Responses and Retrospectives: Jeremy Brett of the Concerned Archivists Alliance on the Altered Photo for NARA’s Exhibit “Rightfully Hers,” and the Subsequent NARA Apologies

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

My name is Jeremy Brett. I am an archivist/librarian at Texas A&M University, as well as one of the founders of the Concerned Archivists Alliance (CAA) and incidentally, a former employee of the National Archives and Records Administration.  The CAA is a group of information professionals, paraprofessionals, and information science students, committed to freedom of information, the protection of privacy rights, and to holding public officials accountable for their actions. We believe that a democratic society cannot thrive in an atmosphere of secrecy and oppression. Our group came into being as a response to the troubling 2016 election of Donald Trump and its implications for both the future of the American documentary record and the likely use (and misuse) of records under this administration to do harm to Americans.[1]

I’m writing this Responses & Retrospectives post in response to questions from some people about our group’s response to the recent scandal that took place with regard to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). On January 18th, the CAA published online an open letter to David Ferriero, the U.S. National Archivist, expressing our deep concern with the revelation that NARA had made multiple alterations to an image of the 2017 Women’s March, featured in its exhibit “Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote”. These alterations included the blurring of certain words on posters that referred to parts of the female anatomy, as well as that of the name of Donald Trump. Our original letter is found here. We invited our colleagues in the archival and other information professions to sign the letter in protest of this action. Gratifyingly, we have received more than 200 signatures to date.

As we noted in the letter, “Your explanation for this action, given by Archives’ spokeswoman Miriam Kleiman, is that ‘as a non-partisan, non-political federal agency, we blurred references to the President’s name on some posters, so as not to engage in current political controversy … Modifying the image was an attempt on our part to keep the focus on the records.’ This reasoning is offensive to the intellectual honesty and professional acumen of librarians and archivists across the country who collect, preserve, and make accessible to the public similarly sensitive material on a daily basis and without alteration or censorship.”

We of CAA stand behind that contention. Archivists owe an ethical and professional duty to the truth and to history, duties that NARA, with permission given at the highest levels of its administration, violated. We exist in a new and troubling political climate, where high government officials and media personalities alike feel free to shade the truth, to hide facts, and to lie outright to us, even in the face of evidence that proves the opposite. Therefore, it is more important than ever for archivists and archival institutions to nail their colors to the mast of truth and ensure that the materials they curate – as well as those materials’ public expression – are accurate, whole, and unaltered. Our letter pointed out that in altering the image, NARA had violated the Code of Ethics of the Society of American Archivists, which states “Archivists may not willfully alter, manipulate, or destroy data or records to conceal facts or distort evidence.” Although the Code is not legally binding, nor is NARA as an institution required to adhere to it, that Code serves as the ethical bedrock of the archival profession in the United States. We would have hoped that as the preeminent public archives in this nation, NARA might find itself inclined to align itself ethically with the rest of the American archival community. We are saddened to find out that apparently it disagrees. Instead, NARA chooses to stand by its self-definition as a “non-partisan, non-political federal agency”, even as it removes the name of Donald Trump from an historical image “so as not to engage in current political controversy.” This is not ethics and it is not professionalism. We believe, instead, that it is an instance of cowardice in the face of power at worst, incompetent thinking that fails to draw obvious conclusions at best.[2]

The same day that we published the letter, NARA announced in a public apology that the altered image would be removed. The apology (which can be read here) gave no explanation for NARA’s motives in altering the image in the first place, though it was careful to try and elude blame by noting that the image was not a NARA-held record but an image licensed for exhibit use. (As if, frankly, that made any ethical or moral difference.) The apology was, in our opinion, wholly inadequate and failed to address any of the reasons why the original action produced so much outrage in the archival and library communities.[3]

People have asked why we continued to offer our letter for signatures in light of NARA’s “apology”. We discussed whether to remove our letter from our site or at least whether to stop accepting signatories in the aftermath of NARA’s statement. We decided that it was important to stand by our original complaint. As archivists and information professionals, we believe that this was no mere mistake. We believe that the image alterations constituted an act of anticipatory obedience by NARA staff and administration, rendering invisible certain kinds of political speech in service to NARA’s political masters.[4] As one of CAA’s founders noted in a tweet[5]:

Screen Shot 2020-01-24 at 3.07.11 PM

Apologies are not magic shields that protect one from one’s original error, nor are they erasers that instantly wipe away mistakes. We say that there is little that is more threatening to the future of our democracy than public servants who abandon our collective founding principles and their professional duties in order to curry favor or to head off possible criticism. That is what we believe happened with NARA in this case.

We have received some online pushback – some thoughtful, some less so – for both our original letter and our decision not to withdraw it after NARA’s “apology”. Without responding to any specific critic, we offer this explanation generally for our actions because we love our profession. We believe wholeheartedly in its vital importance to the nation in which we live. We believe passionately in our duty to ensure that voices are not silenced, that principles are not overturned in the name of either obedience to power or partisan politics, and that the people and communities we serve deserve a history that has not been altered.  We will not surrender those values.

On January 22nd, Ferriero issued a more substantive apology, in which he stressed that “this decision was made without any external direction whatsoever” and that “[w]e also wanted to avoid accusations of partisanship or complaints that we displayed inappropriate language in a family-friendly Federal museum.” Although this new apology certainly offers a fuller explanation, it still raises troublesome questions with which NARA and the archival community must grapple with going forward.

  1. We also wanted to avoid accusations of partisanship or complaints that we displayed inappropriate language in a family-friendly Federal museum.”

We believe this motive was short-sighted and, in fact, both an act of cowardice and a misunderstanding of NARA’s own mission. It’s hardly “partisanship” to show that a protest against an important political figure contained signage bearing that figure’s name. In fact, what IS partisanship, what IS taking sides, is to blur out that name, because to do so neutralizes a historical situation that was anything but neutral and downplays the public hostility against that figure. To do so only benefits Donald Trump himself. Ferriero later in the apology notes, “as a Federal agency serving the American public, we must incorporate non-partisanship into everything we do.” We would argue that NARA’s actual job as a servant of the American public is to present historical truth, regardless of how that truth makes particular politicians or parties appear.

Avoiding in advance “accusations of partisanship” is troubling in its own right. We worry that NARA was overly concerned about right-wing pushback – something that high government officials have weaponized in recent years – and was intimidated in advance into silencing women’s voices and rendering the image nonsensical by blurring out the name of the protest’s subject. If true, this is disquieting, and it is sad.

As for “inappropriate language”, one might argue whether references to female anatomy are profanities or offensive terms, rather than simple terminology. However, it alters the meaning and context of the protest being depicted by leaving those terms out; those terms were integral parts of the rhetoric being passionately expressed that day (as I can testify, having attended the Women’s March in Austin) and to blur them out removes that rhetoric. Personally, I would argue that NARA does families with children no favors by presenting them with a sanitized, “clean” version of history, rather than giving children the opportunity to ask questions – however troublesome – about what they see and read.

  1. However, we wrongly missed the overall implications of the alteration. Our action made it appear as if we did not understand the importance of our unique charge: as an archives, we must present materials – whether they are ours or not – without alteration…”

We agree that, yes, this decision certainly made it appear so. Because that is, in fact, what it actually did. Ferriero eludes the issue by claiming “our action made it appear as if we did not understand”, as if that wasn’t what actually happened.  In truth, NARA clearly did not understand its crucial charge, else it would not have made the decision to present an altered image. We find it worrisome that NARA administration seemed to have forgotten its ethical duty during this process.

At the same time, we do appreciate this expanded apology and explanation, and are gratified that NARA recognizes the need to thoroughly review its processes. It is our earnest hope that NARA going forward will live out the true meaning of its mission. NARA and its preservation of the archival record are crucial to ensuring a healthy, functioning democracy and an informed citizenry, and as archivists we want to support NARA in that all-important calling.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in the 1967 essay Truth and Politics that “[t]he chances of factual truth surviving the onslaught of power are very slim indeed; it is always in danger of being maneuvered out of the world not only for a time but, potentially, forever. Facts and events are infinitely more fragile things than axioms, discoveries, theories—even the most wildly speculative ones—produced by the human mind; they occur in the field of the ever-changing affairs of men, in whose flux there is nothing more permanent than the admittedly relative permanence of the human mind’s structure. Once they are lost, no rational effort will ever bring them back.” It is this we fear the most, and it is this that NARA risked with its alterations of the image on display. Let us all strive in our professional lives as archivists, all of us, to do better.

This post was written by Jeremy Brett, a founding member of the Concerned Archivists Alliance. The opinions and assertions stated within this piece are the author’s alone, and do not represent the official stance of the Society of American Archivists. COPA publishes response posts with the sole aim of providing additional perspectives, context, and information on current events and subjects that directly impact archives and archivists.

 

Citations:

[1] In CAA matters, including this post, we all represent ourselves as individual archivists and our views are not necessarily those of our respective employing institutions.

[2] For a useful look at the implications of NARA’s action, Masha Gessen’s January 19th in The New Yorker is instructive: https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/the-erasure-of-political-history-at-the-national-archives-womens-march.

[3] For examples of this concern, note the January 19th statement issued by the Society of American Archivists (https://www2.archivists.org/news/2020/saa-statement-nara-exhibit-on-2017-womens-march-in-washington-dc) and the January 21st statement from the American Library Association (http://www.ala.org/news/press-releases/2020/01/ala-responds-national-archive-efforts-alter-materials).

[4] We note the incredible irony in NARA choosing to obscure the protest language and outrage of women, in an exhibit devoted to and celebrating the struggle of women to secure the right to vote.

[5] https://twitter.com/feministlib/status/1220030484035579905

There’s An Archivist for That! Interview with Krü Maekdo, founder of the Black Lesbian Archives

Krü Maekdo wearing t-shirt that says "Black Lesbian Archives Grassroots Tour 20[??]"

Photo of Krü Maekdo (courtesy of Krü Maekdo).

This is the newest post in our There’s an Archivist for That! series, which features examples of archivists working in places you might not expect.  COPA member Rachel Seale, Outreach Archivist at Iowa State University, brings you an interview with Krü Maekdo, the founder of the Black Lesbian Archives.

Krü Maekdo has been an innovator in community organizing, gracing stages around the world sharing, her charm, wit, and presence, while contributing to the exciting LGBTQ+ renaissance in many of our communities. CEO of Maekdo Productions, a multi-media and event planning company for women in the LGBTQ+ community as well as the Founder of Queer Black Creatives and Black Lesbian Archives. She works to diplomatically build and connect the world in creative ways. A Creative Director specializing in, Multi-Media, Event Planning, Kosmic Rootwork and Astrology.

For info, visit: krumaekdo.wixsite.com/info/about

How did you get your gig?

I created the Black Lesbian Archives June 2017 after realizing that the stories of our lives were not being documented online, in our local libraries, institutions, collection departments, etc. I felt it would be a great way not only to bring awareness, but to build our communities through experimental storytelling. As well as educating ourselves through our own generational linkages and experiences.

Tell us about your organization.

The Black Lesbian Archives idea started after spending some time in Williamsburg, VA then moving to Chicago, IL. The first exhibit was created after attending an exhibit about Lesbian herstory in Chicago of the 60s, 70s & 80s. I noticed there was a lack of Black Lesbians in the exhibit and everything truly sparked from there. The first exhibit was held at Affinity Community Services in June of 2018 through July and the rest is herstory!

Table top sign that says "Black Lesbian Archives. These archives are on loan. Please feel free to look through, but leave them here! Thank you! With Affinity and logo on the right.

(photo by Law91Media)

Describe your collections.

The Black Lesbian Archives collections I would describe them as having a whole lot of personality! So raw, so honest. They come in all different shapes and sizes. Mostly physical but eventually transferring into digital so we can make them available globally in a way that’s more accessible to all.

What are some challenges unique to your collections?

One of the challenges is figuring out an innovative way to preserve archives without having the largest set of funds/backing and to keep it going. The more I learn about archival preservation, the more I understand there’s so much you wouldn’t expect that goes into the backend of archival preservation. We gonna make it work for us though.

What is your favorite part of your job?

My favorite part of this project is the collaborative effort. Hearing and learning the ways in which we archive. Also the storytelling aspect of archiving which is my favorite! We have created a whole community about how we are growing and preserving the stories of the past, present and future interweaves our destines.

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With the new year comes a new opportunity to participate in the Black Lesbian Archives Grassroots 2020 tour. The Black Lesbian Archives Grassroots 2020 was created to bring awareness, educate, preserve and bridge generational gaps within our communities so in turn, we can understand ourselves and the communities beyond us.

Krü Maekdo sitting on steps with tee that says "Black Lesbian Archives Grassroots 2020 Tour"

Photo o Krü Maekdo. Promo for the Black Lesbian Archives Grassroots 2020 Tour (courtesy of Krü Maekdo).

For more information check out blacklesbianarchives.wixsite.com/info/grassroots-tour and email: blacklesbianarchives@gmail.com or call 469-430-8568. Leave a voicemail and we’ll get back.

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!

Asserting the Archivist, no. 4

Margot Note--2This post was authored by guest contributor Margot Note, CA, CRM, IGP, PMP. Note is the principal and founder of Margot Note Consulting, LLC, an archives and records management consulting business in New York. She’s a professor in the graduate Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College and an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Library and Information Science program at St. John’s University. She’s the author of five books, including her newest Creating Family Archives: A Step‐by‐Step Guide for Saving Your Memories for Future Generations published by the Society of American Archivists.

This is the fourth post in our “Asserting the Archivist” series on the importance of highlighting archivists and archival work in outreach efforts, rather than just focusing on the collections themselves. SAA’s Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) chose a Q&A style for this post to highlight Note’s work and, specifically, her writing as an outreach mechanism that helps to assert the archivist.

Q. We know your origin story into consulting from the Off the Record guest spot and the Archives in Context podcast. So, I’d like to focus in on your writing for this starter question as you’ve written several books over the course of your career thus far. How did you get into professional writing and what was the impetus for you to write your first book?

I started with book reviews. I’d be reading these books anyway, so I figured that I should receive them for free! A publisher contacted me while I was in graduate school studying the topic of my first book, so I turned my papers into chapters and expanded the manuscript.

My books stem from obsessive curiosity. I write about a topic to understand it. What I discover can help people in similar circumstances.

Q. Your most recent book Creating Family Archives was published by the Society of American Archivists, but you’ve also published with Lucidea Press, and have self-published. Can you speak to what those experiences were like, what you enjoyed, and what was challenging?

Each book experience is unique, especially the level of interventions by publishers, editors, and advisory teams. I enjoy the writing flow and the progress of a manuscript.

The most challenging part of writing is getting feedback. Constructive criticism is an opportunity to communicate better with my readers, and I can fix misunderstandings or errors before the final draft.

Q. What have you found are the benefits of writing books for professional literature?

Beyond learning, a big bonus is status. People who don’t understand archives remember me as “the writer.” Authoring a book makes you an expert in the eyes of many. It’s helped me get hired.

I’m touched by the notes that I’ve received from people who’ve said that my books helped them. I also love to see myself cited!

Q. What is your advice for getting over writer’s block?

Use the Pomodoro Method. Set a timer for 25 minutes and write, then rest for 5 minutes. After four Pomodoros, take a 20-minute break. I promise myself that I can stop after one Pomodoro, but I always want to continue.

For low-energy days, I reduce my time to 15 minutes. I focus on any effort towards a goal without judging the quality.

Done is better than perfect.

I believe in mindset. If you think a writing project will be hard, it will be. I seduce myself into the writing process with tea, candles, incense, lighting, and music.

Drinking 5 Hour Energy helps too!

Q. What advice would you like to share with archivists who are aspiring to write their own books?

To quote the anarcho-punk band Crass, “You alone can do it. There is no authority but yourself.”

Forget gatekeepers or mentors. Make your own opportunities, like self-publishing. My book with SAA grew from an earlier self-published edition. No one deemed me an expert—I did it myself.

The universe rewards action.

Archivists note the lack of diversity in our collections and the profession, but I also want our professional literature to better represent our field through the voices of archivists working in non-traditional ways too.

Q. Are there tips or writing resources you would recommend for those who wish to write about professional topics?

Here’s a blog post with my tips: https://www.margotnote.com/blog/2018/2/5/writing-for-career-success

Find the most enjoyable part of writing. I revise zealously.

I create a list of changes needed to be made in a spreadsheet. For instance, I translate feedback on a peer-reviewed article into action steps. I then tackle the tasks, completing items from the easiest to the hardest. Approaching writing this way takes the emotion out of it.

Q. In the Archives in Context podcast you speak to how you’ve found you needed a different vernacular to convey both archival concepts and the value of archives. This is also demonstrated in Creating Family Archives where you introduce archival concepts and best practices in an approachable manner. What tips would you give an archivist who needs to communicate archival concepts to non-archivists?

I talk about storytelling, memories, or legacy. For people with technical or project management backgrounds, I’ll talk about lessons learned. For executives, I mention institutional knowledge or business insights.

I emphasize enduring over historical or archival value, because people think of archives as being old. They might not realize that archival records can be born-digital in the present.

I show my students that archives are welcoming, that archivists can help them, and that primary sources reveal wonders. I explain just enough about archival principles so that they understand why collections are the way that they are.

I also talk about archives in relation to personal or family items.

Someone may never visit a repository, but they have collections of love letters, emails, or photos that they treasure.

Q. Focusing on conveying the value of archives — a universal struggle — how have you found being a consultant has helped you hone that message, especially as you’re not just selling yourself, but you’re also selling the value of archives?

Selling is helping someone solve a problem. Clients reach out because their problem is painful enough to seek advice. When they talk to an expert who has solved similar issues, they become at ease.

I’m proud of my business. I have a killer work ethic and an iron will. My self-confidence was forged by discovering how strong I am in challenging situations. When you project positivity, clients notice.

Q. What’s next for you? Is there another book in the making or another project you’re looking forward to?

Another book, I’m sure. My focus is on creating a business that supports the life I want to lead and finding a balance between work and play.

Do you have a favorite example of archival repositories or organizations/businesses that “assert the archivist” in their outreach efforts? Or would you like to share your experience incorporating archival work into your outreach? Please share in the comments below or contact archivesaware@archivists.org to be a guest contributor to ArchivesAWARE!

Responses & Retrospectives: Rachael Woody Reflects on 2019 Issues

RachaelWoody

Rachael Woody (photograph courtesy of Rachael Woody).

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

As the end of the year approaches we begin to take stock and reflect. The ArchivesAWARE! Responses & Retrospectives (R&R) series began December 19, 2018 and what could be more fitting than a retrospective piece on what the R&R series held for us this year? This post will provide a reflective summary on the response piece issues we covered.

Responses & Retrospectives: Rachael Woody on the Decline of History Majors and Its Impact on Archives, December 19, 2019. We started the R&R series with the not-so-small topic dominating headlines from Thanksgiving to New Year: the history major is dying. While not all archivists are history majors, seeing the history major in decline held obvious implications for archives and archivists. This post covers the issues precipitating history majors in decline and ties the perceived lack of value for history majors to archives and archivists. This would be the first of several posts written on the value of archives and archivists.

Responses & Retrospectives: Alexandra Bisio on “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo,” Konmari, and Archival Appraisal, January 30, 2019. Bisio wrote a post on the still trending topic of “Tidying Up.” On January 1, 2019, Netflix released a short series featuring the “Tidying Up” creator Marie Kondo. In the series (and her book) Kondo teaches us how to sort through and discard our items that no longer bring us joy. While “bringing joy” is not an official appraisal method for archivists, it does have appraisal features. Then, about half-way through the mini-series Kondo makes the recommendation we keep no more than 30 books and people had some feelings about it. This conversation included librarians and archivists on both sides of the issue. The uproar reached such a crescendo that Kondo had to release a clarification two-weeks after the Netflix series release saying it was OK if people kept more than 30 books. Bisio covers the deaccession issue and describes how the Konmari method relates to archival appraisal.

Responses & Retrospectives: Rachael Woody on Myspace and the Precarity of User Content on Social Media Platforms, July 11, 2019. On March 18, 2019, Myspace lost millions of songs, photographs, and videos published to the platform prior to 2016. Though the platform is not as popular as other social media tools it did still raise significant concerns on where we place our digital items and how easily they can disappear. This post reviews the limited ability for users to receive a backup of their content from popular social platforms and offers some guidance on how to safeguard digital content.

Responses & Retrospectives: Rachael Woody’s Annual Conference Coverage on the Value of Archival Labor Sessions, September 6, 2019. The SAA Annual conference held several session opportunities specific to the value of archival labor. This post summarizes the salary forum and panel sessions with additional facts, critiques, questions, and suggestions. The forum and sessions revealed that there are many who care about how archival labor is valued and are experiencing direct, negative repercussions in a field that is literally being devalued. How do we know this? The SAA A*Census report published in 2006 (initiated in 2003) stated an average salary of: $49,329 – that’s $68,507.86 in 2019 dollars. The Archivist Transparency Survey that came out of a grassroots effort from the annual conference shows an average salary of $62,775. That’s a deficit of $5,733. Since the conference an adhoc SAA salary group has been formed to explore actions to alleviate this issue, but a volunteer group can only do so much so quickly. Without active organization support from SAA, many archivists are already too overworked and have little time or energy to dedicate to this issue – keeping in mind the other professional services (free labor) they are involved in.

Responses & Retrospectives: Rachael Woody on October is American Archives Month, October 1, 2019. This retrospective piece offers a summary of activities and links to resources for American Archives Month. Initiated in 2006, American Archives Month just celebrated its 13th anniversary.

Responses & Retrospectives: Rachael Woody on Resources for How to Convey the Value of Archives, October 15, 2019. With 2019 centering around value this American Archives Month post focused on how to create the archives value proposition and provided a summary of resources from both SAA and peer organizations.

Responses & Retrospectives: “Maybe She Just Has to Sing for the Sake of the Song” Rosemary K.J. Davis on Student Loan Debt and Its Impact on the Archival Profession, November 12, 2019. This response piece was adapted from Davis’ SAA annual conference presentation. Student loan debt is a national crisis with many new to mid-career professionals impacted. Early statistics indicate that student debt laden professionals are postponing home ownership and some are even foregoing having children. This issue is so pervasive that it’s part of several Democratic presidential candidate platforms. And bonus: A recent study shows that student loan forgiveness would boost the economy. Given that student loan debt adds to the archivist devaluation crisis, it will be interesting to see where this issue lands closer to the 2020 election.

Responses & Retrospectives: Not Just Your Problem: Metadata Shame, Imposter Syndrome, and Archivists by Jodi Allison-Bunnell, December 3, 2019. Imposter syndrome featured as a popular panel session during the SAA annual conference. In this post Allison-Bunnell dives into an area where she sees a lot of shame: metadata. As archivists we know that we’re working on a never-ending backlog of items to catalog and legacy data to clean up – and limited resources. And yet, the shame we feel is there. Allison-Bunnell ties shame to a larger issue: imposter syndrome and offers compassionate advice for how we can get through it to the other, shame-free side.

Conclusion: The predominant focus on value and especially the value of ourselves as archivists, contrasted with our conflicting sense of imposter syndrome marks this year as one filled with dissonance. As current events, political and economic issues, and social justice movements continue their march through 2020, I forecast that we will continue to feel these reverberations within the profession as we grapple with systemic problems and institutions that are slow (resistant?) to change. While no one wants to hear that we will continue to struggle in 2020, I find hope in the volume of voices that are speaking out. There is communion found when we pitch in to help raise each other up. And if there’s one thing we can agree on, it’s the unequivocal value of archivists.

This post was written by Rachael Cristine Woody, a member of The Society of American Archivists’ Committee on Public Awareness (COPA). The opinions and assertions stated within this piece are the author’s alone, and do not represent the official stance of the Society of American Archivists. COPA publishes response posts with the sole aim of providing additional perspectives, context, and information on current events and subjects that directly impact archives and archivists.

There’s an Archivist for That! Interview with Christine “LadyBee” Kristen, Burning Man’s Archivist, Art Collection Curator and Photo Gallery Editor

Photo of Christine "LadyBeen" Kristen standing outside on asphalt with tall grass in the background.

Christine “LadyBee” Kristen.

This is the newest post in our There’s an Archivist for That! series, which features examples of archivists working in places you might not expect.  COPA member Rachel Seale, Outreach Archivist at Iowa State University, brings you an interview with Christine “LadyBee” Kristen, Burning Man’s Archivist, Art Collection Curator, and Photo Gallery Editor.

Christine Kristen (a.k.a LadyBee) is Burning Man’s Archivist, Art Collection Curator and Photo Gallery editor. She was Burning Man’s art curator from 1999 to 2008, where she dealt with all things visual and aesthetic, including managing the art and the art grant program, photo-editing the Image Gallery, writing art content for the Burning Man website, working with the ARTery, managing the archives, and lecturing and writing about the art of Burning Man. She is the co-author of “The Jewelry of Burning Man,” with Karen Christians and George Post, and the curator of the exhibition “PlayaMade: Jewelry of Burning Man,” which debuted at the Fuller Craft Museum near Boston in 2017. It opens at the Bellevue Arts Museum in Seattle in January 2020. She has an MFA in sculpture from the Art Institute of Chicago.

How did you get your gig?

I was an art-world dropout who left New York City in the early 90s, disgusted with the art world I experienced there; I stumbled upon Burning Man in 1995 and was instantly at home, attracted to the intelligent, creative outsiders who were doing radical creative acts in the Black Rock Desert. As I had an art background (MFA Sculpture, School of the Art Institute of Chicago) I was hired by Larry Harvey in 1999 to run the new art grant program; for ten years I did that as well as several archival tasks, like starting our Material Culture archives and our (at the time) physical archive of press articles, books, and magazines.

 

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I’m not trained as an archivist; I developed my skills by doing, in an environment that encouraged outside-the-box thinking. I left in 2008 to work for an arts startup which ran out of funding, and did some independent curating but realized that I only wanted to work for Burning Man, so I returned in 2012 as the art collection curator and archivist.

Tell us about your organization.

That’s a BIG task; Burning Man is complex and layered; basically it’s a temporary community in the Black Rock Desert that lasts for eight days each year — a city of 80,000 people characterized by art, creativity, generosity, gifting, and radical inclusion. This year we had over 400 art installations, scattered across a flat, barren desert. We have an airport, medical services, a DMV (our Department of Mutant Vehicles), several radio stations, two newspapers, a center cafe and performance space, ice sales, and lots of portable toilets. We do not have stages, hire bands, or put on entertainment; our community brings its hundreds of interactive theme camps, costumes, performance, and art. As Larry Harvey, our founder, said, “We create the hive, the participants bring the honey.” But it doesn’t end there; we are actively engaged in bringing art from the desert to cities; in addition to our art grant program for work on the playa, the prehistoric lake bed where Burning Man takes place, we fund temporary interactive art all over the world via our Global Arts Grants. We now have Regional groups in 35 countries all over the world who put on their own versions of Burning Man, with our guidance; there are over 100 such events annually. Within the Burning Man Project are two groups that do good in the world year round: Burners Without Borders, a disaster relief organization that helps out wherever they’re needed, and began when Hurricane Katrina struck during Burning Man 2005; and Black Rock Labs, which originally gave free or low-cost solar panels to schools within the desert event site area.

 

Burning Man is guided by our Ten Principles:

  • Radical Inclusion
  • Gifting
  • Decommodification
  • Radical Self-Reliance
  • Communal Effort
  • Civic Responsibility
  • Leave No Trace
  • Participation
  • Immediacy

They were crafted not as a dictate of how people should be and act, but as a reflection of the community’s ethos and culture as it had organically developed since the event’s inception. We are a global community of creative souls, doers, makers, gifters, artists and free thinkers.

Describe your collections.

I manage five archives; our press archive is now created digitally via the Meltwater Feed, a service to which we subscribe. Each week I archive domestic and international press, YouTube videos and TV and radio spots; all of these files are stored digitally. We also archive a few hard copies of magazines when it’s beneficial to do so. The second archive I manage is our library; Burning Man has allowed me to release my inner librarian! There are now 175 books in our library; these are books entirely about Burning Man, or with significant content about us. Our library also contains many magazines which have featured us, including National Geographic, Raw Vision, Wired, Leonardo Journal, Time, Architectural Review, Smithsonian, Rolling Stone, Forbes and Art Forum.

Shelves, that look like cubbies, with books.

Burning Man Library.

The third archive is our Internal Print Production collection, which I started in 1999; it includes the materials we hand out to participants on arrival in Black Rock City —  a city map, our What Where When, a guide to all playa events; an art map, and some logistical information. Also in this archive are the dozen stickers we produce each year, based on a design contest that participants enter; postcards/posters for our local events; tickets; programs from our annual fundraising events; and years of annual journals which are no longer produced.

 

The fourth archive is our collection of photographs and videos; we have flat files full of photographic prints back to our first year, 1986, and a large collection of digital files. Our Documentation Team is given assignments and covers all aspects of the event and related events; these are submitted digitally. We have VHS tapes from the earlier years, which have been digitized, and many DVDs of more recent videos; all of these have been digitized and archived.

The fifth archive is our Regional Archive, which contains printed materials from the 100+ events that occur worldwide including Afrika Burn in South Africa, Mid-Burn in Israel, KiwiBurn in New Zealand, Tropical Burn in Brazil, and the original regional burn, Burning Flipside, in Austin, Texas. They produce an event map and guide, like Burning Man, and also stickers, buttons, t-shirts and other memorabilia.

A wall of images from the 1990s, depicting history of Burning Man. Includes magazine covers and photographs.

The History Wall – images from the 1990s.

Large painting by JennyBIrd Alcantara , small painting, center, by Josh Coffy, organ and sheet music from the Church Trap by Rebekkah Waites, 2013

Large painting (left) by JennyBIrd Alcantara , small painting (center), by Josh Coffy, organ and sheet music from the Church Trap by Rebekkah Waites (art installation to the right), 2013.

What are some challenges unique to your collections?

Much of Burning Man is ephemeral and experiential, living on in participants’ memories, and in videos and photographs. Some of the art installations are burned at the event, never to be seen again. We are fortunate in that the Nevada Museum of Art maintains an archive donated by one of our founders; they created a historical exhibit that was included in the Smithsonian’s wildly successful show, No Spectators, which traveled to the Cincinnati Museum of Art, where it broke all previous attendance records, and is now at the Oakland Museum of California. Artists were asked to create work for the exhibit, which also features films, photographs, jewelry, costumes and an outdoor Temple.

What is the favorite part of your job?

My favorite task is curating and producing art for our World Headquarters (HQ) in San Francisco. Each year, post-event, I identify the best photos of the most interesting art, and a local burner and muralist prints and mounts them for us. I also seek artifacts from art installations, posters and items from our theme camps, and gift items from the event. I design the displays at HQ, and hang the art. I co-wrote the book, Jewelry of Burning Man, and I have a travelling exhibit, Playa Made: Jewelry of Burning Man, which I guest curated for the Fuller Craft Museum near Boston, and which will open at the Bellevue Art Museum near Seattle, this January. Each year I create a display at HQ of the jewelry I collect on playa; I have a maker group of over 90 people, and we meet each year at the event. My jewelry collection goes back to 1995. My style of display is far from minimal; I like to cover every available space with the art and objects from our madly creative community.

 

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All photographs in this post courtesy of LadyBee.

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!

Houston Archives Bazaar 2019

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Vince Lee

This post was authored by guest contributor Vince Lee, Archivist at the University of Houston, and current member of SAA’s Committee on Public Awareness (COPA).

The second biennial Houston Archives Bazaar was hosted at the White Oak Music Hall on November 14, 2019. Over 22 organizations representing local, regional, and state institutions participated in the Bazaar: 

 

Sandwich sign with graphic on top three quarters of sign than text below that says "It's Free! Sunday, Nov. 17, 201- - 10 a.m. – 2.pm. Houston Archives Bazaar"

Houston Archives Bazaar Poster directing visitors to the event (Photo Courtesy of Vince Lee)

Exterior view of building on street corner, partial text of building name shown.

White Oak Music Hall-site of the Houston Archives Bazaar (Photo courtesy of Vince Lee)

Visitors and attendees to the Bazaar were greeted at the door where they would sign in, fill out a name tag, and get their passports from the registration table. From there visitors were encouraged to visit as many tables within the Bazaar and take part in activities. They would present their passports at each table where they would be stamped. At the end of touring the Bazaar visitors take their stamped passports to get free swag such as a Houston Archives Bazaar (HAB) tote bags, pencils, pins, and other ephemera.  No self respecting visitor or archivist attending a Bazaar would want to leave empty handed, and as archivists we all love free stuff!

Person with hair in bun with glasses standing behind table with purple table cloth with name tags, folders, booklets, and next to sign that says "Claim Prizes & HAB Swag Here!" Adjacent table with purple table cloth and 4 people standing behind it on right.

Registration Table for the Houston Archives Bazaar (photo courtesy of Vince Lee)

What sorts of visitors can you expect to find at an Archives Bazaar? From my own personal experience of visitors at our table (University of Houston Special Collections), I ran across genealogists looking for additional resources to track down family history, students at area colleges and universities looking for potential research projects,  high school teachers and administrators seeking potential topics and primary source materials for research for their students as well as seeking potential collaborations with area repositories for field trips and tours. There were heavy users of archives such as researchers looking for news-clippings and audio-visual clips to bolster their research, advocates of archives from the Houston community such as artists, historians, and donors looking to find a home for their materials.

In short there were a wide variety of folks that came out to visit the Houston Archives Bazaar for a variety of reasons and interests. The Houston Archives Bazaar truly was a gathering place of activity that reflected the different constituencies that archives and archivists serve each and every day. As if that wasn’t enough it was a free event  and open to the public!

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Display materials representing the various collecting areas of the University of Houston Libraries-Special Collection (Photo Courtesy of Vince Lee)

In addition to the tables which showcased collection materials of each of the participating repositories, attendees had an opportunity to contribute to a time capsule-they could write a short note or letter to themselves in the future, deposit an item or artifact, and doodle or draw something to someone in the future. There was also an oral history booth that did short 15-minute recordings for attendees wishing  to contribute their memories and stories of Houston — whether it was growing up in Houston, going to school here, or a memory of a neighborhood or area and how Houston has changed.

People standing around sign that says "Oral History Storytelling" and table with clipboards on it.

Oral History Storytelling Booth (Photo courtesy of Vince Lee)

Close up of brown box with sticky note with "Time Capsule" written on it, sitting on table with purple table cloth.

Time Capsule for deposited materials (Photo courtesy of Vince Lee)

Two people sitting behind table with purple table cloth with standing sign that says "Houston Time Capsule" standing to the left, person in front of table sitting and engaging.

Houston Time Capsule Booth (Photo Courtesy of Vince Lee)

The 2019 Houston Archives Bazaar for me represented a unique opportunity in which archives and archivists come together not only in engaging with the public with our material holdings and explain what we do as archivists, but it is also an opportunity to take stock of the existing relationships we have with one another as institutions and fellow archivists, not to mention the potential new relationships forged through  the community we serve. That’s something we all can be thankful for this holiday season. 

Have some interesting archival or special collections outreach event or highlights you’d like us to share?  Email us at archivesaware@archivists.org !

Responses & Retrospectives: Not Just Your Problem: Metadata Shame, Imposter Syndrome, and Archivists by Jodi Allison-Bunnell,

Photo of Jodi Allison-Bunnell. Color.

Jodi Allison-Bunnell (courtesy of Jodi Allison-Bunnell).

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

It usually happens during the tour of the stacks: As we stand among the grey boxes, in a dark corner, a colleague will lean toward me and confess, sotto voce, that their metadata—accession records, finding aids, donor records, or digital collections—is really a mess. Their eyes are downcast with shame at the gap between the standards that they know and what they actually have. They are certain that they are the only individual or institution with this problem.

But what I know—and am always truly delighted to tell them—is that they are not at all alone. Twenty-three years of work in large and small institutions, a regional consortium, and as a consultant has shown me that everyone has ugly metadata. Everyone carries shame about it. And it doesn’t need to be that way.

Last spring, at the annual meeting of Northwest Archivists in Bozeman, Montana, I co-presented a panel with fellow consultants Rachael Woody and Maija Andersen to predict the future of archives in 2020 (http://northwestarchivists.org/resources/Documents/NWA%202019%20Program.pdf). During that panel, we discussed a number of important themes, including salaries in the archival profession (Rachael’s passion!) and the continued certainty of constrained resources. I used the framework of “The good, the bad, and the ugly” to predict that a year from now, your metadata will still be ugly. And there’s no shame in that.

Metadata shame is part of a larger phenomenon: imposter syndrome. First identified in 1978 by Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes, it’s when an individual believes they have insufficient skills, intellect, and experience for a given task or environment, usually professional, despite objective evidence to the contrary. (Clance, Pauline R.; Imes, Suzanne A. (Fall 1978). “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” (PDF). Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice. 15 (3): 241–247).  Although Clance and Imes’ initial paper was focused on high-achieving women, the term has since been applied to all genders of highly intelligent, qualified, and achieving people who suffer this crushing self-doubt.

The Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale, a non-diagnostic self-assessment, asks a respondent to indicate degree of agreement or disagreement with statements that include: “I can give the impression that I’m more competent than I really am,” “I’m afraid people important to me may find out that I’m not as capable as they think I am,” “I rarely do a project or task as well as I’d like to do it,” and “Sometimes I’m afraid others will discover how much knowledge or ability I really lack.” (https://paulineroseclance.com/pdf/IPTestandscoring.pdf, accessed 2019 Oct 11. From The Impostor Phenomenon: When Success Makes You Feel Like A Fake (pp. 20-22), by P.R. Clance, 1985, Toronto: Bantam Books. Copyright 1985 by Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D., ABPP.)

Clearly, there are many archivists who would agree with many of those statements. At the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists last August, Session 701, “My Comeback Story: Overcoming Imposter Syndrome in the Archives Profession” drew hundreds of attendees that overfilled the largest room in the conference facility. The presenters shared their stories of struggling with imposter syndrome and how they have transformed that experience into positive outcomes. Some of their experiences were related to race, education, or the specific dynamics of their institution. But Drew Davis of the College of American Pathologists gave examples that are universal: We have so much to do and so much to know, and one response to that reality is shame. We compare ourself to other professionals and are certain that they are more successful. Davis ultimately found that he is naturally competitive. Instead of fighting that tendency, he turns his comparison with others into an opportunity to be inspired, motivated—and successful

His response is the map for all of us: rather than letting shame overcome us, we can put that energy toward action. When I was building a Digital Public Library of America hub at the Orbis Cascade Alliance, we confronted the challenge of half a million digital object records that had been created before the consortium had Dublin Core best practices. A few core fields needed remediation before the content could be aggregated efficiently at the regional and national level. As part of a series of workshops I developed with consultant Anneliese Dehner and Julia Simic (Assistant Head, Digital Scholarship Services, University of Oregon), we inserted humor and cultivated the concert of the “metadata shame-free zone.” We wanted to create an atmosphere that inspired action, bolstered skills, and created clear priorities for metadata cleanup. And we delivered the results we needed: 100,000 digital objects cleaned up, aggregated, and ready for DPLA.

So let’s come out of that dark corner of the stacks, openly reveal our challenges to colleagues, and support one another in developing solutions. Let’s share our comeback stories to make the profession better for all of us. No more metadata shame. And no more imposters.

This post was written by Jodi Allison-Bunnell. Jodi Allison-Bunnell has twenty-three years of experience leading and participating in collaborations to increase access to unique content in archives, libraries, and museums by using shared systems and standards. She is the owner and principal consultant at AB Consulting (http://consulting.allison-bunnell.net). She was the program manager for Unique and Local Content at the Orbis Cascade Alliance until 2018; prior positions include project manager for Northwest Digital Archives and archivist at the University of Montana. She holds an MA and an MLS from University of Maryland at College Park and a BA summa cum laude from Whitman College.

The opinions and assertions stated within this piece are the author’s alone, and do not represent the official stance of the Society of American Archivists. COPA publishes response posts with the sole aim of providing additional perspectives, context, and information on current events and subjects that directly impact archives and archivists.