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.

An Interview with the Hosts of SAA’s “Archives In Context” Podcast

In January 2019, the Society of American Archivists launched Season 1 of its new podcast, Archives In Context.  Created primarily by members of SAA’s Publications Board and American Archivist Editorial Board, Archives In Context offers “in-depth and dynamic conversations about archives and the people behind them.”  Naturally, we on SAA’s Committee on Public Awareness were very excited for the release of this podcast — as it dovetails quite nicely with our goal of promoting the value of archives and archivists — so to learn more about SAA’s welcome entry into podcasting, we jumped at the chance to interview Archives in Context hosts Bethany Anderson, Ashley Levine, and Nicole Milano, as well as producer Colleen McFarland Rademaker, for a feature on our ArchivesAWARE blog.

To listen to the Season 1 interviews and learn more about Archives In Context, visit the podcast website!  You can also listen to Season 1 on Google PlaySpotify, or iTunes.

ArchivesAWARE: The mission of Archives in Context is to share archival literature and technologies and the people behind them. Why a podcast format?

Nicole: I’m a New Yorker, and my commute involves a crowded subway where I’m often sandwiched between a group of people. Listening to a short podcast can often be my own “moment of Zen” on those daily commutes! I’m not alone in this; many of us listen to podcasts at various points during our busy days. Our group thought that having a podcast for some of the many conversations archivists are already having would allow others to listen in!

Ashley: Podcasting is an excellent way to efficiently convey complex subject matter in a fun, accessible format. Archivists work everyday to make records more accessible, so the free, easy-to-use podcast just makes (archival) sense.

Bethany: I love listening to podcasts and I especially enjoy interviews with authors of books. It’s fascinating to find out the story behind a book or technology and learn more about authors’/creators’ influences. As a team, we thought a podcast would be a great way to highlight the intellectual products of our profession and learn more about the archivists who create them. As Nicole notes, we are already having a lot of these conversations in person, so this is an opportunity to bring these conversations to the broader profession.

ArchivesAWARE: What perspectives/interests do you bring to the podcast as a host?

Ashley: I bring a digital archival perspective to the podcast, from my professional archives work in the arts, and am particularly fascinated with photo and A/V concerns. I’m also a proud Lone Arranger, so I love to hear about how other professionals approach working with limited resources.

Bethany: As reviews editor, I often get to learn about readers’ perspective on a publication, but this podcast is an opportunity to learn more about the authors and what led them to write these publications. I’m always interested in learning about their writing process, understanding what that looks like, and what inspires people to write.

Nicole: In my role as an educator, I think a lot about how our professional literature helps to inform the next generation of archivists, in addition to bringing a medical archivist perspective to the podcast. I’m also a proud (former) Lone Arranger, so I agree with what Ashley said about working with limited resources!

ArchivesAWARE: What do you hope listeners gain from the podcast?

Nicole: I hope listeners feel inspired by the important work in our field to preserve the past and move us into the future. Archivists from across the country are involved in an incredible variety of projects. The podcast introduces listeners to some of these individuals and their projects, but also offers a “learn more” option with additional links.

Bethany: There are so many great ideas, projects, and publications coming out of our profession. I hope listeners not only have the opportunity to learn more about this scholarship, but also have the chance to learn more about their colleagues. I hope that we gain a few listeners from outside of the archives profession too!

Ashley: I hope listeners come away with a greater appreciation for the variety and interdisciplinary nature of archives work, and of the wonderful archivists working to preserve our collective past.

Colleen: I hope the podcast will help our listeners keep up with things happening around the archival profession.  We are fortunate to work in a profession filled with creative and interesting people who generously share themselves and their ideas. The podcast is another avenue (alongside conferences, print publications, and blogs) to get to know those people and the great work they’re doing.

ArchivesAWARE: How did you get from initial idea to launch? How did the logo and theme music come about?

Colleen: It took a lot of conversations and a few project proposals to get from initial idea to launch. The core idea — to create a podcast by archivists for archivists — changed little, but our thoughts about how best to execute that definitely changed a lot over time.  My initial concept was a fantasy-themed podcast called Archlandia, featuring different categories of archivists, like “Dragon Slayers” and “Wizards.”  Fortunately somebody else had already claimed that title and we never went there!

Nancy Beaumont, Teresa Brinati, and both the SAA Publications Board and Editorial Board provided important feedback and encouragement with each iteration of the project proposal. And Nicole, Ashley, and I teamed up with Bethany and Gloria when they proposed an American Archivist Reviews Portal podcast.

The logo and theme music were created by a professional designer and professional composer, respectively. We didn’t want to DIY these elements of the podcast because (1) they’re really important, and (2) it’s equally important to support the work of professionals, whatever their field is.

ArchivesAWARE: Who’s on your team?

Our team consists primarily of members of both the SAA Publications Board and the American Archivist Editorial Board. We had three hosts in Season 1, including Nicole Milano, Ashley Levine, and Bethany Anderson. Colleen McFarland Rademaker is our podcast producer. We also had two contributors to Season 1 — Chris Burns from the Committee on Public Awareness and Gloria Gonzalez of the American Archivist Reviews Portal.

ArchivesAWARE: Season 1 is out and features some great conversationalists. What surprises did the conversations reveal? Or what challenges did you encounter along the way?

Ashley: I was generally pleasantly surprised at how in-depth and nuanced the conversations were, despite the time constraints of the podcast format. We had to be really careful when editing these episodes (because all the content was so fascinating!!!). During the first (remote) interview (with Kären Mason) technical difficulties slowed us up a bit, as we tried navigating different conference software for recording remote interviews, avoiding noisy air conditioners, etc. I found conducting remote voice interviews more difficult in general due to the lack of nonverbal cues from the interviewee, and that in-person interviews went the smoothest.

Nicole: I really appreciated having the dedicated time to sit down and talk to Kären Mason, Cal Lee, Anthony Cocciolo, Karen Trivette, and Dominique Luster as part of this podcast, in an effort to help others know more about them. We were able to learn about their thoughts on the profession and, importantly, how our work as archivists impacts the world around us. As Ashley mentioned, we experienced some technical difficulties along the way, and we quickly realized how patient and helpful they all were as we navigated those issues!

Bethany: I’m honored that I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Michelle Caswell, and it was fascinating to learn more about her research for Archiving the Unspeakable. I really enjoyed the conversation and it deepened my appreciation for her book. One of the biggest challenges for me as an interviewer was trying to limit the number of questions I asked Michelle, but I wanted to make sure that we explored the many facets of her book and the complex histories of the mugshot photos from the Tuol Sleng prison in Cambodia. One can’t read this book and not be emotionally impacted by the stories behind the photos and their afterlives; to hear Michelle talk about the affective dimensions of the book and her writing process reinforced, for me at least, the importance of acknowledging the emotional aspects of archival work.

ArchivesAWARE: When might we expect Season 2? Any hints about who we’ll hear from?

Colleen: That’s a great question! I can share that we will be talking with Teresa Brinati, SAA’s fabulous Publications Director. For those who don’t know Teresa, you are in for a treat! SAA has a number of new books coming out in 2019, so you can be sure that we will interview some of those authors. We’re finalizing our list of interviewees, so stay tuned…

ArchivesAWARE: Besides Archives In Context, what podcasts do you listen to?

Bethany: One of my favorite podcasts right now is Nerdette, but I also like listening to the New York Times’s The Argument, The Electorette, Radiolab, Lady Science, and Distillations from the Science History Institute.

Nicole: I regularly listen to The Daily and This American Life. My podcast rotation over the last few years has also included Serial (Season 1 only. Sorry, Sarah Koenig!), The Dream, 2 Dope Queens, Gladiator, S-Town, Stuff You Missed in History Class, and The Bowery Boys.

Ashley: I have the WNYC lineup on my regular rotation (Brian Lehrer, All Things Considered, Fresh Air, etc.), as well as music podcasts, including Mathcast.

Colleen: I enjoy The Memory Palace by Nate DiMeo and Hidden Brain by NPR’s Shankar Vedantam. I was also a huge fan of METRO’s More Podcast, Less Process and New England Museum Association’s Museum People.


Bethany Anderson is the university archivist at the University of Virginia. She also serves as the reviews editor for American Archivist and has a master’s degree in Information Studies with a specialization in Archival Studies and Records Management from the University of Texas at Austin and a master’s in Near Eastern Art and Archaeology from the University of Chicago.

 

Ashley Levine is the archivist and digital resource manager for Artifex Press, a New York City-based company dedicated to publishing digital catalogues raisonnés. He holds an MA in archives and public history and a BA in history from New York University. Ashley is the editor of SAA’s Lone Arranger Section newsletter, SOLO, as well as Chair of SAA’s Visual Materials Section’s Cataloging and Access Committee. Ashley is the director of advocacy for the Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York (ART) and a member of the Concerned Archivists Alliance (CAA).

Nicole Milano is the head of the Medical Center Archives at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medicine and a visiting assistant professor at the Pratt Institute and New York University. She has served as a member of SAA’s Publications Board since 2012. Nicole received her BA and MA from the University of Florida and an Advanced Certificate in Archives from New York University.

 

Colleen McFarland Rademaker is the Associate Librarian, Special Collections at The Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass. She serves on the Society of American Archivists Publications Board (2014–2020) and as treasurer of the Midwest Archives Conference (2018–2020). Colleen received a BA in German and history from the College of Wooster, an MA in history from Cornell University, and an MLIS from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.

Archives + Audiences: Dan Lamothe on the “Letters from War” Podcast

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, ArchivesAWARE brings you an interview with Washington Post journalist Dan Lamothe on his work on WaPo‘s  Letters from Wara podcast about the World War II combat experiences of the Eyde brothers of Rockford, Illinois.  The podcast is centered around the four Eyde brothers’ letters – one for almost every day of the war – which are read by voice actors who are themselves military veterans.

Logo for the “Letters from War” podcast, courtesy of The Washington Post.

AA: How did the Eyde brothers’ letters come to your attention?

DL: The Eyde letters first came to The Washington Post’s attention through Joseph Alosi, an Arizona businessman who bought them at auction some years ago. As we detailed in the Letters From War podcast and complementary newspaper special section, he was interested in seeing whether it would be possible to find related family members. I made a trip to Arizona in 2016 to view the letters at a pizza shop at which Joe’s wife is a manager, and spent hours going through them. He agreed to loan them to The Post afterward so we could do additional research and put together the project.

AA: What was it like to see and read the letters for the first time?

DL: I found it stirring. For one, their condition and appearance immediately makes them feel like a part of history. The pages of many of them are tissue-paper thin, and the envelopes bear the markings of Army Post Office (APO)  processing used to deliver mail to the troops at that time. Some of the letters are mundane, with basic descriptions of routine life in the military. Others are gripping, especially when Frank Eyde describes the U.S. invasion of Tulagi, a Pacific island, and Ralph Eyde describes being wounded both on the Alaskan island of Attu and the Pacific island of Kwajalein. The letters ripple with excitement, anger and sadness as they recount what they saw.

AA: What made you decide to share the Eyde brothers’ story with a wider audience through the medium of a podcast?

DL: The sheer volume of letters – there are hundreds of them written over a span of several decades – and the way in which they capture the voice of each member of the Eyde family presented us with some unique opportunities. We also were fortunate to pursue this project with no specific timeline, allowing us to seek documents from the National Archives through the Freedom of Information Act that provided additional context, including illuminating information about Frank’s struggle to transition home after the war. The brothers Eyde undertook an epic adventure, and a podcast seemed like an excellent medium to capture that, with old broadcast clips and period music providing a sense of time and place as voice actors shared their words.

AA: The podcast’s voice actors – all themselves military veterans – provide great readings of the Eyde brothers’ letters.  How did you find military veterans who were such skilled actors, and how did you go about working with them on the readings?

DL: The Post sought veterans through organizations like the Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP), a non-profit with a stated goal of helping veterans integrate in their communities through the arts. Scores of veterans expressed interest, and we cast the parts based on their experiences, comfort with public speaking and ability to connect with the characters in the story. They are Michael Ball, who served in the Marine Corps and Air Force; Zachary Burgart, who served in the Marine Corps; Jeffrey Chiang, who served in the Navy; Brendan Wentz, who served in the Army; and Rachel Ziegler, who served in the Air Force.

AA: What were some of the major challenges you encountered?

DL: One of the first challenges was processing the letters and making sure we were not missing anything important. That took reading virtually every piece of mail in the boxes that Joe Alosi found, and sorting them in a way where we could synthesize what we knew and sort it into workable information. I had significant help on this from Jessica Stahl, the Post’s director of audio; Carol Alderman, a podcast producer; and Julie Vitkovskaya, a digital enterprise editor. We also had to transcribe the most important letters word-for-word, an effort that took several of us to complete. Another significant challenge and mystery was figuring out how the letters came to be abandoned in the first place, and who the closest surviving family members might be. I did that through a combination of searching through old obituaries, phone calls and asking help from the public library in Rockford, Ill., the brothers’ home town.

AA: Where are the Eyde brothers’ letters now?  Do you know if there are plans for them to be donated to an archives where they can be preserved and accessible to others?

DL: The letters are back with Mr. Alosi, who purchased them more than a decade ago and loaned them to The Post. At last check, he was researching options for what might come next. As you might expect, several museums have inquired about them.

AA: Do you have any advice or tips for others who may be interested in bringing archives to life through podcasting?

DL: This project came to life because of organization, first and foremost. By knowing what we had, we were able to build around the central element – the letters themselves, as voiced by the veterans – while Carol layered in music, sound effects and audio from the time period. I narrated, but as a general rule, I spoke in places where we did not have another method to tell the story. Additional reporting also was really important, so I’d definitely recommend looking beyond archival material to enrich your story. In this case, obtaining the military personnel files of Frank Eyde through FOIA and details about the battles in which the brothers participated from the Marine Corps History Division and the Army Center for Military History helped a great deal.

AA: Is there anything else you’d like to share about your experience working on Letters from War?

DL: It was powerful meeting Vicki Venhuizen, a cousin of the Eydes who remembers them from when she was a child. Interviewing her as primary source about the Eyde family helped fill in gaps in the story, and also underscored an important point: this was a family of real-life people who sacrificed for their nation at an extraordinarily difficult time in which loved ones sometimes went years without seeing each other. I’m grateful for her willingness to meet with me, a stranger, and share details about herself and them.

More information on the Letters from War podcast is available on the main podcast website, as well as Dan Lamothe’s background column and long-form special section story on the Eyde brothers and their letters.  Lamothe has also authored a piece on Edythe Eyde, the brothers’ trailblazing cousin who started America’s first lesbian publication.


Dan Lamothe (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on the Pentagon and the U.S. military. He joined The Post in 2014, and has traveled extensively since then on assignment. Lamothe has embedded with U.S. troops in combat in Afghanistan multiple times, and also has reported from the Aleutian Islands, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, the Arctic Circle, Norway, Belgium, Germany, France, Singapore, Australia, Mexico, Spain and the Republic of Georgia.  Further information about Lamothe is available at his WaPo profile page.

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

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