Ask An Archivist: An Interview With Dominique Luster

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

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

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

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

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

Video Interview

Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transcript

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 lmiller@tulane.edu.

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 archivesaware@archivists.org!

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.

Why Do You Love Being An Archivist?

What made you fall in love with archives? What do you love about your work? During February, we asked SAA members to tell us why they love what they do! Here are some of the responses we received:

“It gives me the opportunity to interact with the people who have created such vast and interesting materials in the course of their work. Being given the responsibility to select what is remembered and forgotten gives me an opportunity to intimately learn so much about a person or entity to make learned decisions! Meeting users of the archives emanating from all walks of life is refreshing and broadens one’s knowledge!”

Lesedi Leah Morapedi

“Being able to hold and manage the only authentic and original documents that are rare is just the best thing to experience. Its like you’re preserving a rock from Mars.”

Ng’ozo-Chapata Tichaona Kudzai

“Helping to preserve historical documents and to guide researchers who love history as much as I do… that is why #ILoveBeingAnArchivist.”

Karen Gionet

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 archivesaware@archivists.org! And don’t forget to check out some of the responses we received last February!

The Intersection of Archives and Natural History

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

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

KC: Please tell us about your organization.

New Guinea bird specimens.

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

KC: What kinds of collections do you preserve?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Using Short Videos for Archival Outreach

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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