Ask An Archivist: An Interview With Dominique Luster

Join us as we celebrate American Archives Month by Asking An Archivist! Inspired by #AskAnArchivistDay, we sat down with five archivists to ask them about what they do—from “what is an archivist?” to “What’s the most creative public use you’ve seen with your collections?”—and explore daily challenges, successes, and everything in between.

Stay tuned because we’ll be sharing one full interview per week starting on #AskAnArchivistDay on October 13!

This is the title card for an interview with Dominique Luster by COPA member Katherine Barbera.

For our second installment of this mini-series, we’re excited to share a conversation with Dominique Luster, Founder and Principal Archivist at The Luster Company. Katherine Barbera of the Committee on Public Awareness sat down with Luster (virtually) for a video conversation on September 2, 2021.

Dominique Luster is one part archivist -one part researcher – full parts natural haired bourbon connoisseur, with a dash of genealogy for taste. Dominique has been working in the cultural heritage and memory fields for nearly 10 years. In this time, she’s come to be known as a champion for Black history and Black-centered storytelling.  After working at universities, libraries, and museums across the country, she came to understand that history is not merely a listing of events in chronological order. But rather, a meticulously curated phenomenon of power. All too often, the stories of marginalized communities are suppressed, oppressed, erased, or forgotten. With this as a north star, Dominique started The Luster Company to rechart that path. The Luster Company is an outpour of spirit by way of helping individuals and organizations uplift, honor, and tell stories that represent the lived experiences of the Black diaspora.

Video Interview

Transcript

Barbera [00:00:02] All right, we are good to go. I’m Katherine Barbera, an archivist and oral historian at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I’m also a member of the Committee on Public Awareness for the Society of American Archivists. Today, I have the privilege of interviewing Dominique Luster.

Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed, Dominique. We are really excited to talk to archivists for #AskanArchivist Day this year. So, I have a couple of questions for you. Feel free to answer them however you choose. And I’m excited to hear what you have to say.

Luster [00:00:42] All right, thanks for inviting me.

Barbera [00:00:46] So what is an archivist?

Luster [00:00:49] An archivist is an individual who works with memory and history through its records, and that can be a person’s records, an organization’s records, a company’s records. But it is someone who works with memory and with history, and history record keeping through the vehicle of working with the documents, photographs, maps, oral histories that are left behind.

Barbera [00:01:32] So, with that in mind, how and why did you start working in archives, what got you interested?

Luster [00:01:42] I was a theater lighting design undergraduate student, actually, and I think many people know that, but I worked in lighting design for years before I got into archives, like in and out of school, before school, after school, all over the country. It was a really cool thing. And then when I came back from my Fulbright, I needed an on-campus job. And so there were student jobs available in the special collections library on campus. And it was actually I didn’t realize at a time, but I thought it was just an on-campus job. But it was a part of a program called The Learning Lab, which was managed by Stacie Williams, who’s in Chicago at this point. And it is an incredible program because none of the students in the program were history or English majors. It was all a variety of different students, pre-med students, pre-law students.

I was a theater student and what they did was to align subject specialty collections based on our interest. So, there were a lot of skills that we needed to be taught in terms of just processing. But the interest was connected to your major or to whatever you were interested in. So, for example, the very first collection that I processed was a playbill collection and I was a theater major. So I had a lot of knowledge and information about the plays and the playbills and the playbill company and all of this information.

But I had no idea how to process. I didn’t even know what processing was. The idea of what a subject that was, I think took me like a month to actually grasp because it just didn’t make sense. There was a lot of criticism, the technical aspects of the archival world that I had no idea even existed. I remember one day being like, oh, people have given this like, oh my gosh, this is the thing. And it just kind of opened up a whole other industry to me that I didn’t know about—library science.

I just didn’t know it existed. And I think that’s my own ignorance at the time. But I had a lot of mentors early on who kind of helped shape the career path following that first initial seed at the university special collections library.

Barbera [00:04:04] Interesting that you started out in theater, I had no idea. I really like hearing about archivists’ trajectory to the field. Everybody has a different story.

Luster [00:04:15] Yeah, thank you.

Barbera [00:04:17] It sounds like you’ve worked with a broad range of collections and materials over the years. What is the craziest thing that you found in a collection?

Luster [00:04:29] I found 20 dollars once and I have found hair, I have definitely processed collections where I have found like baby hair or like women’s hair that was like in a ribbon. And I think it was, if I remember correctly, I think it was like an early 20th century collection. I think was very it’s very, very common at that time to extend your sweetheart in the war a lock of your hair, and then the women would tie it in a ribbon. So I found that.

And then I think I’ve also found like a little of, like, baby’s hair, just like a little tiny lock of baby hair that was tied in a little ribbon. I think those are actually pretty standard. I think most archivists have those kinds of stories.

The craziest thing I think I have found is a pipe. Once I found a pip—like a smoking tobacco pipe—and I found the tobacco, that was great. And I remember we tried to take them to the supervisor, and at the time he was like, “Cool, I just I don’t know what we’re supposed to do with this but I will figure it out, I’ll just and it’s just kind of set it to the side and like, don’t touch that. We’ll figure it out.”

Barbera [00:05:51] What was the context? Do you ever figure out what the pipe was from or why it was in the collection?

Luster [00:05:58] I think it just belonged to the donor. It was just part of the donor, a situation in which the family kind of gathered up all the things in the office and all the things, you know, out of their study and whatnot and kind of donated it to the repository and maybe they just didn’t go through it very carefully. It was an incredibly mixed materials collection between manuscript materials, photographic materials, published book materials. There was a lot of things in there. And, so as I’m just kind of going through the boxes, I found a pipe. And then, as I kept going, maybe a box or two later, I found like a little baggie of the tobacco. And just like one of those little that little plastic bag.

Barbera [00:06:44] I have never found a pipe, but I have certainly experienced where it’s obvious they took whatever was on the desk and it all went into the box. We find all kinds of interesting things, sometimes eyeglasses or other personal materials or personal effects that they probably didn’t mean to include, but the entire contents of the desk or whatever it was.

Luster [00:07:06] They kind of just take the drawer and dump it into a banker’s box. I think if anybody ever is watching this and they’re like, “oh, I have a family member and we’re wondering about what we should do about their awesome materials.” You should call us and we will be glad to help you. Call your local archivist because it’s not always necessarily about just dumping everything into the box.

Contrary, I think, to popular belief. And let me know if you feel differently. But, contrary to popular belief, archivists are the best weeders of anybody that I know. I think there’s a misconception or there’s a perception, public perception that archivists, we keep all the things like we keep all the history or librarian, like we keep all the stuff and we have our boxes and boxes and boxes of stuff, which is true.

But, that stuff is like meticulously curated and I think any processing archivist has experience with whittling down a collection that might have started with 50 linear feet worth of boxes. But at the end of the day, you might have 40 feet or 35 feet. And so I think there’s this public perception that we are the keepers of all the things that we could just if you donate it to your local library, historical society, then they just keep all the things. That’s not true. Call us first because we will weed it and we will take out all of the extra things, all of the like, easily findable, published materials, a lot of those personal effects. We will give it back to you. We don’t want it.

Barbera [00:08:37] I completely agree with that, as we have to be really selective because you can’t collect everything. It’s just an impossible task. And so we’ve become very good weeders. And I think sometimes that surprises folks, exactly as you said, that we do. We’re very good at determining, alright, this is what we keep and this is what we don’t.

Barbera [00:09:06] So we’ve talked about what the craziest thing you’ve found is, do you have a favorite item or perhaps the most mysterious item from a collection that you worked with?

Luster [00:09:23] So I don’t know if I have a favorite item, I definitely favorited, I guess, the the Teenie Harris collection, while I was working there. I think it’s just such a special collection, the entirety of it.

It’s, you know, almost 80,000 photographic negatives. So it’s not like one thing in the collection. It’s the entirety of it kind of as a whole is very special. So it is probably, I don’t know, for life might be my favorite collection. It’s just an incredible body of work. But I don’t know if I could pick a favorite image out of it, I think that be way too hard. If you’ve seen any of the images in the Teenie Harris collection, it’s hard to find a favorite. So there’s that portion of the question, and then I want to make sure that I remember the second part of the question.

Barbera [00:10:19] If you found a mysterious item that had a story or something that really stood out in your mind from a collection.

Luster [00:11:58] One of the most mysterious things I’ve ever found were posters. They were assigned as a part of a project, posters from a blackface minstrelsy show collection. And it was through the kind of midsouth like the Kentucky region.

And it was the first experience that I had had with like up front and personal portions of that history. So it wasn’t necessarily a topic that I wasn’t aware of, but it was a topic that we often teach from a far distance in this country. There are, I guess, the education structure around blackface minstrelsy. It’s maybe very filtered, and when you’re working with the show posters, there’s no filtering, there’s no distancing. It’s very like it’s you and the posters. And when you start digging into the companies and you start researching the history behind the venues or the companies themselves or the troops that would do these shows.

And further, I would actually say when I found when I was looking into a particular poster that was an African-American troop doing blackface. Now, that was something that I wasn’t necessarily aware of. It wasn’t a cultural aspect that I was very familiar with. So it was very surprising and mysterious that this whole culture existed, that I had no idea.

Barbera [00:13:41] That sounds like quite an intense experience. It was kind of a new one in terms of direct exposure to primary sources that, like you said, there’s often some distance from.

Luster [00:13:59] Yeah, absolutely.

Barbera [00:14:01] Do you have any thoughts for those who are encountering collections like that themselves for the first time?

Luster [00:14:15] I do. And I would say because it often ties into the work that I do now is very up close and personal with the Luster company. It is the storytelling of people who are interested in Black narrative in whatever format that may take, and we can’t guarantee or promise what form that will take [phone ringing]

We can’t guarantee or promise what form that will take or what we’ll find, and it can often be jarring or surprising to say the best, upsetting to say the most, just distraught, I think is also a word that happens.

But when you come when patrons or when clients are in everyday individuals who started out searching for, say, their ancestry and they are descendants of the enslaved, they often there’s this catch point when you have a name and a plantation and a price and a slave owner name. And when all of those records become very real and you can often even—I can give you the address of where that plantation, that house is now, if it’s still standing, when you get down to those details and they’re very, very real and you say here is your mother’s name and that mother’s name and that mother’s name and that mother’s name, who was born in 1842, is an enslaved woman on this plantation. And here is how much she was like when you have all of those details, it becomes very real and very upsetting. There’s not really a separation from it.

Luster [00:16:03] Sometimes it hits you right then and there. Sometimes it does take a while. I’ve seen people respond down the road maybe a week, maybe a month later. You just kind of have to breathe through it, whether you’re an archivist or not. I have found, especially with Black archivists or Black clients working on their ancestry, there is a certain strength that comes through the knowledge and you have to go through it. You just can’t you can’t go around it. You kind of just have to push through it and just let it sit. And it does move. It’s not immovable. The feelings are not immovable. They just move slowly. And if you just accept that that’s the case and know that you’re doing just fine, you’re just letting it move at the pace that it moves. It does kind of wrap in a way that allows you to find space and breath and just kind of ease that you may not have felt at first.

Luster [00:17:11] So I guess it’s a long, very convoluted way of saying that all things pass, all things get not easier, but become more normalized. I think the more that we say their names, the more that we accept them in our hearts and in our minds and in our spaces when you’re dealing with difficult material. It’s going to upset you. It just you kind of have to allow yourself to be upset and let it move through at the pace that it’s going to move through if you try to force it it’s not something that you can force, especially when you have record books or when you have deed books. Those are very difficult when you have. Like, I don’t know, slave records from army enlistment, things like that, they have a certain effect on the individual and it just have it will move slowly, but it will move.

Barbera [00:18:13] I really appreciate what you just shared about that experience and how much care and attention it sounds like you’re placing, in your current work, around the folks that you’re working with and how you engage your audiences and help them through the process of working with materials that may be difficult or upsetting. So along those same lines, in your current work, how do you engage your audiences if you could expand upon what you said a little bit?

Luster [00:18:53] So this is the how I, there are places in one’s own business that one can always grow and improve. and engaging with audience is certainly one of them.

I’ve come from a career of having a marketing department, or an outreach and education department or all of these things, editors and all of this extra amazing support. And when you are in the entrepreneur space, you do all the roles like you are the main person and the support person, and the customer person and the marketing person and you are all the things and I definitely something that I want to be able to do is to connect and reach out to the community here, and, and be more present to show up more online to show up for out in the world. And to engage, I really want to get engaged in social media, but I struggle to engage in social media personally. And so from a business standpoint, I’ve seriously struggled to engage. But I am working on it. And you know, anybody has any tips or tricks on how to engage better out in the world, with audiences who are interested in history.

So that’s the other thing is that building a business, and engaging with people in a virtual space that is very immediate, and has a lot of instant gratification, forming and shaping an interest in historic records, particularly in those that uplift the Black experience. It’s not immediate, it’s not instantly gratifying. And as I think many archivists can attest to doing the work, it can take a long time.

So whether it is processing a collection with a personal client, or doing an ancestry, genealogy, genealogical work with a client, or helping the local community’s school district prioritize their records, it all takes a lot of time. We could be working on school district papers for four months, and there just may not be a lot to talk about in the meantime.

And so how do you engage. And this is something that if anybody has tips and tricks out there shoot them my way, but shoot them my way on Instagram, because if you send them my way on Twitter, I probably won’t see it. I’m on Twitter, I tried to be more active on Twitter, I know I need to just set aside time to be on Twitter. But we’re all just being honest today.

Barbera [00:21:32] A lot of archivists can relate to the tension you’re describing between the immediacy of social media, and the slow and careful nature of archival work that often characterizes what we do every day. You don’t see the results of our work right away. It may take weeks, it may take months, sometimes it takes years to find whatever it is you’re looking for, or to process a collection, or to provide access to that collection. And so I appreciate that you shared that tension because I think a lot of archivists feel that.

And actually, it really hits home for ask an archivist day because that is part of the reason we’re hosting this event is to give archivists like you and others a platform to engage with audiences in a medium that they’re familiar with, but also be transparent about some of the challenges that we face or the interests that we have or just the day to day struggles of the work that we’re doing. So I really appreciate that you shared that. That was perfect.

Barbera [00:22:48] You’ve talked about some of the different collections that you’ve worked with over the years. And because #AskAnArchivist Day has an outreach focus, what is the best or most creative public use you’ve seen of collections or of a collection that you’ve worked with? It could be either, but a public use that you’ve seen, that you went, oh, that’s really interesting. Or, wow, that was really impactful.

Luster [00:23:18] Let me think. Because I’ve seen a lot of cool things. Am I allowed to say something that I’ve done that I think has been one of the coolest thing since sliced bread?

Barbera [00:23:37] Yeah, absolutely. Go for it.

Luster [00:23:39] I don’t necessarily want to toot my own horn, but I will say previously I had the opportunity to partner with one of the local high school teachers, and it was a 9th grade civics class.

This teacher, if I had a teacher like this when I was in high school, I probably would have become an archivist. I don’t know, 2 years sooner than I did. I mean, it’s she’s just she’s just absolutely amazing. Her students adore her. The school I mean, she was absolutely fantastic. And she taught high school world civ. And she taught it from the vantage point of activism and personal responsibility, and so I got to partner with her for many years, I think we probably co-taught this class for three or four years. And so it was fantastic.

It was a class on change agents and social change. And so what we did was we would bring in materials from the Teenie Harris collection in these prints. So we had access to hundreds of prints like matted prints from previous collections. And I would go through them after reviewing with what syllabus was and we would go I would go into class and I’d have my prints, but I would put them on the easel. So actually, I’m getting ahead of myself. She would put up a Teenie Harris image on the board, on the projector, and it was really zoomed in. It was zoomed in. Let’s say it’s a 4 x 5 negative. It was zoomed in on like 1 inch. And the students gave feedback on what it was. It’s a clock or something. It’s a calendar. And then she zooms out a little further and that gives them a little bit more context.

So they start adding on pieces of information, starting to make inferences. She zooms out a little more, a little more. And so with each zooming, the students kind of add on what’s going on with this photograph. So then we take that photograph and I have my first print. So I reveal the first print and they’re connected. The students don’t quite know that it’s connected yet, but they are connected. And so we I give them only what’s necessary to understand the photograph. As the archivist, I know the back story, the cut line behind it, the people in it, but I don’t mention any of that. I let the students kind of start putting things together based on context, clues between the photograph that they’ve seen on the screen and the photograph that’s standing in front of them. I also get them out of the seats and like, come closer, come look at the photograph. You can interact with it. So we have a discussion. What do you see? What do you infer? What do you see? What do you observe? What do you infer? And then we add another print. OK, so now you have to and then we add another one and another one.

I think eventually we end up with four or five prints and it actually we hope we don’t give them context. That’s not necessary. We let them figure it out based on their own inferential skills. And it’s to kind of noodle that out of them. But by the end of the class, we’re having conversations at the 8th and 9th grade level on redlining, gerrymandering and gentrification. It is a great class. It always leaves me on fire every single year. And we would do it for every class period that day. And in the kids came to know that this was this was a thing in the school that this lady comes in with her prints and and we would change it up based on what was going on in the world, because we could always connect a current day event to something in the Teenie Harris collection from 50, 60, 80 years ago.

So we would have these very rigorous conversations around really complicated topics at the 8th and 9th grade level. Based on what do you see, what do you observe, what do you infer? And we would zoom out from one photograph to maybe like 5 or 6 and the kids do all the work. And it was amazing.

I was always blown away by things that they would teach me. It was it was a really cool way to kind of integrate, whether it was a Ahmaud Arbery or the census or other forms of gentrification that were happening in their neighborhoods, whatever it was that was in the news that they were hearing on social media or whatever was going on in the news at the time, we were able to connect to the collection in a very direct and clear way. It wasn’t a stretch like they could see it. So they’re now making connections to their own neighborhoods, to their own families. And it was very it’s still by far one of my favorite teaching with primary sources activities.

Barbera [00:28:42] Sounds like an incredible experience. Yeah, I love the activity you just described, it sounds really, really great. Well, thank you for sharing your time today. It’s been really great to hear about your experiences and the different collections that you’ve worked with over the years. And that class sounds fantastic.

If folks watching this want to see some of the collections that you’ve mentioned, where would they find them?

Luster [00:29:14] So a couple of cool places to check out. First and foremost is the Teenie Harris Collection at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. It is an absolute gorgeous photography collection. Still to this day, my main squeeze. I absolutely love that collection.

There are also really fantastic collections, if you’re interested, at the Schomburg in New York as a part of the New York Public Library system. If you are also interested, feel free to check out the African and Africana studies collections at UNC Chapel Hill. And there’s also a few collections at Duke as well. They have two really fantastic collections in the triangle there. There are really great, fantastic collections everywhere.

The final one that I’ll mention is in Washington, D.C. at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. I think we’ve shortened it to NMAAHC. I’m not sure if other people have done that, but I certainly have. But they absolutely have a great collection and they also have really wonderful tools in their personal what’s it called—they have this lab that they will actually help patrons digitize and conduct family oral histories, digitize your family photographs and help you kind of take the reins in your family to help you do that work. They do all the metadata like, their labs in D.C. are very, very helpful and expansive to just the everyday individual or to any family who’s looking to kind of get help from archivists. Feel free to contact me or anybody with COPA. Anyone with SAA we’d be happy to help you out. And thank you so much.

Barbera [00:31:08] And for the work you’re doing now, if folks want to learn more about your business, what is the name and how do they get in touch with you?

Luster [00:31:17] Absolutely. If anybody is—the way I describe it is the Luster Company is your partner if you have a passion for Black storytelling as much as I do. And that’s about it. Those are the only requirements if you have a love and an interest for Black stories, Black history, Black storytelling in any way, shape or form. Give me a call. You can check out the website at “thelustercompany.com” and you can follow along on any social media platform at the Luster Company. Dominique[at]thelustercompany.com if you want to email me. The “thelustercompany.com” for the website or on any social media.

Barbera [00:32:03] Great. Thank you so much, Dominique, it’s been very fun hearing about your experiences and all the collections that you’ve worked with over the years.

Luster [00:32:12] Thank you so much for having me.

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