Geof Huth and Karen Trivette are the husband and wife team behind An Archivist’s Tale, a podcast featuring “archivists in conversation with archivists, discussing their work and passions and how they care for the historical record and present the storied past.” Geof and Karen have had a remarkably productive year since releasing their first episode on February 10, 2018, with 47 episodes available as of this writing and more on the way. In this post, COPA member Chris Burns flips the script and interviews the interviewers, asking Geof and Karen why and how they created this podcast and what they have learned along the way. [Full disclosure: Chris was a guest on Episode 7: There’s an Archivist for You.]
Chris Burns: Where did you get your idea and what inspired you?
Geof Huth: I had the original idea to do the podcast, which was inspired by the convergence of a few facts of my life at the time. First, my daughter (the almost famous Erin Mallory Long) has had a podcast for years, one focused on the television show Friends. Truth be told, I’ve barely listened to that show, since my interest in Friends is deep enough but not nearly as deep as my daughter’s.
For the last couple of years, I’ve had two other realities in my work life: I have spent at least 30% of my time working on my feet as my records management unit arranges and describes about 12,000 cubic feet of old court records (old meaning back to 1674), and the physical process of merely arranging such volume had left me with lots of empty air time in my head. Atop that, I accepted an additional position as Chief Law Librarian, which required me to drive three hours from Manhattan to New York’s Capital District and then back at least once a month to be with my unit based there. My life had become filled with empty air, and I always have to fill empty air, so I began to listen to podcasts (almost exclusively political ones—maybe not a good idea) to fill that space.
One day (January 10th, 2018), while listening to podcasts as I drove back to Manhattan on the New York State Thruway, I said to myself, “If Erin can do a podcast, then I can too, and I’d love to have deep talks with archivists about their work.” (Well, maybe not exactly those words.) After driving a few miles, I thought, “Wait, I’m married to an archivist! Karen and I should do this together, and an additional voice will make it more interesting.” Not to mention she has a beautiful voice. As soon as I arrived home, I began chattering to Karen about this idea, and we began to draw up a plan for the podcast.
In case it’s not clear, Karen and I are married. That helps us run the podcast because we can discuss issues as we walk places or have dinner or sit on the couch.
Karen Trivette: Geof was the chief inspiration behind my involvement in the podcast. That said, I felt I had an interesting career path or paths (academic and professional) and wanted to share them with others in the field. More so, I always enjoyed hearing how others came to the field of archives management and learning what drives them to stay engaged with and impassioned by the work. I love what I do for a living and love the fact that others do, too; the details are mesmerizing!
We struggled initially with what to entitle the program; after much give and take, we arrived at “An Archivist’s Tale,” since that’s what we wanted to elicit from the conversations. I must admit, I was influenced by the PBS television series, “A Chef’s Life” when I came up with this title; I love how Chef Vivian Howard introduces each episode and thought it would apply well to our endeavor.
Chris: How do you decide who to interview and what do you ask them?
Karen: We have two standard formal questions we ask each subject; first, we ask, “What is your archivist origin story?” Or, “How did you become an archivist in the first place?” It is truly amazing how very different everyone’s story is… I must give credit where credit is due: Bob Clark, Director of Archives at the Rockefeller Archive Center, and the first person we interviewed, proposed telling his own archivist origin story. We adopted the language immediately and it prompts nice introductory content.
Bob Clark shares his archivist origin story in Episode 2: The Document Whisperer.
From there, we usually have many other questions from the subject. Usually, the exchanges flow quite naturally and conversations develop organically as we go along. The second fixed question is posed about two-thirds to three-quarters the way through each interview, the question being, “What keeps you passionate about the work you do?” Again, the responses never cease to amaze and inform. They have actually caused me to rethink my own motivations and inspirations to do the work I do day in and day out.
Geof: Choosing who to interview is a strange balancing act having much to do with availability. We began with well known archivist friends of ours who were planning to visit New York City. Being based in Manhattan is a boon to us, since so many people come here for work and pleasure. But we are not always in New York, so when we travel—to conferences or for fun—we reach out to archivists to schedule conversations where all of us will be.
What we are really looking for is diversity—of everything: type of work, location of work, ethnicity, race, gender, anything we can think of. Yet we’ve not always been successful finding interviewees who could talk about specific topics. We’ve been turned down by the archivists in public libraries we’ve reached out to, and the one community archives we contacted did not respond to our request. We are a good venue for the voices of archivists, but we are also certainly not the big time, so we don’t always expect a yes.
Beyond diversity, we have developed some themes, areas we focus on. One has been the Archives Leadership Institute, which I attended in the first year and Karen attended this year, ten years after me. I’ve been present at ALI for most of those years and helped run it for the last six. Because of our connection to ALI, we have recorded a number of interviews with people who have attended, run, or taught at ALI, including the entire steering committee I served on.
We also look for people working on special projects or working in an interesting niche that’s not quite archives but which is archives enough for us. It’s important to note that our focus is not on famous archivists but on archivists in general. Some people think they are not important enough to interview, so we tell them why we want people to hear their voices—why we want to document all kinds of archivists and all kinds of archives and records work. Our tagline is “Giving Voice to Archivists,” and that is truly our goal. We want archivists to tell our shared and diverse story.
Chris: What are some the unexpected things you’ve discussed with your archivist guests?
Geof: Maybe the first thought that comes to mind here is how I’m surprised when archivists know something I didn’t imagine an archivist would know, such as you, Chris, knowing of my poetry writing professor Hayden Carruth. It makes sense that you did, since his papers are in your university’s collection, but it is still a surprise.
I’m amazed by what I learn about the people we talk to. Who knew Stacie Williams was a Sconny (or what a Sconny was until she told me)? Why didn’t I know that Vin Novara was formerly a professional musician, which then made sense he worked at a repository focused on music? I’m surprised by how deep conversations reveal facts about people I know well, but facts they may not have otherwise mentioned.
Stacie Williams explains what a Sconny is in Episode 22: The Patterns of History.
Sometimes, I’m startled by my own reaction to guests, such as when I went into a passionate oration about IBM’s importance to our understanding and management of knowledge because it has been willing to play the long game—having spent generations thinking about and improving information management, often in ways that have helped archives.
Jamie Martin talks with Geof and Karen about using archival objects to demonstrate IBM’s long-term commitment to developing speech recognition technology in Episode 6: If You Don’t Start Crawling, You’re Never Going to Win a Sprint.
And the podcast has changed my thinking, as the conversations have taught me more about archives. For instance, I used to be fairly rigid in my thinking about archivists doing oral histories. I wasn’t against our doing that work, because I saw the value of it; I simply didn’t see it as an archives’ function. But now I accept archivists as the initial creators of records, and I think about how other meta- or para-archival activities (as I varyingly call these) add information to our stores of knowledge, and I accept that archivists can be the best people to do this work.
Karen: The most unexpected element for me is the fact that some archivists need permission to speak to us. Some archivists could not even get their supervisors or institutions to grant permission at all, while other archivists are asked to limit what they say. I find this disappointing given archivists’ mission to make information accessible.
Chris: What’s something fun that you’ve learned?
Karen: This is a difficult question to answer! It’s like selecting your favorite child…every subject brings something amusing to the table and the fact that it is a fun field to be a member of makes our exchanges full of enjoyable experiences. I’m always entertained by folks’ academic and career trajectories and the enjoyment they relay in their stories. How people arrive at their archives destination, and where they want to go further, entertains me to no end!
Geof: Just talking to people is enjoyable. Every guest makes me laugh or think or pontificate. I tend to become excited by the intellectual work of archivists and by the ability of archives to deepen and extend human knowledge. That might not sound like fun to many, but sometimes when you hear me on the podcast you can hear that I’m at the edge of my seat with excitement. It’s the way I am. I’m filled with passion about our work, which is why we have a question about passion. For me passion is purpose—as it propels us forward even as it draws people to our work.
Elizabeth Myers talks about believing in the integrity of the work and in the integrity of the historical record in Episode 42: This Mysterious Process by Which.
Chris: What advice do you have for archivists who are considering producing a podcast?
Geof: Have a plan. We sat down and figured out what we were going to do first. We essentially worked out a business plan that didn’t consider money at all (except for initial costs) but focused on management and promotion. That gave us a foundation to build upon. We began this adventure knowing what we wanted to do.
The corollary to that is to be willing to change or abandon that plan at any time. Not everything works out, so we have had to change plans. We originally wanted to release an episode every week, but we ended up with so much content that we have been a weekly show since our second episode. Now, our guests have to wait a month or six weeks for their episode to “air.”
Karen: Know your equipment! I have a fraction of the understanding Geof has regarding our equipment and I am slowly getting more knowledgeable and comfortable with it. We keep things fairly spare and mobile as far as the equipment goes and it still pushes my comfort boundaries.
Chris: What’s next?
Karen: We are always seeking interview opportunities and we’re lucky to have so many of them. That said, we also make opportunities happen as often as possible. For example, we recently traveled internationally for the International Council on Archives section on University and Research Institutions annual conference, held in Salamanca, Spain. We decided early on to invite speakers and organizers to be interviewed. We were lucky to engage with Dr. Shelley Sweeney and Mr. William Maher. Our equipment is minimal so taking it with us, even across the ocean, is easy! Another opportunity we’ve identified is aligning interviews with professional development outlets. For example, there are a few SAA-DAS certificate training courses soon to be offered in the Austin, Texas area; I am thinking about taking these courses so we’ve considered trying to arrange to interview Dr. David Gracy while there.
Geof: We have plans. We have been trying for months to schedule a recording with two archivists we know who are married to each other. This will give us two pairs of married archivists together on the podcast (counting Karen and me as the second pair), so we’re thinking that setting up such pairings might be another theme for us. We might call these “A Couple of Couples of Archivists,” or something like that—and maybe peer a little into the workings of marriage from an archivist’s perception. And we want to record episodes in every state in the union and in more countries. We want to have reach. We want to have more reasons for people to listen to the interesting archivists we talk to.
Kerri Anne Burke talks about meeting her archivist husband, Alan Delozier, at an Irish studies conference in Episode 43: 2X2: Our Retention Period is Permanent.
We want people to listen to archivists, so we promote every episode we create. We owe that to our guests. On October 20th, 2018, we reached and exceeded 5,000 hours of listening. Certainly, that is a small number in the real world, but good enough in the archives universe.
We view ourselves as a media company (which is how we identify ourselves on Facebook), and so we try to act like a company, if a tiny one. We have stylish square business cards, and we add content besides links to episodes to our social media feeds so that people are reminded of us. We post an almost daily archives quotation. We post dispatches from archives conferences we attend. And I have started writing short essays (1,000 words or so) on archives and posting links to them on our feeds. I’d planned this writing as a personal way to think concisely and publicly about archives, and we thought it would be helpful to associate these with our podcast.