The Intersection of Archives and Natural History

Archives + Audiences: Michelle S. Koo on the Museum of Vertebrate and Zoology Collections at University of California Berkeley.

This is the latest entry in our Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work. In this post, COPA Early Career Member and Archivist, Kristianna Chanda interviews Michelle Koo, manager of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology Archives at University of California Berkeley. Koo’s fields include Biodiversity Informatics and Evolutionary Biogeography. Her research integrates biocollections and fieldwork and she is also involved in the Grinnell Resurvey Project, an effort to track 80-year-old sites in California to examine species distribution and study the impact of climate change. Although she is technically not an archivist, she has worked with archivists and offers her insight into the world of archives and natural history.

KC: Please tell us about your organization.

New Guinea bird specimens.

MK: MVZ Archives is one collection in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, which is a Natural History Museum at UC Berkeley. The museum was founded in 1907 by a donation from C & H Sugar heiress Annie Alexander. Alexander was an amazing person who grew up doing whatever she wanted, including going on safaris with her father and learning about natural history, unusual for a woman in the 19th C. She became a well-known paleontologist and decided that California needed a natural history museum to rival the great museums of the east coast. The MVZ was therefore her answer to Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology or the American Museum of Natural History, but it was a research museum. The MVZ does not have public exhibits per se, it is a research-only collection.

KC: What kinds of collections do you preserve?

MK: The MVZ Archives goes back to the founding of the museum. The museum’s first director, ornithologist Joseph Grinnell, insisted on a specific, highly structured approach to field journals. He exhorted his students and employees to note everything: birds observed, scat, habitat, habitat usage, species’ interactions, thereby giving context to specimens researchers collected. They also created extensively annotated maps and photographed the landscape and specimens. That documentation formed the basis for our archival collections.

We like to quote Grinnell often and one of his most famous quotes is (I’m paraphrasing this of course) “These scientific collections won’t gain their main value until a century or more has passed. We are collecting for the students of the future.” With that in mind, he wanted to document the rapidly changing landscape of California. He would be horrified by the rate of change today but at the time, he was also alarmed, so he systematically created what we today call “biodiversity surveys” of some of the most remote parts of California. Resurveys began around 2000 and continue to this day. These resurveys are some of the best evidence we have of how the last century of climate change impacts specific species, so Grinnell was almost prophetic in understanding that today, we continue to collect data for the students who will conduct resurveys 100 years from now.

At this point I wish to emphasize what I believe will ultimately prove to be the greatest value of our museum. This value will not, however, be realized until the lapse of many years, possibly a century, assuming that our material is safely preserved. And this is that the student of the future will have access to the original record of faunal conditions in California and the west, wherever we now work. Joseph Grinnell

KC: Because of the collections’ relevance to the current climate change crisis, have you seen it gain popularity?

MK: If you measure popularity by use, then our usage has never waned, but the type of use has changed dramatically as science and technology have advanced. In the past, researchers might measure specimens or note feather colors. Today, they are likely to take tissue samples for genetic or genomic studies.

However, we are more popular in terms of public awareness. In 2012 we received a Mellon Foundation CLIR Grant, which helped us organize our archives, create finding aids, and share them via the Online Archive of California finding aid portal. In the first year, that increased our archival visitors by more than 150%.

Additionally, we’ve participated in a collaborative grant to digitize field notes and make them searchable online. That has been invaluable for distance reference and distance research. I hope our next step will be grant support for online exhibits that will link field notes, historic images, annotated maps, and specimens into a rich virtual experience demonstrating the web of connections among all our holdings.

KC: Given the pandemic and budget cuts do you find yourself needing to advocate for your collections?

MK: Absolutely. I am not an archivist, but I oversee the archives right now because the archivist position was a casualty of pre-Covid budget cuts, and the pandemic has made everything worse. Budget constraints are one of many things archives and natural history museums have in common. We also share a common view of our collections, collection management issues, and concerns for managing expectations and access for researchers and the public. Both fields can learn much from each other.

One area where we diverge, however, is level of processing. Archivists think of the box-level or folder-level, whereas museum curators want granular detail about each individual specimen. Part of my job is to translate between archivist speak and scientific researcher speak and try to find compromise. It is a challenge being an archivist in a natural history museum, but it is fun.

KC: Do you find the different ways archivists and scientific researchers interpret the information interesting?

MK: Absolutely. For example, researchers will often work with specimens and then turn to the archives for context: “Where did this person collect this? Was it bought from a local collector or did they trap it? On what date? At what time? What part of the field? Are there first-hand accounts of the habitat? How can the archival record help me better understand the ecological context?”

In addition to an ecological context, archives can also provide a social context. “Who is doing the collecting? Who were they working under? Who were their students? What was their institution, university, department? Did they have their own theories or hypotheses, or were they working under someone known for particular theories or hypotheses? How can the archival record help me better understand the social context of this specimen or these field notes?”

The fun part is when you assemble the full picture of the natural history: the ecological context, the sociological context, and the human story of the scientists. There are a lot of interesting things there.

KC: What is an aspect of your job that sticks out to you?

MK: I enjoy learning about the history of the archives and, and I mentioned, how it can offer a more comprehensive view of both the social and natural history.

Let me give you an example. I recently asked a student to organize photographs. She and I are both herpetologists and she knew I have a special affinity for amphibians, so while looking through the photos she suddenly said “oh wow, have you seen this photo before? “No, I haven’t.” It was an underwater photograph of a giant salamander, Dicamptodon tenebrosus, eating a garter snake. It was amazing because California garter snakes are known to prey on salamander larvae, so usually it is the other way around. While there are historic anecdotes of giant salamanders eating aquatic snakes, there was no evidence of it … until now, and the evidence was in our own archives.

On top of that, it turned out that our archives also preserved the photographer’s field notes. In them, he recorded this specific incident in the photograph, giving an almost moment-by-moment description of everything he observed.

But wait! There’s more! He also collected both the salamander and the snake and they are in our collections! So, we have the photograph, his field notes with his moment-by-moment account, and the specimens that he photographed and described!

None of this would have been possible without the archives. This is what I loved about this. Maybe it’s not always groundbreaking but it is a great way to show how an archives can bring together different aspects of an event.

Using Short Videos for Archival Outreach

Alan Velasquez
Unit Coordinator, Digital Scholarship & Initiatives
Tulane University Libraries

In this article, Alan Velasquez reveals his creation of short videos promoting the digital holdings of Tulane University Special Collections.

Since May of 2020 Tulane University Libraries has been producing a video series, Collection Connection, released on the library’s YouTube channel. This series has been a collaboration between two library departments: Tulane University Special Collections (TUSC), headed by Jillian Cuellar, and Digital Scholarship and Initiatives (DSI), headed by Sean Knowlton. This collaboration was initiated by David Banush, Dean of Libraries, as a social media project using brief videos to promote Special Collections’ online collections. DSI had begun creating video content for the library earlier in the year so this was a great project to gain more experience from. Each episode of this series focuses on a different TUSC collection available within the Tulane University Digital Library, including collections such as the Hogan Jazz Archive Photography Collection, the Tulane University Archives Historical Collection, and the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps Collection. This video series has added an additional outreach tool for the unique collections held by Tulane.

Early in the development of the series it was decided that the series should primarily focus on digitized collections. At that time during the Covid-19 pandemic, physical collections were unavailable to patrons due to the lockdown. This series could therefore promote collections that were still available for patrons to access online. It also allowed us to create episodes while working remotely. Another benefit of this project is that it could be done with minimal resources.

When creating the format for the series we agreed that we wanted the episodes to be under three minutes. By making them brief, they serve as a useful visual introduction to their respective collections. The videos also include audio narration that provides an informative tour of the content. The viewer can quickly get a sense of what’s in the collection by watching the video and then follow our links to the full digital collection. Additionally, since these videos are shared on social media, shorter videos help with short attention spans on these platforms.

While these videos can be useful for researchers to discover available collections, they can also be a way to reach out to donors. For example, one of the episodes focuses on the Louisiana Menu and Restaurant Collection. In the video, Leon Miller, Curator for Special Collections, encourages the viewer to donate Louisiana menus and cookbooks if they possess them. These videos can also have the benefit of being reused on specific occasions. The Carnival Collection episode can be promoted every Carnival season and the Louisiana Political Ephemera Collection was released during election season. One of the episodes that focuses on the conservation process of the Gutenberg Bible Leaf was also timed to release and promote one of TUSC’s online exhibits, Books Through Their Pages. The series can also be a gateway to additional video content that is published on the Tulane Libraries YouTube channel.

The first episode of the series, written by Melissa Weber, Curator for Special Collections, was instrumental in creating a template for future episodes. The following episodes have been driven by TUSC curators and staff. The process for creating an episode begins when a curator or staff member selects a collection they’d like to develop a video for. They then write a script for the video and record their own audio narration. They also will select a group of images they’d like incorporated into the video from the digital collections. These collections can contain hundreds to thousands of images so image selection can take some time.

As the video editor for the series, I then take all this content and edit a cut of the video using Adobe Premiere Pro. I am also given the freedom to select additional images from the collection to incorporate into the video as needed. When designing the first episode featuring the Ralston Crawford Collection of Jazz Photography, I created an opening and closing title sequence that could be used for all the episodes. This helps unify the series even though the collections vary widely in content. Animations, titles, transitions, graphics, and royalty-free background music are also incorporated into the edited video. All of these elements are intended to bring a little more life into the display of these images instead of just making a traditional image slideshow. Once a first cut is complete, I have a dialog with the writer to discuss any changes or additions the video might need to complete their vision for the project. The video may go through a few drafts until it’s approved by TUSC and DSI, then it goes through the YouTube publishing process. Overall, the process from conception to publication generally takes 3 to 4 weeks.

Once an episode is published to YouTube, TUSC will work with Amanda Morlas, Marketing Specialist for Tulane Libraries, to promote the video on the various library social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The video can also be embedded on the library website or in LibGuides if desired. Since this project began, eight episodes of the Collection Connection series have been published. The series has generated over 2,000 views and over 35 hours of watch time on YouTube. Overall reception has been positive and encourages new avenues for creativity with the video format. This series has been a very successful collaboration between TUSC and DSI and more episodes are planned for the future.

Elizabeth Stauber on the Hogg Foundation Archives Winning an Advocacy Award

On January 19, 2021 the Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) member Rachael Woody sat down (virtually) with Elizabeth Stauber of the Hogg Foundation Archives, a recent recipient of the Advocacy Award from the Texas Historical Records Advisory Board.

Elizabeth Stauber stewards the Hogg Foundation’s educational mission to document, archive and share the foundation’s history, which has become an important part of the histories of mental and public health in Texas, and the evolution of mental health discourse nationally and globally. Elizabeth provides access to the Hogg Foundation’s research, programs, and operations through the publicly accessible archive. Learn more about how to access the records here.

The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health was awarded the inaugural Advocacy for Archives award by the Texas Historical Records Advisory Board (THRAB). THRAB established the Advocacy for Archives Award to recognize significant contributions made by individuals or organizations toward ensuring the preservation and availability of Texas’s historical records. The Hogg Foundation accepted the award at THRAB’s meeting on October 23, 2020.

RCW: Describe the Hogg Foundation Archives when you started. What was the size? What were the challenges and opportunities?

ES: The Hogg Foundation began work on creating an archive in 2012. Our Executive Director, Dr. Octavio Martinez, enlisted the help from graduate students at the University of Texas’ School of Information to begin devising a program. In 2016, during the foundation’s 75th anniversary celebration, Dr. Martinez hired me as the first full-time archivist.

The graduate students had begun to develop a records management program through staff education and the creation of a robust records inventory, and they had identified many important historical documents and artifacts and begun preserving and digitizing them.

However, the archives did not have a physical space with stacks and shelves, or defined policies and mechanisms for providing access to staff and the public.

RCW: You’ve built an incredible program in your first few years. What strategies can you share with us so that others may replicate your growth?

ES: In the beginning I identified 5 key areas that needed tackling:

1. Strengthening our records management process to ensure important records find their way into the archive;

2. Processing the records that had been stored in cabinets and the basement for decades;

3. Devising a digital preservation strategy;

4. Developing information management policies that promote transparency; and

5. Encouraging the use our archive.

This work is long-term, so you must be patient and kind with yourself, even if you are a perfectionist. There are always so many gaps in my work that glare at me furiously, but I know that with time I can continue to close them.

Achieving all of these things felt very daunting to me as a lone arranger, so I adopted an iterative process that allowed me to work on each area a little at a time. I could have easily spent the first 2 years solely processing paper records, but then I would still have to contend with the records being created today, and it would have stilted the promotion and use of this information. I needed to build a structure to house all the information, but I also needed some information to enforce the structure.

I started with small goals that impacted each identified priority area and expanded them over time. This work is long-term, so you must be patient and kind with yourself, even if you are a perfectionist. There are always so many gaps in my work that glare at me furiously, but I know that with time I can continue to close them.

This photograph depicts four rows of black wire shelving that support an array of blue banker boxes and gray archival boxes. Most of the shelves are full with boxes.
A photograph of The Hogg Foundation stacks. Courtesy of The Hogg Foundation Archives.
This picture shows a close up of one row where the blue archival boxes and labels can be seen more clearly.
A close up image of the stacks. Courtesy of The Hogg Foundation Archives.

RCW: Your training and use of graduate interns has been cited as a major contributor to the Archives’ success and recognition. Please share with us why and how you use graduate interns.

ES: The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health is actually a part of the University of Texas at Austin, which has an excellent School of Information. The Hogg Foundation is a small organization with around 20 full-time staff and only 1 assigned to manage the archives. Being able to enlist the help of emerging professionals in the archives field gives us the flexibility to experiment and try things for which we would not normally have the capacity.

For example, our graduate interns have helped us develop and refine our digital preservation strategy, researched and implemented an online collections database, and provide user interface recommendations for improving our online collections database. And honestly, as a lone arranger it is incredibly helpful to be able to bounce ideas off another person. The archives program at the Hogg Foundation started with work from graduate students and I feel that it’s important to continue our connection with the school.

Because we are a part of the university, we are able to offer our graduate students a competitive monthly salary, health insurance, and a scholarship that pays about 80% of their tuition.

RCW: The Archives is representative of the Hogg Foundation and its work as a mental health organization. Please share with us what it’s like to work as an archivist in this type of institution. What challenges and opportunities are present?

ES: The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health exists to improve the mental health of Texans. We do this, primarily, by giving grants to help communities strengthen conditions that support mental health and eliminate conditions that harm mental health, especially for people who have been historically underserved or marginalized. The foundation’s archive provides historical context for understanding our past and current mental healthcare landscape. Identifying the health disparities and societal inequities of the past helps us to recognize and confront how our institutions handle care and recovery today.

Unfortunately, most of mental health history is documented by institutions that are not primarily concerned with preserving its history. The Hogg Foundation’s archival program continually seeks to change that through advocacy of the preservation of both philanthropic and mental health records across Texas and the United States.

We seek to be an example of a mental health and philanthropic organization that shares its history with the public as these are two sectors that do not have a strong history of transparency. Our archives consist primarily of grant records. We are not a direct service organization, so we do not have medical records or other highly sensitive data. Rather, we preserve the efforts of non-profits and individuals working to improve the mental health infrastructure, access, and awareness in their communities.

Caption: As part of a larger campaign to reform and modernize the state hospital system in Texas, the Hogg Foundation presented its own vision for mental health services in April 1956, with the release of the short film In a Strange Land. Courtesy of The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health. YouTube direct link:

RCW: Specific to your advocacy work, what strategies has the Archives used? What have you found is the most successful and least successful, and why?

ES: Over the last few years, I have been connecting with information professionals in the philanthropic field as well as archivists interested in mental health history. Often, these are two different spaces, but the strategy of connecting with others across institutions to advocate for transparency and access to records is the same.

With my philanthropic colleagues, we planned a conference on the topic of foundation archives in 2019. This conference brought even more of us together to advocate for stronger records management structures in grants management systems – a common pain point we identified at the conference. In addition to the records management woes, the philanthropic sector generally does not have a strong external push to share its records with the wider public, so it has been important for us to learn together how to advocate for transparency in our organizations.

Recently, I have been able to connect with archivists locally who are interested in the preservation of mental health history. Some of us put together panel discussions on the topic of mental health and neurodiversity in the archives, which were unfortunately delayed due to the pandemic. But we have been able to successfully advocate for major preservation projects for state hospitals in Texas, including the hiring of a professional to oversee the implementation.

Recently, I have been able to connect with archivists locally who are interested in the preservation of mental health history. Some of us put together panel discussions on the topic of mental health and neurodiversity in the archives, which were unfortunately delayed due to the pandemic.

Sometimes this work can feel frustratingly slow because we are advocating for projects and ideas that are traditionally seen as a “luxury” – even when they are essential to the very infrastructure of the organization. While on paper my philanthropic colleagues and I have not been able to change much in our institutions yet, together we can be persistent and push forward.

Finally, my most effective internal strategy to cultivate interest from the Hogg Foundation’s staff is to present a history lesson derived from our archive 2-3 times a year. This involves research, reflection, and thoughts on how we can use these lessons to advance our current work, but it has been well worth the effort. Prior to the establishment of the Hogg Foundation’s archives, our knowledge of the foundation’s history was solely passed-down through long-tenured employees. But now many of our staff have a unique understanding of the history of our foundation and mental health in Texas, and can apply that context with care to the programs and communities in which we work today.

Prior to the establishment of the Hogg Foundation’s archives, our knowledge of the foundation’s history was solely passed-down through long-tenured employees. But now many of our staff have a unique understanding of the history of our foundation and mental health in Texas, and can apply that context with care to the programs and communities in which we work today.

RCW: You were awarded the first of THRAB’s advocacy awards. Please tell us more about that process and what it means to you and the Hogg Foundation.

ES: Being a relatively new and niche archive, it is so rewarding to be recognized by THRAB. Everyone at the Hogg Foundation was so thrilled to find out about the award. The recognition has bolstered our advocacy efforts tremendously by giving legitimacy to mental health and philanthropic archives.

Ima Hogg (philanthropist) stands to the right of with Robert Lee Sutherland (Hogg Foundation’s first director) on November 21, 1961. The two hold a record book between them as Robert looks to the left of the camera while Ima looks up at him Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.
Ima Hogg (philanthropist) with Robert Lee Sutherland (Hogg Foundation’s first director), November 21, 1961. Courtesy of The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.

The recognition has bolstered our advocacy efforts tremendously by giving legitimacy to mental health and philanthropic archives.

RCW: What are the remaining challenges you face?

ES: Because I have taken the approach of iterative improvement, my challenges have been fairly consistent over the years. However, I hope to publish our online collections database for the public by the end of this year. Currently, anyone may contact me for a reference interview to gain access to our records, but I am working toward a system that removes me as the gatekeeper to allow everyone to easily browse our holdings.

RCW: What advocacy advice would you like to share with us; especially those newer to the work?

ES: The most important thing I have learned is how to talk about archives to people who have never been to an archive before. You cannot rely on people being fascinated by archives for archives-sake. They want to know the functional purpose and benefit of information access. A challenge I often give myself is to not use the word archive or record when I am discussing my work with those outside the field.

A challenge I often give myself is to not use the word “archive” or “record” when I am discussing my work with those outside the field.

RCW: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

ES: For those who wish to make use of the Hogg Foundation archives, research questions and appointments can be made by contacting the archivist at