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.

“What are you willing to put on the line for what you believe in?”

Archival Innovators: Rebecca Hankins on the Rich LGTBQ+ Collections Housed in Cushing Memorial Library and Archives at Texas A & M University.

Rebecca Hankins with Academy Award-winning writer and director Dustin Lance Black, writer of Milk, when he spoke at A&M.

This is the latest post in our series Archival Innovators, which aims to raise awareness of individuals, institutions, and collaborations that are helping to boldly chart the future of the archives profession and set new precedents for the role of archivists in society.

In this installment, Kristianna Chanda interviewed Rebecca Hankins. Rebecca L. Hankins, FSAA, is the Africana Resources Librarian/Curator at the Cushing Library, Texas A&M University, where her portfolio also includes women’s and gender studies. In this interview, Rebecca reveals the Cushing Library’s extensive LGBTQ+ holdings and her role in working with the LGBTQ+ community to help them preserve their heritage.

KC: Please describe your collection. What are some highlights/interesting features to your collection?

RH: I think the collection is much more diverse than many collections that deal with LGBTQ communities. They are often white collections documenting people most visible in the media and the press. I try to include individuals who are often in the background. Even in the background, they make such an impact on communities.

Our larger collections include the Don Kelly collection and the Judge Phyllis Frye papers. Phyllis Frye, a former Texas A&M student, is the first appointed judge in the city of Houston. She was appointed by the first openly gay mayor of Houston, Annise Parker. Her collection is so rich because one of the unique things I like about Phyllis is that she was always open, honest, and presented herself as “this is who I am.” She married right after graduating A & M, then served in the military as a man. She always felt something was not right. So when she came out as transgender her wife stayed with her and was her biggest cheerleader and supporter. Phyllis was unapologetic, she was in your face, and her collection is the most used of our holdings.

We also preserve the collection of Don Kelly, who still lives in Houston. I have been an archivist for over thirty years and have dealt with a wide range of people, both researchers and celebrities. Don is one of the top, number one kindest, most generous donors that you can ever meet. He was a civil servant for years in Galveston and always lived as a gay man. He collected his entire life and went into overdrive after he retired. He sent out a message to the archives listserv discussing how he would like to donate and sell part of his collection to a repository because it was just getting too large for him. I talked to my colleagues and director at the time and they thought acquiring his collection was a great idea.

I brought in a number of subject faculty in film studies, sociology, history, and other disciplines and told them we need to get this collection! At that time, it may have been 6,000 items. Now it is almost 30,000 items and he continues to add to it. It is one of our largest collections by a single donor.

The thing about the collection that is really great is that it started out with a majority white male focus. However, through discussing with Don the interests of researchers, he will seek and donate materials in those areas. So he’s built a huge collection that, through his efforts, continues to grow and evolve and become more and more inclusive.

Other collections include the papers of Arden Eversmeyer, who started the Old Lesbian Oral History Project that documents lesbians over the ages of 50 or 60; the papers of Professor Harriette Andreadis, who was head of the Women and Gender Studies program at A & M; and documents pertaining to a lawsuit demanding that Texas A&M provide services to LGBTQ students. Students involved in the case received death threats and were treated terribly but would not back down. I tell students that you must understand that sometimes, if you ask nicely they will say yes, but the majority of times they won’t. What are you willing to put on the line for what you believe in? If it is a just cause, you will see some changes.

KC:  What inspired you to work with this collection?

RH I’ve been doing this ever since I started my career at the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University in New Orleans. The Amistad case itself was put before the Supreme Court by the American Missionary Association, which evolved into the United Church for Homeland Ministries. It always supported and advocated for minority communities, including LGBTQ+ communities. So when the Amistad Research Center was founded, documenting the LGBTQ+ community was one collecting focus. Part of my job at Amistad was to connect with the LGBTQ+ community and encourage them to save their materials. When I moved to the University Arizona, I continued that work, and did so again when I moved to the Cushing Library. I am definitely an advocate for community archives and for people archiving their own history to ensure it is preserved. That’s why I do it: it is important that we all have our history documented.

KC: When working with this collection, what worked? What didn’t work? Were you surprised by the outcome or any part of your experience?

RH: Because I am not a part of the community, it’s understandable that people might be suspicious. Have we been the best of allies? Have we been concerned? Is this a part of our history? I understand that it may take time for people to see me as an ally. I am willing to be patient and prove myself. That’s fine, I don’t have a problem with that. I understand being an archivist doing this work gives me a certain privilege. I have to acknowledge that and say “okay, I’m going to let you lead on this. I am going to let this be from your point of view. You tell me. We’ll see how that works.” I think that is important. It’s not my point of view that is important, mine is the least important.

You must be an ally, and you must understand that as an archivist, you are approaching this from a position of power, and you must be ready to remove your own power and pass it to the people you are trying to document.

KC: What would you do differently?

RH: I don’t think I would do things differently. I wish I had more money. Don Kelly has the most expertise when it comes to acquiring gay materials, so I give him part of my acquisitions budget to work with. I wish I could do that with all of my people.

KC: What tips do you have for archivists who want to promote inclusivity through their collections?

RH: Do it. If you want to do it, do it. Sometimes it is just about being brave. It shouldn’t be a matter about being brave. It should be about this is the right thing to do but sometimes in situations you just have to be brave enough to say this is where I am planting my flag.

I think more than anything, archivists need to be more forceful and brave in the work that we do. You won’t get accolades and you may get pushback but do the things that are important to you. I am going to do the work that I enjoy doing because I have to live with myself. So do it. Do what you think is the right thing. Most of the time it will work out and sometimes it won’t, but you will feel better about yourself.

KC: Did you get media attention? How did that happen?

A poster of LGBTQ+ buttons is part of the A&M collections.

RH: I understand the importance of publicity. I give presentations, I talk about my collections, I publish, and I try to get the message out any way I can. Last year something extraordinary happened when the Journal of African American History profiled my collections. I was like “Where did that come from?” The College of Liberal Arts did a profile on the Don Kelly collection, which was wonderful, and we also have a Don Kelly Fellowship. It’s about letting people know how amazing these collections are for research, learning, and education.

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

RH: Michael Jackson, an A&M cataloger, was my biggest collaborator. My good friend Dr. Miguel Juarez has written about our holdings. Dr. Francesca Marini is our outreach person and she and I have talked about the collection across the country. Francesca and I are partnering with the University of Houston on an LGBTQ exhibit.

KC: Did you have institutional, administrative, or financial support for your project? How did you go about securing that support?

RH: Yes we do. The College of Liberal Arts partners with us on the Don Kelly Fellowship. We have also started an endowment for the LGBTQ materials because we need to hire someone paid through this endowment to work with the collections.

KC: What’s next?  Either for this project or a new development?

RH: We still have the Fellowship, but because of Covid we had to push it back. The 2020 Fellow will hopefully become the 2021 Fellow. Also, raising the funding for the endowment will be a priority.

KC: What barriers or challenges did you face?

RH: Most important is making people understand that I am an ally. I am here to let you take the lead.

There’s an archivist for that! Interview with Mott Linn, Chief Librarian of the National Security Research Center (NSRC) at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

This is the newest post in our There’s an Archivist for That! series, which features examples of archivists working in places you might not expect. In this article, Mott Linn talks about his role leading one of the world’s larger scientific research archives.

Mott, thanks for talking with us. Please tell us a little about yourself.

ML: My BA is from the University of Delaware, I have master’s degrees in history (University of Wisconsin – Madison), librarianship (Drexel University), and nonprofit management (Clark University), and my doctorate in library management is from Simmons College.  I am also a Certified Archivist. 

My first archives job was with the Philadelphia Flyers and after that I created the NHL’s video library.  I spent 10 years at Clark University in charge of their archives before 10 years leading the collection services half of their library.  I am now the Chief Librarian of the National Security Research Center (NSRC) at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). 

How did you get into archives? 

ML: By replying to a blind ad in a newspaper (how times have changed!). 

Today, the archival profession’s biggest problem is having too many archival education programs training far too many people to be archivists, who then have great difficulty finding jobs; this is our profession’s great tragedy.  When I started my career, the opposite was true: there were very few education programs.  The good news is that over those decades the quality of archivists has improved; back in the 1970s a major goal of SAA was to do just that.  Because of that, SAA started offering workshops, began publishing manuals and books, established the standards process, and created the Academy of Certified Archivists. 

So, it was not unusual back when I was first hired that I had no training to work in an archives.  However, I did have considerable experience doing research in archives.  Furthermore, I had played, refereed, and coached ice hockey, which meant I had the desired subject expertise for my first job. 

How did you get your current job? 

ML: A headhunter contacted me.  They hired me because not many archivists also have the managerial experience that I have; for example, at the time I was overseeing a $2 million dollar budget.  It also helped that I had overseen the collection of a famous scientist, Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocketry.  

Tell us about your organization.

ML: LANL is a United States Department of Energy laboratory.  It was created during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project to design the first nuclear weapons.  Los Alamos is now one of the largest science and technology institutions in the world and conducts research in a wide array of scientific fields.  It is located in the beautiful mountains of northern New Mexico, which is a wonderful location for outdoor activities. 

Could you describe your collections?

ML: The NSRC collects scientific research materials related to the nation’s defense.  I dare say that we have one of the largest archives in the US.  For comparison, we have a larger collection than most, if not every one, of the presidential libraries.   

We house both a large number and a wide array of materials.  For example, we have over 3 million radiographs, almost a million aperture cards, and a half million engineering drawings. 

Despite our size, the NSRC is only a couple of years old.  Previously, the materials that make up our collection were either in records management or being held by the various LANL lab buildings.  Since we are a new archives, we are still expanding our collections and have been growing our staff. 

Although our collections are used for historical research, they are more heavily used by the lab’s scientists to further their research.  For example, a scientist recently found the results of a series of experiments from years ago that their lab was planning to conduct.  Because we found the previous results, we saved the lab millions of dollars since they did not have to conduct the experiments again.  It is great to both save the US taxpayers money and find the data that our scientists want. 

What are some of the challenges unique to your collections? 

ML: Depending on where our acquisitions are coming from, they might have to be tested for hazardous materials.  Another facility that had created an environmental disaster recently sent us hundreds of boxes. Those boxes were tested.  

In addition, there is the red tape dealing with security and safety regulations.  For example, because of national security reasons, every person on my staff and each of our customers need to have security clearance. 

What is the favorite part of your job? 

ML: I was hired to turn the NSRC into a properly functioning archives.  Additionally, I really like recruiting new archivists to add to my team and helping my staff improve themselves with professional development activities. 

What advice do you have for aspiring archivists? 

ML: First, since too many people are being trained to be archivists, I would ask if they are up to doing the needed training with the possibility of not being able to find a job afterwards.  As I said, there are too many archival education programs training too many archivists; that so many of them cannot find jobs is tragic. 

Second, if they still want to be archivists, when earning your master’s degree, create a backup plan via your choice of classes.  For example, somebody getting a library degree could also take a few cataloging and metadata classes, thereby creating the possibility of getting cataloging jobs. 

Third, expect to continue to grow professionally after graduation because professionals are expected to keep up with improvements in their field.  This is all the more true because of the stiff competition for archives jobs.  You could earn a second master’s degree, go to conferences, and/or take some workshops in an area that you want or need to know more about. 

The most important part of that is becoming a Certified Archivist.  Most professions, such as doctors, lawyers, appraisers, records managers, and accountants, have a way of both certifying who is competent to practice that profession and a method of recertifying who continues to have that competence as that profession evolves.  The Certified Archivist designation serves that purpose in the archives profession.  So, prove your competence to yourself and others, including employers, by becoming a Certified Archivist. 

Share Your Thoughts with the Archives in Context Podcast!

Archives in Context wants to hear from you! In this special episode focused on archivists and archival work during COVID-19, we want to encourage you to share advice and reflections with archivists during this difficult time. Do you have advice for finding joy or practicing self-care? What are you thankful for? You can respond to any of the following prompts:

  • What have you done to practice self-care this year?
  • How have you found joy in 2020?
  • In this difficult time, what advice do you have for your fellow archivists?
  • What are you thankful for this year?

How to contribute:

Option 1: Leave us a voicemail

Dial 206-395-4635. Your call will go straight to the Archives in Context voicemail. After the beep, respond to any of the prompts listed above. Your voicemail can last up to 3 minutes only.

Option 2: Email us

Email podcast@archivists.org with your response to any or all of the prompts. You may choose to respond in written form or you can record your voice and send it to us as an attachment. Please keep your responses brief so that we can include as many as possible in the episode.

Submissions will be open November 9-30, 2020.

Responses received may be edited for length and clarity. Not all responses received will be included in the episode. By submitting an email or voicemail, you are consenting for your words and/or voice to be included in a future episode of Archives in Context. Individual names of contributors will not be included in the episode.