There’s An Archivist For That! Interview with Brad San Martin, Digital Archivist, Apollo Theater

This is the latest post in our There’s an Archivist for That! series, which features examples of archivists working in places you might not expect. In this entry, Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) member Rachel Seale brings you an interview with Brad San Martin, Digital Archivist for Harlem’s Apollo Theater.

Brad San Martin

Brad San Martin. Photo credit Amber Duntley (www.flickr.com/adunt).

Prior to entering the archives field in 2015, Brad San Martin worked in the music and travel industries as a copywriter, content developer, and product manager, among other roles. He has also produced and/or annotated a number of acclaimed historical CD reissue projects, including Kevin Dunn’s No Great Lost: Songs 1979-1985 and Harlan County USA: Songs of the Coal Miner’s Struggle.

How did you get your gig?

I arrived at the Apollo after spending most of my professional life working in the music industry in a few different — including publicity, radio promotion, project management, copywriting, and artist relations — capacities. While in that world I had overseen several archival releases, compiling new CD collections from old tapes, researching the best available sources, clearing the rights, annotating them, and so on. Putting projects like those together inspired me to explore archives as a full-time pursuit. So, eighteen years or so after I finished undergrad, I went back to grad school to get my master’s degree in Library Science with a concentration in Archives. Throughout grad school I worked processing audiovisual materials at the Southern Folklife Collection, which was an incredible opportunity to learn about the nitty gritty of archiving and about the variety of media formats that are out there. I thought I knew them all…

When this position came across my radar, I was thrilled: What fan of popular music hasn’t been affected by an artist, a song, or a movement that was forged onstage at the Apollo? Being here feels like the culmination of everything I’ve been doing before — and it draws from all areas of my experience.

Tell us about your organization

The Apollo Theater takes inspiration from the rich legacy of the theater’s past in order to enrich the future. Through its education department, the theater introduces young people to the incredible contributions that have emerged from Harlem and the Apollo, while also offering students opportunities to learn about what goes on behind the scenes: production and tech, publicity, programming, and more. The Apollo is also positioning itself as a catalyst for a new canon of works, producing and presenting provocative, powerful new pieces of theater, dance, and music.

I always like to stress that while the Apollo has a remarkable backstory, what our programming team is doing now is every bit as vital. And being the archivist means that I get the best of both worlds: I get to help document the new programs we develop while also watching over the materials that allow us to tell the story of the theater’s history.

Describe your collections

The Apollo Theater Archives is a new initiative. I have been here for just about a year and a half now. The fact that I am here at all is a testament to the long-term vision of the Apollo’s past and present leadership — people like Laura Greer and Mikki Shepard, who kept the torch for the archives burning for years before I arrived. Over the past fifteen years, whenever funding was available, portions of the collection were inventoried and preserved. So when I got here, there were a mix of processed and unprocessed collections, in various stages of preservation. 

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Photo by Megan Rossman. Working with Smith Fund intern Samantha Scott to arrange A/V materials in the Apollo’s collection.

The Apollo collection spans pretty much every conceivable audiovisual format, in addition to photographs, posters, program booklets, three-dimensional artifacts, ticket stubs and passes, and business records. In the mid-1980s, the Apollo had full broadcast and audio recording studio facilities, and as a result we have a lot of ¾” and open-reel video from both the theater and recorded for production clients. One of the most informative and illustrative areas of the collection is a set of more than 2000 hand-tinted photographs of artists who performed at the Apollo from the 1950s through the 1970s. Taken as a set, they tell us so much about who worked here — and not just the big stars, who are certainly represented, but the ventriloquists, the dancers, the MCs, the animal acts, and others who may have otherwise been forgotten. 

What are some challenges unique to your collections?

We face the same challenges that other largely audiovisual collections contend with: obsolete formats, unclear rights provenance, storage and preservation issues, et cetera. The Apollo is a working theater in Manhattan, so on-site storage space is at a premium. One of the biggest issues we face is that there is no way the collection can match the formidable legacy of the Apollo. People imagine a goldmine of photos, video, handbills, and posters documenting every one of the thousands of shows that happened here. But the Apollo was a working, for-profit theater for most of its life — people were too busy getting paying customers into the seats to prioritize creating a historical record. 

With that in mind, the collection is also not continuous: We have elements from all eras of the theater’s 85-year existence, but not all eras are represented evenly. A number of materials related to the theater were donated to the Smithsonian by the theater’s former owners. But thanks to the growing capacity of digital tools, we’re able to partner with other institutions and share certain items digitally, enriching our holdings and what we will eventually be able to offer potential users.  

Speaking of users, the Apollo Theater Archives are not yet open to the public — so it’s also a challenge for me to ask interested people to wait while we catalog, digitize, and preserve the materials in the collection in preparation for them to be accessed.

What is the favorite part of your job?

I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to discover new objects related to the theater’s history and performances on a very regular basis…but even more exciting is seeing the elements of the collection utilized on behalf of the Apollo Theater’s missions. We preserve these things for a reason, and that’s to share them. So watching them become a part of an educational or community program, or referenced by a visiting artist who is working to create a new work, is incredibly fulfilling.

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Photo by Lisa Mullins. Presenting materials with WNET’s Jenna Flanagan from the Apollo Theater Archives on stage at the Apollo’s annual Open House event, February 2, 2019.

That said, the best part of my job is continuing to discover just how much the Apollo means to people — especially those with roots in Harlem. The theater has been more than a performance venue: It’s a pillar of an incredibly vibrant, dynamic community. I see the theater’s role in people’s lives most vividly through our community events, which engage a largely local audience in conversations about history, culture, and politics. The delight and appreciation they express when they discover that we’re working hard to preserve and extend the legacy of a place they love so much is overwhelming. 

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 & Retrospectives: Rachael Woody on Myspace and the Precarity of User Content on Social Media Platforms

RachaelWoody

Rachael Woody

This 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!

 On March 18, 2019 the world learned that Myspace lost millions of songs, photographs, and videos posted prior to 2016. Myspace reports that the loss of data occurred due to a server migration project gone wrong. Such a loss of digital content received mixed reactions as some were horrified and others relieved that their Myspace content was lost. Once a major social media platform from 2003-2008, Myspace has since declined in usership with the rise of Facebook as the predominant social platform. Now, in 2019, Myspace is mostly used for musicians to share work and connect with fans.

It Can Happen to You

What happened to Myspace isn’t an isolated event. It can and will happen again. Social media platforms are not oriented to prioritize the preservation of user generated content. These platforms have the capacity to store user data, but don’t necessarily have backup measures in place for their digital content – as was the case for Myspace. Or, if you are of the more cynical persuasion, some technology experts believe that Myspace may have intentionally deleted millions of digital files so as to not have to maintain them.

When these social media platforms emerged and for almost a decade into most of the platform’s lives, there was no way to download your content. If you wanted to leave Myspace you had to delete your account and there was no way to download any of the content you uploaded during your time using the platform. How do I know this? Because, like many of you, I began on Myspace only to leave it a five years later for Facebook.

Myspace Love Letters

I joined Myspace the summer of 2005 and left the spring of 2010. Myspace had photos, posts, and messages that I didn’t have anywhere else thanks to a computer hard-drive crash and the nonexistence (in my world) of smart phones with cloud syncing. Sure, I could have selected and right-clicked on every photo to download, and copy+paste each post, but that would’ve been a tremendous amount of labor. However, there was one cache of data I could not leave behind: the love letters my husband and I wrote to each other when we first began dating. I consulted with several of my digital archivist peers to figure out if I had any options available to me to save those love letters. The consensus? Print them out.

MyspaceLoveLetters

We Need an Exit Strategy

As archivists, when we consider things such as a collections management system (CMS) we are now experienced enough to know that any platform considered must have an exit strategy for the collection data. Things change, software companies fold or merge, collection needs change, technology changes, and budgets change. Any one of these reasons is enough to instigate data migration to another CMS platform.

Most social media platforms are beginning to offer exit strategies. The top platforms now offer options to retrieve your content, though, I admit, from an archivist’s perspective the options aren’t great.

How to Get a Copy of Your Content

First of all, if you use a smartphone then chances are good that the digital content captured on the phone is syncing to a cloud. That’s good because it means that you still have access and control over all of your original content and its original file quality. The top three social media platforms each offer a way to retrieve a copy of your data. Facebook allows the most customization as you can select a time period, type of content, and a low/medium/high quality setting for the files. Facebook will then provide you an HTML or JSON file for you to download. Twitter offers to send you a file of your content but there is no way to customize what you receive, nor is there mention of what type of file you receive. Instagram lacks customization as well and will provide you a JSON file.

Archivists and the Appraisal of Social Media Content

When we use social media platforms we tend to share without a thought given toward how we might sustainably access the digital content later. As archivists, appraisal as we know it tends to only happen when a length of time has passed. Time and perspective help archivists decide on whether the material in question is of sufficient historical value to be accessioned. As social media users and digital content generators, we may need to save all digital items for a future appraisal to take place. But how can we guarantee access to our digital content? Why is there no easy way to do this?

Preserving Digital Content Isn’t Easy

As digital archivists are well aware, the management and long-term access to digital files is amorphous and hard to predict. Why is preserving long-term access to digital files hard to manage or predict? Here’s a few reasons:

  • Changing file formats and software used to create and access files
  • Poor past practices
  • No intuitive file naming conventions
  • Data corruption
  • Physical medium damage to disks, USBs, CDs, etc.
  • Inability to digitally migrate the content to an accessible format

Preserving (Digital) Objects with Restricted Resources (POWRR) is a great resource for those who want to learn more on how to protect their digital content.

How to Safeguard Your Content

Being proactive is the best strategy to help safeguard your digital content on social media platforms. Here are a few recommendations to consider:

  • Make sure you have a digital file backup system in place and that it’s working. I’ve encountered many people who thought they had a backup system in place only to find out it wasn’t working like they thought it would.
  • If you have the option to automatically sync your content to a cloud then do so.
  • Invest in cloud storage with trustworthy companies that practice at least some digital preservation principles (such as Dropbox or Google Drive).
  • If you’re an institution that generates a lot of web content then consider services such as Archive It for additional support.
  • Request a copy of your “archive” from the social media platforms you use.
  • When in doubt, (if it’s important to you) print it out. Paper is still King when it comes to formats we know will be around for a while.

This post was written by Rachael Cristine Woody, a member of The Society of American Archivists’ Committee on Public Awareness (COPA). The opinions and assertions stated within this piece are the author’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.

An Interview with Micaela Blei, Award-Winning Storyteller and Educator

The Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) is pleased to bring Micaela Blei, PhD, two-time Moth GrandSLAM winner and former Moth director of education, to ARCHIVES*RECORDS 2019 this August in Austin, Texas at the JW Marriott. Blei will be teaching a FREE two-hour  “Storytelling Workshop” on Saturday, August 3 (1:00 PM – 3:00 PM) and hosting a storytelling event, “A Finding Aid to My Soul,” on Sunday, August 4 (8:00 PM – 10:00 PM). Pitch Your Story by June 27 for a chance to participate in the event. If selected, you’ll receive guidance from Blei to help whip your story into top shape.

In this interview conducted by Chris Burns of the University of Vermont and past chair of COPA, Blei discusses how she got into storytelling, her time working at Yale’s Beinecke Library, storytelling education, what we can expect from her as the host of “A Finding Aid to My Soul,” and how archivists can apply storytelling to their own work.

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Micaela Blei has years of experience working with individuals, organizations, and communities to shape and share the important stories of their lives. Her acclaimed workshops are invitations to reflection, spaces for discovery, and—most of all—a lot of fun. Her own stories have been called “heartbreaking and hilarious.” She’s appeared on The Moth Radio Hour and live on sold-out storytelling stages nationwide. In 2016, Micaela wrote the storytelling curriculum now used by more than 1,500 educators around the world. Some of you may also know her from her keynote address at RBMS in 2017.

Burns: How did you get into storytelling?

Blei: I found storytelling in 2011, when I left teaching to go to graduate school in education, and could finally stay up late enough on weeknights to go to shows. I found myself at a storytelling show in Brooklyn, and I loved the feeling in the room, loved the kind of community it created—I got up there and it just felt really right! I started going all the time, began teaching it, and ultimately I changed my doctoral research to be about storytelling and identity.

Burns: You actually have some firsthand knowledge of archival work. Can you tell us a bit about your time as a student employee at the Beinecke Library at Yale?

Blei: I often say it’s the best job I ever had (it’s a tie between that and scouting real estate in the Caribbean, which is a whole other story). It was my work-study, to help out Pat Willis (then the Curator of American Lit at the Beinecke) with her correspondence and filing. But we got along so well, and I got really passionate about what she was doing, so slowly I got to do more and more curatorial things. Pat let me be in charge of exhibits—small ones at first—and it was my first experience with really going on an independent intellectual/research journey. I’m so grateful to her for that!

Burns: Your experience educating aspiring storytellers is pretty impressive and includes creating The Moth‘s educational program. What’s a favorite moment of yours from a past storytelling workshop?

Blei: I think my favorite moments are when storytellers are finding out new things about each other through their stories, even if they already knew each other. One of my favorite moments was in a high school workshop: two boys had signed up together and they were best friends. They cracked each other up all the time, and then one of them shared a story with the group about how it felt when his dad passed away the previous year. When it was time to give “feedback” and responses, the teller’s best friend said: “I had no idea, man. You seemed so together that year. I’m so glad I know what you went through.” It reminded me that sometimes, weirdly, it’s easier to share vulnerability with a group than a trusted friend.

Burns: You will be hosting SAA’s storytelling event this August during ARCHIVES*RECORDS 2019 in Austin. How do you think about making the night work for both the storytellers and audience? Will there be any surprises? Big musical numbers? Pyrotechnics?

Blei: No big musical numbers planned, unless there is a big demand, in which case I’ll pack costumes . . .

I think a lot about the kindness of a storytelling audience: this isn’t about impressing each other, it’s about connecting with each other. It takes the pressure off. On the audience side, it’s this chance to step into someone else’s experience and realize—that’s happened to me too! Or I never realized that’s what that’s like!

As host, I will also be trying out my absolute best archive jokes from my Beinecke days.

Burns: What are the odds that you might share a story?

Blei: Quite high! I’ll tell a little something at the beginning of the evening, to help set the mood . . . and in my workshop on August 3, which I am so excited for, I’ll probably start us off with a story.

Burns: Why do you think archivists should consider learning more about storytelling as it relates to their work?

Blei: I think learning more about storytelling can help introduce some new tools, but more importantly, remind you that you already have powerful tools that you can use with new intention. We tell stories all the time! Realizing that this is something we are already good at—and can apply it with an awareness—can be so effective in archives work.

I also think that this workshop will help re-frame what “having confidence in public speaking” means. It’s a little bit of a different approach and so many people have found it really helpful.

Burns: Is there anything else you’d like to share regarding your work as a storyteller and educator?

Blei: Not at the moment! If you want more, apply to be in the show, or come to my storytelling workshop, or “A Finding Aid to My Soul”!

Archives + Audiences: Dan Lindsay and Ben Piner on “LA 92” (Part 2)

“LA 92” theatrical and TV release poster.

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, we feature Part 2 of COPA member Nick Pavlik’s conversation with Dan Lindsay and Ben Piner about their work on the acclaimed documentary LA 92, which examines the 1992 Rodney King protests in Los Angeles entirely through archival footage.  Lindsay co-directed the film, while Piner was a producer and archival researcher for the project. Remarks have been edited for length and clarity from a transcript of the original telephone interview.

See Part 1 of the interview here.

NP: Are there any other major challenges that stand out to you, separate from the ones you’ve already referenced?

BP: Just from the acquisition and licensing side, the one that comes to mind was when, about halfway or maybe three quarters of the way through the post-production, we got wind that CBS had applied a new restriction on raw footage. And with the emphasis that we had on raw footage, that we had already cut in minutes and minutes of that content [into the film], that was a major alarm for us.  And we ended up having to take some very significant proactive measures in order to try and claw back the content that we had taken for granted as being available, and pay them for it and include it in the film. I just remember, in actually clearing footage [generally], there were many little things that could threaten a piece of footage’s viability. And when you start to think about that over the course of an entirely archival film, it was just a real bear to get it out the door.

NP: Yes, I can imagine!

DL: Now I think about the “aha” moments. When I think of the progress that has been made, in terms of digitizing stuff and making things searchable on databases online, I don’t think there is a world in which we would have been able to make this film fifteen years ago. It just wouldn’t have been possible to pay to create screeners for all these things, and to be able to search the archives the way that we have. It’s something that TJ [Martin] and I have talked about. I think this form of documentary filmmaking is going to just become more and more prevalent as technology progresses. Not only on the side of us as community members [increasingly] filming our own lives, but also in terms of being able to digitize a lot of this stuff, and make it searchable in databases so it’s not so cumbersome to try to go through what exists. I think that’s really exciting as a filmmaker. So, hats off to the archivists in the world that do the work to actually preserve that stuff.

BP: That’s a good takeaway too. The level of appreciation you feel when an archivist can deliver a moment in the archive for the film. It’s a lot of years between [the creation of footage] and making sure that it’s something that can be sent in a WeTransfer link, for instance. We try not to take it for granted. It’s an interesting combination of being frustrated and also being grateful for what exists.

NP: That’s certainly gratifying to hear as an archivist, and I certainly hope we see more films of this type and of this caliber. They really are shining a light on that raw footage, things that have never actually seen any commercial broadcast before and really get to the heart of the stories. The footage in your film is really disturbing, powerful, and heartwarming all at the same time. And it’s just really amazing stuff that I feel most people have never seen before in relation to the Rodney King events.

DL: The other thing that comes to mind, in terms of what the future looks like and these types of films, is that I think there are going to be interesting moral questions that will present themselves. In terms of, like you said, things that were not broadcast, moments in between interviews, when maybe the subject isn’t really aware that they’re [on film].  I think now we have a better awareness of when we’re being filmed and when we’re not. There’s less of an understanding of privacy. But when you go back to something in the mid ’90s or late ’90s, and it is that raw, really human moment that says something about us as human beings but maybe that particular person wouldn’t want to be used.  I think there are going to be a lot of interesting questions that will arise out of those decisions that both filmmakers and archivists will have to make, making judgments in that regard.

NP: Yes, absolutely. In the latter half of the twentieth century, up until the social media explosion, video and film were heavily in use as a medium of course, but as you said, there wasn’t that expectation necessarily that the product of that film or video would ever be made public.  Whereas now, it’s almost a given that we’re all just expecting, “certainly this is going to wind up online somehow.”

BP: One last thing – just thinking about what made the film work in the way it did, I think we’d be remiss not to bring up the role that the score played and how it was married with the archival footage in a way that had a lot of intention.  The composers and directors worked really hard on that piece of it.  The footage itself was compelling, but I think without the score to accompany it, it was a really different experience, obviously. That’s true for any film, but I think it’s especially true for LA 92.

NP: That’s a great point. The score was fantastic.

BP: It augmented the archive in a way that I didn’t really appreciate until I saw it in its finished form.

NP: Do you have any tips or advice for other documentarians or filmmakers utilizing archival footage in their films?

BP: I would just go back to, from the acquisition standpoint, just [building] relationships, thinking of these archives and the people who run them as people and treating them respectfully and having gratitude for what they’re doing, needing to go out of their way, of what their normal day might be, to field these kinds of requests.  At the end of the day, that just paid off over the long haul.  And I think that if relationships are one of the top pieces – instead of just thinking about giving me what I want, thinking about it more in the terms of collaboration with the archives – I feel like that’s appreciated, and it’s this build on itself to a place where you can get further than you could if you didn’t prioritize it.

DL: I think on a creative side, the one thing that pops up in my mind is having personal responsibility for what you’re going to use, to not use stuff just because it’s provocative, and to know that your duty is to tell a story that is hopefully enlightening something about us as people, not just for shock value.  It’s irresponsible if that’s all you care about. Again, some of this footage is captured without people necessarily knowing that it’s going to be later used in a film.  Just keep that in mind as you’re progressing forward.

NP: Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience doing archival research or using archival footage in LA 92?

DL: I think the recognition of the people that go out of their way to save things and preserve things, because the history of our civilization is wrapped up in our artifacts. And to be able to have more and more of those primary resources, I think, just allows us to learn more about ourselves, to hopefully have our history inform the current time that we live in.  I think the recognition of the people that do that is really important.  I had that appreciation before we made the film, but it’s definitely grown as a result of making it.


Dan Lindsay is an Oscar and Emmy winning director of documentary films. Along with his directing partner TJ Martin, Lindsay’s films include Undefeated, which won the 2012 Academy Award for Best Feature Length Documentary, and LA 92, winner of the 2017 Prime-time Emmy for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking. They are currently in production on a feature length documentary on the life and career of Tina Turner, which is scheduled for release from HBO in 2020.

Ben Piner is a documentary producer and archival researcher. In addition to LA 92, his most recent credits include the Netflix Documentary Series’ Flint Town and Dogs.  He is currently co-producing an upcoming HBO feature-length documentary on Tina Turner.

Archives + Audiences: Dan Lindsay and Ben Piner on “LA 92” (Part 1)

“LA 92” theatrical and TV release poster.

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, we feature Part 1 of COPA member Nick Pavlik’s conversation with Dan Lindsay and Ben Piner about their work on the acclaimed documentary LA 92, which examines the 1992 Rodney King protests in Los Angeles entirely through archival footage.  Lindsay co-directed the film, while Piner was a producer and archival researcher for the project. Remarks have been edited for length and clarity from a transcript of the original telephone interview.

NP: What made you decide to do a film about the Rodney King protests?

DL: The idea of the film was brought to us by the producers, Simon Chen and Jonathan Chen.  They had set up the project with National Geographic and, when they came to us, there was an idea of doing a look back. The twenty-fifth anniversary of the civil unrest was coming up, and the thought was to revisit that moment. Simon and Jonathan approached TJ [Martin] and I to direct the film. TJ and I took some time to think about it, and eventually came back and said we’d be interested in doing it, but we would want to make it using exclusively archived material and not do any original interviews or shoot any new footage.

If I remember correctly, there was some discussion of a “plan B” of doing interviews in case it wasn’t possible to make the film out of just archives. Obviously we’re not the first people to do something like that, it’s a difficult thing to do. But I don’t think TJ and I had ever considered that back-up plan to be viable. We were going to make this film the way we wanted to make it.

NP: Following up on that, what was it that made you want to make the film entirely out of archival footage and dispense with creating any new footage or doing present-day interviews?

DL: There were multiple reasons. One was to allow the audience to be back in that moment of time and not have contemporary interviews in retrospect that would possibly create a distance for the audience between this event and their experience of watching it. We also didn’t want such a complicated topic – not only the civil unrest itself, but the events leading up to it and all of the underlying issues that led to it – boiling that down to a ninety-minute film felt a little irresponsible to us. So, we wanted to take that moment, the footage that existed, and present it in a way that people could come into it unfiltered and hopefully draw their own conclusions or spur a conversation.

We also come from a background of what’s referred to as vérité filmmaking, or direct cinema, where we are going out and just being a “fly on a wall,” and then putting together a film from that. So we thought that if we could think of these archives as if these were videographers that we had sent out to help us shoot this event while it was happening, it would be like making a film like that. Essentially, you shoot what you can shoot, and then you try to create the narrative and the edit. That felt like a way to be able to do that with a historical film.

NP: Regarding all the archival footage that you used, where did you end up finding all of the footage? And how did you go about securing the permissions to use the footage?

BP: We started out, I think, where most productions like that would start out, regardless of whether it was going to be archival only. And that led us along a path that we continued on for the duration – it was months of time – of trying to find content. I think along the way, when we were in Los Angeles, we also had the luxury of contacting some of the people who had recorded stuff on their own outside of the news entities here. And that was one of the more interesting parts of it, and I think we got some content from people who were literally down at Florence and Normandie [Avenues] filming. You can get some stories from them that inform the way the footage might get used as well.

But we had a relationship with one local news company called KTTV and KCOP.  They were part of the Fox Family that we were a part of with National Geographic, and that opened the door – a pretty significant door – to getting in there and getting some air checks, just bits and pieces of the way that archive has been retained by a guy named Mitch, who was a really diligent archivist and still is there. He has taken a lot of time over the years to make his archive date-searchable, and you can come to him, time after time, with different requests and he would always find what was available and send it back out.

With all of these, you need to get the information about what’s licensable and the rates, and what’s restricted and how it’s restricted – is raw footage restricted? Every local place like that, and the national places too, all have different sets of rules that apply to how the footage can be incorporated. So it was a lot to keep track of, and we just kept at it, chipping away. You’d see something in one clip that would make you want to go check into something else. We often would see moments that would be clipped, or were somehow cut away at a moment that we wanted to see more of. It’s a lot of following back up and just bugging people to look again, to look deeper, to turn these people who are in charge of these archives into collaborators. It was a lot of relationship building and maintaining relationships with these folks, over the course of months. And you really do have to ask them a lot.

DL: We went to the “usual suspects” at the beginning. What they sent back was the standard clips that a lot of people like; it’s almost like the greatest hits, so to speak. It did take a while to get a lot of the people – the archivists, the different networks – to wrap their heads around that what we really wanted was this raw material. And that’s not something that is often desired. [Usually when] somebody’s doing a historical piece on anything, they can just say, “Give me a thirty-minute reel of the best stuff,” but we were really looking for the stuff in between that.

NP: That’s very interesting, because that happens a lot as an archivist or working in archives, when somebody has materials they’re interested in donating, for instance, they’ll [often] bring out what they think are the “greatest hits” among the things they have to show as a sampling. A lot of times those’ll be artifacts, say, a pistol that was used in a famous [historical] battle or something. But knowing the types of things that other researchers are going to be [more] interested in, you’re really looking, as an archivist, for that raw material.  So I really relate to that.

DL: To use your analogy of the pistol that was used in some battle, that stuff – the “significant” stuff – exists out in the world because lay people understand that it’s significant. But it’s the everyday stuff that doesn’t seem as significant that is really, when telling the full story, the hardest stuff to find, and it’s the fabric that connects the dots between the real big moments that we tend to as a society.  These things get filtered down into bullet points.

NP: Yes, exactly. And tragically, so often that’s the stuff people end up throwing away because they don’t realize the significance of it.

DL: Right. For sure.

NP: Going off something that you had mentioned – the things that, when you were doing archival research, you would see in footage that would really interest you, but then [the footage] would cut out, and you’d try to go looking for where that [footage] picked up amongst the raw materials. Were there things that you were hoping to find in your research that you ended up never finding?

BP: The first thing that comes to mind that falls in that category, I think, was news content, specifically from the Spanish-speaking community here in Los Angeles. We looked very hard and made a lot of calls to, I think it was Univision and [some] other places that we were trying to source content. We were literally on the phone with folks in Mexico, at one point, trying to see if their main location in Mexico could have retained any of the broadcast. We were able to get some radio, I think, that was in Spanish and a little bit more and that POV was addressed a bit, and we wanted more of that. We wanted more options from that. So I think what we included, ultimately, was from a very limited stash of content that could have been included. It’s always tough.

There was an interesting situation with a guy named Reggie, who, similar to a lot of these folks at the time, had stuff go out to different channels.  He had done a deal right after everything had happened, and was a little confused about whether he retained the rights to his footage. He had seen bits and pieces of the stuff that had been included in the hard copy. Ultimately, we ended up finding out that he did have rights to his footage, and he had the original tape. That was an instance when we had a glimpse of something that was pretty interesting, because he was right at Florence and Normandie. He was down there right at the tail end of some of the most famous violent scenes that made their way out. And the raw tape that he ended up getting ended up being pretty powerful and we were able to include it in the film. So, they weren’t all in vain, but there were definitely some pursuits that just led to nowhere.

NP: Continuing in that vein, was there anything about the archival research process that surprised you, or did you have any major “aha” moments in the research process?

DL: Just from direct insight, I think there was a bit of naïveté on our part in thinking that more stuff would be archived in its original form. Just knowing what is required on our side when we deliver something, in terms of deliverables to a network, all the different versions [we make], making sure that there’s a textless version and there’s a version with the audio split out on one track, etc. You make all that stuff that you give to these places, and then when you go to the archive you find that they only have the main version with the titles all over it.  That’s the only thing for me that was surprising, just how there wasn’t more raw material out there.

BP: I can tail up on that too, just to say that I had never really pushed as hard on archives as we did for this film, and I guess I ended up being surprised at how much more there was sometimes after having been told that everything had been spent as it related to what we’d asked for. A level of persistence, in that sense, really did pay off over the course [of the project]. But you really have to have the time in order to allow these people to do what they’re doing and to go radio silent for a month, and then all of a sudden they’re back and they’re providing interesting content again.

[Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview with Dan Lindsay and Ben Piner!]


Dan Lindsay is an Oscar and Emmy winning director of documentary films. Along with his directing partner TJ Martin, Lindsay’s films include Undefeated, which won the 2012 Academy Award for Best Feature Length Documentary, and LA 92, winner of the 2017 Prime-time Emmy for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking. They are currently in production on a feature length documentary on the life and career of Tina Turner, which is scheduled for release from HBO in 2020.

Ben Piner is a documentary producer and archival researcher. In addition to LA 92, his most recent credits include the Netflix Documentary Series’ Flint Town and Dogs.  He is currently co-producing an upcoming HBO feature-length documentary on Tina Turner.

There’s an Archivist for That! Interview with Joel Thoreson, Archives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

This is the latest post in our There’s an Archivist for That! series, which features examples of archivists working in places you might not expect.  In this entry, COPA member Anna Trammell brings you an interview with Joel Thoreson, Archivist for Management, Reference, and Technology at the Archives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. 

Joel Thoreson 2019

Joel Thoreson, Archivist for Management, Reference, and Technology, Archives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

AT: How did you get your job?

JT: I was just finishing up a grant project at the Nebraska State Historical Society scanning glass plate negatives when I was hired here as assistant archivist for reference. We reorganized in 2005 and I took on additional management duties with the title Archivist for Management, Reference Services, and Technology. My M.A. was from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, with a double major in history and museum studies. My original intention was to work in museum collections, as I had worked in that department of the Minnesota Historical Society for nearly five years prior to grad school. We had some coursework in archives in the museum studies program, but I’d spent much more time in the archives while working on my history degree. I also had a Lutheran church background, growing up as a pastor’s kid, and attending Augsburg College in Minneapolis, where I’d done some work in church history. I also had library experience and worked with microforms and digital imaging.

TALC_1961_MLK_Q&A

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. answering questions at The American Lutheran Church Luther League convention, Miami Beach, Florida, 1961.

AT: Tell us about your organization.

JT: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was formed by a merger of three predecessor church bodies in 1987, with two of those bodies formed by mergers in the early 1960s of four church bodies each, several of which had even earlier mergers. Our archives collects materials from the headquarters (aka churchwide) level of the church, with the main building about eight miles away from the archives. The ELCA is divided into 65 synods, essentially districts, most of which have grouped together into nine regions with an archives serving each region. Those regional archives collect materials from the synodical offices as well as records from dissolving congregations. Each of the more than 9,000 active congregations are also charged with maintaining their own archives. We provide guidelines and advice to the congregations regarding both archives and records management, as well as to the synods and regional archives. The ELCA also has a long tradition of global mission work, so we work with international partner churches regarding their archival records, as well as with the Lutheran World Federation Archives in Geneva, Switzerland.

ELCA Archives indulgence

Papal indulgence, 1516. Presented to Lutheran Church Productions, producers of the Martin Luther film by German Lutherfilm, GmBH, in 1954.

AT:Describe your collections.

JT: When the ELCA was formed in 1987, the archives was also formed by merger of three predecessor archives, all with their own organizational systems. We now have nearly 16,000 linear feet of records, including a large amount of audiovisual materials, including photographs, audio records, video recordings, and motion picture film. The oldest material dates back to 1812 and the migration of Pennsylvania German Lutherans into Ohio. Older material resides at ELCA regional archives at seminaries in Philadelphia and Gettysburg, Pa.

Our reference inquires tend to be divided evenly between genealogical, historical, and administrative, receiving roughly 2,000 inquiries per year. We are open to the general public and try and make our records as accessible as possible. Our main genealogical resource is a set of microfilmed congregational records that were filmed from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s. We have recently worked with Ancestry to digitize, index, and host the pre-1945 material. These records only cover congregations from certain ancestor branches of the ELCA, so quite a lot of work is also helping researchers find the right congregation to contact to locate records.

ALC Chaplain Conrad Walker - Communion Service in Viet Nam, 1967

American Lutheran Church Chaplain Conrad Walker conducts Communion service in Viet Nam, 1967

AT: What are some challenges unique to your collections?

JT: Since many of our predecessor church bodies were formed around ethnic identities, many of the records we have up to the 1930s are in various languages, including German, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Spanish, Finnish, Slovak, and Icelandic, with global mission records in an even wider variety of languages.

With the dispersed archives system in the ELCA of regional and congregational archives, much of our work at the churchwide level is to direct traffic, helping people find the right repository to find the information they are seeking.

Being isolated away from any educational institution, we also are limited in our supply of volunteers and students. We do have some on-site researchers, but we provide quite a lot of resources to remote users, as well. Since we are separate from our main churchwide offices, we also struggle with being visible to staff there and have to work at making our services and collections known.

Also, with declining membership numbers of many religious organizations, we’ve faced budget cuts, declining from a high of eight staff members here in the archives, including a couple of grant positions, down to the current three staff members. We also have taken on additional responsibilities for managing the records management of the ELCA churchwide organization, as well as managing the art collection.

BMD ULCA 61.5.5 b2 f9 deaconesses with biplane

Lutheran deaconesses from the Baltimore Motherhouse of Deaconesses pose with a biplane, 1920s

AT: What is your favorite part of your job?

JT: Handling the reference questions, I always say that my job is like detective work, finding the right answer or the right document for the patron. Every day there is some new inquiry with a new direction to explore. Perhaps there are fewer fist fights or car chases than on Mannix, but in some ways my childhood aspirations have been achieved.


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!

Archival Innovators: Helen Selsdon, Archivist, American Foundation for the Blind

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.

Helen Selsdon. Photo courtesy of the American Foundation for the Blind.

In this installation of Archival Innovators, we bring you an interview with Helen Selsdon, Archivist at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), highlighting her work coordinating a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded project to digitize the AFB’s Helen Keller Archive and make the digital collection fully accessible to blind, deaf, hearing impaired, deafblind, sighted, and hearing audiences alike.  This groundbreaking project serves as a model for providing truly inclusive access to digitized collections.

AA: Where did you get your idea and what inspired you?

HS: The American Foundation for the Blind’s Helen Keller Archive is the world’s largest repository of materials relating to Keller’s life and work as a deafblind author and activist who dedicated much of her life to advocating for people with disabilities.  Keller served as an early leader of AFB, beginning in 1924 and continuing to work for the organization for over 40 years, and she has been the main inspiration for our project to digitize the Archive and make it fully accessible online to blind, deaf, hearing impaired, deafblind, sighted and hearing audiences alike.  The project has enabled us to bring Keller’s archive to the very audiences whom she tirelessly served throughout her life. Please visit: www.afb.org/HelenKellerArchive!

As for the original idea for the project itself, I certainly cannot claim credit for that!  The idea was a truly collaborative one developed throughout AFB over the course of several years, and is indeed a natural outgrowth of our mission to promote accessibility, equality, and opportunity for people who are blind or visually impaired.  As the project coordinator, I am simply grateful to be a part of this project and to help make Keller’s extraordinary archive universally accessible online.

AA: What kind of institutional, administrative, or financial support did you have for the project? How did you go about securing that support?

HS: First and foremost, this project would not have been possible without the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which has provided principal funding for the project through a series of four grant awards. In March 2015, AFB received a Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant for Phase I of the project; two additional, smaller grants were awarded for Phase One of the project which ended in December 2017. In March 2018, an additional Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant was awarded for Phase II of the project which is projected to end in October 2020. Success is contagious! As the result of securing the NEH funds, other private funders, most notably American Express, have also joined this project to support it financially.

As I mentioned previously, AFB is also completely behind the project and has provided substantial institutional support and resources to see it through.  AFB’s administration understands how highly unusual it is for such an organization to have the opportunity to steward such an invaluable and historically significant collection as the Helen Keller Archive, and they see firsthand how Helen Keller continues to serve as a powerfully inspirational figure for the rising generation of disability advocates.  They are committed to ensuring global online access to the collection for the many audiences – from scholarly researchers to children – who contact us every day wanting to learn more about Helen Keller.

AA: What barriers or challenges did you face?

HS: The technical customization required to ensure full accessibility to the digital collection for the blind, deaf, hearing impaired and deafblind was, and continues to be, a challenge.  A great deal of the NEH funding has gone towards the development of customization tools that can take a standard finding aid hierarchy, which provides the structure for the digital collection, and configure the underlying code in such a way that enables access for people using assistive technologies.  Fortunately, we were able to engage a wonderful group of programmers from Veridian, a management software design company, to develop those tools for us.  It was definitely a learning process, even for the coding experts!  But it is my hope that more experts like Veridian learn how to enable access to digital collections for assistive technologies, this in turn will result in accessibility becoming a standard component of archival digitization projects.

Another challenge concerned optical character recognition (OCR) of digitized handwritten documents in the Helen Keller Archive. While standard OCR software can make written documents text-searchable, this utility is largely restricted to type-written documents.  The standard tools are much less effective when it comes to handwritten documents.  This challenge required us to come up with a solution, which we did! As the result of posting an advert requesting volunteer transcribers on Idealist.org we now have an amazing team of volunteers from around the country who work remotely to transcribe handwritten documents that can then be read by OCR. All these transcribers are trained by Toya Dubin, the president of Hudson Archival, the company entrusted with digitizing the collection. The first phase of this transcription work started in March of 2018, and the first public launch of the project was in June 2018.

AA: Do you have collaborators? If so, how did you find them?

HS: It’s no exaggeration to say that the entire project is one immense collaboration.  At the last count, we had 22 people from all different walks of life and expertise working on this project.

Choose your collaborators well! It’s a key step in making sure your project goes smoothly and is a success.  I reached out to the archival community using listservs to find recommendations for a digitization vendor, and I came upon Hudson Archival. I now consider Toya Dubin at Hudson Archival as my “partner-in-crime” on the project. She and her team are as invested in the work as we are. And of course, we work very closely with our software team Veridian, and our army of transcribers. I can’t stress enough how collaboration has been the be-all and end-all of this project!

AA: Have you received media attention for your project? If so, how did you make that happen?

HS: Fortunately, yes!  To promote the project, AFB’s public relations manager contacted Felicia Morton at Morton PR, who helped attract the interest of several media outlets, and we’ve received substantial media coverage of the project as a result.  One of my favorite moments from this entire project was when media outlets showed up at a celebration event we held for visually impaired fifth graders at the New York Institute for Special Education whom we had previously taught to navigate the Helen Keller Archive site using assistive technologies.

AA: Is there anything about the project you would do differently?

HS: To be honest, in the big picture, the entire project has gone exceedingly well, and overall I’m happy to say that I would run the project in much the same way again – with one major exception – metadata! If there’s something important we learned it’s that metadata takes a very long time to create – and certainly far longer than we anticipated. My advice to others is to schedule more time for this aspect of your digitization project and increase your budget accordingly.

AA: Do you have any tips for budding archival innovators?

HS: My first piece of advice, for those who are seeking external funding for their projects through an agency like the NEH, would be to never give up on pursuing grant awards!  I know how difficult it is; we went through ten years of unsuccessful proposals to the NEH before finally receiving our first grant for the project.  I’m convinced that we never would have secured funding if it wasn’t for NEH Program Officer Joel Wurl, who graciously and patiently worked with us to continually improve our proposal and encouraged us to keep applying.  Once we finally received funding, Joel continued to work with us every step of the way, and thanks to his help we were able to secure additional grants to help sustain the project.  None of this would have happened without Joel’s help.

My second piece of advice involves the technical process. Customization of the digital site was an important and complicated task. AFB does not have the staff nor time to undertake this aspect of the project on its own. AFB’s amazing technical team worked hand-in-glove with Veridian to get the job done. Securing the assistance of an outside software company proved essential and I advise others with limited staff and resources to do the same. Everybody wins!

Some other tips I would offer based on my experience are:

  • Don’t panic – know that you’ll need to take things one step at a time and problem-solve as you go. Everything takes a lot of time, usually longer than you think it will.
  • Be inclusive; bring in people who do not think like you.
  • Do a lot of usability testing with diverse user groups who bring different ways of thinking. We’ve had a wonderful group of users– people who are sighted, blind, low vision, deafblind, and who have paraplegia – from various backgrounds, including  scholars and academics, testing and providing feedback on our site throughout the project, and their input has been invaluable.
  • Never, never be afraid to ask for help. If you don’t ask for help, you’ll never get your project off the ground!

Helen Selsdon has served as the archivist for the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) since 2002. She manages the Helen Keller Archive, the Talking Book Archive, the AFB Archive, and the M. C. Migel Rare Book collection. She serves as a grant writer and spokesperson for AFB’s historical collections.

Most recently she was the project director for a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded initiative to digitize and make accessible a large portion of the Helen Keller Archive. Selsdon coordinated the work, including AFB’s efforts to pioneer an online digital archive that can be a model of accessibility for other repositories: the Helen Keller Archive. On the heels of completing this project in December 2017, AFB was awarded a second grant to digitize the press clippings and scrapbooks in Helen Keller’s Archive.

Prior to her work at AFB, Selsdon worked as an archival consultant and created archival collections for organizations as diverse as Pfizer pharmaceutical company, the Chapin School for Girls, and a private family collection in Manhattan. Selsdon first became interested in archival work in 1988 when she worked as an assistant to the archivist at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in London, England.

Selsdon holds a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts, Painting, from Camberwell School of Art, London, U.K., and a master’s degree in Medieval History and certificate in Archival Management from New York University.


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