Ask An Archivist: An Interview With Terry Baxter

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 Terry Baxter by COPA member Rachael Cristine Woody.

For our fifth and final installment of this mini-series, we’re excited to share a conversation with Terry Baxter, archivist for the Multnomah County Records Management and Archives Program and the incoming Vice President/President-Elect for the Society of American Archivists. Rachael Cristine Woody of the Committee on Public Awareness sat down with Baxter (virtually) for a video conversation in 2021.

Terry Baxter has been an archivist for 33 years, the last 20 with the Multnomah County Records Management and Archives Program. Terry is a member of and has served in a variety of leadership positions in Northwest Archivists, Society of American Archivists, Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums, Archives Leadership Institute, and The Academy of Certified Archivists. He has presented and written on tattoos as personal archives, documenting domestic terrorists, archives as tools of power structures, diversity and inclusion in the human record, community based archives, archives of state-sponsored surveillance, and a variety of other topics. Terry is a proud Local 88 member and a proud public servant. He lives in Cully with his wife and brother-in-law and is frequently visited by ten kids and 5 grandkids.

Video Interview


Baxter [0:00:03] My name is Terry Baxter I’m the Archivist for Multnomah County Archives, which is in Portland, Oregon, and the Oregon Country Fair which is in Eugene, Oregon. I’ve been an archivist in various settings since 1985. And in service desk, I’ve done quite a few different things with SAA and Northwest ArchivistS particularly, archival service. Been in SAA — I’ve chaired the Diversity Committee I’ve been SAA Council, on the nominations committee, and then, surprisingly, the incoming, Vice President for the organization. So, that’s kind of my service in a nutshell.

Woody [0:00:49] That is quite a bit of service and not a surprise at all that you are now going to be Vice President, which, Congratulations.

Baxter [0:00:55] Thanks.

Woody [0:00:56] So my first question for you is the question we frequently get as archivists, and that’s what is an archivist, but also, why did you become an archivist and how did you become an archivist?

Baxter [0:01:10] Well, let’s get back to what is an archivist. I’ll start with how I became an archivist and that’s if you may have heard this story before because I, this is a question that does get asked a lot, so if you have, bear with me, but I always start with saying I got in for the money, which is an insider joke because nobody gets into archives for the money, but I really did because I was in college at the time working on my bachelor’s degree in history, and I also was raising a family, carrying, 18 hours in school and working 40 to 50 hours managing an Arby’s.

And so, as you can imagine that was, well I was young, I could, it wasn’t that big of a deal but, you know, it was a lot to do at one time and this Oregon State Archives, not the university that State of Oregon archives posted a student worker job that paid about what I made managing the Arby’s but for only 25 hours a week. And so it’s kind of a no-brainer. So yeah, I’m gonna go I’m gonna go work in the archives and save some time. 

Right. And so I did and started out. Started out kind of, in, you know kind of the, of the artifact area of archives so the very first collection I was doing some kind of like preliminary re-foldering type stuff you know one you give the students, and I was the Whitman Massacre trial documents, which was fascinating to me on, on the face of things, but, you know, started to lead towards some other, you know processing type jobs and working, working with the various documents and then I got assigned to do a very large cataloging basically project with the territory on provisional government records of Oregon, which again was. These are old and cool documents you know so, so I kind of thought, well if I get my degree I can actually do this work that pays pretty well and it was really still about the money, you know, as it was a good paying steady job with government benefits. So when a job opened up in the summertime, on a three-year records management project. I applied and got the job. 

And so I started working on that. And then things really changed, and this kind of will segue into what an archivist is in a lot of ways because I don’t believe an archivist is someone who just writes a bunch of stuff about a bunch of documents and, you know puts that together. My boss was given the opportunity to go to a thing called Camp hip, which was the as a long name. And then, the Institute for Advanced Archival Administration or something like that. And it was a mid supposedly a mid-career archivist bonding, learning about electronic records, learning about, you know management techniques, a lot of ways is a precursor to things like the Archives Leadership Institute and that was cohort-based and designed to give skills, techniques, and kind of like connections to folks. And my boss said I don’t want to go to this, what do you want to go on is that sounds interesting, it’s in Pittsburgh, why not give it a whirl and see, see what it’s all about. And I did. 

And it was really fascinating to see a bunch of folks much further along in their careers than I was thinking about archives in a different way thinking about archives as a means to an end so you can use archives for a lot of different stuff and you could use them, you know, for regular stuff, regular research, you can use them for entertainment, but you can use them to make change and I think that was really something I hadn’t thought about at all. Up to that point. And once I started to think about things in that way and conceptualize archives and archivists as changemakers, and as you know, people that could do active work you know not just sitting in an office processing records or, you know, working with ivory tower researchers but that everyday regular problems could be solved. People with just stuff they need to get done, you can help them get that stuff done. And that really turns a switch in my head, and I saw what an archivist is a facilitator, a connector, someone who is out there actively trying to make their community, broader communities, individuals lives better. And so, so once I saw that through that glass then I was hoping it became something I just wanted to do the rest of my life.

Woody [0:06:04] I love that answer. That’s, I didn’t, I don’t think I’ve heard the story about the really was the money, first of all, that was very amusing, but I love the archivist being facilitators connectors, helping to reveal some of those truths.

Okay, next question for you is what is your favorite item In the archives or the most curious or mysterious item in the archives that you found?

Baxter [0:06:32] Hmm. Yeah, those are always, they’re interesting questions, because, you know, it’s like, which of your children are the favorite, the one that’s in front of you right now, right? 

So, but I would say I, one of my absolute favorite to my to myself personally, and it’s not, it’s not particularly important, but it’s to me, it’s really kind of fun in it. It’s kind of one of those, what could be kind of story. So I am in Oregon in 1964. Actually, in ’63, they started planning for it. A commission was set up and it was we have, we have a set of records, I believe the City of Portland has a set of records. So I think both institutions were, you know, kind of was one of those multi-jurisdictional organizations, but it was the Delta Recreation Commission.

And it was set up to investigate and propose a bond measure to set up a dual-use Major League Baseball and NFL Stadium in Delta Park. And being an NFL guy, like I really fit into the NFL of all sports, I think that’s the one I kind of follow the most. It was really fascinating to me to see how close this came not really close, it was close up to get on the bond measure. But it was voted down pretty handily, I think by about 15%. But it was a commission that was just set up to they went through and the minutes are there. And the pictures It was kind of this weird, dome almost spacecraft-y, the looking thing and it was really, we have the postcards that they sent out to show what it would be like and it was modeled after some of the really innovative dual-use stadiums at the time. So it was set up to have like a retract, I believe it had a retractable roof and was going to be you know, set up in a way that you could do both of these things and attract two major league teams and baseball is had a pretty long history in Portland with triple-A teams like the Portland Beavers, but football has really never been a thing here.

So those you know, the records were just cool to me, they, you know, they have all this stuff in the election stuff the way it was voted down. So sad. And then they just kind of sat there. Most of the time I’ve been I’ve been at the county archives for 24 years, 23 years now. And they’ve only been used a couple times, with the exception of just the actual picture used for an exhibit. But the guy that did the research was researching sports, and we’re in Portland, specifically Portland, Oregon. And his conclusion was that the failure of the Delta Dome was both good and also it was Portland-y in the sense that I don’t know if you’ve been to Delta Park but Delta Park now has soccer stadiums, it’s got baseball fields, softball fields, tracks, and all this stuff and he said, “the fact that we don’t have an observational sports set up in Delta Park but we have a participatory sport set up in Delta part is really a lot more Portland-y and it’s also probably better for the community.”

And I hadn’t thought about it that way but that’s absolutely true. I do like to play sports too so I can see where that makes a lot more sense to have something where people are you know getting off their asses now actually running out there and playing as opposed to you know, just watching sports either in the stadium or on TV so yeah, so it kind of worked out so that’s, that’s a collection that’s kind of near and dear to my heart. I had not heard that before but your description that’s so Portland-y does seem accurate.

Woody [0:10:01] Alright, Terry one last question for you, and that is what’s the best or most creative public use of the collections you’ve seen?

Baxter [0:10:11] Well, I will. There are several answers to this but I’m going to give you the one that I think is the most important. And we got in a collection, maybe. I’m gonna say probably 10 years ago that said, I could give you exactly the answer if I looked it up I think it’s about 10 years ago, and it was a collection called the Regional Drug Initiative. And this was a really multi-jurisdictional group with the reason we have the records is because the district attorney led the group, but it was the sheriff’s office, city of Portland Police Bureau, FBI, anybody that might have kind of an intersection with the nascent war on drugs because that’s really what this was. This was the governmental layout for how to how to proceed with the war on drugs.

And so, again, a collection that just sat there for a long time but getting to your ideas about how research, and you know outreach and reference might be a little different nowadays. I knew a guy who was interested in this stuff because he’d done work with—he’d done work on a couple of side projects in town and I knew he had some interest in this, in this area so I said, Hey, come on out. Come out, check this new collection out and see what it is. It wasn’t processed yet but I knew generally what was in it and I knew, you know, what he was interested in. He started plowing through it and he found some stuff for his project. 

And then he left without, you know. It wasn’t a really big deal until he came back about a year later. And he said I am doing research on drug houses. And I said, well I don’t know anything about drugs. So, well, that’s what I called and evidently, a family member had had a house that had been called the drug house and that was his vernacular for a drug house, and you know so I was still trying to make the connection here what was going on. And finally, I got down to the point that his relative’s house had been seized as a drug house and I said, are you talking about civil forfeiture? He says I don’t know let’s look it up and so he started looking up some of the laws he says, that’s totally it. 

And so all of a sudden this collection that had been used kind of for this little purpose ballooned, and he started doing quite a bit of research in the use of civil forfeiture in the war on drugs in Portland to dismantle urban neighborhoods, so that they could then be revitalized, or, you know, whatever term you want to use for that some people might have other terms for it but, but that was a term used, but he then proceeded to do quite a bit of research in that to kind of show. Whole neighborhoods, not just his relative’s house but whole neighborhoods interest in what was going on with gentrification and some of the other, some of the other issues that Portland faces on a regular basis, and how that can be traced back to Multnomah County’s active and direct participation in the fake war on drugs, which is really a war on Black folks, you know, I mean, Black and Brown folks, and, you know, it just fascinating to me how two things in this really fascinate me one is that the records are just sitting there I mean, you know, this is like a blueprint for what, what everybody has said was so horrible and happened, this is a blueprint for it I mean, nobody was hiding anything. This was just right there. 

But the other thing is how just a really small descriptive element, makes the difference between whether people can find this stuff or not. If I had just said, up, drug house, don’t know what it means, keep on moving. Then this collection would have just sat there, but by kind of teasing out what was really what a drug house really was what, what, what could it mean in government-ese really made the connection successful so the research worked, and worked for somebody who may not be familiar, number one with archives terminology but also government terminology.

So that was a really fascinating and good public use of some of our records.

Woody [0:14:19] Yeah, that is one of the best examples I think I’ve heard that is such a great story. Thank you for sharing that. And I love that it came full circle to archivists being connectors, which is what we started with. Wonderful. Well, Terry, those were all of my official questions. Is there anything else you’d like to share with us before you go?

Baxter [0:14:44] I don’t know. I like meeting archivists so if you see me walking around or something I’m always happy to buy someone a beer, or hang out, chat, whatever.

Ask An Archivist: An Interview With Melissa Gonzales

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 Melissa Gonzales by COPA member Rachael Cristine Woody.

For our fourth installment of this mini-series, we’re excited to share a conversation with Melissa Gonzales, Director of Records Management for Houston Community College, and until 2021, a member of SAA Council. Rachael Cristine Woody of the Committee on Public Awareness sat down with Ganz (virtually) for a video conversation in 2021.

Melissa Gonzales is Director, Records Management for Houston Community College, which was a slight transition from her previous academic and museum archival work. She is currently pursuing a Certified Records Manager designation and is passionate about archival salary equity and advocates for this via leadership roles on SAA Council and now as Vice President of the Society of Southwest Archivists.

Video Interview


Gonzales [0:00:04] I’m Melissa Gonzales. I’m currently the director of records management at Houston Community College. I’ve been there for three years now, and I’m also an outgoing member of council, I’ve served three years on council, and I’m also vice
president of the Society of Southwest Archivists, which I was recently elected to this past year, and I’ll be president starting May 2022.

Woody [0:00:27] Excellent, thank you and I can’t believe it has been three years already for your SAA term.

Gonzales [0:00:35] Yes, it went by very fast. I tried to get as much done as I could as possible. With all the red tape and bureaucracy that pops up. And not to mention the pandemic, I mean that the right everybody for a loop, I think.

Woody [0:00:40] Yeah, absolutely. Okay, so first question for you, Melissa is, what is the difference between archivists and records managers.

Gonzales [0:00:55] Well I think we all know that archivists, preserve materials of importance to organizations, institutions, or individuals that are of a historical nature or ephemeral nature. Records managers tend to, not tend, they do manage those records that are pertinent to business operations for institutions, organizations, also those that are necessary for business continuity in the case of a disaster we manage those based on a retention schedule.

So archivists have collection scopes or, you know collection management policies that dictate what we can and cannot collect that keeps us from over-collecting as well. But we, records managers, are specifically inclined to collect pertaining to the retention schedule for compliance purposes, usually have to make some kind of state or federal compliance, and at the end of that lifecycle, there is an archival component. So you do have to manage the entire lifecycle. So if it gets down to it and some materials are meant to be kept permanently, or for historical purposes, then we have to be able to do that as well.

And it’s interesting that I found that many archivists, I entered the profession, wanting to become an archivist, so when I entered and found that a lot of archivists have never done records management, or were aware of the differences or what it does, what it means that there was a kind of a learning curve but it’s interesting that from the records management perspective they also get thrown a learning curve, regarding, you know, the archival component the end of the lifecycle, and there seem to be gaps there some archival institutions don’t handle records and some records managers don’t handle archivist archival materials or know how to do that so it’s kind of interesting.

Woody [0:02:46] Thank you for sharing. I know that SAA, of course, has members from both of those camps, and for you having served both sides it’s like a pivotal translation spot I think for many of us.

Gonzales [0:03:02] It is definitely, as we know archival salaries, it’s kind of sad that it’s a running joke that records managers positions don’t often require master’s degrees, yet they get paid considerably higher than archivists that do require, you know, their jobs do require master’s degrees.

So, it’s, I went to an ICRM certified records management prep exam course a few years back, and they do have a section that covers archival science, and the person that was teaching it was like I haven’t actually been an archivist for quite some many years, I was the only archivist in the room. So when she found out she kind of looked to me for some questions. But at the end of it, she walked up to me, she goes, “I’m so sorry we get paid so much better than you.” I mean it was that bad, it was that I was
like “wow okay we’re there.”

So I made the switch for salary purposes, which, you know, I think many archivists do that.

Woody [0:04:05] Yeah, absolutely, and can’t blame them, slash I mean it’s a smart decision.

Gonzales [0:04:11] Yeah.

Woody [0:04:12] Yeah, and I think about it. So this sort of goes into our next question, which is why did you become an archivist? Slash, how did you become an archivist? But if you’d like to also address the switch to records management, then that would be great to hear as well.

Gonzales [0:04:29] Sure. So I went to UT Austin. As an undergrad so I was very aware of their high school. While I was there, I worked for a professor and Middle Eastern Studies section department because I actually wanted to be an Egyptologist when I started undergrad, so I did specialize in ancient Roman Greek and Egyptian art and architecture. I took a lot of, you know, conference courses pertaining to that and then I worked for a professor who specialized in early writing. So I did a lot of archival pickups and research and scan, you know, made sure to go and get some resources for her. And so I visited many archives while you know, I was an undergrad and that’s how I became aware of them.

And then I graduated, of course, volunteered in the museum realized, you know, what the actual real-world situation is like for curators, not to mention POC curators. And I was like, oh, okay, this probably isn’t going to be feasible or work out, and if it does, it’s going to be a struggle.

So I went back to banking which I had done, off and on from a retail perspective since I was 17, and had always been a great backup. So I ended up working in corporate banking for a few years and while I was there. I was like, oh look, I’m handling all these records, and I’m managing the records for this department and this is a job. And I started you know looking into it. I thought oh it’s parallel to the archival profession, and I started looking at programs, and so I ended up going with Simmons and went to Boston in 2007 to get that my master’s degree.

And while I was there in turn to are worked at the Simmons College Archives, I interned at the Peabody Museum at Harvard of Archaeology and Ethnology, and then also at Mass Historical. And then in between that because I was really paranoid and the recession hit, and I saw that you know even Harvard was laying people off and when that happened everybody kind of freaked out. So I was like, oh I need as much experience in different types of archives, with different types of files and formats, and different you know CMS is as much as possible so I’m as marketable as I can be.

And I ended up interning in-between. I called the archivist at the Johnson Space Center Archives at UBH Clearlake University of Houston Clear Lake and ended up securing an internship between my first and second year, while I was home. And then, yeah, and then when I was graduating, I thought, well, I’d like to go back to Texas because the cost of living on the East Coast is kind of ridiculous, and when you grew up on the Gulf Coast, you can see how your dollars really stretched.

So I started applying for jobs that were closer to Texas, and my first gig was in a really small town in south Texas that was actually pertinent to the Texas Revolution, and it yeah so it was a town of 2000, and the county I think had 20,000, and I ended up moving there afterward, and it was interesting, I reported to the library board which was made up of retired teachers, so they weren’t really familiar with what I was supposed to be doing, which is why I was really glad that I had had so much experience prior to going. They had hired a consultant from Houston at one point to come in and create a draft o what needed to be done, what needed to be addressed how it should be addressed. And of course to hire professional archivists so they had hired someone prior to me who had left and you know as their successor.

And so that those policies and procedures helped out considerably well, you know, having my first gig in that small town with no help or assistance nearby. So then what I realized was that all of the historical materials from1836 were at either Austin or the state, so they didn’t really have a lot of materials historical materials I had to deal with that. And the mission that was nearby, and so I was like okay so there’s gonna be other things I can do here in the area and so I ended up bringing in the Methodist Church’s records.

And so there were institutional records more so than historical, because the Methodist Church keeps a lot of their birth and marriage and death certificates and books. So I kept mostly their institutional how that church started their board meeting minutes, things of that nature.

I started a collection for the library board as well, and just started doing more institutional archival collections that had to do with the library, the archives, the county that kind of thing that some work with the local Historical Commission, and then my next job after that was with the National Academy Western Heritage Museum and while I was there, my boss, noticed that I had had records management experience, and then when I was at Simmons, you did have an entire course, I want to say I had at least two, but at least one definitely at max two records management courses, and that’s when I started picking up oh this isn’t normal for people to have that background or at least have a semester of it.

So I counted myself really lucky at that point and she was like “Can you start getting the institutional archives together for this museum because they’ve never done it before.” And I was like “okay I’ll draw some, some policies and procedures and see if we can get started.” And then when I went to UT Arlington after that.

The same thing happened, they had a records manager that reported to the provost’s office I believe she’s still there. She was retired and thought that she would take a part-time gig. Nearby, that would occupy her time, her spare time, and ended up turning into a full-time position again for her. So, since I was the university archivist we were working in tandem to determine you know when you know records become archival and it was really kind of mind-boggling that the UT system doesn’t have a set retention schedule for all of its sisters, or you know subsidiary, universities, so it was kind of interesting that we each had to do them on our own.

And I found that in Texas that kind of happens a lot with institutions that have other you know sister institutions and other cities, that they don’t really, they don’t do it from like a system-wide each institution has to do it themselves, which is kind of frustrating, especially when you don’t have the staff to do that. And you don’t have the direction to do it, but what’s really amazing about Texas also is that the Texas State Library and Archives Commission does have retention schedules that are for colleges junior colleges local government, it’s all mapped out so all you have to do is pretty much double check with your departments that those are the records they create, which ones they don’t, wipe them out, cater it to your institution, and then you’ve got a retention schedule in place, but still a lot of work because you’ve got to confirm and meet with all those departments.

Departments have sub-departments, sub-sub-departments, and it can get really granular very fast and it kind of becomes a mess but when I went to the Witte Museum of San Antonio, I ended up doing the same thing building institutional archives because they had never I was the first archivist in their 82 year history at that time. So they had a lot of amazing archival collections, but they didn’t have anything documenting the institution itself. And they have plenty of material to be doing that and to have those collections in place so I started that there, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston already had an amazing institutional archives collection scope in place.

So, it was just a matter of continuing that and moving it forward and that’s how I found myself, you know at Houston Community College as a director of records management, And they also really had a great program in place too as far as the retention schedules go, we do create our subsidiaries but yeah that’s kind of how I made that transition is that, um, you know, being a single woman in your mid-40s And you start thinking about retirement and everything else you’re like, oh I need to start looking at this, and how to take care of myself with a single income. And I  had taken, my father passed away in 2016, so when I was in San Antonio, I needed to get back home to Houston to help my mom out and it always been a dream growing up in Houston to work at the museum of fine arts, Houston, and Lorraine Stewart had told me at the time that she needed an assistant archivist, somebody who you know hit the ground running and I needed a job there so I ended up taking a pretty sizable pay cut to get back to Houston. 

And when Lorraine left I realized how much she had been getting paid, after working there for 20 plus years. As the head of the archives of a major museum National Museum, and I was floored. I was just that I can’t believe it’s taken her that long to get over 80,000 in a prominent, I mean fourth largest city in the country, and a prominent Museum at that, and I wasn’t going to get things that happened after she left so I think the idea was that I, with my experience, would be able to move into that position but it, unfortunately, didn’t work out that way.

So I started looking at other options and a friend of mine told me about the HCC gig, and lo and behold, I was shocked when I got the call that, well not that I had gotten the job I was okay but I mean, when they told me that the compensation package, I was ready to negotiate, I was I had on my terms laid out, I was ready to go. And I’m still kicking myself because maybe I could have written negotiated more and more, but I was so shocked at the starting salary and I was like, oh my god Lorraine had worked 20 plus years in museums to get to 80, and they’re on, they’re offering me like, 81, and I off the bat, and I was just like, This is insane. I just couldn’t believe it. Just all that hit me at once on that phone call.

And then I thought, oh I have to actually answer this man. So, yeah. And then it dawned on me as like, but it’s just, I even knew what the range was but to think that you’d be offered you know, at that end. What I, the difference is just amazing and sad and really frustrating. But I thought you know I just can’t.

Now that I’ve, you know, taken care of my own personal goals I can’t just leave behind the things that I’ve been working on before because they’re still very important to me that you know especially we’re so academic heavy in the profession and SAA that just trying to look out for smaller nonprofits and other groups, and working on standardizing, to some degree or as much as we can, archival salary.

So, yeah, I’m still trying to work on that as much as I can. But yeah, that’s how I transitioned. It was basically pay, and opportunity, and I actually do enjoy records management. I miss archives. 

I’m actually building the HCC archives right now because they just had their 50th anniversary and they’ve never built anything either. They started as another school in the ’20s which split off into the University of Houston and Texas Southern and they just never, they never. They just formed their own archives that those two institutions. And so, I think he’s the public library has some of the materials as well, but you know they still produced when the HCC started in the ’70s and so, yeah, I’ve been working on that and working with Erica Hubbard, who’s our Director of libraries who’s amazing, they have a fashion archives which is astounding that a junior college would have a fashion archives, it was donated by a local family and a local socialite and then her friends start donating, and there are just some amazing pieces in that collection so I noticed that digital preservation was an issue at this institution and it seems like records managers, there have been so many webinars out there right now in the REM world that have to do with digital preservation because I don’t think out so many of them have been wrangling with just electronic content management, that they haven’t really I think started looking towards preserving things that are 10 plus years or permanent.

So, I, that was a goal of mine since I first got here, and we’re about we’re working on phase two of our digital preservation system. And so that should be up and running pretty soon, and I’m hoping that that will help out with our essential records program as well.

But yeah, it’s been great, making the switch in, and I enjoyed it thoroughly, but I still think I’m an archivist at heart.

Woody [0:16:50] Yeah, I think it never really quite leaves us.

Gonzales [0:16:55] Yeah.

Woody [0:16:56] You’ve had quite a career thus far, like how much you got jam-packed in there it’s full of good stuff.

Gonzales [0:17:05] Yeah, there for a while those uh, it was 10 years of a lot of moving. I got really good at packing and moving, and figuring that out, but yeah, most of it was upward mobility and moving for upward mobility and jobs and it was really funny when I got the job at the cowboy my boss said to me my first day on the job she said, I’m not paying you enough. I can’t pay you what you deserve, and you deserve a lot more than what we can. And, but I’m going to do everything I can for you regarding professional development, I’m going to send you to whatever you want to go to whatever we have money for I’m going to send you to, you’ll go with me on donor visits. I’ll do whatever we can to boost so that we can get you another job that’s, you know, I was like, This is my first day on the job, he always tried to get me another. I just moved here. I drove eight hours. But yeah, it’s been interesting, to say the least, to see how different academics and museums, and how they function, especially here in Texas and other places I’ve worked.

So, yeah, I don’t think you quite see the regional differences until you’ve actually moved around some and seen it, and graduate school just really doesn’t prepare you for that.

Woody [0:18:23] That’s the truth.

Gonzales [0:18:24] Absolutely.

Woody [0:18:25] This is not an official question, so let me know if it’s okay if we ask it on the record, but you had touched on salary advocacy, especially as it was pertinent to your story.

Is it okay if I ask you a question about it because, from my perspective, that was one of the things you went into Council with as one of your priorities. And I know it’s been something you’ve championed for us. Is it okay if I ask you, why you did that and why it was important to you?

Gonzales [0:18:54] Sure. So when Rebecca Goldman, asked me to be on the steering committee, I think it started tweeting, and I was on the A&D listserv there for a bit, when a lot of people were, you know, just pick yourself up by your bootstraps and look I’m tired of these answers, and they’re in 2011 and she, you know, all that was going on.

And I don’t know if that’s how I got on her radar. But Rebecca called me, or, or even contacted me about being on the steering committee, to create the bylaws for the students and new archives professionals roundtable. Oh, at the time we’re on the table now section, and so I joined that because I thought this is gonna be a great group. Oh my gosh, she’s got so much impetus and steam behind her and I’m really passionate about this. So they didn’t feel at the time that we were getting any. I don’t see any but it just seemed like we were getting the same answers over and over and over again. And I also kind of wanted to steer away from the whining and actually doing, or what was perceived as whining. And actually, because perception is everything and unfortunately that was coloring a lot of things.

So I thought well let’s see what this group does and see if we can’t, you know, make some strides and get some action, actual action done and be I ended up being the I think second chair of the group. And while I was there, you know, just a salary and certified archivist and masters, and what do we do and why do we have all this, and there are so many questions coming out of it and people having, you know, not enough jobs, not enough well-paying jobs not enough upward mobility, how do we, you know, and if you don’t want to become a manager, which is perfectly fine. Do you just sit in the same job and just wait to get increases that never come, or might come, you know, and there’s no guarantee of anything, and what you know is pretty much a lot of professions have those same issues, but I just felt like we, the profession itself wasn’t working on that at the time, and when you’re new you don’t really know of any historical swings or things that have happened in the past so I started reading up.

And, you know, being in the museum world, I noticed that they, you know, have certified. You can be—I’m certified, and a lot of museums do like that they get accredited, and I started looking at their, you know, archival components. I started realizing that directors love to say that you know we’re an accredited museum or accredited institution. And then I started realizing they like to tell people I was a certified archivist and they don’t really realize what that means, I think, but they would be just, oh and we have a certified archivist, just because they like to be able to say they have something certified because it sounds fancy right, so I thought well why don’t we putting this on individuals who can’t afford. I don’t have enough money, I’m lucky enough that my institutions have always paid for my memberships, I actually negotiated that at one point into my job that she was like well we don’t, we’re not having good luck. Nobody’s going anywhere and that’s when I said “I’m sorry I have to go to these conferences. So if you want me and can’t pay me enough, you’re going to pay to send me to these things” and I was the only person at the time that was going, and they’re like, how did you make this happened and we’re gonna negotiate it into my contract, I mean they’re like oh I didn’t even think like what also was hired at the right at that time when that was happening so I could, so I highly recommend doing that if you can so that you’re, you have it on paper that your institution will pay for your memberships and will pay for conferences, especially the big ones. SSA to study stuff was archivist when I haven’t been able to attend those are usually low enough in costs, that, you know, I could pay for them myself, which was great. And so, you know your regionals are always, always amazing to turn to you as well I love regionals.

But anyway, yeah so I started reading up on that and kept thinking, you know, why aren’t we holding institutions accountable? Why is it always coming from individuals, we can’t afford I mean, to attend all the conferences to get the points to obtain our certification without taking the test and then paying the $50 every year and then doing this and doing that? And then, you know institutions not counting it because it’s certification, and they don’t consider that, you know, the institution shouldn’t pay for those. You got to pay for them out of pocket, and then, oh but they love to say hey we got a certified person, but, um, so yeah, there’s just all these, these red flags that were going up that just doesn’t make any sense and why are we putting the onus on the individual when the institutions are the ones with the money.

And I started reading, and notice that you know this has come up in the past before about sort of about institutional certifications, and you know we do have the digital archives, you know, the MIT designation, but how many are able to get that too because we do have the resource of this as users have the resources to actually get certified for that. And that’s one very specific thing. It’s not accreditation for the archives as a whole. And to be, so we don’t have trusted digital repositories, but we don’t have trusted physical repositories.

And so this whole relationship that we start with donors, and with our communities is based on just blind trust. Oh, we’ve always been here, we’ve always done this we have these policies and procedures. But what actually backs up and supports those policies and procedures just the institution is these two institutions getting money from the state, are they getting the support that they need to show that this stuff will be around whenever you know, I mean, how do you, there’s nothing stating that we as an institution have checked off all these things and have been certified by a governing body that will back us up or support us.

So then I start reading about all the issues that are involved with that I had some really good conversations when I was in San Antonio with Kathleen Roe, and Kathleen recommended that I either find someone on council, that would be an ally and hear me out or either getting council myself, so I was like, oh okay, I’ll just start advocating for myself to be council, and it worked, and I thought okay so and then at that same time, the working group on archival compensation started working, which I’m still floored by it so many people in an unofficial like non-professional org backed group got together to do all that work, which just makes my heart sing, but, yeah, while I’m on council I can support these people and I can try and get these things going and see what we can do to get it done.

And when I tried to put forth the salary transparency in December of 2019, and it didn’t pass. They wanted more information, and we’re like okay well we can get a task force together to put more information to create a packet of recommendations if that’ll make y’all feel better.

And that was agreed so I drafted it that day and night, during the council meeting with Stephen Booth, and I want to say the Audra Eagle Yun also helped me on that and perhaps Courtney Chartier. I can’t remember but yeah, drafted that task force charge, got it going, and got it approved that year and then April of last year is when Gretta Pittenger was you know, assigned as chair we got the group together.

And so they’ve been working, we’ve been working for the last year on recommendations and other things, and it’s just, yeah, and then, of course, we got salary transparency passed in May. After I think I presented that was the third time I presented it to council.

So, yeah, I’m kind of that guy. I don’t mind being obnoxious or annoying as long as I can try and get things done, because you know it’s just about being heard, so it’s amplifying your own voice, sometimes, even if you’re that guy, so I just I have no shame, which I think helps, but, um, you know, it is what it is, I think as you get older you just have less to give in. And you wake up in the morning like you know what, I, I’m just going to make it happen. I’m going to try and make this happen so yeah, and it’s not done, I mean there’s so much work to be done.

And I’m, I’m really looking forward to our new executive director who we just hired SAA just hired because she’s already very aware of those, those issues, so I’m looking forward to seeing where SAA goes next and establishing and helping people regarding salaries. So, yeah, it just, I hate that I’m rolling off and you know can’t continue with that perspective, but it’s, it’s nice knowing that I still have contacts and networks that I could sit with and talk to and possibly get things moving if we need to.

Woody [0:27:33] Well thank you for so much labor that you have done on everyone’s behalf, trying to get that in front of council, multiple times, and for finally giving that victory on salary transparency so just thank you so much for being a champion of that.

Gonzales [0:27:49] Oh thanks. That really means a lot. Thank you.

Woody [0:27:52] What’s the craziest thing you’ve found in the archives?

Gonzales [0:27:55] It had nothing to do with the collections when I was in that small town in Texas, South Texas. I was in the public library and it was basically a conference room it had been converted into the archives and reading room, and it was right by the back exit door and I don’t know if I grew up in the Gulf Coast, on the Gulf coast which is more humid than even South Texas, just inside on the Coastal Bend, and it gets really hot and dry, and I guess this poor little guy was just like, I’m hot, I need to go somewhere cold and so I will, I got into the archives that morning, and open the door, and there was a coral snake stuck in a trap, a sticky trap. And I was like, Oh, I was like oh, red and yellow killer felt like I had to actually remember the line because I thought I don’t want to touch this, but I think it might be okay. And I was like no, this is, this is a bad noodle.

So, yeah, I ended up having to call someone to get some help, but I felt so bad for the poor thing too because it was stuck on. That’s got to be a horrible way to go being stuck on these little traps, but I just kept thinking, Oh my god, I found a snake, a deadly snake, of course in the archives. 

I want the Hertzberg collection at the Witte Museum was also just amazing from the standpoint that I had gone as a kid, you know, I was always going to San Antonio because my paternal grandmother lived in South Texas and so we would always go down to see her for the summer and then drive up through San Antonio on the way out, we’d hit, you know all the things. And one of the things we’d always do was the wedding, and the Breckenridge Park and the zoo, and the Hertzberg circus museum was right there on the Riverwalk. And lo and behold, when they shut down in the late 90s The Hertzberg. Will said that the city would get the service collections. 

And so, while I was there we were moving to a much nicer storage facility. Actually, my Twitter picture is from working in the nasty commissary that was the old storage facility. There was black mold, there were rats, and there are rats in the basement, like underneath. But anyway, working with the Hertzberg collection that the posters and surface collection and rehousing those. I was always finding something every day that I was like oh my god my Instagram is gonna be insane because I’m just taking photos every day of these, these posters or things that my museum site collections, people in the collections management, my peers were finding over there and I also had to go to a funeral home once, which was kind of weird because they still have the equipment with the fluids in it to like you know when the. Yeah, so working in that area was kind of, I’ve worked in some funky areas.

Woody [0:30:56] Yeah.

Gonzales [0:30:59] Yeah, it was fun for me just things I’ve heard when there are my little baby coffins in the corner and you’re trying to like put newspapers and obituaries together and box them and get them out of there and you’re like, this is kind of creepy but it’s also weird how quickly you acclimate and then it’s like oh it’s just the baby coffin in the corner I’m just not going to look at that anymore, surprise, I didn’t have nightmares for months, but yeah, it’s part of the job I guess other duties as assigned for archivists.

Woody [0:31:30] Yeah, maybe coffins, they don’t tell you about that.

Gonzales [0:31:33] No, yeah, another thing grad school. Yeah embalming fluid just, You know, yes.

Woody [0:31:40] Okay, last question for you, Melissa. With COPA, part of our major activity is promoting outreach, awareness, etc. So with that in mind, the last question is, how do you engage your audiences?

Gonzales [0:31:58] I always try to engage people, I think, a lot, like I said earlier, I have no shame. But I also believe in transparency as much as can be done. I mean, obviously, we’re always going to be, especially with council and everything else there are things happening on the back end that, that, you know, you can’t release right away cuz you’re still working on it it’s not finalized. You don’t want to get anybody’s hopes up. You don’t want to do things, but I truly believe in being as transparent as possible. And I encourage people to read meeting minutes, I encourage people to ask to show up to council meetings, because there’s a lot going on there that you don’t get to see, and sometimes when you just see the meeting minutes in the end, they’re very dry, you don’t get to hear the conversations or discussions, also to see how the people you’ve elected, how they’re speaking on your behalf, how they’re, you know, I tried to always keep that in mind as far as audiences are concerned. I know that we are as an org from a leadership perspective and from an SAA leadership perspective, even SSA, you know, I have to think that people looked at me for a certain reason. And that’s to represent them. Also, I don’t want to leave out everybody else. So I try to look at those perspectives as well. But I just by being as honest as possible, even if sometimes that’s blunt, because sometimes you got to put up a mirror for people to see that, you know, things got to change. But it also can’t change overnight. So as much as I would like, as we saw with the trends salary transparency, taking care of yourself when you’re doing all of that, and finding the right allies and support team, and just having your own network of people and standing back and helps out tremendously. If you have, I know it’s just kind of going in a different direction, but it’s what keeps me sane, to keep my audience in mind so that I don’t lose track of that, either.

So, I, I’ve always had support groups that are non-archivists, so I have a support group of librarian friends that I’ve worked with in libraries that are aware of some of the same similar situations and we’re all going through these, you know, similar situations in the library profession. So just being able to have a group that you can bounce ideas off of that you can go to event, so that I’m not doing that publicly because as angry as I get if I do post-event something publicly on social media, it’s because I want other people to see the ridiculousness. And see, look, look at this, this is, I mean you need to step back and look at what you just did. I think the 52 is a great example of that I don’t want to go too much into that because I probably already ticked off a lot of people but it’s one of those things where if you don’t realize that if you’re not thinking about it when you make those decisions, then having it brought to your attention.

And I tried to do that isn’t in a sterile a ways I could but also showing hey this is what this did, and I hope it helps people understand the future to be able to try and step back and look at things more holistically, I tend, I’m, I’m a typical Virgo and that I want to solve things, And so while somebody is talking to me and what things are going on. My brain is already trying to think of solutions or possible ways to help or possible ways to do things, or who to get together, or you know just trying to figure out ways to create solutions. And so I’m listening, I’m doing that.

And then at the same time though, I want to make sure that you get the right people together at the table and also get people who probably aren’t heard enough, and encourage them, which I know is difficult and some people don’t, you know, want to be involved in that and that’s fine. But you know, just, just trying to figure out how to get that going, and because of that I think it’s one of my weaknesses is that I do tend to actually, had a boss tell me this, that’s a strength and a weakness that I jump to act very quickly, because I’m already been working on things, and my brains been working overtime.

And then I want to add, but I’ve taught myself, and it’s a struggle, it’s always a struggle for me to step back and kind of look at it before I make a decision before I actually do the thing. So, I will say having a bullet journal has helped immensely because then I can write down all my ideas and things, so I don’t lose them because I think in the past that’s what I’ve been kind of afraid of is that all that stuff that’s going through my brain is going to go and I’ll forget, and then I’m like, and I didn’t act on it so it’s like, yeah. And so I think you know just being able to write it down. And keeping in mind, and then being able to refer back to it and know that, oh I wrote that back then I want to make sure I don’t lose track of that.

And this person said this in this meeting, or I was in this webinar and this person said that and I want to touch base with them about that. Yeah, so I tried, I know with my liaison groups and counsel for those that are more communicative, I’ve tried just kind of, hey, I’m here if you need me, let me know what you need. I’ve always told people, you know, feel free to reach out to me DM me on Twitter, you know, if you feel like you need help with anything let me know.

So as far as my audience, I just want to make sure that I’m still listening and paying attention to what’s happening and staying relevant, which I think is also what’s great about the profession, period, is that you’re always having to work on yourself professionally to stay relevant because things are changing so fast. And I think it’s the same thing with leadership, you just can’t walk in with an agenda or something in mind and forget about everything else or not pay attention to everything else, it because it’s all at some point going to work into, you know, you can’t do one thing without thinking how it’s going to affect us or affect that, for example, COPA, you know the archival task force is going to look have to look at public awareness at some point, how do we start advocating and do outreach and marketing?

And for, and bringing public awareness to our global salaries on a whole to people outside of our profession that like HR departments, I have no idea what it is we do. Yeah, they’re the ones creating the job descriptions, they’re the ones posting them. So you know we want to be able to keep in mind that you know, the Committee on Ethics and privacy COPA, you know, other groups you know who can we work with that, you know, is probably outside our specific scope, but are adjacent. So I think just doing that and keeping that in mind, is helpful, keeps you sane.

Woody [0:38:37] Thank you for sharing that. You’re incredible. I mean, all of your answers have so much great information but I particularly appreciate the dealing with the mindset that you have which I have sort of a similar like I get distracted thinking about how to fix it. Yeah, I’m also a Virgo so maybe.

Gonzales [0:38:58] Maybe that’s why is, it’s a con and a pro.

Woody [0:39:03] Yeah, yeah so I love your suggestion of like get it down on paper so that it, you know, it can live there and then maybe I can refocus a little bit better, because the listening is so crucial because not everybody thinks the way that you think.

Gonzales So yeah that’s the other thing too, it’s like I keep thinking oh well this person has, I know this person went to grad school, I know this person went two years and it’s like, but I don’t know what courses they took, I don’t know how they what they took away from it, I don’t know what their experiences are, or how that’s colored, the way they think, or, you know affected the way they think, or what they do.

And so but I just for the longest time assumed that everybody in the profession, got some kind of standardized background and it’s not true at all. And, which is great because that’s what makes our profession so diverse, and just listen to the different backgrounds, experiences that people have had you.

Yeah, I just, I just think being able to listen and it’s something I have to constantly work and I just want to shut up and listen, because I’m also a talker. So, yeah, I was that kid on the report card. She talks too much, great grades talks too much. So yeah, it’s, it’s just having to constantly remind myself to listen, which is why seriously bullet journaling, if anybody has any questions, feel free to send me, but oh my god you can go down the bullet journal rabbit hole, the next thing you know you’ve bought way too many markers rates many templates way too many rulers you’d like I don’t need all these things, but anyway. See, there I go digressing about bullet journals, but yeah definitely listening and putting the notes down.

Woody [0:40:36] Well thank you so much for your time.

Ask An Archivist: An Interview With Michelle Ganz

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 Michelle Ganz by COPA member Rachael Cristine Woody.

For our third installment of this mini-series, we’re excited to share a conversation with Michelle Ganz, partner to the founding of the Accessibility & Disability Section of SAA and Regent for Member Services for the Academy of Certified Archivists (ACA). Rachael Cristine Woody of the Committee on Public Awareness sat down with Ganz (virtually) for a video conversation on June 23, 2021.

Michelle Ganz has been a certified archivist for 15 years, receiving her MILS from University of Arizona. She has been a long-time activist, speaker, and leader in Disability Diversity and Inclusion within the Archival Profession. She has also held a number of Leadership roles within the SAA and was an integral partner to the founding of the Accessibility & Disability Section. In addition to working with the SAA Michelle has been involved with the ACA for over a decade and is currently the Regent for Member Services.

Video Interview


Ganz [0:00:03]Oh, my name is Michelle Ganz. I’m currently employed at the History Factory as a staff archivist, I was prior to this I was at McDonough Innovation and Lincoln Memorial University, and I’ve been an active member of SAA for about 15 years now. I’m currently the outgoing Chair of the Independent Archivist—oh sorry, the Accessibility and Disability Archivist Section, and I was a founding member of the Independent Archivist Section and past chair of Lone Arranger Section and I’ve been involved all over the place.

Woody [0:00:41] So just like a little bit involved.

Ganz [0:00:44] Yeah

Woody [0:00:45] Yes. Wonderful. Well, thank you for your service, in all of those sections, especially with the Independent Archivists and the Accessibility sections, they’re so critical, so thank you. For our first question I have, what is an archivist?

Ganz [0:01:04] So when I’m talking to people about what an archivist is, I usually start with we’re like librarians but very very specialized, and we work with documents rather than books, but we worked with both. When I’m talking to other archivists, I like to say that we are the protectors of history and the guardians of the truth. So it is important that we exist to ensure that history does not get changed, especially in the climate that we’re seeing nowadays where there’s a lot of revisionism happening archivists are critical to ensuring that the truth is, both protected and made known.

Woody [0:01:46] Those are great answers. I love, like the succinct example upfront with like a librarian but also like that current events tie in, I think is crucial so that, that’s a great answer. Thank you.

Ganz No problem.

Woody [0:02:03] Okay, question number two how and why did you become an archivist.

Ganz [0:02:10] So I came into the field, accidentally, when I was an undergrad at Ohio State University. I was applying for a job, a student worker and I thought I was getting a job at the University Library, and when I got to the interview I was like, “well this isn’t the library,” and I realized that I was at the University Archives and also well you know I’m student worker I need job easy to get to, I’ll take it. After two days working there, I looked around and I said, “You do this every day how do you, what is this job and how do I get into it?” and then Tamara Chute, who was the Assistant Archivist at the time and now she’s the Head of Archives at Ohio State, really mentored me into the field. She started getting all kinds of work that was more like what you would do as a grad student and then eventually right before I left I was actually helping with like putting together exhibits and answering reference questions, so she really kind of let me see what the field was like. And not only did I love it so much that I encouraged my best friend to ultimately go to library school. Yeah, by accident, but once I discovered it I realized that I’d been an archivist my whole life and it just came out that way.

Woody [0:03:21] I find that we tend to all have similar like origin stories for archives, “this place I landed in.” 

Ganz Good way to know if you want to be in the field or not.

Woody [0:03:35] Yes absolutely, and I also loved it, like you brought friends with you like this job is so cool you need to do it too.

Ganz [0:03:42] Oh yeah, like the second day of library school I called her I was like, go to library school right now and she’s like, I don’t know and I’m like no, no, no, right now. And now she’s the head of the cataloging department for the Columbus Public Library system.

Woody [0:03:57] Oh my gosh, that’s so cool. Awesome. Ok, third question for you, what’s the craziest thing you found in the archives?

Ganz [0:04:09] So, this is a great story. When I worked at Lincoln Memorial University we had a huge collection of Lincoln material. And we had a museum dedicated to him, and I was kept materials and you know just trying to make sense of everything and I run across this very tiny box. That’s like a shipping box and it’s still got the label and everything on it, and I opened it off, and there’s a piece of paper folded inside there, and it’s packing peanuts and I dig through it further and pull out a skull. And the piece of paper with it is a letter that was written by some fraternity members who said that they ran across Lincoln’s skull somewhere, and wanted to return it to its proper home.

The funny thing about this being, it was clearly a medical dummy because it had the spots where you wire everything together and it had numbers on it. And, and second of all, Lincoln skull is with the rest of his body under six feet in concrete in Indiana, and so it was just it was hilarious that these drunken guys had gone through so much effort to, to do this and so really the curator actually argued back and forth on whether we should keep or not because, clearly it’s not part of the collection, but it was so funny and they put so much effort into it and I was like, this is a testament to what people are willing to do when they realize that archives exist. So, hands down funniest thing ever.

Woody [0:05:36] That’s a good one I have definitely heard of, like, obviously you know human remains have ended up in some archives, but to have a non human remain. I mean, bless those frat boys. They tried right.

Ganz [0:05:55] And it was a great joke. I mean it’s still making me laugh today and it’s been 10 years. The grossest thing that I found, though, are those hair samples, and those pictures of dead babies and thinking for a while, those are just horrible.

Woody [0:06:11] Oh yeah, yes I think those, those and creepy dolls are for me. 

Ganz Yeah, especially the dolls with the eyes open and close.

Woody [0:06:25] Perfect. Well, those are our official questions. Is there anything else you wanted to share with us?

Ganz [0:06:34] So a thing that I’ve been talking about a lot recently is how we have access to more information than ever but people are less aware of how to you know discover factual information how to verify the information you’re getting is correct. And one of the things that I think archivists some tend to push off onto librarians is this whole idea of information literacy. And in the last three or four years I’m seeing archivists take a more, more, front and center stand them in and you know finding ways to teach our patrons, or people who are just interested in archival collections, what information literacy is, and I’m really glad to see us taking more of a leadership role in it as opposed to just punting it off to our librarian friends.

Woody [0:07:25] Yes, I’m so glad you brought that up, that is definitely something that, you know, critical thinking research skills, You know, information literacy skills all of those are, have always been important, but, you know, bringing them into the fold officially and being better at that would be a good step for us.

Ganz [0:07:43] Definitely, and I’m not seeing more people doing it organically, which makes me feel like, you know, it just couldn’t be par for the course given a number a couple years which, which I’m glad for. Oh, another thing I’m seeing a lot of is that because of COVID, we have discovered that we can offer archival services in a whole host of ways that we never thought of. Two years ago, and it’s also made it really great for recruiters because we’ve discovered that we can work from home, and accommodations can be made for people so all of a sudden we’ve gone from, I’m sorry we can’t do that. I know you have a disability, like the rule state that we have to do it this way and all of a sudden we’re saying, Well you know we can be a little bit more flexible in that what works for you and it’s making archival work a lot better for a lot of us. So, so that has been awesome to see and my hope is, is that we’re not going to just go back from the status quo. As we move back into the “normal” things and most institutions seem to be doing a really good job of folding those policies from COVID Just right into the new policies as we move forward so I’m glad to see that.

Woody [0:08:51] Yes, absolutely. In fact, follow up question for you, especially knowing your leadership in the Accessibility Section, what can we do as a profession and as colleagues to help make sure that we are moving those things forward and keeping people accountable?

Ganz [0:09:09] What I’m encouraging people to do is, is multi-level so if you’re in a position of leadership, absolutely lean hard on the fact that we have statistics to prove that we were just as, as productive if not more productive, last year than we were in years past, and if you’re just an employee. We’re not a lot so like when you’re, when we’re in meetings where we’re talking about, you know, well as we transition back to the office you know we’re gonna do this that and the other thing, pipe up with a question, you know, will we be able to continue to do this hybrid work-from-home-work-from-the-office situation which works really great for people with kids, for people who live with their parents, you know, a whole host of reasons for wall night. You want to make that easier to do and I’ve found that if you’re in a, you know, an HR meeting and you’re already talking about asking that question, is a really great way to get people go, you know, we haven’t thought about that, but maybe we should. 

And I’ve also noticed that people are using this as an opportunity to push back on things like parental leave, like we redid our whole policy here based on what was happening during COVID and the realization that we could take this opportunity to make things better for everybody on our staff, not just pregnant people so that was nice thing too is that we actually folded paternal leave into this, and adoption leave, And, you know, taking into consideration all the ways that families are made up, and making sure that we’re giving people the space that they need for that, and I really loved how one company, especially approached it in terms of language, so that nobody felt like it was you know that traditional, you know, heterosexual, family, family set-up, we really made sure to make everyone feel included and I loved that I was just so thrilled that they did it.

Woody [0:11:01] Yeah, that is great news. I love how you phrased it in terms of thinking about this last year and of course the hardships for a lot of people, but having taken the opportunity at least in the learnings from this last year to make things better for everybody moving forward.

Ganz [0:11:17] Exactly. And I know that that’s been, it hasn’t been uniform across the field, like I had hoped, but a fair number of repositories are using this as a way to take those giant steps forward that we usually tell people to try to avoid because I know when I’m counseling people on how to make things more diverse and inclusive, I tell them it’s not a giant leap, it’s 1000 Little steps, but in this case, it’s the opportunity to actually take a giant step, when everyone is comfortable with, you know, everything on a dime still so glad to see that people are taking advantage of that.

Woody [0:11:53] Yes, absolutely.

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


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 “” and you can follow along on any social media platform at the Luster Company. Dominique[at] if you want to email me. The “” 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.

Ask An Archivist: An Interview With Bridgett Pride

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 Bridgett Pride by COPA member Rachael Cristine Woody.

For 2021 #AskAnArchivistDay and our fist installment of this mini-series, we’re excited to share an interview with Bridgett Pride, Reference Librarian for the Manuscripts Archives and Rare Books Division as well as the Arts and Artifacts Division of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Rachael Cristine Woody of the Committee on Public Awareness sat down with Pride (virtually) for a video interview on Friday, June 25, 2021 to talk about becoming an archivist, the stereotype of archivists as gatekeepers, and more.

Bridgett Pride is a part of the inaugural class of fellows Rare Book School for Cultural Heritage, focusing on Black collections and zine making. Bridgett received her MLIS, and a MA in History from Simmons University in 2018. She was a part of the Diversity, Equity, Race, Accessibility, and Identity in LIS (DERAIL) forum, and served as the 2018 project manager. Bridgett was awarded the 2018 Kenneth Shaffer Outstanding Student Award for student leadership. She studies American women and their intersectional identities with gender, race, and class in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Video Interview


Pride [0:00:03] Hi my name is Bridgett Pride, and I am the reference librarian for the manuscripts archives and Rare Books division, and the art and artifacts division of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black culture.

Woody [0:00:20] Thank you. And our first question for you is how slash why did you become an archivist, what’s your origin story?

Pride [0:00:30] So I wanted to become an archivist, because I was a literature major and then a history major, and I was always very frustrated by the complicated nature to which I’m doing any type of research was when I was looking for Black voices, particularly the voices of Black women who are also Queer so basically I was looking for myself. And so I decided that the best way to solve that problem was to make sure that those voices were elevated and accessible. And so I went to library school to do that and do that every day now at the Schomburg Center.

Woody [0:01:25] I love that answer. Thank you. Second question for you. How do you engage your audiences?

Pride [0:01:33] As the reference librarian of two research divisions of a public library but an archive within a public library, I have the wonderful opportunity to get to teach. So I have classes that come in from a New York from Philadelphia from New Jersey, who are curious about learning about the Black diaspora.

And so that is truly one of my favorite parts of my job is getting to work with. First time researchers, whether they’re in the fourth grade, they’re college students, or their graduate students and getting to teach people the magic of the archive what is inside and watch their faces light up when they find out that they are allowed to be there and encouraged to be there, and just unveiling all there is to learn, and all of the different topics that can be covered within an archive, and so just being the bearer of such wonderful news and introducing people to how to access that type of knowledge is just such a fun thing to get to do and can be really engaging because you can do that in so many different ways.

I’ve had the great pleasure to be able to do that during the pandemic virtually, I’ve done it in person, and just making connections with first time learners in whatever way is the most accessible to them at the time.

Woody [0:03:16] I particularly love that because traditionally archivists, the stereotype is like gatekeepers, you know, keeping it keeping the treasures behind closed doors, and how you’ve described your role and the work that you’ve been doing, it’s like you were throwing those doors wide open, get them off the hinges.

Pride [0:03:36] Yeah, like the Archivist for everyone, and like the fact that I work in a public library makes it so much easier. Like, it’s against the mission to say no. So really having the opportunity to roll out the red carpet. And like come hang out with us, whether that’s like at a public program where we’re singing and dancing like on Langston Hughes ashes or if we’re in the reading room engaged in study. There’s so many different ways to engage.

Woody [0:04:15] My third question for you. What’s the best or most creative public use you’ve seen with your collections.

Pride [0:04:23] For this I have to shout out my colleague Katie out to Tubman, who is the Director of our Junior Scholars Program. And so she works with students from elementary school to high school, where they engage in group study of materials at the Schomburg Center. And every year they produce some sort of project or exhibit. And this past year, the students engaged and creating this means that documented their study of the autobiography of Malcolm X.

These young scholars blew my mind with these thoughtful pieces that they had created, from reading Malcolm X’s edits of his autobiography that we hold, and really connecting with him on a personal level. By being exposed to his papers at the Schomburg. And they created a digital exhibit which anyone can look at.

It’s called, “By any means necessary,” and is available on the Schomburg Center website and just watching these young people and how they processed, like some heavy topics, and these revolutionary ideas is just fascinating to me. And just the fact that we have programs like that in an archive where young people are encouraged to come and engage in this way is so important, and I would love to see more activities like this happen in archives.

You’re Invited! Join us for the Committee on Public Awareness Open House on July 22

The Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) invites you to our Open House during our annual business meeting on Thursday, July 22nd, 3:30-4:30 pm CST.

Want to learn more about COPA  and what we do? This is your chance! Meet our committee members and ask questions. This is your opportunity to let us know what’s on your mind. Are there particular stories or issues that you would like COPA to bring increased awareness to through our channels? What would you like COPA to focus on in the coming year? Are there activities that you would like to see or have COPA co-sponsor? 

Here’s a short announcement and  invitation from our chair Vince Lee.

A video update from our chair Vince Lee on the Committee on Public Awareness activities and accomplishments in 2020/2021.

Fill Out Our Survey

We want to hear from you! Please take a moment to fill out our quick survey. This is your chance to help us plan for activities in the coming year.

Register for the Open House

If you would like to attend our Open House, please register and let us know you’re coming. All are welcome and please come and go as your schedule allows. We hope to see you there!

BONUS: Pitch what you do using this MadLib template to craft your elevator speech

Advocacy for Archives, History, and the Humanities.

Bryan Whitledge is Archivist / Manager for University Digital Records for the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University. He currently serves as vice-chair of the Society of American Archivist’s Committee on Public Policy (SAA-COPP).

Dr. Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress, and Bryan Whitledge, SAA Committee on Public Policy, at the 2020 National Humanities Advocacy Day events.

Have you ever considered how archives are funded? – we are talking about a true assessment of where the dollars are coming from to support archives and enable all of the work to collect, preserve, and make historical documents accessible? Chances are, it is a twisted knot of all sorts of tangled threads. And chances are, one of those threads, if we chase it to the end, involves some sort of federally backed public funding. Maybe it was a one-off grant for a small preservation project in the past couple years. Or maybe, years ago, there was major building renovation helped by a federal matching grant. Or maybe an archives is home to an ongoing multi-year project employing several people. Federal spending surely does not make up the bulk of archives expenditures at institutions across the country, but it does account for millions of dollars each year. And these dollars are often the difference between a particular project seeing the light of day or sitting on the shelf for another time.

So how does this money make it into the federal budget to be doled out to archives? Well, it doesn’t magically fall out of the sky. Nor does Uncle Sam have a particular soft spot for archives, history, and the humanities. The robustness of the programs that support the work of archivists and our researchers is because of the advocacy efforts of people across the country—people who, for generations, have worked to inform legislators about the importance of supporting archives, history, and humanities-related projects.

National Humanities Advocacy Day

For several years, professionals and students from across the country have traveled to Washington, DC, each March for a major humanities advocacy effort. In 2021, everything went virtual, but the goal is still the same: advocate at the federal level, with a core focus on increased funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). As those who work in humanities-related fields know, the NEH isn’t the only federal program that supports humanities learning, teaching, and research. For this reason, the organizers and advocates also include an archives-specific prong to their advocacy agenda: increased funding for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). This is National Humanities Advocacy Day.

The name, “National Humanities Advocacy Day,” is a little misleading – it is not just a single day, but rather a major event put on by the staff of the National Humanities Alliance (NHA) and affiliated organizations. In the lead up to the event, NHA staff do much of the legwork of coordinating the advocates, scheduling meetings with legislative staff members (and, on occasion, legislators), gathering research on each legislator, and producing the concise information handouts for advocates to pass along to congressional offices.

In the days leading up the day of advocacy, advocates from each state are introduced to each other and they attend sessions to learn about legislative advocacy and the major messages NHA is asking advocates to hammer home. The NHA staff also provide advocates with research tools to find information that can be helpful when talking to a legislative staffer. For example, if a group of advocates is trying to speak to the local impact of NEH funding, there is no better source than the lists of grants awarded to a particular representative’s district. When an advocate can tell a Congressional office that the NEH has distributed $5 million of grant funding to seven different organizations in the district over the past 10 years, that gives a legislator something to think about in terms of the impact on their constituents.

In addition to information gathering and message honing, the days before Advocacy Day are used to fire up the participants with an inspiring keynote address. In 2020, the keynote, which included a special shout out to the archivists in the room (three of us), was delivered by Dr. Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress.

After a good night’s sleep, it is time for the big day – a day that could have upwards of ten meetings with different congressional offices. Advocates head to their meetings armed with their messages, their packets of information to leave with staffers, and their “I’m an Archives Advocate” pin (or another humanities-related slogan). Each meeting centers on the same kernel of information: funding for archives, humanities, and history is of critical importance.

But each meeting is a little different. For the legislator whose Facebook profile photo shows their family aboard a historic tall ship that sails the Great Lakes, maritime history is the ticket. For the staff member who mentions finding a copy of their ancestors’ naturalization certificates in the National Archives, family history is the angle. For the office displaying flags from all of the branches of the military, this is the occasion to talk about the NEH-funded programs to collect veterans’ stories as well as the services offered by NARA to support veterans.

So, what is the goal of walking miles back and forth between congressional office buildings for a bunch of 30-minute meetings with staff members who have hours of meetings each day (or clicking links for back-to-back-to-back Zoom or GoToMeeting video chats)? In some cases, the goal is action—asking a legislator to sign on to a letter of support. In other cases, the goal is getting on the legislative staff members’ radars during the budget drafting process so that they keep an eye out for archives, history, and the humanities in the proposed budgets. In yet other cases, it is about forging a relationship with a congressional staffer, someone who you can call on when there is a matter of urgency—and someone we can help when they need an archives and humanities expert.

Dr. Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress, and Barbara Teague, Executive Director of the Council of State Archivists, at the 2020 National Humanities Advocacy Day events.

SAA and Public Policy Advocacy

National Humanities Advocacy Day also allows archivists to connect and build strong relationships with our humanities advocacy partners. This past year, as the COVID-19 public health emergency took hold, SAA asked members to complete a series of NHA surveys about the needs of archivists and the impact of the humanities in our everyday lives. Last year, as Congress went to work crafting emergency funding bills in response to the pandemic, NHA staff used the information gleaned from these surveys to ensure that the $75 million for the NEH in the CARES Act would specifically include archive. While over 80% of NEH CARES grant applicants were denied because of the overwhelming need for emergency support for cultural organizations across the country, dozens of archives jobs were preserved by the funding and the Council of State Archivists received a grant that helped CoSA weather the crisis.

This year, two members of SAA’s Committee on Public Policy—Jess Farrell and me—were among the contingent of archivists who joined in the National Humanities Advocacy Day efforts. We show up to support our state advocacy groups and to offer an archivist’s point of view to the conversations. There is no shortage of work to be done and many members of SAA will continue to team up with our partners to advocate for archives and the humanities at the federal level.

But this will not be enough. Advocacy for archives at all levels of government will be imperative for archives to survive the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. For those who want to be more involved in telling policymakers of the importance of archives, SAA has many members who are happy to provide archivists with more information and guidance. You can start by checking out the public policy advocacy resources on the SAA site or contacting a member of SAA-COPP.

“A Real Sense of Discovery”

What made you fall in love with archives? What do you love about your work? Here, Jeanie Fisher, Reference Archivist, Seattle Municipal Archives, Seattle, WA, shares her love of archival work.

Jeanie Fisher is a Certified Archivist and has over 15 years of experience helping users in both libraries and archives find and access the information they need.

What do you love about being an archivist? Let us know at

We want to hear from you! Share your stories, videos, voice recordings, and photos that tell the story of why you love being an archivist with us by emailing!

The Historic Kentucky Kitchen

Welcome to the first entry in the new ArchivesAWARE series, “Archival Authors.” Here we will feature archivists who have used their professional experience to inform books they have written for the general public. What inspired them? How does one write a proposal for a publisher? How did archivistics affect the tone or direction of their book? What did they want readers to take away?

In this first series post, Deirdre A. Scaggs, Associate Dean, Special Collections Research Center, and Director of the Wendell H. Ford Public Policy Research Center, shares how processing the papers of a poet and folksinger led her to explore values of family, shared experiences, and collective history.

While working at the University of Kentucky Libraries Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) in 2012, I became intrigued with a set of recipes that were revealed during a processing project. Logan English was a poet and a folksinger who died fairly young in a car crash and his parents had donated his papers to SCRC. I couldn’t stop thinking about his recipes – many were stained, they contained plans for dinner parties with wine pairings, and Logan even wrote instructions for guests to write poems about their meals. I could tell that Logan had made these recipes, he had enjoyed this food, and shared meals with his friends and family.

I was struck by his story and it reminded me of how important family and shared meals were to me. It seemed like such a broadly relatable experience, and that while Logan was gone, this very tangible piece of him had survived. More than that, I wanted to experience it too. I became intrigued with the idea of bringing his archives to life through smell and taste, and shared experience. Before I knew it, I was actively searching for more recipes in other collections. I collected a small amount to test and write up and then I approached the University Press of Kentucky regarding a contract.

The Historic Kentucky Kitchen: Traditional Recipe’s for Today’s Cook (The University Press of Kentucky, 2013) is a book for the modern home cook. It is also a living history, steeped in Southern and Kentucky food culture. I want to acknowledge that attributing each recipe to a creator/maker was mostly impossible. This book was created from handwritten recipes saved by both wealthy and average families. Many of those early families would have had servants and cooks who were African Americans. I want to acknowledge their contribution even they could not be identified by name.

The Historic Kentucky Kitchen contains more than one hundred, mostly handwritten recipes, dating from 1850-1950. All of the recipes come from family papers or historic cookbooks in the University of Kentucky Libraries Special Collections Research Center (SCRC). Each recipe was tested, modernized, and curated for inclusion.

In conducting archival research for The Historic Kentucky Kitchen, I was looking specifically for handwritten recipes in the public policy archives, university archives, and manuscripts. Often these collection inventories were made before food culture and history became a popular topic of study. But being an archivist made a great deal of this research easier since I had broad knowledge of the collections, access to internal databases, and there was a team of students doing a reprocessing project on some of the earliest collections.

Handwritten recipes are often hard to read, they can be faded, or stained. Significant historic cooking research was required to interpret not only the process of cooking, but how to know what old measurements meant. We use standard measurements now, but historic recipes often include references to butter the size of an egg, a teacup of this, or a gill of that. In agreement with the publisher, I was seeking to create a well-rounded cookbook that focused on regional, Southern cuisine. So, I needed to find very specific recipes such as: mayonnaise, burgoo, bourbon, pound cake, biscuits.

Focusing on handwritten recipes was critical to me. I felt like these were the recipes that had familial significance, might have been passed down to family or friends, ones that were more likely to have been cooked, experienced, and been part of that family’s collective memory. For me, these unpublished manuscripts were the key to the success of my project. As mentioned above, I needed specific recipes to produce a complete project and so I opened my research to include early Kentucky cookbooks to fill in gaps that I was unable to fill with handwritten recipes.

My recipe research continued through the life of the project, although the bulk was focused during the first six months. I had seen cookbooks that were essentially reprints of historic recipes and for that reason they weren’t fully functional for a contemporary cook. I wanted to change perceptions that I had heard – that old recipes are bland to today’s palette. So, I had to test each of these recipes. I needed to select the ones that tasted the best. And, I needed to standardize the measurements, provide adequate instruction for cooking techniques and time.

It took two years to test recipes for the cookbook and there were plenty of failures, much trial and error, and wonderful success. It took another full year to write and edit the cookbook.

Upon publication there were a number of positive outcomes. I got to share my passion and research with colleagues, friends, school children, and people all across Kentucky and beyond. As a result of my talks, I generated interest in the preservation of food history and culture which prompted numerous collection donations to UK Libraries SCRC.

To me, these recipes represent our collective history. The traditions we share today were informed by that history and I believe this cookbook maintains that connection. The Historic Kentucky Kitchen is a truly functional cookbook with delicious meals that bridge the past and present. These recipes have been taken out of the archives to be made, shared, and to create new memories for future generations.