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 2 of that conversation (see Part 1 here, final Part 3 forthcoming). Remarks have been edited for length and clarity from a transcript of the original telephone interview.
CR: Could you describe the research process when you put together an episode of The Keepers?
DN: It’s epic. We try to gather … everything. We have a lot of mottos of the Kitchen Sisters. One of them is “say everything out loud”—say what you’re looking for, say what you’re working on, so we will say it to each other. There’s four of us here at the Kitchen Sisters—Nikki and myself, Nathan Dalton, and Brandi Howell—and we’re all working on these stories together, each of us taking a different aspect of it, but we’ll get one idea or one name and then we’ll just dig in. We’ll go “Okay, well, I wonder who might have archival interviews.” Let’s say the pack horse librarians—so we’ll start digging into all the universities, all the libraries, all the historical societies, anybody who’s an archivist or librarian or a keeper that might intersect with that story. You always pray that there are these oral histories done before you that you can then glean from and add to your piece, and we’re always imagining when we’re recording that the Kitchen Sisters of the future will come along and take our material and turn it into the next generation of story.
Pack Horse Librarians. Photo courtesy of University of Kentucky.
So we always are slating our interviews at the top … saying who we are about to interview, what the date is, what story it’s for. So we often have the voices of dead archivists and librarians woven into our stories because they slated those tapes for their library and we’re always hoping people will do that thinking of the future. It also makes for such more interesting stories than us setting that up in a traditional narrated way. Our stories rarely have narration, rarely have our questions in, so we’re always looking for all kinds of people to tell other people’s stories. Are any of the grandchildren alive? Are any of the children alive? Who has written articles? Who was a neighbor of a pack horse librarian? Who worked with the WPA, who was part of relief efforts in Eastern Kentucky? Who lived in that Hollow?
We just sit there and think as broadly, deeply, and widely as we can and do a huge reach. We’re in conversation probably for every story with at least 20, 30 people, maybe more, to find what we’re looking for.
CR: What kind of challenges have you faced getting material for the podcast?
DN: Sometimes, like when we wanted to get tape of Henri Langlois, the MoMA had it in New York, but I think we had to deal with an archive in Italy to get permission to get that MoMA recording. Sometimes you’re crossing institutions and cultures and [figuring out] who can actually give you the go-ahead. In a way it’s funny—when we started doing this work, all archives were basically open. Nikki and I began in the late ’70s and you could just go to the National Archives and Library of Congress and Smithsonian and basically plug into a tape recorder and make copies of all these phenomenal recordings that they have there, and all early Kitchen Sisters stories are based on these forays we did into the archives where stories were revealed to us because of what we uncovered. Now everything is so much more protected and so much less available. I worry about the privatization of history … the same way that water sources are getting privatized and people are trying to take away … I feel like so much of this is the rights of humanity to know its history, and I worry about young people, if they’re not allowed to have history. We’re trying to reach across generations to make people fascinated with cultures and histories and heritages that they might not know about. And having access to this living material is so essential for that and honors people whose stories aren’t told usually.
CR: Have your perceptions of archivists changed as a result of work on this series, and if so, how?
DN: My reverence—I would say our reverence—has just … I didn’t know that it could get higher, but it’s that much higher. We really have just seen archivists go to the mat for protecting books, for protecting information, for making sure that things aren’t buried, making sure things are available free to the public. Librarians have turned libraries into community survival centers, people have so expanded what those things mean. They are the keepers of their community. I would also say it takes a certain kind of personality to have the patience, the tenderness, and the vigilance to spend a lot of time just protecting, guarding, preserving. But it’s also a kind of … I want to say … not snappy, snippy, but it’s a … they won’t suffer fools, let’s put it that way. A lot of opinions in the archival community, a lot of righteousness. They work hard and they have a vision, they have standards. It’s a moral group.
CR: Sometimes people want to … call out what they see as being problematic or what they need to do to preserve the archives and move things forward.
DN: Well, they know the history, they know the consequences. A lot of archivists and librarians and historians and keepers are ahead of the culture and are impatient. They’re saying to everybody else, “What are you waiting for? Come on,” and so if they see something they feel is unjust or not right [they’ll say it]. I feel like with so much of social media, the whole culture in this time of Trump has turned the culture into a “calling out” culture. And I think that’s unfortunate all the way around. I think there’s a way to really call attention to important things. We did the whole series because we think archivists and librarians are the leading edge and our heroes, and are some of the nation’s. I don’t think they get enough attention and enough credit, and [I think they] should be revered and known and appreciated, and tell great stories, and are sitting on some great stories and material. Grace and kindness and patience with each other in the culture—I would ask for that across the board. That’s just my opinion. I think people are working really hard. Everyone’s working really hard, but there are also disgusting things going on and that has to be called out too, so okay, I get it, I get it.
[Stay tuned for Part 3 of Caryn’s interview with The Kitchen Sisters’ Davia Nelson!]
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