THERE’S AN ARCHIVIST FOR THAT! INTERVIEW WITH LAURA LAPLACA, THE DIRECTOR OF ARCHIVES OF THE NATIONAL COMEDY CENTER

Laura LaPlaca, Director of Archives. Photo courtesy of Laura LaPlaca.

Laura LaPlaca, Director of Archives. Photo courtesy of Laura LaPlaca.

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 Laura LaPlaca, the Director of Archives of the National Comedy Center.

Before her tenure as Director of Archives for the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, NY, Laura earned a PhD in Screen Cultures in the Department of Radio/TV/Film at Northwestern University. Her work focused on the early history of broadcasting in the United States, and particularly the development of the sitcom genre from the late 1920s to early 1960s. She also holds a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Dept. of Radio/TV/Film, and bachelor’s degrees in Art History and English Literature from Pepperdine University. During her 10+ years as an archivist of popular culture and media, Laura has led or contributed to processing and preservation efforts at institutions including the Library of Congress, USC-Warner Brothers Archives, and Paley Center for Media. She founded the Northwestern University Radio Archive Project [NURAP] and has served on the boards of the Library of Congress Radio Preservation Task Force and Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ Television Studies Scholarly Interest Group. Her co-authored manuscript on the history of American comedy is forthcoming from Smithsonian Press.

RW: How did you get your gig at the National Comedy Center Archives?

I first visited Jamestown, NY – a beautiful historic community on the shore of Lake Chautauqua in Southwestern NY – on a grant-funded archival research trip while completing my doctoral dissertation on the history of the sitcom. Jamestown is the birthplace of the ground-breaking TV pioneer Lucille Ball, whose archives are housed by the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum, which tells the story of Ball and Arnaz’s influential Desilu Studios and celebrates their enduring cultural legacies. During my visit, I met Journey Gunderson, the Executive Director of the museum, who told me about her team’s ambitious efforts to execute Lucille Ball’s vision to build the first national-scale, non-profit educational institution devoted to comedy in her hometown. I knew moments after meeting Journey, and hearing about the remarkable energy, optimism, and goodwill that all of Jamestown was pouring into the National Comedy Center project, that I had to be involved. It turned out that the Comedy Center had yet to hire a Director of Archives & Research, and my particular background in the history of entertainment media and popular culture archives was a good match. I joined the team about 18 months before the 37,000-square-foot, $50-million-dollar National Comedy Center opened its doors in August 2018. Since opening, we’ve educated more than 100,000 guests from around the world about the history and art of comedy. We’ve been named one of Time’s “World’s Greatest Places,” voted “Best New Museum” by USA Today, and were designated by the United States Congress as our country’s official cultural institution devoted to preserving and presenting the vital story of comedy. But I am most proud of the fact that we have been so thoroughly embraced by the comedy community itself; knowing that the artists and creators we are celebrating find our work important is really the best metric of our success so far, and the thing that energizes me every day.

Q: Please tell us about the National Comedy Center Archives.

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From the American sitcom Seinfeld, the Seinfeld puffy shirt on exhibit at the National Comedy Center. Photo courtesy of the National Comedy Center.

The National Comedy Center Archives collects materials that illuminate the comedic process, demonstrate the sociopolitical import of comedy history, and elevate comedy as an artform. We are committed, first and foremost, to providing access to collections. We always acquire, process, and preserve artifacts with exhibition and educational goals top of mind. To that end, the archives team works hand-in-hand everyday with staff in Guest Experiences, Education, Programming, and Technology to activate our collections for the public. The Comedy Center is comprised of more than 50 immersive exhibits that marshal cutting-edge technology and novel forms of interactive storytelling to communicate the story of comedy – very often via primary source archival materials. One of my primary roles as

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From the movie Ghostbusters, the Ghostbuster suit on display at the National Comedy Center. Photo courtesy of the National Comedy Center.

Director of Archives is curatorial: Where and how can archival materials illuminate history for our visitors? That sometimes takes the form of traditional artifact displays inside glass cases (the “Puffy Shirt” from Seinfeld, Harold Ramis’ Ghostbusters suit, Charlie Chaplin’s cane, or Joan Rivers’ joke notes). But, more often, involves activating digital surrogates of archival originals as part of interactive exhibits that involve touch screens, video walls, projections, or other technologically enhanced presentations. To share just one example, our visitors can take a seat at a Virtual Writer’s Desk and “page through” annotated script drafts from comedies like The Muppets, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum while the final-draft on-screen versions of the scenes play out beside them. In the past six weeks, due to the COVID-19 closures, we have moved a selection of our exhibit content to a digital platform that brings the museum direct to fans, students, and families around the world. You may enjoy exploring National Comedy Center Anywhere at anywhere.comedycenter.org.

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The Virtual Writer’s Desk on exhibit at the National Comedy Center. Photo courtesy of the National Comedy Center.

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

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The George Carlin Collection on exhibit at the National Comedy Center. Photo courtesy of the National Comedy Center.

Our collections range across the history of comedy, from I Love Lucy to Saturday Night Live, from vaudeville to Internet humor, and across all comedy genres. I have three “favorite” collections: First, the 27,000-piece George Carlin Collection, which we have digitized and made available to visitors via an interactive interface in our galleries. The collection chronicles Carlin’s five-decade evolution as an artist, via his copious handwritten notes, day planners, audiovisual recordings, wardrobe, and more than 40 boxes of creative ephemera. The interactive exhibit showcases his meticulous process in detail, and allows our visitors an up-close look at the creative mind of one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Second, the Rusty Warren Collection, and accompanying exhibit, honors the contributions of an important feminist comedic artist who levied her talents and brilliant wit to become a leading voice in the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Rusty Warren’s work was so progressive – and so feared – that she was banned from performing on television. Nevertheless, she toured cabarets and nightclubs for over thirty years and made 11 hugely popular comedy albums – 7 of which “went Gold.” Third, the Carl Reiner Collection – which is currently being processed – includes digitized

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From the American sitcom I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball’s polka dot dress on display at the National Comedy Center. Photo courtesy of the National Comedy Center.

copies of every annotated draft page of the scripts for the seminal sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show, which Reiner created and wrote. This series was an important pivot point in the history of American television, and set a high watermark that endures to this day. The chance to peer into Reiner’s process via these scripts is like taking a masterclass in the art of comedy writing. In addition to overseeing the processing and preservation of our rapidly-growing permanent collections, I also work closely with artists, estates, and industry partners to curate rotating exhibits of documents, props, and costumes that represent landmark moments in the history of comedy: Lenny Bruce’s trenchcoat, Harpo Marx’s wig, Lucille Ball’s polka dot dress, a “Dundie” from The Office, Carol Burnett’s charwoman costume, The Smothers Brothers’ guitar and bass, Andy Kaufman’s wrestling belt, Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor costume, the wedding dress from Bridesmaids, Weird Al Yankovic’s accordion, and so many more.

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The Smothers Brothers pose with the Smothers Brothers Collection on exhibit at the National Comedy Center. Photo courtesy of the National Comedy Center.

Q: What are some challenges unique to the collections?

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John Mulaney views whe Rodney Dangerfield Exhibit at the National Comedy Center. Photo courtesy of the National Comedy Center.

The primary challenge that we contend with is the vastness and variability of comedy as a subject area. The Comedy Center celebrates comedy in all its forms – and across all eras. That approach requires safely housing, preserving, and conserving a broad range of multimedia artifacts, most of which were designed for one-time use on stage – not for decades of stable storage and exhibition. Our team routinely handles manuscripts, photographs, scrapbooks, and documents of all sorts…but also cares for 100-year-old fake mustaches, vaudeville broadsides, cartoonist’s palettes, Grammy Awards, a toupee, acetate discs, costume jewelry, a piano, several motor vehicles, a papier-mâché frog costume, paintings, undergarments, nitrate films, a miniature bicycle, a trick cello, a sledgehammer, and all manner of fragile, irregular, and – oftentimes – very funny objects.

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Dan Aykroyd donates his motorcycle to the National Comedy Center. Photo courtesy of the National Comedy Center.

Q: What is your favorite part of the job?

Part of my responsibility as the National Comedy Center’s Director of Archives is to work directly with artists and their estates to devise the best ways to engage, inspire, and entertain our visitors while educating them about the vital role that comedy has played in shaping our shared cultural heritage. I enjoy every opportunity I have to interact with artists: to discuss their work, to internalize their stories, to strategize together about how to preserve and celebrate their craft for generations to come.

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The Joan Rivers Collection on exhibit at the National Comedy Center. Photo courtesy of the National Comedy Center.

There’s an Archivist for That! Interview with Ilana Short

Courtesy of Ilana Short.

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 Ilana Short, the Vault Manager for Invenium.

Ilana Short, MA has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and a master’s degree in Museum Studies from Johns Hopkins University. Ilana is currently the Vault Manager for Inveniem, a technology and archival company in Los Angeles, California. Ilana has previously held positions as the Manager of Visitor Services and Education with Bellagio Gallery of Fine Arts and the Photography Collections Manager for the Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas.

How did you get your gig?

I honestly sort of fell into it, which is of course not what people want to hear, as I know how hard it is to get a position working in archives. But, it really is the truth in this case!

I had spent most of my career working in museums, and I had done everything from education and visitor services to working with collections. Collections was really my favorite and where I focused my career, and I had been working at the Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas managing the photography collections and archive. I then became more involved with the Curator of Manuscripts, and worked with her on cataloging and developing taxonomies for the photo collections, in addition to developing and curating exhibits. I discovered I had a knack for cataloging, and really enjoyed the work as well! I had been working closely with the archivist for a sister organization, the Las Vegas News Bureau, when she came across the job posting for Vault Manager at Inveniem on the SAA message board. She forwarded it to me with a note that said “this sounds like you!”

I have a personal passion for music, and many things I enjoyed doing in my free time revolved around music and concerts, and the job posting mentioned working in the music industry. I really went back and forth on applying for a little while, since the job was in Los Angeles, and I live in Las Vegas, but I did apply a couple days later.

From there, things moved fairly quickly, at least for a job in the museum and archives world. I applied in late summer, had a few rounds of interviews, and started in November of 2018. I had expected that my husband, kids, and I would all move to Los Angeles, but it hasn’t actually worked out that way. I am still commuting weekly, but now I am working from home more with the pandemic.

Tell us about your organization.

Inveniem is a small, private technology and archival company and we work primarily with living musicians and the estates of former musicians. Our client list, with rare exceptions, is completely confidential. What we specialize in, though, is helping our clients archive their personal memorabilia and possessions, as well as helping them monetize those assets if they choose to do so. We employ a staff of professional archivists, most of whom have MLIS degrees, and have developed our own schema and taxonomic structures for cataloging our client’s assets. We also choose the best long term storage and preservation options for our client’s assets as well. As Vault Manager, my job is to oversee the archivists, as well as developing strategic methods for cataloging assets and monetization plans, and creating work flow procedures for each of our clients.

Describe your collections.

The collections that we work with vary from client to client, but because our clients are musicians, they tend to contain a lot of the same types of objects. The assets that we work with typically include photographic materials (photos, slides, negatives, and transparencies), tour books, merchandise from tours, stage and video costumes, awards (like gold records and Grammy Awards), instruments, posters, and personal memorabilia. Being a photo archivist by trade, the photographic collections are always my favorites to work with!

One client that we are allowed to talk about is Wiz Khalifa, and most of the objects we worked with in his collection were clothing and shoes. We really excel at receiving a lot of disparate objects and turning them into cohesive collections – we categorize the objects, assign barcodes, photograph or scan each object, create metadata, and ingest the metadata into our database.

What are some challenges unique to your collections?

One of the biggest challenges is our confidentiality. It’s absolutely essential to our business but it does make it more difficult to participate in things that archivists normally would for professional development, like presenting at conferences. It’s also hard on a personal level because you might be a tremendous fan of an artist you are working with and you can’t tell anyone what you are doing! Aside from that, we face the challenges anyone in other archives face, especially how to organize information so that our clients can interact with it in a way that makes sense to them, as they aren’t archivists.

What is your favorite part of your job?

Where do I begin? In a lot of ways I have really found my “dream job.” Yes, I get to meet rock stars from time to time, but honestly my favorite thing is working with objects that I know no one else has ever seen. Some of our clients are artists that I really enjoy listening to, so getting to see lyrics in their handwriting, or photos from their travels are fascinating to me. I also love that the job constantly brings new challenges to solve and that I have to continuously be creative in many ways to bring new initiatives to our clients.

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!

Responses and Retrospectives: Sarah Meidl on The Colorado State University Archives & Special Collections Covid-19 Archive

Sarah MeidlThis 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!

MLIS candidate at the University of Washington and SAA student chapter member Sarah Meidl brings you an interview with Mark Shelstad, Coordinator for Digital and Archives Services at Colorado State University.

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Mark Shelstad manages the Covid-19 Archive at Colorado State University, a new project that seeks to document the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the community of students, faculty, and staff at CSU.

Please see the Society of American Archivists’ press release (drafted by COPA) for more information on organizations documenting COVID-19 in their communities.

Q. When did the Covid-19 Archive project start and what gave you the idea for the project?

A. Our official start date for working at home was March 23rd. And like many colleges and universities out there we were anticipating how the virus might affect the university community. In doing so, we surveyed what other institutions’ documentation efforts, and we took to heart the option for digital acquisitions through web harvesting, and a digital submission form to document the virus’ impact on the University’s community. Submitters can also fill out a questionnaire to share their personal stories about the virus’ impact on their studies, work, and other challenges.

Q. What types of submissions have you received so far?

A. So far, it’s been a little bit on the low side. We’ve received a couple of student video projects which have been great talking about their experiences. One is really well done with two students sharing their experience prior to being sent home interspaced with text messages that they were receiving from the University emergency response team and the county health office. We’ve had a couple submissions of folks who were sent home, the impact of doing remote work and remote learning, and then a lot of images from around campus, and where people self-quarantining.

Q. Are you open to all kinds of digital formats?

A. We wanted to set a low bar for submissions So far they have been the standard JPEGs, PDFs and MP4s. But we’ll do our best to accept the formats as they come in and convert them as needed.

Q. Are you actively processing things or are you waiting until things go back to normal to start the processing project?

A. We will begin making the items available in our digital repository, Mountain Scholar. When a corpus of material has been submitted, a Story map or another online exhibit platform will interpret the materials.

Q. How many people are working on the project right now?

A. Four members of Digital and Archive Services have been involved over the course of the project in developing the digital submission form, metadata creation, and web harvesting.

Q. Are the users creating any metadata for what they are uploading?

A. Yes, users are providing information about themselves, creation of the items, location, and topics. People have been very willing to share this information and self-document. s.

Q. And is this project just for the Colorado State University community or is it open to anyone?

A. As the University Archives, our project is focused on the CSU community. We have talked collecting scope with other archives in the area, and the University Museum of Design and Merchandising, which is collecting masks and clothing. The campus GIS center, the Geospatial Centroid, is running a survey on people’s locations after the semester moved online. We’ve managed to identify portions of this documentation project in a collaborative way.

Q. Will you experience any challenges when you start processing materials? Do you have access to needed software?

A. Submitted items are captured in the cloud, and our digital repository platform is DSpace, so we’ve been able to work in this new environment without many challenges.

Q. Have you had any challenges working from home?

A. Personally speaking, the main challenge has been getting bumped off the VPN depending upon user volume, and making the transition to Microsoft Teams for communication and collaboration.

Q. In addition to this project, are you also working on your regular projects?

A. Yes, we have other projects developed for remote work since we aren’t able to work on physical collections. Namely they involve metadata creation and cleanup, updating finding aids and Wikipedia entries. We also have two crowdsourcing projects underway, one for CSU President Charles Lory, and for interstate water compact attorney Delph Carpenter

Q. Have you managed a similar project in the past where you’re trying to have members of the community upload materials, or is this new ground for the Archives?

A. This is the first round for us, and I’m interested to see what kind of response we get over time. We’re planning to keep the project open, well after the return to work order has been lifted so folks can keep contributing. My sense is that individuals will have an opportunity down the road to reflect on their experiences.

Q. You mentioned having a collection in your digital repository. What is your plan on arranging materials in the repository?

A. We will load them into a Covid-19 collection within our University Archives Community in the repository, with Dublin core metadata supporting their discovery.

Q. Do you see this project as fulfilling the mission of Archives and Special Collections for CSU?

A. Absolutely. These are unprecedented times, and we need to document our individual and shared experiences, ranging from safety protocols, faculty moving their instruction online, staff working remotely, and students who had to leave campus on short notice and transition to online learning. At CSU, it harkens back to a devastating flood in 1997, and I would want to draw upon the oral histories with our emergency response team for comparison.

Q. Do you have any advice for other cultural heritage institutions that may be working on similar projects? Or, lessons learned from your experience so far?

A. I would say jump in. It’s an opportunity for setting collecting priorities and methods, and outreach with potential donors and users. Publicity is also very important, and this project’s selling point is the organic submissions, and getting to tell your story.

Q. How have you been publicizing the event so far?

A. We have used various outlets, such as our campus newsletter and social media outlets, and directly with targeted constituents. A schedule has been developed as periodic reminders for the fall semester.

Q. What do you see as the impact of this Covid-19 pandemic on the profession and on archival institutions?

A. I think there’s a great opportunity for a profession-wide case study to see what efforts were successful, what kind of materials have been acquired, how access and interpretation are being provided, and the impact this documentation efforts has with public policymakers.

Q. Anything to add?

A. In the fall we’d really like to do that oral history with our senior leadership to capture the lessons learned from the pandemic. For students, to have a story-both project for them to drop in and share their experiences, and a digital acquisitions day when they return. We would want to engage with them in physical and digital spaces.

This post was written by Sarah Meidl based on an interview conducted with Mark Shelstad 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.