Archival Innovators: Valerie A. Metzler, Independent Archivist/Historian

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.

Valerie Metzler

In this installation of Archival Innovators, SAA Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) member Sami Norling interviews Valerie A. Metzler, independent Archivist/Historian. On hearing from Valerie that she believes herself to be the first full-time private practice archivist in the U.S., we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn more about her career, and to feature Valerie as an Archival Innovator!

SN: Valerie, could you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your path into the archives profession?

VM: I was halfway through college as a psychology major when I realized that, while the subject was interesting, I thought I might not like it as a career. I looked at what courses I liked best—English and History—and chose the latter and thought I might work in a museum. This was 1974 and I barely knew the word “archives.” But, when an internship at the State Archives of Pennsylvania became available my senior year, I hopped the train three days a week and worked there as a 3-credit course. I loved it!

My first job in the field was as an archives technician at the U. S. Army Military History Institute (MHI, now USAHEC, the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center). In this role, I worked with personal papers and oral history interviews of members of the Army and their families from Revolutionary War to the present. Because MHI was a public repository, I helped researchers from around the world. During this time, I maintained memberships in the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC) and SAA. After taking courses in paper and photo conservation, I then became the in-house conservator at MHI.

After seven years at MHI I sought to expand my expertise and went to MARAC and SAA conferences to make connections for jobs. The position I ended up in certainly fit the bill in providing new experiences to expand my knowledge of the field—it was a brand new archives with a well equipped in-house conservation lab, and a business archives. I wanted something different—and I got it!

After starting my new job, I missed the interaction with the public more than I realized I would, and I missed working with personal papers. The good news was that by living in Chicago, I had the benefit of joining the Chicago Area Archivists and the Chicago Area Conservation Group and by doing so, networked with professionals far more than were present back home in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

SN: Was there a specific project, event, or other development in your career or the archives profession that inspired you to strike out on your own as an independent archivist? What were the steps that you took early on to establish your independent practice?

VM: It was the networking in the Chicago area that led me to start my own business. I kept hearing about families, historical societies, and businesses large and small who wanted to preserve their history. And, while there were several employed archivists who moonlighted as consultants, they could never devote the time and hands-on assistance that these projects needed and still keep their day jobs. I decided to enter into full-time private practice as a freelance archivist, not just a consultant. I did do consulting work, but the majority of my work was (and remains) the hands-on establishment of archives and training of staff to maintain the archives after I have gone.

Early on, I realized that to remain completely independent, I should never devote full time to one project, i.e. instead of being a contract archivist always chasing the next gig, I took on any jobs that came my way and staggered my days or even hours among my various clients. That has remained my operating procedure these 34 years in private practice. Neither did I limit my work to just archives. Since 1985, I have also conducted oral history interviews and edited them and have done a variety of historical research for clients, including genealogy. I also teach in lecture and workshop settings.

One significant early step in establishing myself as an independent archivist was to find a name for my business. I never liked the “Metzler Associates” model, especially when you knew it was only one person! And, I wanted a name that clearly stated what the business was rather than some contrived invention. I figured that most folks were unfamiliar with the specifics of what an archivist does, so I had better not confuse them with a cutesy name. So, I followed the “Valere Metzler, Attorney-at-Law” model and came up with Valerie Metzler, Archivist/Historian (VMAH).

SN: Having worked as an independent archivist since 1985, you must have had the opportunity to contribute to some pretty interesting projects, and worked with a variety of archival materials and collections. What have been some of your favorite projects?

VM: My favorite projects are those which include all three aspects of my work. A good example of that is when a family business asks me to establish their archives, conduct oral histories with founders, and research their family history. Without naming the 500 clients of VMAH over these years, my favorites are those which take me into subject area new to me. Also, I love to travel, so the ones that take me far afield–especially to other countries–are definitely on the top of my list.

SN: The Committee on Public Awareness was formed in 2014 to assist SAA Council and SAA members in promoting the value of archives and archivists to a variety of communities and the broader public–something that the field as a whole has struggled with for some time. As an independent archivist, have you ever struggled in communicating this value to potential clients or project partners?

VM: I would have to say that I have not struggled much in communicating the value, since I can only think of two potential clients who contacted me in 34 years who did not move on to hire me.  Sadly, to my knowledge, those two never did get an archives started.

SN: Do you have any tips, or have you developed an elevator speech to communicate the value of your skills as a professional archivist?

VM: I have not perfected an elevator speech but always give the person who asks what I do (followed by the inevitable variations of, “What??”) all of my attention and answer to the questions they pose.  Also, this point is not exactly about my skills, personally, but I always urge folks to consider public repositories over keeping historically valuable items in their own homes where they may be lost to fire or the whims of future generations.

SN: Is there anything else that you’d like archivists and archival students to know, or tips that you’d like to share about building a career as an independent archivist?

VM: Join all of the professional member associations that you can afford and attend their conferences—and volunteer for positions within those organizations.


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

“What Do Only You Know?”: A Conversation with Davia Nelson of the Kitchen Sisters (Part 3)

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 the final Part 3 of that conversation (see Part 1 here and Part 2 here). Remarks have been edited for length and clarity from a transcript of the original telephone interview.

CR: Recently, archivists have started doing podcasts. What advice would you give them about communicating about their work?

Keeper of the Day, No. 13 The Emma Goldman Papers Project. Photo courtesy of the Emma Goldman Papers

DN: I love the thought of archivists and librarians podcasting. I think it’s a great idea. I hope more and more people do.  I think people are hungry for great podcasts. I think that librarians and archivists have a huge community of listeners and a waiting audience. So I urge all of you to think about it. I think that finding the oral medium — you don’t want to go too long. If you find yourself wanting to host one, think about really saying the most important things, I mean finding your voice. I think so many archivists have such great personalities and are great storytellers. So really honing who you are, what your voice is, really making good judgement calls. When you put something in a case to show the public, you’ve really thought a lot about what’s going to go in that case and what’s going to resonate and why it’s important, and I think the same thing is true for a podcast. Just because you have it doesn’t mean it’s going to be a fascination to the rest of the world, or maybe the rest of the world doesn’t understand why they should be fascinated and then that becomes the job.

I think just kibitzing back and forth is fun. I think people would have a good time doing it. And I think that often times people don’t have enough time to get to tell stories and speak, but I think you want to go lean, better to leave people wanting more than feeling like this is going on too long. We’re always working with those constraints, and we are always trying to discipline ourselves. And keep it lively—use a lot of different kinds of materials and different voices. One person going on for a really long time is hard. And highlighting the treasures in your collection or highlighting the things that you feel are injustices that you want to bring to the fore, highlighting each other.

We always ask, “What do only you know?” That’s what led us to some beautiful stories with archivists.

CR: It’s a good question. I know that I’ve come across papers where you would find yourself saying “I’m going to go to so and so’s office and just tell them what I found because I can’t be the only person on the planet who knows this.” And it’s always a pleasure when you can connect somebody new and in the wider world outside of the archival community to that kind of material.

DN: Oh, we live for that moment.

CR: Sometimes you just find random things in places that you don’t necessarily expect to find them, and as you know, it can send you down a complete rabbit hole.

DN: So many times we think we’re working on a story about X, but we find a piece of archival audio and it leads us completely down a new road, and I always feel bad for the story that got abandoned. But you know, I think it’s just the truth, and for us, as I told you, the “always relied on the kindness of archivists” was going to be in 2001. So here it is.

CR: I was going to ask which episodes of The Keepers moved you the most.

DN: Well, I think the interview with Mary Schuler Dieter [Pack Horse Librarian] because she was starting … she’s lost a lot of her memory. She remembered so little of the present but she could go back to the past and it was a voice … Rolling Stone reviewed that story—who would have guessed that Rolling Stone would review it, like we were Amy Winehouse with a new record. They reviewed that story and they talked about her voice sounding like someone beyond time, and it took three and four members of her community going to her to help us record that. I found her on the telephone, but she could not tell me where she was, and I wound up calling the city government of her town to try and help me find this woman who I’d been talking to … the whole community became galvanized and during the course of the interview she broke out weeping … the poverty and the hard times that she lived through, it all roared up in her, but she persevered to tell the story and I think that interview was the one that tore me apart the most.

But I’ll tell you, being with the hip-hop archive, being with all those young people at Harvard—so many of them people of color, kids who just, they were there at Harvard, but they didn’t really feel like they’ve quite belonged at Harvard, and there was the hip-hop archive and they were in there doing these fellowships and these studies, and these investigations. And in these papers and this research were the rigor and the commitment and that feeling of place. That was another just profound discovery, and the power of an archive to bring an 18-year-old out of some community where they had so little growing up, and to give them a feeling of place and belonging and purpose and their own history being honored. That was just stunning.

CR: That’s great … I think that’s what we hope to do.

DN: Well, in our book you do it, we cannot thank … When Nikki came to the Society of American Archivists [conference] last year, that was one of the first forays for the project and she just came back so ignited and we still have that well of material that we’re drawing on, and it helped shape the whole vision of the project. We’ve continued to go to various archivist gatherings and do presentations and talks and recordings there, and we hope to continue to work with the community in the coming year. We’re 44 Keeper of the Days into a year-long project. So I hope people will contribute and follow them and appreciate all the people that we’re trying to highlight and pay homage to.

CR: I was going to ask how you choose your keeper of the day.

DN: We have this epic notebook, a big binder where we log all the calls that come in or transcribe all the emails—there’s hundreds of them that we’re pulling from—and people we meet at a party, people that we know, you walk into a library and you meet someone, the museum knows we’re doing this project. They reach out to us. Lawrence Ferlinghetti is turning 100 in March, and someone told us about the Urban Forester of San Francisco who every year on Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s birthday walks to all the sites that were primary in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s life and he reads a Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem at every site as he makes the pilgrimage to City Lights Bookstore. And then this year on the occasion of Lawrence’s hundredth birthday, he’s going to plant most likely an olive tree and it will become Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day in San Francisco. So now we know what we will be doing on March 24th as Keeper of the Day. It happens spontaneously and it happens pre-planned. People are on the hunt for us. Sometimes we find the story, sometimes the stories find us, right?

Feel free to suggest please. Send us emails or call The Keeper hotline,  415-496-9049, or go to kitchensisters.org and you can suggest there.

CR: What’s next for the Kitchen Sisters?

DN: We’re doing a slew of Keeper stories. We have probably 10 in progress right now. We are doing a collaboration with SFMoMa on a big project that’s going on here that involves stories of urbanization and gentrification. We’re doing stories in collaboration with Wendy MacNaughton, the graphic novelist [recently featured in ArchivesAWARE], and with Laurie Anderson. We have collaborated with Wendy and we’re going to do one about her, we’re going to make a Keeper out of her stories of the San Francisco Library that she did from [her book] Meanwhile in San Francisco and then Frances McDormand, the Academy Award-winning actress, is going to host our hour-long Keeper special.

CR: Wow. She’ll be our celebrity spokesperson?

DN: She has been the host of two or three of our Hidden Kitchen specials, and she is sort of our muse.

Your community has been so supportive. I would just like to say in closing: thank you to the Society [of American Archivists], to all of you for the work you do and for being open to us and supportive and igniting us. You all launched the series. So thank you for that.

CR: Thank you. I think that our Committee on Public Awareness does a lot, but somebody like the Kitchen Sisters taking this on does a lot more to help spread the word.

DN: Well, it’s great. We could collaborate together. We always say collaboration is queen. What a pleasure and an honor. Thank you so much.


To suggest Keepers of the Day, call the Keeper Hotline at 415-496-9049 or go to http://www.kitchensisters.org/keepers

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