Catherine Stiers on Using Reddit as an Archival Outreach Tool

The College of Charleston Special Collections in Charleston, South Carolina has found a new way to connect its archival collections with their audience through a popular internet forum: reddit. Reddit is a forum where communities can form to discuss a person, topic, or event; share cute animal photos, and ask or answer question from the communities that gather there. Committee of Public Awareness member Rachael Woody sits down with Charelston’s research and outreach specialist Catherine Stiers, to learn more about Stier’s outreach work within reddit.

StiersCatherine Stiers is a Research and Outreach Specialist at the College of Charleston Special Collections in Charleston, South Carolina.

RW: How did you land on reddit as a possible outreach and engagement tool?

CS: I decided to propose a Special Collections reddit account (CofCSpecColl) when brainstorming additional ways to engage with our community following the onset of social distancing back in March. Personally, I use reddit as a way of keeping track of what’s going on where I live, from restaurant recommendations to traffic warnings. Unlike most other social media platforms, reddit is broken down into subcategories, or subreddits, which can be based around common interests or geographic locations. I already knew from experience that the local Charleston board includes both an invested group of locals and a rotating array of tourists who would be interested in Charleston history.

From r/archivists to r/askhistorians (which has over a million members), it’s clear that history is being discussed on reddit from both experts and amateurs. R/askhistorians in particular has built a reputation of reliability. They held a virtual conference this year and produce a podcast. While r/askhistorians appeals to those who already consider themselves history enthusiasts, I wanted to reach people who may not be likely to visit subreddits specifically for historical or archival research, but would still be interested in the content.

When I come across a visually engaging item that I think will catch the attention of people scrolling through their feeds, I post it, along with a paragraph or two of background information.

RW: How do you use reddit as an outreach mechanism?

CS: When I come across a visually engaging item that I think will catch the attention of people scrolling through their feeds, I post it, along with a paragraph or two of background information. I tend to stay away from heavily text-based materials because they don’t draw the eye as much as a colorful image does. A postcard of the old Charleston Orphan House and a before-and-after picture of a well-known downtown street have performed the best so far.

Language in the post should include links to other institutional websites or open-access resources for readers to explore if they’re interested in learning more. I also try to tie in information about the College of Charleston Special Collections sources and encourage Redditors to reach out to us for their other local research needs.

A picture of the Charleston, South Carolina Orphan House.Charleston, SC Orphan House,” from the Leah Greenberg Postcard Collection, College of Charleston Libraries

Screenshot from r/Charleston subreddit

Screenshot from r/Charleston subreddit

Although Reddit is not one of our primary outreach tools, I’ve found the level of engagement to be much, much higher than either Twitter or Instagram.

RW: What results have you achieved by using reddit?

CS: Although Reddit is not one of our primary outreach tools, I’ve found the level of engagement to be much, much higher than either Twitter or Instagram. I’m continually surprised by how willing people are to share stories they otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to.

I think the most successful result we can hope for is spreading the word that Special Collections exists and that we are here for people’s research needs.

One example of a successful post was this postcard of the Charleston Orphan House, which doesn’t exist anymore. It was established in 1790 as the first public orphanage in the United States and operated until the 1950s. The building was demolished and one of the College of Charleston’s dormitories stands there now. Longtime residents have strong memories associated with the building and commenters wrote about their relatives’ experiences living there. Commenters were open and willing to share their private family stories without being prompted. That’s part of what makes reddit a useful outreach tool- commenters aren’t restricted by a limited number of characters. I think the most successful result we can hope for is spreading the word that Special Collections exists and that we are here for people’s research needs.

RW: What are some of the challenges present in using reddit and have you been able to mitigate or circumvent them?

CS: Like on all social media platforms, copyright and permissions are a challenge. Although I always include a disclaimer, it wouldn’t be difficult for someone to take the image and use it without properly citing Special Collections as its repository of origin. Additionally, other Reddit users often feel the need to jump in and add their own information, which may or may not be accurate. It’s encouraging to see commenters get involved in the dialog, but it can be difficult to fact-check everything and correct mistakes. Readers also sometimes treat posts like an AMA (ask me anything) event and will ask questions that are really best suited for a research consultation or in person visit. It can be time-consuming to answer their obscure questions or redirect them to the proper place.

A historical postcard depicts a beach scene on Sullivan's Island, South Carolina.

“On the Beach, Sullivan’s Island, SC,” from the Leah Greenberg Postcard Collection, College of Charleston Libraries.

RW: Do you have any lessons learned you can share with us?

CS: You have to have somewhat of a thick skin! Reddit has a reputation for being harsh, and sometimes it’s true. The first time I posted, a user latched onto my request that anyone wanting to use the image had to DM me first to fill out a publication request form. They questioned how I had the authority to ask for something like that, but were understanding once I explained the situation.

RW: What advice would you give organizations who are interested in trying reddit?

CS: Choose your subreddits carefully. If you are part of a university library and want to reach more students, the university’s subreddit might be a good place to post. Unfortunately for us, r/CofC is inactive. If you want to reach an even broader audience, a state subreddit like r/SouthCarolina is what you’re looking for. It’s best to familiarize yourself with how Reddit works before diving in.

Be sure to stick around and answer questions after submitting your post. Some of the best interactions we’ve had have resulted from follow-up questions and direct messages. Unlike Twitter and Instagram, you have to closely monitor Reddit posts to get the most out of them.

RW: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

CS: You can follow the College of Charleston Special Collections on Twitter @CofCSpec_Col and on Instagram at cofcspeccoll!

Share Your Thoughts with the Archives in Context Podcast!

Archives in Context wants to hear from you! In this special episode focused on archivists and archival work during COVID-19, we want to encourage you to share advice and reflections with archivists during this difficult time. Do you have advice for finding joy or practicing self-care? What are you thankful for? You can respond to any of the following prompts:

  • What have you done to practice self-care this year?
  • How have you found joy in 2020?
  • In this difficult time, what advice do you have for your fellow archivists?
  • What are you thankful for this year?

How to contribute:

Option 1: Leave us a voicemail

Dial 206-395-4635. Your call will go straight to the Archives in Context voicemail. After the beep, respond to any of the prompts listed above. Your voicemail can last up to 3 minutes only.

Option 2: Email us

Email podcast@archivists.org with your response to any or all of the prompts. You may choose to respond in written form or you can record your voice and send it to us as an attachment. Please keep your responses brief so that we can include as many as possible in the episode.

Submissions will be open November 9-30, 2020.

Responses received may be edited for length and clarity. Not all responses received will be included in the episode. By submitting an email or voicemail, you are consenting for your words and/or voice to be included in a future episode of Archives in Context. Individual names of contributors will not be included in the episode.

Archival Innovators: Bridgett Kathryn Pride, the Reference Librarian of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division and Art and Artifacts Division within the New York Public Library.

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.

Bridgett Kathryn Pride, the Reference Librarian of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division and Art and Artifacts Division within the New York Public Library.

In this installation of Archival Innovators, SAA Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) member Rachael Woody interviews Bridgett Kathryn Pride, Reference Librarian of the Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division and the Art and Artifacts Division of the Schomburg Center for Research inBlack Culture, one of four research libraries within the New York Public Library system.

Bridgett is a part of the inaugural class of fellows Rare Book School for Cultural Heritage, focusing on Black collections and zine making. Bridgett received her MLIS, and a MA in History from Simmons University in 2018. She was a part of the Diversity, Equity, Race, Accessibility, and Identity in LIS (DERAIL) forum, and served as the 2018 project manager. Bridgett was awarded the 2018 Kenneth Shaffer Outstanding Student Award for student leadership. She studies American women and their intersectional identities with gender, race, and class in the 19th and 20th centuries.

RW: How did you get into archives, or why archives?

BKP: Actually Rachael, you inspired me quite a bit. I am not sure that I would have taken the path into library science, and then archives without your suggestion when I was in undergrad. Once you recommend I look into the field, everything just sort of fell into place. While I was earning my BA in Literature I was working in the university library and bookstore and loved it. I remember being really interested in learning about book preservation, especially from an “arts and crafts” perspective. I was romanced by the idea that rare books, and historical documents needed specific kinds of care to last in perpetuity, and had to know more.

After finishing my Literature degree I took some time off, then went back to school to earn a BA in History, my other love. Once I finished there, I went straight into library school for a double masters in LIS/Archives, and History. I was thankful to find a program at Simmons University that provided a pathway to complete both degrees together. It was in studying history that I realized people sharing my identity were hard to come by. I had to work extra hard to learn about queer Black women, and decided that the only way to make sure this problem is addressed is by doing the work myself. I began focusing my historical study in grad school on Black women artists and activists.

RW: How did you get your gig at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture?

BKP: The same way as anyone else! I applied when I found the job posting. I knew that this was my dream job! I get to help researchers navigate collections created by Black folks, and I get to work with art and other historical artifacts. I remember being brought to tears during the end of my interview when Tammi Lawson, the curator of the Art and Artifacts Division said her favorite part of working at the Schomburg was that you get to celebrate being Black every day. In our field, that is dominated by white supremacy, hearing that was like being given breath after being on the brink of drowning. 

RW: Please describe the work you do there.

BKP: As the reference librarian, I meet with researchers to discuss their projects, teach instruction sessions for visiting groups and classes, build research guides on specific topics, and manage the public services workflow for my divisions; including scheduling research appointments and monitoring the reading room.

RW: Please describe the collections or one of your favorite collections.

BKP: Our collections are created by and about people of African descent. The collection was first imagined by Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a Puerto Rican born Black man who was told by one of his teachers that Black people did not have their own history, and did not create anything worthy of study. He then spent his life collecting “Vindicating Evidences” of the intelligence, creativity, and genius of Black people around the globe. 

I have SO MANY favorite collections, from the Black Panther Party Harlem Branch Files, to the Storme Delarverie Papers, to two short letters written by Nella Larsen discussing the “small get together”  she would throw before the Cullen-DuBois wedding (that ultimately none of her guests would attend). One thing that I love about our collections is how much they feed into one another. For example, we have both Lorraine Hansberry and Langston Hughes’ papers. Each collection includes a folder of correspondence that was written to the other. You can almost read them side-by-side to see their beautiful friendship. One of my favorite items is a play bill that Langston sent Lorraine from when he went to see A Raisin in the Sun, the title of which is from Langston’s poem “Harlem”. On the cover, he wrote that he saw the play and watched the entire audience “cry all around” him because it was so beautiful.

RW: You were selected as a Rare Books School Mellon Cultural Heritage Fellow. Can you tell us more about that, the process you went through to become a fellow, and the work you’ll be doing as a fellow?

BKP: I am a part of the inaugural class of 15 fellows who work in multicultural collections in the US. I found out about the fellowship because the curator of the Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division Is a Rare Book School instructor. She had sent out the announcement that this fellowship had just been funded and if we were interested, we should apply. Because of my interest in Black zines, and how they have been used by the community to spread information, I was eager to apply. There was an application with several essays about why I was applying and how I intend to share what I learn in our field, then a few interviews. The object of the fellowship is for us to develop skills for documenting and interpreting visual and textural materials in special collections and archives, to raise awareness within professional communities about the significance of inclusive, multicultural collections, build connection with diverse communities and public through strategic programing, outreach and advocacy, and advance our careers by establishing new pathways and skills for personal growth. Since the Corona Virus hit, all of our in person classes, conferences, and meetings have been postponed, however we have been meeting monthly for guest speakers, and to discuss articles. Rare Book School has also been hosting other open events that many of the fellows have attended. 

Bridget Kathryn Pride pictured holding a pamphlet she created, entitled Reading & Creating Zines.

RW: You recently created Exploring Black LGBTQ Studies in the Schomburg Center’s Archive, a libguide. Can you please describe your work on this project? Where did the idea to create the libguide come from? What inspired it?

BKP: One of my main jobs as a reference librarian is to teach people how to navigate the collections at the Schomburg. One popular theme I address in both instruction sessions and research consultations is how to identify collections created by queer Black folks. Because I am a part of this community, I was more than thrilled to build a guide to help researchers access these collections. The year I started at the Schomburg Center, NYPL was celebrating Stone Wall 50, the 50th anniversary of the StoneWall Riots. They had received some grant money to process collections by and about queer folks, and made a big push to provide access to LGBT+ collection materials. However, I found that it was hard to locate Black people in these collections. Furthermore, it was really hard to locate Black women. My goal then became to highlight the collections at the Schomburg Center to address the violence done by excluding Black voices.

RW: What barriers or challenges did/do you face?

BKP: At first I thought I was wrong! I kept thinking that there was no way that they would have forgotten to include Black people. I kept thinking, maybe I just am bad at searching. But then realized that I was not the problem, the folks making the decisions on what archival materials to collect didn’t think outside of their own identities. Then, I also discovered that while there were collections that specifically discussed LGBT+ or queer studies, there were lots of collections at the Schomburg Center that were created by queer folks that could not be located using search terms dealing with queerness. For example, you will not find James Baldwin’s papers when searching “Black Gay Authors”, only “Black Authors.” I discovered that even at the Schomburg, parts of people’s identities had been erased.

I was also disappointed to learn about the general lack of collecting that focused on all members of the LGBTQ+ community. Specifically, trans folks are not represented, asexual folks, are missing, and so many others are not represented. Over all, while previous work to document LGBTQ+ stories were focused largely on cis gay White men, the Schomburg also appears to have a bias for cis gay Black men.

RW: What worked? What didn’t work? Were there any surprises in the process of developing your work, or lessons learned that you can share with us?

BKP: I struggled with how to explain the issue that some well known queer folks would not be findable using the guide. (See James Bladwin example). After many revisions, I settled on just being explicit about what the “Queer Studies” subject heading meant, rather than explaining what it excluded. The other part I was surprised by was that non-Schomburg NYPL folks had lots of thoughts and feeling about using the word “queer”, which I heavily identify with. At the end of the day, I ended up changing the guide title, removing the word “queer” in most instances, and focusing on the fact that no mater if the word is queer, or LGBT+, this guide focusing on Black queer folks was now Out in the world.

RW: Where would you like to see the work continue?

BKP: I would like to see a review of our subject headings used on collections that have not been identified as “Queer studies”. Labeling someone as a “Gay Black Author” is important and valuable for a lot of our researchers.

RW: What tips do you have for budding innovators?

BKP: Find what you are passionate about and go from there! Our field is in a transition period. We need to be thinking outside of the box to share our collections in creative ways so that people can continue to see their value. Right now I am doing that with research guides and zines. I am sure there are many other ways to engage with users based on other interests.

A group of children from Beginning with Children Charter School in New York City pose at the Schomburg Center. These children worked with Bridgett to create a zine discussing the book One Crazy Summer and what they learned about the Black Panther Party during Bridgett’s class.

These are sample zine pages from a two volume series created by the students from Beginning with Children Charter School. You can view, download, and print zine volumes 1 & 2 here and here. These are designed to be printed double-sided, flip along the short edge.

RW: In your own words, how would you describe the importance of archival records?

BKP: Archives show us the important journeys of people living their lives. Through archives we see a snapshot of time and place in the materials that were kept. It is a unique experience for every person based upon what they valued. Archival records are as diverse as the people in the world. It is our job to make sure that we are allowing these stories to be available for future generations, and that this diversity is captured.

RW: What is your favorite part of the job?

BKP: I love teaching! I recently started leading zine workshops at the Schomburg to connect young users with the concept of the archive. It brings my heart so much joy to see the faces of Black and Brown learners see themselves reflected in history, not as enslaved people, but as innovators, creators, and activists. That is priceless!

RW: What’s next for you?

BKP: Lots of things! I am about to publish a new research guide on the history of Black protest as it is documented at the Schomburg. [The guide was published on September 21, 2020–after this interview–and is linked here.] I am working with my team on reopening plans, and learning the best ways to teach instruction sessions online. I am working on a few blog posts for NYPL, so I can start completing my own research again, and I am hoping to collaborate with my colleagues on a few other new projects. The wish list of projects and programs is never ending. I need more hours in the week to do everything I am interested in.

RW: How can people connect with you to learn more about your work?

BKP: Folks can find me on Linkedin, Instagram, and Twitter!


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

“A Finding Aid to My Soul” A Storytelling Event Celebrating Archivists on October 1.

Pitch Your Story - COPA (1)

Archives Month Kickoff

Join SAA in celebrating the diversity and commonality of the archivist experience! Five storytellers—Kathy Marquis, Jessica Newell, Micaela Terronez, Melissa Barker, and Ethel Hazard—will share true stories about their unique, moving, serendipitous, mysterious, and often humorous encounters in the archives. This free event, sponsored by the Committee on Public Awareness, will be hosted by two-time Moth GrandSLAM winner (and former Moth director of education) Micaela Blei.

Time: Oct 1, 2020 07:00 PM CT

Register at https://zoom.us/meeting/register/tJMqcO2qqTgsE9OW0hRGHT34jFa-iXcEIEFW

If you were at either the 2018 or 2019 editions of A Finding Aid to My Soul, you know what incredible storytellers your archivist colleagues can be. If you weren’t able to attend either of those events and want a preview of what to expect, here’s a story by Joyce Lee Ann Joseph from the 2019 edition of A Finding Aid to My Soul.


Want to hear more archivist stories? Selections from past Finding Aid to My Soul events can be found on the Archives in Context podcast.

Responses & Retrospectives: Cecelia “Cece” Otto on Reimagining Living History Performances in the COVID-era

CeceOttoSuffrageChair01_hr-819x1024This 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!

In this installation of Responses & Retrospectives (COPA) member Rachael Woody of Rachael Cristine Consulting LLC interviews Cecelia “Cece” Otto, a classically trained singer, composer, international best-selling author and historian who has performed in venues all over the world both as a soloist and in ensemble. In 2013, she completed her cross-country musical journey An American Songline, performing 30 concerts of historic vintage music on venues along the Lincoln Highway. Cece then went on to create other historical programs such as The Songs of World War I, and is currently performing a program about the women’s suffrage movement and developing a concert program about Prohibition. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and has written books and recorded albums based on her research.

When we last heard from Cece Otto she was about to embark on a year-long tour of her women’s suffrage movement program and provided an interview for our Archives + Audiences series. Then COVID-19 hit, cancelling many of her performances that had been months–if not years–in the making. Over the last six months, Cece has reimagined her living history program and agreed to share with us her ideas, tips, and lessons-learned so that all archives, museums, and cultural heritage organizations can find the inspiration and know-how to pivot their own programming.

RW: How has your work shifted with the COVID-19 cancellation of events?

CO: It has shifted in a dramatic way. Prior to COVID-19, all of my appearances and concerts were in-person and 95% of my merchandise was bought at these events. When everything shifted in mid-March and events nationwide started to be cancelled or postponed, I had to hit pause and really think about how I could and should connect with audiences and venues. I wanted to continue to provide something of quality, but I had to think if my type of historic performing would translate well virtually. I pride myself on giving everyone an authentic experience, and performing virtually felt inauthentic in those early stages of quarantine. 

My calendar was booked solid and I had dates and speaking engagements all over the US. Everyone wanted to hear the Women’s Suffrage program, and I was on track to have my most profitable year in seven years. (I know things were similar financially for many sites and institutions too.) Each organization responded differently — some cancelled my shows right away, some waited until the last minute. Each state had their own COVID policies and I was trying to stay on top of it all. Some concerts in the last half of March were rescheduled to August to commemorate the ratification of the 19th amendment, but even then most of those events were postponed yet again because of various factors.  

That being said, there were some bright moments in all of this. I did my very first livestream performance with an organization that had booked me in 2018 because they had the funds and flexibility to make it happen. They were willing to pivot to keep their patrons engaged. When some venues mentioned above rebooked me, they told me I was the first person they thought of. Some places even noted that people had contacted them asking when I was going to be rescheduled. Because it’s an election year, people so badly want hear the songs and stories of the women who fought for the right to vote for over 70 years. 

RW: [Oh yes!] You recently performed live via YouTube premiere. What was that like?

CO: I have to admit, I was nervous about performing via a YouTube livestream. I didn’t know what to expect. Would people turn up? Would people comment on the songs and/or watch the whole concert? There were so many unknowns. But that being said, it was a fun experience. People did turn up! I had people from 15 states in all US time zones as well as people in Canada and Australia tune in to watch, which to this day still blows me away. All in all, I was able to reach regular fans and new fans who had never heard me before.

It was a little weird to not see people. I had to imagine applause at the end of each song, and I ended up saying “thank you” after every song, just like it was in a real show. The chat on YouTube was pretty active, but I couldn’t see it because I was on camera the entire time. Luckily, I had two people moderating comments, so when we did the Q&A at the end of the program the questions were all ready to go. 

That being said, it is a much more intense experience to perform for a camera and no physical audience. People are communal by nature, and we communicate verbally and non-verbally with each other even in a concert setting. The energy in the room that performers and audience members create is unique every time, and while the songs can remain the same each show is different because of people’s reactions. When you have no one there to perform to, that energy is gone and it can be hard to figure out how to introduce songs and talk about the topic at hand. Some songs I think played better in virtual setting because I could emote more and be more passionate on stage, others felt the same virtually as they did in-person, others may be better as live songs only. Because of these shifts, I was exhausted the next day after the show. But overall I was extremely pleased with how it all turned out.

RW: What were the technical, logistical, and theatrical considerations for delivering a virtual performance?

CO: Anyone can go live and be virtual these days, and I didn’t want this to be every single thing that’s appeared since we all went into lockdown in March. I had pressure from fans and organizations to “just get something up there”; many famous musicians were giving free concerts in their living rooms and they felt I can and should just do it like these top musicians did. While I appreciate that they put me in the same category, I financially am not in the same place as an independent musician and historian. The piano player has to get paid too, right? And taking virtual tip jar donations wasn’t going to cut it. This is music from a century ago, and I wanted to give it the proper treatment it deserves. 

My first obstacle was location, and it’s a big one. Theatrically, I had to think about what suited the music best. I live in a home that’s not a vintage home, and my pianist here in the Pacific Northwest has a period home, but a bad wifi connection for streaming a concert. The summer had vintage locations still very much in lockdown here in Oregon, and knowing I had to find a venue for the YouTube concert mentioned above, I put out a call to several places. One venue that I’d performed at a few times before immediately said “yes”, knowing that there would be less than five people in the building when the concert was happening so they would stay within COVID guidelines. They had a lovely parlor in the building that dated to the 1920s, the piano was in decent shape, and the wifi was excellent, so I knew that this space would be perfect. I will say that when thinking about filming, take into consideration the weather, lighting, and if the building has air-conditioning. When I did the test run it was earlier in the day and it was nice and cool outside. The day of the concert, it was 87 degrees outside, the parlor faced west and had no air-conditioning, so by the time the evening concert happened, it was warm and we had no fans to cool things down. It all turned out fine, but you want to be as comfortable as possible when you film.  

Next up was the additional equipment and software I needed to be able to stream properly. I had decided to use YouTube because its sound was better than most platforms, and all people needed was a link — no one had to download anything or needed a password to get in. I purchased one of those ring lights you’re seeing everywhere these days that had the capability to attach a webcam, and I used a USB microphone sat on the floor in front of me off camera. Everything hooked into my laptop and was streamed through YouTube and OBS, which is a free software that people can use for video broadcasting and live-streaming. Last but not least, we brought cleaning products so we could clean all of the surfaces before we left for the night. All in all, we found quality equipment that was less than $150, so any person or organization can and should invest a little if you’re thinking of doing more online content. It will make all the difference in the long run. 

RW: What challenges and opportunities do you see for performing virtually?

CO: The biggest challenge as a performer is that people will forgive bad video, but they NEVER forgive bad audio. If you have distorted audio or silence they will stop listening and watching almost immediately. My mouth didn’t match what I was singing sometimes and it’s a known YouTube issue, but people forgave it because the audio was crystal clear during the entire livestream. As a performer there were three things I had to keep in mind: 1) I had to find a platform that is inexpensive and easy for me to use 2) People know how to find and easily use the platform and last but not least, 3) It again has excellent audio quality. As much as Zoom and Facebook Live have their perks, the audio quality is inconsistent and the sound for music is terrible (talking is fine, music not so much). Many of these platforms are working on rolling out better audio for events in the future, but in the interim I chose YouTube because of its track record. 

Another challenge I again see is people arguing that my fees for my programs and services should be lower because I’m not traveling anywhere and not standing in front of them, which is extremely frustrating. Years of research and rehearsal need to be taken into it all, and I again think wearing period clothing is essential to the art and message of the music, which means I’m taking close to an hour to be camera-ready for a virtual performance. Add in the time and production costs for the filming and editing to create some virtual, and you can understand why rates need to stay where they are.  

But on the flip side, the opportunities to reach new audiences are and have been amazing. It would have taken months of touring to reach fifteen states and two countries, and I’m grateful that organization honored their 2-year commitment to me to make the livestream happen. I also have seen a hunger for people to learn more about me and how I do what I do, and that goes beyond just the professionals and academics in the field. While we’ve all been at home these past several months, we’ve been more curious and thinking about all the things we normally don’t think about. As a performer for many years, I didn’t think people wanted to see “what’s behind the curtain”, but what I’ve found out is that they do. Our world and society is looking back at historic events in ways they never have been before, and the public at large wants to know more. They frankly are yearning to know more. 

RW: What other opportunities do you see for innovating upon your work during this COVID-19 era?

CO: There’s more than I originally imagined! I’m so glad I hit pause and took the time to really think through what I could do and what would serve audiences and historical sites the best. I am grateful I took this time, I truly feel I’m able to provide something virtual that is a good substitute for an in-person show. There are real-time concerts and events of course, but there’s so much that can be done with repurposing what content I do have so more people have access to it. I’ve already taken the first livestream concert and given it to my Patrons on Patreon as a “thank you” for their support, and I was even able to use it to get more members (more on that later). 

I know budgets will be tight for many organizations in the next few years, so until live performances come back fully, I’ve set up three different virtual options that can give something new to members and patrons.

1) Concert only: This is an unlisted online link to one of my concerts that you could use and share with your patrons. They would have access to it for 30 days to view as many times as they like. I would absorb all production costs for this license; all you have to do is give them the link and you’re set!

2) Concert link with live Q&A at the end of the concert: You’d get the link as noted above, and then I would come on at a specific date and time of your choosing to talk with people and answer questions about the songs and my research. Q&A sessions can last anywhere from 15-45 minutes depending on how we get going!

3) Full exclusive livestream concert with Q&A: This option would be me in full costume performing the full program, with the Q&A session at the end of the program. The link would also be made available after the livestream for a set amount of time so if anyone misses it they can see it. Given people’s bandwidth these days, the concert would be 45-50 minutes long with 10-15 minutes of Q&A to keep screen fatigue to a minimum. 

RW: How can people support you and your work during this time?

CO: Until live events return, there are several ways that people can help. Booking virtual events, talks, and purchasing licenses to previous concerts are one way to support my work of course. My Patreon page is a great place for individuals and institutions to continually support what I’m doing as well, and there are various tiers. I’m building an online community there that’s not dependent on algorithms, and I talk behind the scenes about what I’m finding in my research. Patrons will get first access to music, videos, livestreams, and more. I’m even doing AMA (Ask Me Anything) chats. As more members join, I’ll be able to financially do more livestreams concerts that only they will have access to. 

I’ve also got books, concert program booklets, CDs and flash drives of music that people can buy from me directly. If people want to buy items in bulk, I offer discounts as well. Here’s a link to my Amazon Author page, and you can also find my songs distributed on iTunes, CD Baby and more. If finances are tight, something as simple as subscribing to my YouTube channel or leaving a review on Amazon or Facebook make a huge difference in my overall visibility. 

RW. When things are safe to return to in-person performance, how can people contact you about booking a show and is there anything they need to know?

CO: While the centennial of the 19th amendment occurred this year, many people have asked for this concert to be performed in 2021 and potentially beyond 2021 depending on when things get back to “normal”. And rightfully so! These songs and stories need to be heard, and as long as voting rights continue to be challenged, I welcome the opportunity to continue performing this program. 

I’m excited to report that I’ve also been researching and putting together a new program of Prohibition songs that will be ready next year! Not just the good time “fun” songs of the 1920s, but there are songs from the Temperance movement too and earlier. I’ve done programs of several important moments in American history, and I have been thinking about doing “artist in residence”-style performing where I could be in one location for a week performing a different concert every day. I love the idea of also doing talks and workshops with people in the community as well. This music is such a powerful learning tool, and I believe it’s a great way for us to open up and discuss sensitive topics. I feel the need to share that I’m very aware that venues and audiences will be different when we all come back together again, and I’m taking that into account. We’ve collectively been going through so much, and while we’ll all appreciate live entertainment more after this, I also know that we’ll all be processing this time in the months and years to come so the songs need to reflect that as well.  

I heartily recommend that if anyone is interested in working with me, they contact me sooner rather than later so they can ensure they have the date(s) they want. Once things get moving again, I have the feeling my calendar will fill up quickly! They can contact me personally at: cece@americansongline.com, via the American Songline website, or through any of the social media platforms below. 

RW: Where can people find you?

CO: There are many places they can find me online! My website is a great place to go first to learn more, and that link is www.americansongline.com. My YouTube channel is the next best stop—you’ll get to see excerpts of performances and hear testimonials from people who have attended the show. That link is: https://www.youtube.com/user/AmericanSongline. Of course, I’m on all of the major social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, and I often post fun vintage, retro photos as well as concert and travel updates. Thanks again for the opportunity to share my experiences six months on, I really appreciate it!


This post was written by Rachael Woody based on an interview conducted with Cece Otto. The opinions and assertions stated within this piece are the interviewee’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 ASHTON WINGATE, THE DIGITAL ARCHIVIST OF THE NAACP LEGAL AND EDUCATIONAL DEFENSE FUND, INC.

Ashton Wingate, Digital Archivist of the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund, Inc.

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 Rachael Woody, owner of Rachael Cristine Consulting LLC, brings you an interview with Ashton Wingate, the Digital Archivist of the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund, Inc. (LDF).

Ashton Wingate currently works for the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund, Inc. (LDF), where he preserves the organization’s 80 year history in the fight for racial justice, equality and an inclusive society. To learn more about Wingate, please visit his website.

RW: Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

AW: On the professional side… I am fairly new in my position, I joined LDF in January of 2019. Previous to becoming a Digital Archivist, I was a librarian in the D.C. Public Library system leading early literacy outreach/programming. My time at the D.C. Public Library taught me a lot and I highly encourage every information professional to work in a public library for at least a little bit of time to understand the power and responsibility of our profession. I am a board member of the National Home Library Foundation and the board treasurer for the Archives Roundtable of Metropolitan New York. Personally, I spend most of my time with my fiancé and our two dogs in our cozy Brooklyn, NY apt which has become MUCH “cozier” during quarantine. I have interests in music, sports, craft beer and cult films. In the past I’ve done radio and podcasting so I’m possibly looking to start that back up if I can find time. I have a small side hustle doing graphic design and building websites for friends and family. If you’re looking to spruce up your personal/professional brand hit me up!

RW: How did you get into archives, or why archives?

AW: After I graduated from undergrad, I spent the first nine months selling cereal for Kellogg’s. Worst job ever! Nothing wrong with Frosted Flakes but I didn’t take the job as seriously as I should have and I am definitely not a salesman. After that didn’t work out, I spent the next 8 years or so in communications for a variety of non-profits and government organizations in Washington, D.C. Eventually, I hit a wall and just wanted to do something different. I saw the advertisement for the Department of Library and Information Science at Catholic University on the train and something just told me to check it out. Looking back on it now, I think access to information is just so big for me. It is probably one of the biggest civil rights issues of our time and I just wanted to be a part of that in some way. Keeping people informed and allowing everyone an equal opportunity to understand more about the world around them is key.

Thurgood Marshall was an influential leader of the civil rights movement. He also had a profound contribution to the NAACP and his legacy lives on in the pursuit of racial justice. 
Thurgood Marshall founded LDF in 1940 and served as its first Director-Counsel. He was the architect of the legal strategy that ended the country’s official policy of segregation. Marshall was the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court on which he served as Associate Justice from 1967-1991 after he was successfully nominated by President Johnson. He retired from the bench in 1991 and passed away on January 24, 1993, in Washington DC at the age of 84. Civil rights and social change came about through meticulous and persistent litigation efforts, at the forefront of which stood Thurgood Marshall and the Legal Defense Fund. Through the courts, he ensured that Blacks enjoyed the rights and responsibilities of full citizenship. 

RW: How did you get your gig at the NAACP-LDF?

AW: Fate? I’m not really sure. I know many people can relate but it’s not easy getting a job in this field especially as a new graduate. Whether it’s the unrealistic expectations/job descriptions or the (sometimes) low pay, it’s difficult to find the right opportunity. I knew that I wanted to move to NYC so that narrowed things down, from there it was a mixture of luck and perseverance. I applied for A LOT of jobs; my heart wasn’t set on just archivist. I was on every job board, every website, contacting friends of friends… I never thought it was going to happen, especially not an opportunity like the one at LDF. I’m eternally grateful to my boss and LDF leadership for taking a chance on me and I can’t imagine working anywhere else or doing anything else with my skills and expertise.

“Our Division is committed to the principle that minority group citizens must be empowered to work for their own liberation. Our role is to heighten their consciousness of their legal rights and to assist them in developing strategies to make bureaucracies accountable,” Jean Fairfax stated in a 1972 report to funders. The NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund’s (LDF) Division of Legal Information and Community Service was created in 1965 by Fairfax, who served as the Division’s director until her retirement in 1984.

RW: Please tell us about your work at NAACP-LDF.

AW: The way that I have come to describe our work is that we add historical context to the ongoing conversation about race and its relationship to justice, politics and society. We are tasked with preserving the 80-year history of the country’s most prestigious legal organization fighting for racial justice. From Brown vs. Board of Education to representing Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, to the current moment we’re facing as a country… it is a daunting task. We are a team of three serving an organization of almost 200 people. We answer reference questions, maintain collections of physical and digital legal and social science research resources, manage records retention and physical box storage as well as work strategically to ensure that each and every legal, policy, educational and community organizing effort is informed by the organization’s rich history. We are a unique archive but we are tackling some of the same problems as others including document management, data governance, training staff and getting buy-in on archival best practices/priorities and of course dealing with budgets and constantly presenting the value proposition for how archives fits within the organization’s mission and vision.

Right now, we’re in the midst of what we’re referring to as an “archives modernization”. With incredible support from LDF leadership and from generous donors, we’ve undergone an evaluation of our current archival structure, policies and procedures which has given us a roadmap going forward on where to invest our time and funding. We plan to update our workflows and processes, strengthen our technological infrastructure, procure new software for e-discovery and box management as well as identifying high priority physical and digital processing projects and work towards sharing our collections publicly through an online research portal containing information about LDF’s 6,000+ cases from 1940-present day. As a law firm, we have yet to open our collections up to the general public due to concerns over privileged and sensitive legal information.

The School Desegregation Task Force was a core program of the Division in the mid-1960s, with Fairfax serving as the project administrator. In a 1967 memo to funders, LDF Director-Counsel Jack Greenberg explained the aims and impact of the task force: “The opportunity for equal education for Negro children was finally at hand, but the problems incident to its realization were overwhelming. The Legal Defense Fund joined with the American Friends Service Committee to create a School Desegregation Task Force which operated in hundreds of local communities, especially in rural areas, in nine southern states.

RW: Please describe the collections or one of your favorite collections.

AW: The core of our collection is pleadings, research, and correspondence related to thousands of cases LDF has litigated. Our holdings also include photographs, videos, policy files, publications, fundraising materials, administrative records, and documentation of LDF’s sustained efforts in community organizing and social science research. We have over 250 boxes of physical material at the Library of Congress and over 10,000 boxes in storage between our New York and DC locations in addition to an ever-increasing amount of digital records.

LDF’s second Director-Counsel Jack Greenberg describes LDF’s ability as an organization to “bridge the gap” among the laws that govern our society, the enforcement of these laws, and the everyday people who are impacted by these laws and practices. He highlights LDF’s focus on not only setting legal precedent, but creating substantive social impact to improve the lives of African Americans.

RW: What are some challenges unique to the collections?

AW: One of the biggest challenges is the fact that we cannot share the information publicly with any level of ease. The majority of our collections is case material and cannot be released publicly without thorough review for privileged and sensitive information. Another challenge is just our relative youth as an archival institution. The archives at LDF was created in 2014/2015 and the majority of our collections have not been processed or digitized. It makes it difficult to fully gain an appreciation or understanding of LDF’s work and impact over the past 80 years. We are steadfast in our mission to work through the backlog of physical material and we’ve highlighted important cases and collections that we will be processing for the next three years. Because we are essentially a non-profit law firm and our retention and document management hasn’t been as strong as it is now, there is a lot of LDF material outside of the archives at other universities, repositories and still hiding in people’s basements! In the past, members of our litigation staff have been transitory, and they’ve taken their papers with them. A long-term goal for us is to track down these collections, take note of where they are and make efforts to accession them into our collections if the current steward cannot or no longer wishes to preserve them.


Phyllis McClure, author of An Even Chance,  introduces the research as having a “familiar theme:” the misuse of Federal education money intended to benefit poor and minority children. According to a 1971 LDF annual report, “the impact of this report on Governmental agencies responsible for the education of Indian children has been stunning. The facts revealed in the study present a shocking record of disregard of the rights of Indians guaranteed them by treaties, laws passed by Congress, and laws of individual states. The report opens the way, based on facts, for action to correct wrongs inflicted upon Indian children and their parents.”

RW: What’s your favorite part of the job?

AW: My favorite part of the job is just knowing the importance of my work to the organization’s larger mission and the way in which we are all working together at LDF to meet this moment in time that is so important for civil rights and racial justice.

RW: What advice to you have for aspiring archivists?

  1. Believe in yourself! Shake the imposters syndrome as best you can.
  2. Advocate for what you need to do your job well.
  3. Join a board or professional network to continue to make connections and see different aspects of our field.
  4. Do whatever it takes to get the job done. Specialization is nice and important in some ways but to me there’s no difference between an archivist, a digital archivist, a librarian or a records manager… everyone on our team is doing all of that because that’s what the job calls for.
  5. Be visible in your organization. As a department, don’t hide in the archives, get out there and offer your services wherever there is opportunity for collaborative work. Share your successes. As an individual, just try to be seen. I always try to find some way to be helpful to leadership so they know they can depend on me. I also try to be vocal during meetings so that people know I’m there.

RW: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

It is our organization’s 80th Anniversary, keep your eyes out for the launch of our timeline covering 80 years of groundbreaking legal milestones in the fight for civil rights. It was a heavy lift for our department digging up archival information on over 100 cases as well as biographies on important figures and finding ways to relate the historic moments to the work we’re doing today. It’s something we’re proud of and it is coming soon! Check this link for more information: https://80th.naacpldf.org/

It’s not The Distance, “It’s the Niggers.” Comments on the Controversy Over School Busing, May 1972, attempted to “bring facts and reason to bear on the current hysterical and politicized discussion about busing,” said Fairfax. The report found that “busing for integration…has not required a major reallocation of scarce funds and has usually been accepted once plans have been implemented.”

Also, I want to put in another plug for the Archives Roundtable of New York. It is an awesome organization; membership is super affordable, and we do our best to make sure we’re contributing to the archivist community in a real way. We’ve just launched a mentorship program and a skill-share and we have office hours every other Tuesday where members can call in and talk about whatever is going on professionally. We also have an open call for submissions to our quarterly publication the Metropolitan Archivist and a call for proposals for a virtual symposium that we’re holding as part of our Archives Week event this fall. More information can be found at www.nycarchivists.org.


While the LDF collections are closed, the archives does accept external inquires on a case by case basis. You can email your request to this address: archives@naacpldf.org.

Archival Innovators: Miyamoto Loretta Jensen, “The Polynesian Genealogist,” and Pacific Islands Records and Oral Genealogies Analyst of FamilySearch.

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.

In this installation of Archival Innovators, SAA Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) member Rachael Woody of Rachael Cristine Consulting LLC interviews Miyamoto Loretta Jensen, “The Polynesian Genealogist,” and Pacific Inslands Records and Oral Genealogies Analyst of FamilySearch. Jensen is a professional genealogist specializing in Polynesian and Oceania genealogy. She works as a Pacific Islands Records and Oral Genealogies Analyst at FamilySearch. Her ancestry includes Samoan, Tongan, Hawaiian, Japanese, German, French, and English.

Miyamoto Loretta Jensen, also known as “The Polynesian Genealogist”.

RW: Please describe the work you do as the Polynesian Genealogist.

MLJ: My work as the Polynesian Genealogist consists of connecting individuals and families to their Oceania ancestors. My social media platform is used to share Oceania history, culture, and research methodology. I do this work because I enjoy teaching and assisting people in finding their ancestors. Along with social media, I do contract research work for clients.

RW: Where did the idea to be involved in Polynesian genealogy come from? What inspired it?

MLJ: I knew that I wanted to get involved with Polynesian genealogy when I tried to research my own family. With my rich Polynesian heritage, there was a lot of frustration and confusion as I tried to find my ancestors. I had no professional Polynesian genealogist in the field to turn to for help. Realizing this, I knew that this was my opportunity to really make a difference for my people. I am inspired everyday as I receive DMs from people all over the world saying that what I do has given them hope in their genealogy journeys. My son is also a major part of my inspiration because I want him to have a strong sense of his identity. What better way to achieve this than by knowing his family history?

RW: How does your work with oceanic records differ (or not?) from records found in the US, Western Europe, etc.? What are some challenges unique to the collections?

MLJ: The two most notable differences between Eurocentric and Oceania research are the cultural approaches to genealogy and the historical method of record keeping. Genealogies served as functions in Oceania societies. One’s ancestry determined the following:

  • Territorial organization
  • Land ownership
  • Inheritance
  • Marriage regulation
  • Social control
  • Political representation
  • Feud support
  • Ritual Observance

This is why genealogies were, and still are, viewed as sacred. They are heavily guarded and protected from anyone who may want to take advantage of ancestral lines for personal gain.

In Eurocentric cultures, facts and stories were mainly kept on paper. Oceania practiced and preserved their culture, heritage, and histories through the spoken word. Because of this, oral genealogies were passed down generation after generation until the arrival of foreigners to their homelands. This is when paper was introduced. Overtime, paper replaced oral traditions because of colonization. Now, oral genealogies are either completely lost or are generally not practiced as much in Oceania today.

RW: How does your work with Polynesian genealogy intersect with your work on ancestral trauma?

MLJ: My work has everything to do with ancestral trauma. Oceanians today are living and experiencing the effects of generational trauma. The very introduction of foreigners to Oceania brought forth diseases which destroyed much of the indigenous populations across the Pacific. Some peoples were completely eradicated because of it. Other cultures were forced to end their cultural practices; some were kidnapped and put into slavery in a foreign land; kingdoms were illegally overthrown; and now, the descendants of the trauma survivors are living with and feeling the heartache and pain experienced by their ancestors. This trauma, if left unchecked and unhealed, is passed down generation after generation. Family history is the means of identifying, addressing, and healing ours and our ancestors’ trauma.

RW: Can you tell us more about your work with ancestral trauma as a genealogist?

MLJ: I come across all kinds of families in my research. Some have many children, others don’t. Some have famous family members; others have common folk. No matter the background, I find traumatic experiences in every family. For me, it can be emotionally taxing to see and constantly be exposed to the horrific experiences of an ancestor – be it my own ancestors or another’s. Practicing my own self-care gives me strength to bare and endure my own emotional response to ancestral trauma. Ultimately, I feel like this work has transformed me into a better wife, mother, sister, daughter, and friend.

RW: What barriers or challenges did/do you face?

MLJ: I think my biggest challenge is being a pioneer in this work. I only know of one other professional genealogist that is specialized in Hawaiian genealogy. I am working towards being a genealogy professional in every Oceania culture. I often feel lonely in my pursuits, but I know that I am never truly alone. I have so many people – both living and dead – coaching, cheering, and encouraging me on!

RW: What worked? What didn’t work? Were there any surprises in the process of developing your work, or lessons learned that you can share with us?

MLJ: What has brought me great success in this work is my understanding of Oceania culture. For example, I recently learned how my Oceania ancestors reckoned with time and space. Out here in the West, we believe that the future is in front and the past is behind. This was the opposite for my ancestors – the past is in front of us and the future is behind. Because the past has already happened, we can see it clearly and therefore, it must be in front of us. This is the past. If we cannot see something, then it must be behind us. This is the future. As we navigate through our lives, our ancestors are in front of us to prepare us for what we cannot see – the future. In the present, we are the embodiment of all of our ancestors in a living, breathing body. My ancestors had their hearts turned to their ancestors since the day the were born. This mentality changed the way I viewed myself and my own family. It also allowed me the ability to see how my ancestors saw the circle of life. I now know they are there guiding me every single day and it is my job to study their histories and to learn their lessons in preparation for my future life.

RW: In your own words, how would you describe the importance of archival records?

MLJ: Archival records either oral or written are shreds of evidence that we existed. It is our job to leave bits and pieces of us behind so that our posterity can hear us as we guide them through our pasts to prepare them for their futures.

Miya as an intern at the Hawaii State Archives. Summer 2017.

RW: What is your favorite part of the job?

MLJ: I love the “high” I get when I find records, stories, facts, and when I break through brick walls. It is extremely satisfying. I could chase this gratification all day and all night!

More than my personal gain, I love being able to connect the dots in family trees for those who could not do it for themselves. I feel honored and privileged to be given the trust and responsibility find families.

RW: What tips do you have for budding innovators?

MLJ: I would say to any budding innovators, find your niche and RUN WITH IT! It doesn’t matter if there are others who have done what you want to do or if there is no one (like me) who has done what you want to do. Just do it! You can do it! If you are willing to pay the price, YOU CAN DO IT.

I am 1000% dedicated to this work. I eat, think, breathe, sleep, dream, walk the walk, and talk the talk when it comes to Polynesian and Oceania genealogy. It is all I do and want to do. I am constantly reading and researching credible sources, consistently networking with other professionals, pursuing more and more education, writing articles, teaching classes once a week on my Instagram Lives on various Polynesian genealogy topics, investing in myself by attending classes, conferences, workshops, etc. You name it! I am putting in the work to learn more and do better 24/7.

RW: What’s next for you?

MLJ: My next thing step is to become a certified genealogist. That’s in the works. I am almost ready to submit my portfolio for review!

In the next two years, I plan on attending law school. I did not expect to be doing this at all, but after many promptings, I feel that this is the next best thing to do.

I want to also learn more about genetic genealogy. I recently binge watched Cece Moore’s show “The Genetic Detective” and it has inspired me to want to do what she does! I want to gain experience in unknown parentage and genetic genealogy research like Cece, but for all Oceanian people. And the terrible stories of many murdered and missing indigenous women in the United States has strengthened my resolve to not just learn, but become a master at genetic genealogy. I want to help those women and their families.

RW: How can people connect with you to learn more about your work?

MLJ: Y’all can find me at the following places:

When Miya isn’t researching, she is wishing she could be back home in Hawaii surfing the waves with her family!

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

THERE’S AN ARCHIVIST FOR THAT! INTERVIEW WITH ANNETTE LA RUE FROM ELECTROMAGNETIC TATTOO AND ADAM JEFFERY FROM THE BALTIMORE TATTOO MUSEUM BY ALLISON TERMINE

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. Allison Termine, brings you an interview with Adam Jeffery, the Tattooer, Collector of The Baltimore Tattoo Museum (est. 1999) and Annette La Rue, Tattooer, Collector from Electromagnetic Tattoo in Chesapeake, Virginia.

Interviewer: Allison Termine, I’m a trained Librarian, Archivist and Collections Manager, learning Taxonomy and Ontology. Capturing the essence of nostalgia in my life has always led me to activities, professional and personal, where I had the opportunity to observe, record, preserve, display, learn and organize primary and secondary material of history.

Image by Annette La Rue of Paul Rogers.

INTRODUCTION

The pioneering style in the trade of tattooing is called Americana. Knowledge of this trade was passed down orally by August “Cap” Coleman, 1884-1973 and Franklin Paul Rogers, 1905-1990, the for-father’s, what remains is tattoo ephemera and an oral tradition that lives on today through those they taught. Important historical artifacts of modern electric tattooing exist in various collections who are archivists in their own right. It is a treat to interview two artists and collectors of the Tattoo Trade to learn of a niche subculture through its remnants / ephemera. Just like other collected historical archives, provenance of the Tattoo Trade is based on oral dissemination and the now primary objects that were used to apply the final product were secondary to them and therefore have become a nostalgic link to the past. Such object items are; the tattoo machines, drawings on fragile tracing paper, business cards, pictures, adapted furniture for the tattoo sitting, banners, and flash to name a few. These accidental archivists, interviewed are artists and collectors and are what I consider boots on the ground archivists. A term that describes the importance of gathering material in the present time, which they have done throughout their career in the Tattoo Trade.

*To discover an in depth history of the origins of Americana Tattooing visit:
http://www.tattooarchive.com/index.php and
https://selvedgeyard.com/2009/07/21/forefathers-of-american-tattooing/.

Image by Annette La Rue. Pictured is a Paul Rogers original tracing paper flash from “Sailor Eddies” Shop in Camden, New Jersey 1971. With additional acetate stencil rubbing of a “Cap” Colemans’ drawing reworked by Sailor Jerry.

Our first interview is with Annette La Rue of Electromagnetic Tattoo, Chesapeake Virginia. Find her shop owned by her and her husband Steve Tiberi, also a tattooer and collector on Instagram @electromagnetictattoo, @annettlelarulex, and @tiberitattoo.

Image by Allison Termine. Annette La Rue and I doing conservation work, on a banner made by her friend, Ernie “Ernie the hat” Gosnell, of her former tattoo shop in New Orleans, Louisiana. Electric LadyLand.

Q: As a Tattooer of 30 years can you tell me about the history of Americana Tattooing?

Americana style tattooing means a bold colorful style consisting of bold thick outlines, solid black shading and bright solid colors. Americana tattooing was popular among sailors and circuses at the turn of the century. Most tattooers traveled with the circus or went to busy Navy port towns. It was seedy and frowned upon to have ink on your skin until the late 90’s into the 2000’s.

Image by Allison Termine. The Electric LadyLand banner made by, Ernie “Ernie the hat” Gosnell, of Annette La Rue’s former tattoo shop in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Q: As a collector of your trade what drove you to save ephemera of the tattoo trade throughout your career? (Your perspective then and now).

I was fascinated with older tools and designs because they connected me to the old ways. Kind of like a bridge to the heroes of yesterday. I felt a little “magic” in those tools. It made me feel like I had a link to the past and it made me proud to have possession of the tools of the trade. Now it’s just more stuff and I’m selling and trading my collection for things I can actually use. I want the younger tattooers to have those objects so they can feel like I did. To own historical tattoo pieces is like instant “cred” for anyone who has it. If you have money, you can be a collector. When I was buying you had to track someone down, go to their shop or house and beg them to sell you things. Now it’s on ebay and craigslist, too easy to get.

Q: Can you tell me about the significance of early tattoo machines and how the knowledge of building them was passed on and evolved through the years?

At the time there was no significance to old tattoo machines; they were simply a tool to make money. Tattooers would travel and visit each other and learn different ways to build machines. Most machine builders have their own style or frame configuration. They would mail parts and write about the secret trick they had to make to make their machines better. There was a lot of friendly competition between tattooers. Some builders got famous and some were more obscure. Machines from the old times are very valuable today. When the old guys died a lot of families were embarrassed about the line of work and tons were thrown out, leaving a few for younger tattooers to scourge to find them. Good builders would invite younger ones to come build and learn. You could spend the day or a few weeks with a builder and get secrets and tips while making your machine. A smart person would go to everyone’s house they could and did blend all the knowledge and make it on his or her own. This is significant because the younger generation needed to know the tips of the trade in order to keep machines up and running and it also helped the young guys to progress using old ways.

Q: If the collected ephemera of Americana Tattooing is the result of a trade learned orally, could you tell us about how the forefathers of Americana Tattooing influenced this particular style that remains “timeless” and how it has lasting power today over all other styles of tattooing being applied to skin?

I believe Americana style remains timeless because the designs were timeless. From the 1800’s to the late 1990’s an eagle looked like an eagle. A rose was a rose. You could tell what it was in two seconds. That is what makes it timeless. Today’s tattoos are trendy and you can tell if someone got it in their 90’s or early 2000 or 2010 or 2020 because of the design. They may seem more personal now but they aren’t. People get the same bad trendy design over and over, thinking they are “custom” and they don’t realise we tattooed that same design 40 times that month. Most timeless designs can be changed with different colors or leaves or background etc. Modern designs have not much room to change, as customers want it to look the same.

Image and caption by Annette La Rue. Pictured is a “Cap” Coleman original flash with signature and date, 1948. The significance of owning this sheet of flash is that 72 years ago “Cap” Coleman was in the next town over applying these very designs. This is my favorite piece in my collection and probably priceless.

Q: What is your favorite part of knowing you are an accidental archivist?

My favorite part of knowing I’m an accidental archivist is just knowing I can make young tattooers as excited and happy as I was when I started collecting. Of course these items all increase in value every year. It is the younger Tattooers having interest in keeping this history alive that I find interesting.

Our next interview is with Adam Jeffrey of The Baltimore Tattoo Museum. You can find Adam on Instagram @adamjeffreytattooer, and @thebaltimoretattomuseum.

Q: What are the types or formats of tattoo ephemera that were saved and what makes them significant? For example; how did a single piece of torn tracing paper with a pencil drawing become deemed “to save”, or a business card from Paul Rogers.

At The Baltimore Tattoo Museum we hope to explore the history and artifacts of modern tattooing in the Americana style. When it comes to the types of ephemera we collect that makes them significant are varied. For example, from some artists the art itself was secondary to their abilities to apply tattoos or build and tune tattoo equipment. So there are varying reasons we try to collect the many things we have. Some are significant to the tattooers of our area and the designs of a given town, for example, shipping and navy type tattoos in Baltimore, as it is a major east coast port. In other cases it might be the little inventions they crafted to make their everyday tasks a little easier like, retrofitting an old dental type chair to create better access to an area of skin to be tattooed. In other cases it’s their amazing ability, these untrained artists had to create very well drawn and thought out lasting style designs that even years later folks still would like to have applied to their skin.

Image and caption by Adam Jeffrey from The Baltimore Tattoo Museum. Pictures is a rubbing of an acetate stencil made by Paul Rogers and sent in the mail to Ernie Carafa to share the design to make money. Back then, designs were common and people liked them that way. Uniformity with subtle differences to make it each artist’s own with various colors or background elements.

Q: If the collected ephemera of Americana Tattooing is the result of a trade learned orally, could you tell us about how the forefathers of Americana Tattooing influenced this particular style that remains “timeless” and how it has lasting power today over all other styles of tattooing being applied to skin?

Like us at Baltimore Tattoo and Museum and the majority of tattooers, still apply tattoos with the same electromagnet style tattoo machine they’ve always used. There are even modern makers making the same style frames that were being made in the turn of the century. As well as the same hand motions and application styles that were handed down to get the pigment under the skin, to have a good outcome to the tattoo once it’s healed. Also, the way the machinery is set up and tuned, to make precise lines and shading etc.

Image and caption by Adam Jeffery from The Baltimore Tattoo Museum. Pictured is a Joe Farrar machine built for Johnny Walker who tattooed with “Cap” Coleman of Norfolk, Virginia, and Sailor Jerry Collins in Honolulu, Hawaii. The machine is a Percy Waters model #7 from the 1940’s-1950’s era, that Farrar rebuilt to serve as a shader. Pictured in the right-hand corner is Joe’s tattooing and business card from their DC location.

Q: Can you tell us of one of your favorite collections?

I personally love our collection of Paul Rogers tattoo machines acetate stencils and flash. Most of it came from the collection of Charley and Sandy Parsons who are two of my mentors and were close friends with Paul who tattooed from the late 1920s till the late 1980s. Paul was an innovator and all around crafty artist making his own equipment, mixing his own colors and a designer of tattoos. The total package and to boot a good person as I am told.

Image and caption by Adam Jeffery from The Baltimore Tattoo Museum. Displayed are Paul Rogers machines, acetate stencils made by Paul and a photo of a tattoo he did.

Q: What are some challenges unique to the collections?

The largest challenge is that prior to the 2000s Tattoo memorabilia was just old stuff or junk so a lot of it was thrown away or lost to time as tattooing was nowhere near as common as it is currently. So honestly, there isn’t as much of it to be had as one might think as well the prior you get it thru can be hard to deal with as it has become more popular. Prices have gone up and you are getting it second and third hand now so the provenance of it isn’t easy to establish.

Q: What is your favorite part of knowing you are an accidental archivist?

My favorite part of being an accidental archivist is interacting with other collectors who have been collecting for a long time, their knowledge helps me place dates and times on artists, machines and flash that I’ve had questions about. It can be an awesome community.

PITCH YOUR STORY! Call for Stories for “A Finding Aid to My Soul” Virtual Event on October 1.

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Arielle Petrovich at 2019 Storytelling Event.

Submission deadline extended to August 31!

When did you decide that you wanted to be an archivist? What was your first encounter with a particular archives? How did you handle a challenge in your work? What is a unique, serendipitous, moving, mysterious, special, or humorous experience you’ve had as an archivist?

If you would like the chance to share your story, then pitch it to us! In 100 to 200 words, tell us about your archives story. (Please don’t give us a cliff-hanger; you should summarize the whole story.) Great pitches will let us know what happened, what changed for you (or the world!), and what was at stake.

If your story is selected, you will have an opportunity to share your 5-minute, true personal story at the 2020 A Finding Aid to My Soul. This annual storytelling event brings together archivists for an evening of stories that energize and inspire, and celebrate the diversity of the archivist experience. This year’s virtual event—on October 1, from 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm ET—will be hosted by award-winning storyteller and educator Micaela Blei (The Moth, Risk). It is sponsored by SAA’s Committee on Public Awareness and will kick-off American Archives Month. If you’re unable to join us, the program will be recorded.

We’re looking for a wide range of voices to share their experiences. Absolutely no prior storytelling or performance experience is necessary—Micaela will support and guide you as you practice your story.

You may think that your story is not “dramatic” enough. We beg to differ! We want to hear stories with high stakes as well as small, and intimate stories of the work you do and the personal ways it connects to your life. If it mattered to you, it will matter to us, too.

If you need some inspiration, here’s a story from Travis Williams that closed out the 2019 event.


Want to listen to more? Selections from past Finding Aid to My Soul events can be found on the Archives in Context podcast.

Pitches are due August 31. Selected storytellers will be notified by September 4.

Pitch it here! 

There’s an Archivist for That! Interview with Danielle Nowak, Digital Assets Librarian at the Morton Arboretum

Danielle Nowak. Image courtesy of Danielle Nowak.

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 Danielle Nowak, the Digital Assets Librarian at the Morton Arboretum in the Sterling Morton Library in Lisle, Illinois.

Danielle Nowak graduated from Purdue University Calumet with a Bachelor’s Degree in History in 2015, followed by a Master’s of Library Science Degree from Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) in 2017.

After graduating with her MLS, Danielle worked as a Reference/Instruction Librarian at Prairie State College and the University of St. Francis before landing her permanent gig at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois.

You can visit www.daniellenowakmls.org to learn more about Danielle’s past and current work and professional experience.

How did you get your gig?

I began working at The Morton Arboretum in late 2017 as the Access Services Librarian. Before earning my MLS I had interned and worked in various library settings and knew that I ultimately wanted to end up in a position where I would be working with archival collections. However, the challenging job market did not allow me to do that right away. As an undergraduate and graduate student I worked full-time as a manager at Panera Bread, while also picking up library and archival internships and jobs on top of that. Between school and working multiple jobs at the same time, I essentially worked 7 days a week for six years. Despite the trials and tribulations I went through in getting to this point, I never took my eyes off my end goal of getting a full-time archives job.

When I saw the opening for the Access Services Librarian role at The Morton Arboretum it was pretty much love at first sight. As someone that loves the outdoors, nature, history, and libraries, I was super excited to see that a position like this even existed. I applied in July-August, had my first and second interviews in September-October and then was hired in December. My original position as the Access Services Librarian had a term limit of two years. Close to the end of those two years, the Digital Assets Librarian position opened up and I applied for it and accepted the position.

Tell us about your organization.

Founded in 1922 by Joy Morton (founder of the Morton Salt Company), The Morton Arboretum is a 1,700 acre tree museum that is located in Lisle, Illinois. On these 1,700 acres are 222,000 live plants, representing nearly 4,300 taxa from around the world. The Arboretum conducts scientific research on tree and health improvement, collects and displays trees for study and enjoyment, offers educational programming for adults and children, and presents nature-related activities year round for people of all ages and interests.

The grounds are also home to a Visitor Center, Children’s Garden, Maze Garden, miles of hiking trails, a Herbarium, Plant Clinic, and the amazing Sterling Morton Library.

The Sterling Morton Library was opened in 1963 in memory of Sterling Morton, Joy Morton’s son. Interestingly, the library building itself was designed by the Chicago architect, Harry Weese, as an addition to The Arboretum’s Administration Building.

Sterling Morton Library Reading Room. Image courtesy of Danielle Nowak.

To add to the library’s uniqueness, the May T. Watts Reading Garden is attached to the library. The Reading Garden was constructed as a permanent monument to May Theilgaard Watts, a renowned American naturalist, author, poet, and educator. The Reading Garden makes for an exceptional place for quiet study or work.

May T. Watts Reading Garden, Image courtesy of Danielle Nowak

Describe your collections.

At the Sterling Morton Library we aim to collect resources that will assist our staff and members in supporting The Arboretum’s mission and work. In addition to our archival collections, we also have circulating, e-book, journal, artwork, nursery catalog, landscape plans, and rare book collections.

My work is primarily focused on our archival collections – both physical and digital.

The Library houses the institutional archives of The Morton Arboretum. These materials include documents and photographs that detail and describe The Arboretum’s development, past, and present; institutional and staff publications; photographs of plants taken on Arboretum grounds; photographs and documents pertaining to ex-situ plant collecting trips; and an assortment of other materials that help document The Arboretum’s existence and impact.

Kim Shearer, The Morton Arboretum’s Tree and Shrub Breeder, preparing to gather pollen from a Magnolia bloom. Image courtesy of The Morton Arboretum

The Library also houses and collects materials related to the Morton Family. With The Arboretum’s centennial approaching in 2022, digitizing the materials from the Collection of Morton Family Materials has become one of our priorities in the library. Right now, myself and a team of dedicated library volunteers are working to digitize and catalog our collection of Morton family correspondence, transcribe handwritten letters from said collection, and ultimately make the collection as accessible as possible.

Our fastest growing collections are our digital photograph collections, the largest being the Arboretum Image Bank, Collection of John Hagstrom Photographs, and the Living Collections Departmental Photographs. The Arboretum Image Bank is a series within The Morton Arboretum Records (our institutional collection) and contains photographs taken primarily by Arboretum staff of events at The Arboretum, work taking place at The Arboretum or off-site, and other Arboretum exhibitions and programming. We have contributors from our marketing, interpretation, and living collections departments transferring images on a regular basis.


Soil samples from around the Arboretum. Photograph by Michael Hudson, Courtesy of The Morton Arboretum

Our other two largest digital photograph collections are related to plants and trees. Our Living Collections Departmental Photographs collection contains photographs of plants and trees that have been taken by an Arboretum staff member and an Arboretum volunteer. In these photographs, the two photographers aimed to capture images of woody plants around the Arboretum and Midwest. In addition to photographing just the entire plant, they also focused on taking pictures of specific parts of the plant or tree.

A mature seed from a Ginkgo biloba. Photographed by Ed Hedorn, Courtesy of The Morton Arboretum

Our other collection of plant and tree photographs is the Collection of John Hagstrom Images. John Hagstrom is a long-time Arboretum volunteer that set out to photograph every type of plant at the Arboretum, each of its part, and in each season. While the project is still in progress, so far, John has donated over 10,000 images that we are actively incorporating into our digital collections.

A close-up view of flowers on a Viburnum farreri (fragrant viburnum). Photographed by John Hagstrom. Courtesy of The Morton Arboretum

What are some challenges unique to your collections?

I would say one of the biggest challenges that is unique to our collections is having a good grasp on plant names and naming conventions. Oftentimes, plants will have multiple common names or their name will have changed over time. Since plant photographs make up a huge part of our digital collections and we have searchers with varying plant knowledge, it is imperative that we are able to incorporate multiple names into our plant name’s keyword and also keep our naming convention consistent. Additionally, prior to being hired at the Arboretum, I did not have a strong background in botany. So, there has been a bit of a learning curve when it comes to plant names and parts, but I have thoroughly enjoyed learning about them and seeing myself become more knowledgeable on the topic. 

What is your favorite part of your job?

My favorite part of my job is the people I get to work with and assist. Because our collections encompass so many different topics (local history, botany, institutional records, etc.) I am always getting a variety of questions and tasks that keep me on my toes. I appreciate this because it helps facilitate an environment of learning that really helps me thrive.

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!