does a lot, but somebody like the Kitchen Sisters taking this on does a lot more to help spread the word.

DN: Well, it’s great. We could collaborate together. We always say collaboration is queen. What a pleasure and an honor. Thank you so much.


To suggest Keepers of the Day, call the Keeper Hotline at 415-496-9049 or go to http://www.kitchensisters.org/keepers

Visit this page to support the work of the Kitchen Sisters.

“Say Everything Out Loud”: A Conversation with Davia Nelson of the Kitchen Sisters (Part 2)

Since September 2018, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva of The Kitchen Sisters have featured archivists in their series The Keepers. In December, Committee on Public Awareness chair Caryn Radick spoke with Davia Nelson. This post shares Part 2 of that conversation (see Part 1 here, final Part 3 forthcoming). Remarks have been edited for length and clarity from a transcript of the original telephone interview.

CR: Could you describe the research process when you put together an episode of The Keepers?

DN: It’s epic. We try to gather … everything. We have a lot of mottos of the Kitchen Sisters. One of them is “say everything out loud”—say what you’re looking for, say what you’re working on, so we will say it to each other. There’s four of us here at the Kitchen Sisters—Nikki and myself, Nathan Dalton, and Brandi Howell—and we’re all working on these stories together, each of us taking a different aspect of it, but we’ll get one idea or one name and then we’ll just dig in. We’ll go “Okay, well, I wonder who might have archival interviews.” Let’s say the pack horse librarians—so we’ll start digging into all the universities, all the libraries, all the historical societies, anybody who’s an archivist or librarian or a keeper that might intersect with that story. You always pray that there are these oral histories done before you that you can then glean from and add to your piece, and we’re always imagining when we’re recording that the Kitchen Sisters of the future will come along and take our material and turn it into the next generation of story.

PackHorse1-WPAPackHorseLibrarianLineUp

Pack Horse Librarians. Photo courtesy of University of Kentucky.

So we always are slating our interviews at the top … saying who we are about to interview, what the date is, what story it’s for.  So we often have the voices of dead archivists and librarians woven into our stories because they slated those tapes for their library and we’re always hoping people will do that thinking of the future. It also makes for such more interesting stories than us setting that up in a traditional narrated way. Our stories rarely have narration, rarely have our questions in, so we’re always looking for all kinds of people to tell other people’s stories. Are any of the grandchildren alive? Are any of the children alive? Who has written articles? Who was a neighbor of a pack horse librarian? Who worked with the WPA, who was part of relief efforts in Eastern Kentucky? Who lived in that Hollow?

We just sit there and think as broadly, deeply, and widely as we can and do a huge reach. We’re in conversation probably for every story with at least 20, 30 people, maybe more, to find what we’re looking for.

CR: What kind of challenges have you faced getting material for the podcast?

DN: Sometimes, like when we wanted to get tape of Henri Langlois, the MoMA had it in New York, but I think we had to deal with an archive in Italy to get permission to get that MoMA recording. Sometimes you’re crossing institutions and cultures and [figuring out] who can actually give you the go-ahead. In a way it’s funny—when we started doing this work, all archives were basically open. Nikki and I began in the late ’70s and you could just go to the National Archives and Library of Congress and Smithsonian and basically plug into a tape recorder and make copies of all these phenomenal recordings that they have there, and all early Kitchen Sisters stories are based on these forays we did into the archives where stories were revealed to us because of what we uncovered. Now everything is so much more protected and so much less available. I worry about the privatization of history … the same way that water sources are getting privatized and people are trying to take away … I feel like so much of this is the rights of humanity to know its history, and I worry about young people, if they’re not allowed to have history. We’re trying to reach across generations to make people fascinated with cultures and histories and heritages that they might not know about. And having access to this living material is so essential for that and honors people whose stories aren’t told usually.

CR: Have your perceptions of archivists changed as a result of work on this series, and if so, how?

DN: My reverence—I would say our reverence—has just … I didn’t know that it could get higher, but it’s that much higher. We really have just seen archivists go to the mat for protecting books, for protecting information, for making sure that things aren’t buried, making sure things are available free to the public. Librarians have turned libraries into community survival centers, people have so expanded what those things mean. They are the keepers of their community. I would also say it takes a certain kind of personality to have the patience, the tenderness, and the vigilance to spend a lot of time just protecting, guarding, preserving. But it’s also a kind of … I want to say … not snappy, snippy,  but it’s a … they won’t suffer fools, let’s put it that way.  A lot of opinions in the archival community, a lot of righteousness.  They work hard and they have a vision, they have standards. It’s a moral group.

CR: Sometimes people want to … call out what they see as being problematic or what they need to do to preserve the archives and move things forward.

DN: Well, they know the history, they know the consequences. A lot of archivists and librarians and historians and keepers are ahead of the culture and are impatient. They’re saying to everybody else, “What are you waiting for? Come on,” and so if they see something they feel is unjust or not right [they’ll say it]. I feel like with so much of social media, the whole culture in this time of Trump has turned the culture into a “calling out” culture. And I think that’s unfortunate all the way around. I think there’s a way to really call attention to important things. We did the whole series because we think archivists and librarians are the leading edge and our heroes, and are some of the nation’s. I don’t think they get enough attention and enough credit, and [I think they] should be revered and known and appreciated, and tell great stories, and are sitting on some great stories and material. Grace and kindness and patience with each other in the culture—I would ask for that across the board. That’s just my opinion.  I think people are working really hard. Everyone’s working really hard, but there are also disgusting things going on and that has to be called out too, so okay, I get it, I get it.

[Stay tuned for Part 3 of Caryn’s interview with The Kitchen Sisters’ Davia Nelson!]


To suggest Keepers of the Day, call the Keeper Hotline at 415-496-9049 or go to http://www.kitchensisters.org/keepers

Visit this page to support the work of the Kitchen Sisters.

“We’ve Always Relied on the Kindness of Archivists”: A Conversation with Davia Nelson of the Kitchen Sisters (Part 1)

Since September 2018, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva of The Kitchen Sisters have featured archivists in their series The Keepers. In December, Committee on Public Awareness chair Caryn Radick spoke with Davia Nelson. This post shares Part 1 of that conversation, which will be published in three parts. Remarks have been edited for length and clarity from a transcript of the original telephone interview.

The Kitchen Sisters. Photo by Patrick Bolger

CR: Why did you decide to do a series featuring archivists and keepers?

DN: We had meant to do the Keepers series right after we did The Lost and Found Sound series which was at the turn of the millennium. Lost and Found Sound was about how sound shaped history, and about history shaped by sound, vanishing voices, sound on the verge of extinction, endangered sound, and rare recordings.

We did them every week for a whole year and so many of them were archivally based and we worked with so many historians and archivists and librarians. They just dug out all these rare recordings and things that only they knew about and we realized we felt that archivists and librarians were some of the unsung heroes of the country and we wanted to do the series then. We were going to call it We’ve Always Relied on the Kindness of Archivists. Then 9/11 happened and instead of going into the archivist project we did the Sonic Memorial project, which was archiving in lower Manhattan and telling those stories and involved, again, so much archival audio and rare recordings and the work of the archiving community. Then it got put aside for all those years when we did the Hidden Kitchens series and then The Hidden World of Girls, and The Making Of. . . . Then, the new president was elected and we began to see a lot of the government websites getting pulled down, especially in regards to climate change and science, and we watched the archival community spring to action and the librarians become activated, and we thought “These are the people who are committed to the truth and to history as it happened, and to facts, and to nurturing their community, and being protectors of the free flow of information and ideas,” and we said to ourselves “Remember how we were always going to do The Kindness of Archivists?” Only now the times called for a different title and it became The Keepers. It’s been long in the coming is what I would just say, and it’s a light that we wanted to be shining for over a decade.

CR: What keepers or collections have you learned about that surprised you?

DN: Well, it’s surprised us that the whole series started with The Hip-Hop Archive and Research Center at Harvard. We were just developing the series and coming up with the ideas; our little byline on it is “stories of activist archivists, rogue librarians, curators, collectors, and historians. Keepers of the culture and the culture and collections they keep,” and then  “guardians of history, large and small, protectors of the free flow of information and ideas, individuals—sometimes we say eccentric individuals—who take it upon themselves to preserve some aspect of our cultural heritage.” And we were starting more in that place of thinking about all the people fighting for the constitution, the Bill of Rights, climate change, all those archival areas, but immediately people just wanted [to know about] the cultural work archived and expressed equally and all the communities whose voices hadn’t been heard. Whose work is archived, whose work is preserved, who is in those archives? And it was someone at NPR—they had just hired their first hip-hop critic there and I met him in the halls at NPR—he said, “Why don’t you think about going to the hip-hop archive at Harvard?” I’d heard about it somewhere years ago, about Dr. Marcyliena Morgan who was archiving hip-hop way back when, like a decade ago. I’d always meant to profile her for the Hidden World of Girls, but with him saying that, it moved us to Harvard because the juxtaposition of hip-hop and Harvard caught our ear. (Story: Archiving the Underground: The Hiphop Archive at Harvard)

Also at the same time we learned that Lenny Bruce’s daughter had been archiving Lenny Bruce for all these years, but in her house, and this archive was getting older and frayed and was beyond her capacity to keep in the way that it should be preserved. We stumbled onto that story that the daughter of Hugh Hefner and the daughter of Lenny Bruce were working together to preserve this archive and bring it to Brandeis University. (Story: The Lenny Bruce Collection)

For stories that just boomed out … I had read this piece in The New Yorker about Henri Langlois and the Cinémathèque Française, which was one of the earliest and most profound film archives in the world. It’s been in France since the ’30s, and he was at the center of all political controversies. They stopped the Cannes Film Festival because of him one year. He archived thousands and thousands of films across the transition from silents to talkies, and his archive became one of the centerpieces of this series and that really surprised me. And it’s still going today. [Story: Archive Fever: Henri Langlois and the Cinémathèque Française]

Probably the most startling story that we’ve been come to in this path is the Pack Horse Librarians of Eastern Kentucky, this WPA program that got women with a horse or a mule during the heart of the Depression … Their coal country was really undergoing a massive change that was industrializing in a way that was throwing a lot of people off the workforce. Eleanor Roosevelt among others had this thought to employ women if they had a horse or a mule and a pillowcase or a saddle bag, and they started getting books to Kentucky. They would ride up on these circuits through the hollers into the way-out back remote communities of Eastern Kentucky, where there was really high illiteracy, and bring books and magazines.  Those women with their grit and their pillowcases and their commitment—that they were able to feed their families was so remarkable. (Story: The Pack Horse Librarians of Eastern Kentucky)

I think we found the last living pack horse librarian too, and that was probably the most moving part of the whole series so far for me. She’s well in her 90s and living in a home in Kansas.

CR: Yes, I heard that podcast and it was pretty incredible.

DN:  I love that as the books and magazines fell apart they would then make scrapbooks out of them. That was really extraordinary, so enterprising, so scrappy these women, which dovetails so much for us because we’ve done a whole series called The Hidden World of Girls and the women they become, and that story could have fit in all aspects of what our work centers around—unknown histories, little-told stories, voices of people whose stories seldom make it into the mainstream media.

[Stay tuned for Part 2 of Caryn’s interview with The Kitchen Sisters’ Davia Nelson!]


To suggest Keepers of the Day, call the Keeper Hotline at 415-496-9049 or go to http://www.kitchensisters.org/keepers

Visit this page to support the work of the Kitchen Sisters.

There’s an Archivist for That! Interview with Rich Schmidt, Director of Archives and Resource Sharing, Nicholson Library/Oregon Wine History Archive

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.  COPA member Anna Trammell, University Archivist and Special Collections Librarian at Pacific Lutheran University, brings you an interview with Rich Schmidt, Director of Archives and Resource Sharing at the Nicholson Library/Oregon Wine History Archive at Linfield College.

Rich Schmidt, Director of Archives and Resource Sharing

Rich Schmidt, Linfield College director of archives and resource sharing, poses with a photograph of Frances Ross Linfield. Mrs. Linfield’s donation in 1922 helped secure the school’s future and gave McMinnville College its new name.

AT: How did you get your job?

RS: I was hired at Linfield in the summer of 2011 as the Director of Resource Sharing, essentially running Interlibrary Loan. I have a background in digitization – and had worked closely with the archives in a previous position – but never had officially worked in the archives. Just after I started, Linfield hired Rachael Woody as the school’s first-ever full-time archivist and officially launched the Oregon Wine History Archive (OWHA). After about a year, she and I both had our legs under us – we’d hired and trained students in our departments and implemented new software and workflows. Rachael needed help growing the archives from that point, and I had time available to help.

The timing just worked out well. I had no background in wine, either, so the first couple years were like climbing a waterfall. So much information, so many people and dates and terms. But I loved it. Rachael was a great teacher and she and I worked really well together. We spent the next few years figuring out what exactly we wanted the archives to be, adding collections and making connections in the community. When Rachael moved on in 2017, the school entrusted me to keep the archives going, and so far so good. It’s busy, exhausting, fun and pretty exhilarating. I should mention that in addition to the OWHA, I’m also in charge of Linfield’s school archives, as well. So a lot of materials from wildly disparate places.

Rich Schmidt (left) interviews Paul van der Veldt at Shallon Winery in Astoria, Oregon, on March 30, 2017.

AT: Tell us about your organization.

RS: The Oregon Wine History Archive is dedicated to preserving and sharing the Oregon wine story. Wine in Oregon goes all the back to the Oregon Trail days, as there are stories of pioneers bringing vines across the country. There were farmers making table wine through all those years, often just enough for themselves and their neighbors, occasionally enough to sell a little. Never anything that you would consider an industry.

Prohibition – Oregon’s was the second-longest in the country, behind only Utah – wiped out most of the state’s winemaking, and the 30 years after Prohibition saw a few wineries spring to life across the state, mostly making table wine or fruit wine. In the mid-1960s, a group of young winemakers saw potential similarities between Oregon’s Willamette Valley and Burgundy, and set out to see if they could grow cool-climate grapes akin to the famous French region. From this handful of farmers, the industry very slowly grew. The well-known Burgundian varietals Pinot noir and chardonnay were the grapes of choice. Small snippets of international recognition came in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but the industry still numbered fewer than 50 wineries and none of them were wildly successful.

A number of factors – including technological and educational advances, joint marketing efforts, success at national and international competitions, dogged determination, and just making really good wine – led to the industry finding solid footing in the 1990s, and then exploding in the 2000s. Thirty years ago there were around 50 wineries in the state; 15 years ago there were about 250. Now there are nearly 800, and more are coming seemingly every week.

We were founded in the midst of that, so we’re documenting an industry that is seeing amazing growth and establishing itself on the international market. Oregon has become known for Pinot noir, enough so that the International Pinot Noir Celebration is held every July right here on Linfield’s campus. Many of the industry’s founders are still around and living in the area, so we’ve been able work directly with them and their collections. This is such a huge benefit for our students, who are all undergraduates doing graduate-type work with our collections.

studentsontour_2015

Linfield students Maia Patten (’16), Anna Vanderschaegen (’18) and Camille Weber (’16) join Rich Schmidt and Rachael Woody on a tour of Chateau Bianca Winery in Dallas, Oregon on July 20, 2015. Winemaker Andreas Wetzel (far left) gives the tour.

AT: Describe your collections.

RS: We were founded with the idea of being a traditional archive – that is, a brick and mortar space to collect materials. So that’s part of what we do. We house approximately 35 collections containing photographs, tasting notes, harvest records, grape sales documentation, awards, correspondence, journals and everything else you might expect to find. Wine is especially interesting because, while the end product is glamorous, all the processes that go into it are not. In most ways it’s just like farming any other crop, except you have to wait for your crop to turn into wine. So we have records that focus on the farming, records that focus on the winemaking, records that focus on the sales and marketing. Not to mention wine labels and statistical surveys and angry letters from consumers.

We also have a good collection of wine books and journals, some pertinent to Oregon and some with an international focus. For a young archive about a fairly young industry, we have a nice, diverse group of collections that show a nice cross-section of Oregon wine history. Due to the fact that the industry is still young and growing rapidly, and the fact that many wineries are family businesses passed from generation to generation, we realized early on that we couldn’t count on regularly receiving physical collections from the industry. If we were going to make an bigger impact, we’d have to archive in a different way, which led us to oral history interviews.

Rich Schmidt (right) interviews Remy Drabkin at Remy Wines in McMinnville, Oregon, on May 9. 2017.

There are so many people involved in the industry – some for 50 years, some for two years, some in farming, winemaking, sales, marketing, consulting, not to mention sommeliers and restaurateurs – that we realized we could let people tell their stories and really have an impact. This allowed us to make connections and gather stories from throughout the state and throughout the industry. The grape-growing geography of Oregon is spread from Portland all the way down to Ashland, and all the way over to Baker City. A huge amount of land spread out over a large state. Gathering oral history interviews from as many people as we can, in as many locations and roles as we can, has allowed us to maximize our resources and tell the biggest story we can.

We’ve conducted or gathered more than 250 oral history interviews already, and we’ve barely scratched the surface. But it’s been an amazing way to learn about the industry, its people, places, history, stories, past, and future. Our students research our interviewees’ backgrounds and come up with questions, then handle the cameras, microphones and post-production. Some even conduct all or part of the interviews. It’s an amazing experience for them.

From left: Rich Schmidt, Rachael Woody, Andrew Beckham and Annedria Beckham. Andrew and Annedria Beckham own Beckham Estate Vineyard in Sherwood, Oregon. Rich Schmidt and Rachael Woody interviewed them about their Oregon wine story on March 24, 2015.

AT: What are some challenges unique to your collections?

RS: We like to say that our archive is full of stories, not facts. Industry data from before the past 20 years is difficult to find, so questions about who was the first/biggest/best/most expensive almost always need to be hedged. Again, we’re looking at an industry that’s roughly 55 years old, so you’d think we’d be in better shape! But the early winemakers and grape-growers were concerned about a lot of things, very few of which dealt with keeping detailed statistics about every move they made. And much of the early numbers that were kept, of course, didn’t survive to make it into our archive. So we have a lot of stories, a lot of guesses, a lot of assumptions, and not a lot of hard truths. And honestly, that’s usually ok. Why let facts get in the way of a good story?

As the industry has grown, though, there’s a lot of interest in what the early grapegrowers tried, and whether it might work again with modern technology and practices. A side effect of the rapid growth of the industry is that competition has never been tighter. There are 500+ wineries in the Willamette Valley, mostly making really good Pinot noir. Many make between 5,000 and 20,000 cases of wine per year. What differentiates you from your neighbor, then? Many young winemakers are looking to the past to see if there’s a different clone, different varietal, different method that might make them stand out, and so there’s more of a push for facts now. We’re working with the early grapegrowers on gathering the data we can and making it available for the next generation of the industry.

For our physical collections, our challenges usually have to do with condition of materials. Many have been housed in barns, trailers and other unsuitable places, so we deal with vermin, bugs, water damage and all the other glamourous problems that archivists talk about over drinks. My students get a crash course in archival cleaning and processing less-than-pristine materials. At least they have great stories to tell their families and friends. Right now, it’s only me and five undergraduate students working in our archive, so each of them have to take on a much bigger role than you might expect. They are truly amazing. The archive couldn’t function without dedicated students, some of whom have an interest in archives work and some who have an interest in working in the wine industry. Work in the OWHA for a few years and you will meet a huge number of people in the industry and see many of the sites and potential jobs. How cool is that?

Linfield student Mitra Haeri (’14) uses a laptop and a portable scanner to digitize images in the back of a van at the Doerner family home in Douglas County, Oregon. The Oregon Wine Board funded this trip through a grant, allowing Linfield to spend a week in the Rogue Valley and a week in the Umpqua Valley, the two main grape-growing areas in southern Oregon.

AT: What is your favorite part of your job?

RS: I’m lucky because I really like what I do. I love working with students who are so eager to learn and improve what we’re doing. Our website (https://oregonwinehistoryarchive.org/) is student-created and much of the content has been added by students. All the physical processing is done by students, as is a large part of the oral history interview process. So I love that part of my job – training, coaching, mentoring, and then watching what they can do. I think a lot of schools are hesitant to give students that much responsibility and freedom. And there are times when it’s a challenge. But with the right training, oversight and motivation, I think people would be surprised what students – even undergraduates who can’t legally drink wine yet – can do. They take a real ownership of our space, our collections and our image. They conduct themselves professionally and take great pride in their work. And the experiences they’re having, the skills they’re learning, the people they’re meeting… it’s truly priceless experience. And a big part of that is another favorite part of my job – the people in the industry itself. The Oregon wine industry has a reputation as a friendly, collaborative, welcoming industry, and in our case it has certainly been true. I have to imagine trying to do what we’re doing for certain industries would be like pulling teeth. But we’ve been welcomed with open arms. People in the industry are busy – incredibly busy – and yet willing to make time for us, whether it’s to answer questions or sit for an interview. They love working with our students and talking about the past, present and future of the industry to students who may be a part of that future. I can’t overstate how wonderful the industry is to work with. And they recognize the importance of what we’re trying to do, and they’re thankful for it. It’s incredibly rewarding. Meeting people in the industry, hearing their stories, tasting their wine… it’s an amazing way to learn about Oregon wine.

From left: Don Hagge, Rachael Woody, Rich Schmidt and Shelby Cook. Don Hagge, a former NASA engineer who now owns and operates Vidon Vineyard in Newberg, Oregon, answers questions during an oral history interview with Rich Schmidt on August 3, 2016.

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!

Keeping ArchivesAWARE: News and Highlights

The news cycle moves at such a rapid pace these days that it can be easy to miss the media’s increasing coverage of archives and archivists.  That’s why we’re launching our new series Keeping ArchivesAWARE: News and Highlights, a recurring roundup summarizing the latest archives-related news stories, features, commentaries, announcements, and projects that have caught our eye, with links to the original sources.  Such media coverage can be an invaluable tool with which to communicate the power of archives and archivists’ vital role in society to a wider public audience.  We hope you enjoy this first entry in the series, and that you’ll share your favorite stories widely!

Keeping ArchivesAWARE: News and Highlights

A team at the University of Oregon recently launched The March, a digital exhibition about the making of filmmaker James Blue’s documentary of the same name chronicling the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  The exhibition is a collaboration among Professor of Rhetoric David A. Frank, the University of Oregon Libraries, and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Conflict studies professor Stephen Badsey writes in the Washington Post about director Peter Jackson’s new documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, which features digitally restored film footage and audio recordings from the Imperial War Museum documenting the British army on the Western Front during World War I.  Badsey notes that “the Jackson project’s implications for the future of historical documentaries are immense.”

Nora Caplan-Bricker writes in Harper’s Magazine about the Documenting the Now project, the Internet Archive, and the immense complexities and challenges of preserving social media movements and other documentation of our contemporary moment when such content lives solely on the internet.

Bethany Anderson, University Archivist at the University of Virginia, writes in The Conversation about the recent crop of articles on the “discovery” of a “lost” Sylvia Plath story at Indiana University’s Lilly Library.  Anderson notes how the media frequently overlook the fact that such gems can only be “discovered” by researchers because archivists have painstakingly worked to preserve and make them available in the first place – as was the case with Plath’s “new” story, which had in fact been publicly accessible for years thanks to archivists at the Lilly.

Biographer Robert Caro writes in The New Yorker on “The Secrets of Lyndon Johnson’s Archives,” about his early experiences conducting archival research at the LBJ Presidential Library for his now-seminal multivolume biography of the 36th U.S. President, with plenty of references to how archivists were an integral part of his research process.

SAA has launched Archives In Context, a new podcast that highlights “archival literature and technologies, and most importantly, the people behind them.”  The first season, which includes seven episodes, can be listened to on the Archives In Context website, Google Play, Spotify, and iTunes.  We’re excited to dive in!

The International Council on Archives’ Section of Professional Associations will be hosting the second annual Film Festival on Archives and Records Management at the ICA 2019 Annual Conference (October 21-25, Adelaide, South Australia), focusing on the theme of advocacy.  Have you or your institution produced a film that communicates the value of records and archives?  Be sure to submit it for entry to the festival!

Archivist and historian Alyssa Ballard was profiled in the Ukiah Daily Journal on her work at the Mendocino County Historical Society in California.

File this one under “things we find utterly delightful”: The City of Greater Sudbury Archives has created an interactive educational game called Grandma’s Attic to help “teach students of all ages the difference between libraries, museums, and archives.”

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!

Responses and Retrospectives: Alexandra Bisio on “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo,” KonMari, and Archival Appraisal

This is the latest post in our series Responses and Retrospectives, which features archivists’ personal responses and perspectives concerning current or historical events/subjects with significant implications for the archives profession.

In January, Netflix launched its new reality show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, based on the bestselling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. The show is just the most recent iteration of Marie Kondo’s work, which has been adapted into a lifestyle blog and, surprisingly, a manga. Kondo also published an illustrated companion to her first book in 2016.

The original book introduced the “KonMari Method” of organizing to American audiences. Kondo, who has been passionate about tidying since she was a child, was a well-known personal organizer in Japan before enjoying international success as a lifestyle guru.

Kondo’s method, which is heavily influenced by Shinto practice and “places great importance on being mindful, introspective, and forward-looking,” provides those besieged by clutter with a simple rubric to begin a new life free from the mental noise of material overload. At its core, her method “encourages tidying by category – not by location – beginning with clothes, then moving on to books, papers, komono (miscellaneous items), and, finally, sentimental items. Keep only those things that speak to the heart, and discard items that no longer spark joy. Thank them for their service – then let them go.”[1]

While the American response to Kondo’s 2014 book was unabashedly positive, particularly among interior design and lifestyle bloggers, the show has sparked an unusual amount of vitriolic backlash against its host, especially among the book-loving set.

Reacting to Kondo’s advice to pare down paper records, be more discerning about family photos, and set a limit on book collections to thirty volumes, Twitter was especially vicious, with one user going so far as to  declare her a “monster.” The Washington Post’s books section even published an article by book critic Ron Charles entitled “Keep your tidy, spark-joy hands off my book piles Marie Kondo.

Many on the web were quick to defend Kondo, and point out not only the gross overreaction to her advice, but the racist and classist undertones of the criticism levied against her as well.[2]  For me as a person whose name can be followed by the letters MLIS, however, there was one thread of tweets that flew above the rest:

While Duncan’s point about deaccessioning in general libraries is a wonderful defense of Kondo’s method with regard to books, I would like to point out to her that archives don’t keep everything they are given in perpetuity either, but rather have our own methods for trying to discern what in our holdings really “sparks joy” and what actually has little archival value.

Like homes of the clutter-besieged participants on Tidying Up, our buildings only hold so much material, and we must be just as discerning about the things we keep. As archivist Mark Greene pointed out in “A Brief and Opinionated History of Archival Appraisal Theory to 2005,” appraisal theory has long been a prominent part of archival discourse. “Writers on appraisal have given us (in rough chronological order),” he writes, “’moral defence of archives,’ cost/benefit analysis, primary/secondary and evidential/informational values, appraisal based on record type, the ‘black box,’ documentation strategy, ‘total archives,’ institutional functional analysis, macro appraisal, social use, functional requirements, risk analysis, and the ‘Minnesota Method,’ to name only the most prominent.”[3]  This ever-expanding canon is meant to guide archivists in making decisions about what to keep and what to discard methodically, and with regard to an agreed upon set of best practices. No collection being alike, however, we acknowledge as a profession that some of these decisions will be made based more on professional judgement than an application of infallible rules.

In many ways, Kondo’s method of tidying up is not unlike these theories. Her method gives people who are overwhelmed by the material objects in their lives guidelines to start making measured decisions about what they do and do not need. Though Kondo makes suggestions as to how many of a particular type of item people should keep (the thirty volume rule for books simply being the number of books she keeps in her own house, not an absolute for everyone), her method leaves room for the judgement and needs of the person applying it. On her show, she never forces anyone to get rid of anything, she merely facilitates the act of letting go.

I find nothing professionally problematic with the KonMari method, and, hopefully, knowing that even archivists and librarians aren’t opposed to tidying sets even the most anxious mind to rest. However, if, as an archivist, I was going to advise someone who was interested in applying Kondo’s method to their own collections of papers, photographs, and books, but was worried that doing so might lead them to destroy what could potentially be a valuable resource for research someday, I would give them my own complementary rubric to ease their concern. Instead of asking if the materials “spark joy,” they could instead ask:

  • Why do you value the material?
  • Is the material unique, or could similar items be found elsewhere because the material was mass-produced?
  • Does the material speak for itself, or would you have to explain its meaning if taken out of the context in which it was created?
  • Who, specifically, might be interested in the material besides you or your family?
  • How do you think this material might be used by people in the future?

I would like to emphasize that, at the end of the day, personal belongings are just that. Very few of us think about the detritus of our lives with posterity in mind, and people should be empowered to hold on to things that are meaningful to them, and rid themselves of material sources of stress without fear.


[1] “What is the KonMari Method?” KonMari Media Inc., accessed January 28, 2019, https://konmari.com/pages/about.

[2] Kerri Jarema, “The Marie Kondo Books Debate Has Classist & Racist Undertones that Can’t Be Ignored,” Bustle, entry posted January 2019, accessed January 28, 2019, https://www.bustle.com/p/the-marie-kondo-books-debate-has-classist-racist-undertones-that-cant-be-ignored-15796044.

[3] Mark A. Greene, “A Brief and Opinionated History of Archival Appraisal Theory, to 2005,” Society of American Archivists: Fundamentals of Acquisition and Appraisal Pre-Readings, posted November 7, 2016, accessed January 28, 2019,  https://www2.archivists.org/prof-education/faa-pre-readings.


Alexandra Bisio

This post was authored by guest contributor Alexandra Bisio, Lead Processing Archivist in Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Oregon. Alex earned her MSLIS in Archives Management and MA in American History from Simmons College, and her BA in American History from Santa Clara University. Before joining SCUA at the University of Oregon, she served as the Associate Archivist of the Jesuit Archives: Central United States in Saint Louis, Missouri, and the Archivist for the Critical Theory Archive at the University of California, Irvine.

Interested in contributing to Responses and Retrospectives?  Please email the editor at archivesaware@archivists.org with your ideas!