Since September 2018, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva of The Kitchen Sisters have featured archivists in their series The Keepers. In December, Committee on Public Awareness chair Caryn Radick spoke with Davia Nelson. This post shares Part 1 of that conversation, which will be published in three parts. Remarks have been edited for length and clarity from a transcript of the original telephone interview.
CR: Why did you decide to do a series featuring archivists and keepers?
DN: We had meant to do the Keepers series right after we did The Lost and Found Sound series which was at the turn of the millennium. Lost and Found Sound was about how sound shaped history, and about history shaped by sound, vanishing voices, sound on the verge of extinction, endangered sound, and rare recordings.
We did them every week for a whole year and so many of them were archivally based and we worked with so many historians and archivists and librarians. They just dug out all these rare recordings and things that only they knew about and we realized we felt that archivists and librarians were some of the unsung heroes of the country and we wanted to do the series then. We were going to call it We’ve Always Relied on the Kindness of Archivists. Then 9/11 happened and instead of going into the archivist project we did the Sonic Memorial project, which was archiving in lower Manhattan and telling those stories and involved, again, so much archival audio and rare recordings and the work of the archiving community. Then it got put aside for all those years when we did the Hidden Kitchens series and then The Hidden World of Girls, and The Making Of. . . . Then, the new president was elected and we began to see a lot of the government websites getting pulled down, especially in regards to climate change and science, and we watched the archival community spring to action and the librarians become activated, and we thought “These are the people who are committed to the truth and to history as it happened, and to facts, and to nurturing their community, and being protectors of the free flow of information and ideas,” and we said to ourselves “Remember how we were always going to do The Kindness of Archivists?” Only now the times called for a different title and it became The Keepers. It’s been long in the coming is what I would just say, and it’s a light that we wanted to be shining for over a decade.
CR: What keepers or collections have you learned about that surprised you?
DN: Well, it’s surprised us that the whole series started with The Hip-Hop Archive and Research Center at Harvard. We were just developing the series and coming up with the ideas; our little byline on it is “stories of activist archivists, rogue librarians, curators, collectors, and historians. Keepers of the culture and the culture and collections they keep,” and then “guardians of history, large and small, protectors of the free flow of information and ideas, individuals—sometimes we say eccentric individuals—who take it upon themselves to preserve some aspect of our cultural heritage.” And we were starting more in that place of thinking about all the people fighting for the constitution, the Bill of Rights, climate change, all those archival areas, but immediately people just wanted [to know about] the cultural work archived and expressed equally and all the communities whose voices hadn’t been heard. Whose work is archived, whose work is preserved, who is in those archives? And it was someone at NPR—they had just hired their first hip-hop critic there and I met him in the halls at NPR—he said, “Why don’t you think about going to the hip-hop archive at Harvard?” I’d heard about it somewhere years ago, about Dr. Marcyliena Morgan who was archiving hip-hop way back when, like a decade ago. I’d always meant to profile her for the Hidden World of Girls, but with him saying that, it moved us to Harvard because the juxtaposition of hip-hop and Harvard caught our ear. (Story: Archiving the Underground: The Hiphop Archive at Harvard)
Also at the same time we learned that Lenny Bruce’s daughter had been archiving Lenny Bruce for all these years, but in her house, and this archive was getting older and frayed and was beyond her capacity to keep in the way that it should be preserved. We stumbled onto that story that the daughter of Hugh Hefner and the daughter of Lenny Bruce were working together to preserve this archive and bring it to Brandeis University. (Story: The Lenny Bruce Collection)
For stories that just boomed out … I had read this piece in The New Yorker about Henri Langlois and the Cinémathèque Française, which was one of the earliest and most profound film archives in the world. It’s been in France since the ’30s, and he was at the center of all political controversies. They stopped the Cannes Film Festival because of him one year. He archived thousands and thousands of films across the transition from silents to talkies, and his archive became one of the centerpieces of this series and that really surprised me. And it’s still going today. [Story: Archive Fever: Henri Langlois and the Cinémathèque Française]
Probably the most startling story that we’ve been come to in this path is the Pack Horse Librarians of Eastern Kentucky, this WPA program that got women with a horse or a mule during the heart of the Depression … Their coal country was really undergoing a massive change that was industrializing in a way that was throwing a lot of people off the workforce. Eleanor Roosevelt among others had this thought to employ women if they had a horse or a mule and a pillowcase or a saddle bag, and they started getting books to Kentucky. They would ride up on these circuits through the hollers into the way-out back remote communities of Eastern Kentucky, where there was really high illiteracy, and bring books and magazines. Those women with their grit and their pillowcases and their commitment—that they were able to feed their families was so remarkable. (Story: The Pack Horse Librarians of Eastern Kentucky)
I think we found the last living pack horse librarian too, and that was probably the most moving part of the whole series so far for me. She’s well in her 90s and living in a home in Kansas.
CR: Yes, I heard that podcast and it was pretty incredible.
DN: I love that as the books and magazines fell apart they would then make scrapbooks out of them. That was really extraordinary, so enterprising, so scrappy these women, which dovetails so much for us because we’ve done a whole series called The Hidden World of Girls and the women they become, and that story could have fit in all aspects of what our work centers around—unknown histories, little-told stories, voices of people whose stories seldom make it into the mainstream media.
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