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.
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.
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.
On January 19, 2021 the Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) member Rachael Woody sat down (virtually) with Elizabeth Stauber of the Hogg Foundation Archives, a recent recipient of the Advocacy Award from the Texas Historical Records Advisory Board.
Elizabeth Stauber stewards the Hogg Foundation’s educational mission to document, archive and share the foundation’s history, which has become an important part of the histories of mental and public health in Texas, and the evolution of mental health discourse nationally and globally. Elizabeth provides access to the Hogg Foundation’s research, programs, and operations through the publicly accessible archive. Learn more about how to access the records here.
The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health was awarded the inaugural Advocacy for Archives award by the Texas Historical Records Advisory Board (THRAB). THRAB established the Advocacy for Archives Award to recognize significant contributions made by individuals or organizations toward ensuring the preservation and availability of Texas’s historical records. The Hogg Foundation accepted the award at THRAB’s meeting on October 23, 2020.
RCW: Describe the Hogg Foundation Archives when you started. What was the size? What were the challenges and opportunities?
ES: The Hogg Foundation began work on creating an archive in 2012. Our Executive Director, Dr. Octavio Martinez, enlisted the help from graduate students at the University of Texas’ School of Information to begin devising a program. In 2016, during the foundation’s 75th anniversary celebration, Dr. Martinez hired me as the first full-time archivist.
The graduate students had begun to develop a records management program through staff education and the creation of a robust records inventory, and they had identified many important historical documents and artifacts and begun preserving and digitizing them.
However, the archives did not have a physical space with stacks and shelves, or defined policies and mechanisms for providing access to staff and the public.
RCW: You’ve built an incredible program in your first few years. What strategies can you share with us so that others may replicate your growth?
ES: In the beginning I identified 5 key areas that needed tackling:
1. Strengthening our records management process to ensure important records find their way into the archive;
2. Processing the records that had been stored in cabinets and the basement for decades;
3. Devising a digital preservation strategy;
4. Developing information management policies that promote transparency; and
5. Encouraging the use our archive.
Achieving all of these things felt very daunting to me as a lone arranger, so I adopted an iterative process that allowed me to work on each area a little at a time. I could have easily spent the first 2 years solely processing paper records, but then I would still have to contend with the records being created today, and it would have stilted the promotion and use of this information. I needed to build a structure to house all the information, but I also needed some information to enforce the structure.
I started with small goals that impacted each identified priority area and expanded them over time. This work is long-term, so you must be patient and kind with yourself, even if you are a perfectionist. There are always so many gaps in my work that glare at me furiously, but I know that with time I can continue to close them.
RCW: Your training and use of graduate interns has been cited as a major contributor to the Archives’ success and recognition. Please share with us why and how you use graduate interns.
ES: The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health is actually a part of the University of Texas at Austin, which has an excellent School of Information. The Hogg Foundation is a small organization with around 20 full-time staff and only 1 assigned to manage the archives. Being able to enlist the help of emerging professionals in the archives field gives us the flexibility to experiment and try things for which we would not normally have the capacity.
For example, our graduate interns have helped us develop and refine our digital preservation strategy, researched and implemented an online collections database, and provide user interface recommendations for improving our online collections database. And honestly, as a lone arranger it is incredibly helpful to be able to bounce ideas off another person. The archives program at the Hogg Foundation started with work from graduate students and I feel that it’s important to continue our connection with the school.
RCW: The Archives is representative of the Hogg Foundation and its work as a mental health organization. Please share with us what it’s like to work as an archivist in this type of institution. What challenges and opportunities are present?
ES: The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health exists to improve the mental health of Texans. We do this, primarily, by giving grants to help communities strengthen conditions that support mental health and eliminate conditions that harm mental health, especially for people who have been historically underserved or marginalized. The foundation’s archive provides historical context for understanding our past and current mental healthcare landscape. Identifying the health disparities and societal inequities of the past helps us to recognize and confront how our institutions handle care and recovery today.
Unfortunately, most of mental health history is documented by institutions that are not primarily concerned with preserving its history. The Hogg Foundation’s archival program continually seeks to change that through advocacy of the preservation of both philanthropic and mental health records across Texas and the United States.
We seek to be an example of a mental health and philanthropic organization that shares its history with the public as these are two sectors that do not have a strong history of transparency. Our archives consist primarily of grant records. We are not a direct service organization, so we do not have medical records or other highly sensitive data. Rather, we preserve the efforts of non-profits and individuals working to improve the mental health infrastructure, access, and awareness in their communities.
RCW: Specific to your advocacy work, what strategies has the Archives used? What have you found is the most successful and least successful, and why?
ES: Over the last few years, I have been connecting with information professionals in the philanthropic field as well as archivists interested in mental health history. Often, these are two different spaces, but the strategy of connecting with others across institutions to advocate for transparency and access to records is the same.
With my philanthropic colleagues, we planned a conference on the topic of foundation archives in 2019. This conference brought even more of us together to advocate for stronger records management structures in grants management systems – a common pain point we identified at the conference. In addition to the records management woes, the philanthropic sector generally does not have a strong external push to share its records with the wider public, so it has been important for us to learn together how to advocate for transparency in our organizations.
Recently, I have been able to connect with archivists locally who are interested in the preservation of mental health history. Some of us put together panel discussions on the topic of mental health and neurodiversity in the archives, which were unfortunately delayed due to the pandemic. But we have been able to successfully advocate for major preservation projects for state hospitals in Texas, including the hiring of a professional to oversee the implementation.
Sometimes this work can feel frustratingly slow because we are advocating for projects and ideas that are traditionally seen as a “luxury” – even when they are essential to the very infrastructure of the organization. While on paper my philanthropic colleagues and I have not been able to change much in our institutions yet, together we can be persistent and push forward.
Finally, my most effective internal strategy to cultivate interest from the Hogg Foundation’s staff is to present a history lesson derived from our archive 2-3 times a year. This involves research, reflection, and thoughts on how we can use these lessons to advance our current work, but it has been well worth the effort. Prior to the establishment of the Hogg Foundation’s archives, our knowledge of the foundation’s history was solely passed-down through long-tenured employees. But now many of our staff have a unique understanding of the history of our foundation and mental health in Texas, and can apply that context with care to the programs and communities in which we work today.
RCW: You were awarded the first of THRAB’s advocacy awards. Please tell us more about that process and what it means to you and the Hogg Foundation.
ES: Being a relatively new and niche archive, it is so rewarding to be recognized by THRAB. Everyone at the Hogg Foundation was so thrilled to find out about the award. The recognition has bolstered our advocacy efforts tremendously by giving legitimacy to mental health and philanthropic archives.
RCW: What are the remaining challenges you face?
ES: Because I have taken the approach of iterative improvement, my challenges have been fairly consistent over the years. However, I hope to publish our online collections database for the public by the end of this year. Currently, anyone may contact me for a reference interview to gain access to our records, but I am working toward a system that removes me as the gatekeeper to allow everyone to easily browse our holdings.
RCW: What advocacy advice would you like to share with us; especially those newer to the work?
ES: The most important thing I have learned is how to talk about archives to people who have never been to an archive before. You cannot rely on people being fascinated by archives for archives-sake. They want to know the functional purpose and benefit of information access. A challenge I often give myself is to not use the word archive or record when I am discussing my work with those outside the field.
RCW: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?
ES: For those who wish to make use of the Hogg Foundation archives, research questions and appointments can be made by contacting the archivist at email@example.com.
Archival Innovators: Rebecca Hankins on the Rich LGTBQ+ Collections Housed in Cushing Memorial Library and Archives at Texas A & M University.
This is the latest post in our series Archival Innovators, which aims to raise awareness of individuals, institutions, and collaborations that are helping to boldly chart the future of the archives profession and set new precedents for the role of archivists in society.
In this installment, Kristianna Chanda interviewed Rebecca Hankins. Rebecca L. Hankins, FSAA, is the Africana Resources Librarian/Curator at the Cushing Library, Texas A&M University, where her portfolio also includes women’s and gender studies. In this interview, Rebecca reveals the Cushing Library’s extensive LGBTQ+ holdings and her role in working with the LGBTQ+ community to help them preserve their heritage.
KC: Please describe your collection. What are some highlights/interesting features to your collection?
RH: I think the collection is much more diverse than many collections that deal with LGBTQ communities. They are often white collections documenting people most visible in the media and the press. I try to include individuals who are often in the background. Even in the background, they make such an impact on communities.
Our larger collections include the Don Kelly collection and the Judge Phyllis Frye papers. Phyllis Frye, a former Texas A&M student, is the first appointed judge in the city of Houston. She was appointed by the first openly gay mayor of Houston, Annise Parker. Her collection is so rich because one of the unique things I like about Phyllis is that she was always open, honest, and presented herself as “this is who I am.” She married right after graduating A & M, then served in the military as a man. She always felt something was not right. So when she came out as transgender her wife stayed with her and was her biggest cheerleader and supporter. Phyllis was unapologetic, she was in your face, and her collection is the most used of our holdings.
We also preserve the collection of Don Kelly, who still lives in Houston. I have been an archivist for over thirty years and have dealt with a wide range of people, both researchers and celebrities. Don is one of the top, number one kindest, most generous donors that you can ever meet. He was a civil servant for years in Galveston and always lived as a gay man. He collected his entire life and went into overdrive after he retired. He sent out a message to the archives listserv discussing how he would like to donate and sell part of his collection to a repository because it was just getting too large for him. I talked to my colleagues and director at the time and they thought acquiring his collection was a great idea.
I brought in a number of subject faculty in film studies, sociology, history, and other disciplines and told them we need to get this collection! At that time, it may have been 6,000 items. Now it is almost 30,000 items and he continues to add to it. It is one of our largest collections by a single donor.
The thing about the collection that is really great is that it started out with a majority white male focus. However, through discussing with Don the interests of researchers, he will seek and donate materials in those areas. So he’s built a huge collection that, through his efforts, continues to grow and evolve and become more and more inclusive.
Other collections include the papers of Arden Eversmeyer, who started the Old Lesbian Oral History Project that documents lesbians over the ages of 50 or 60; the papers of Professor Harriette Andreadis, who was head of the Women and Gender Studies program at A & M; and documents pertaining to a lawsuit demanding that Texas A&M provide services to LGBTQ students. Students involved in the case received death threats and were treated terribly but would not back down. I tell students that you must understand that sometimes, if you ask nicely they will say yes, but the majority of times they won’t. What are you willing to put on the line for what you believe in? If it is a just cause, you will see some changes.
KC: What inspired you to work with this collection?
RH I’ve been doing this ever since I started my career at the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University in New Orleans. The Amistad case itself was put before the Supreme Court by the American Missionary Association, which evolved into the United Church for Homeland Ministries. It always supported and advocated for minority communities, including LGBTQ+ communities. So when the Amistad Research Center was founded, documenting the LGBTQ+ community was one collecting focus. Part of my job at Amistad was to connect with the LGBTQ+ community and encourage them to save their materials. When I moved to the University Arizona, I continued that work, and did so again when I moved to the Cushing Library. I am definitely an advocate for community archives and for people archiving their own history to ensure it is preserved. That’s why I do it: it is important that we all have our history documented.
KC: When working with this collection, what worked? What didn’t work? Were you surprised by the outcome or any part of your experience?
RH: Because I am not a part of the community, it’s understandable that people might be suspicious. Have we been the best of allies? Have we been concerned? Is this a part of our history? I understand that it may take time for people to see me as an ally. I am willing to be patient and prove myself. That’s fine, I don’t have a problem with that. I understand being an archivist doing this work gives me a certain privilege. I have to acknowledge that and say “okay, I’m going to let you lead on this. I am going to let this be from your point of view. You tell me. We’ll see how that works.” I think that is important. It’s not my point of view that is important, mine is the least important.
You must be an ally, and you must understand that as an archivist, you are approaching this from a position of power, and you must be ready to remove your own power and pass it to the people you are trying to document.
KC: What would you do differently?
RH: I don’t think I would do things differently. I wish I had more money. Don Kelly has the most expertise when it comes to acquiring gay materials, so I give him part of my acquisitions budget to work with. I wish I could do that with all of my people.
KC: What tips do you have for archivists who want to promote inclusivity through their collections?
RH: Do it. If you want to do it, do it. Sometimes it is just about being brave. It shouldn’t be a matter about being brave. It should be about this is the right thing to do but sometimes in situations you just have to be brave enough to say this is where I am planting my flag.
I think more than anything, archivists need to be more forceful and brave in the work that we do. You won’t get accolades and you may get pushback but do the things that are important to you. I am going to do the work that I enjoy doing because I have to live with myself. So do it. Do what you think is the right thing. Most of the time it will work out and sometimes it won’t, but you will feel better about yourself.
KC: Did you get media attention? How did that happen?
RH: I understand the importance of publicity. I give presentations, I talk about my collections, I publish, and I try to get the message out any way I can. Last year something extraordinary happened when the Journal of African American History profiled my collections. I was like “Where did that come from?” The College of Liberal Arts did a profile on the Don Kelly collection, which was wonderful, and we also have a Don Kelly Fellowship. It’s about letting people know how amazing these collections are for research, learning, and education.
KC: Do you have collaborators? If so, how did you find them?
RH: Michael Jackson, an A&M cataloger, was my biggest collaborator. My good friend Dr. Miguel Juarez has written about our holdings. Dr. Francesca Marini is our outreach person and she and I have talked about the collection across the country. Francesca and I are partnering with the University of Houston on an LGBTQ exhibit.
KC: Did you have institutional, administrative, or financial support for your project? How did you go about securing that support?
RH: Yes we do. The College of Liberal Arts partners with us on the Don Kelly Fellowship. We have also started an endowment for the LGBTQ materials because we need to hire someone paid through this endowment to work with the collections.
KC: What’s next? Either for this project or a new development?
RH: We still have the Fellowship, but because of Covid we had to push it back. The 2020 Fellow will hopefully become the 2021 Fellow. Also, raising the funding for the endowment will be a priority.
KC: What barriers or challenges did you face?
RH: Most important is making people understand that I am an ally. I am here to let you take the lead.
This is the newest post in our There’s an Archivist for That! series, which features examples of archivists working in places you might not expect. In this article, Mott Linn talks about his role leading one of the world’s larger scientific research archives.
Mott, thanks for talking with us. Please tell us a little about yourself.
ML: My BA is from the University of Delaware, I have master’s degrees in history (University of Wisconsin – Madison), librarianship (Drexel University), and nonprofit management (Clark University), and my doctorate in library management is from Simmons College. I am also a Certified Archivist.
My first archives job was with the Philadelphia Flyers and after that I created the NHL’s video library. I spent 10 years at Clark University in charge of their archives before 10 years leading the collection services half of their library. I am now the Chief Librarian of the National Security Research Center (NSRC) at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).
How did you get into archives?
ML: By replying to a blind ad in a newspaper (how times have changed!).
Today, the archival profession’s biggest problem is having too many archival education programs training far too many people to be archivists, who then have great difficulty finding jobs; this is our profession’s great tragedy. When I started my career, the opposite was true: there were very few education programs. The good news is that over those decades the quality of archivists has improved; back in the 1970s a major goal of SAA was to do just that. Because of that, SAA started offering workshops, began publishing manuals and books, established the standards process, and created the Academy of Certified Archivists.
So, it was not unusual back when I was first hired that I had no training to work in an archives. However, I did have considerable experience doing research in archives. Furthermore, I had played, refereed, and coached ice hockey, which meant I had the desired subject expertise for my first job.
How did you get your current job?
ML: A headhunter contacted me. They hired me because not many archivists also have the managerial experience that I have; for example, at the time I was overseeing a $2 million dollar budget. It also helped that I had overseen the collection of a famous scientist, Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocketry.
Tell us about your organization.
ML: LANL is a United States Department of Energy laboratory. It was created during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project to design the first nuclear weapons. Los Alamos is now one of the largest science and technology institutions in the world and conducts research in a wide array of scientific fields. It is located in the beautiful mountains of northern New Mexico, which is a wonderful location for outdoor activities.
Could you describe your collections?
ML: The NSRC collects scientific research materials related to the nation’s defense. I dare say that we have one of the largest archives in the US. For comparison, we have a larger collection than most, if not every one, of the presidential libraries.
We house both a large number and a wide array of materials. For example, we have over 3 million radiographs, almost a million aperture cards, and a half million engineering drawings.
Despite our size, the NSRC is only a couple of years old. Previously, the materials that make up our collection were either in records management or being held by the various LANL lab buildings. Since we are a new archives, we are still expanding our collections and have been growing our staff.
Although our collections are used for historical research, they are more heavily used by the lab’s scientists to further their research. For example, a scientist recently found the results of a series of experiments from years ago that their lab was planning to conduct. Because we found the previous results, we saved the lab millions of dollars since they did not have to conduct the experiments again. It is great to both save the US taxpayers money and find the data that our scientists want.
What are some of the challenges unique to your collections?
ML: Depending on where our acquisitions are coming from, they might have to be tested for hazardous materials. Another facility that had created an environmental disaster recently sent us hundreds of boxes. Those boxes were tested.
In addition, there is the red tape dealing with security and safety regulations. For example, because of national security reasons, every person on my staff and each of our customers need to have security clearance.
What is the favorite part of your job?
ML: I was hired to turn the NSRC into a properly functioning archives. Additionally, I really like recruiting new archivists to add to my team and helping my staff improve themselves with professional development activities.
What advice do you have for aspiring archivists?
ML: First, since too many people are being trained to be archivists, I would ask if they are up to doing the needed training with the possibility of not being able to find a job afterwards. As I said, there are too many archival education programs training too many archivists; that so many of them cannot find jobs is tragic.
Second, if they still want to be archivists, when earning your master’s degree, create a backup plan via your choice of classes. For example, somebody getting a library degree could also take a few cataloging and metadata classes, thereby creating the possibility of getting cataloging jobs.
Third, expect to continue to grow professionally after graduation because professionals are expected to keep up with improvements in their field. This is all the more true because of the stiff competition for archives jobs. You could earn a second master’s degree, go to conferences, and/or take some workshops in an area that you want or need to know more about.
The most important part of that is becoming a Certified Archivist. Most professions, such as doctors, lawyers, appraisers, records managers, and accountants, have a way of both certifying who is competent to practice that profession and a method of recertifying who continues to have that competence as that profession evolves. The Certified Archivist designation serves that purpose in the archives profession. So, prove your competence to yourself and others, including employers, by becoming a Certified Archivist.
On December 16, 2020 Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) member Rachael Woody sat down (virtually) with Deborah S. Davis to interview Davis on her remarkable success in building an Archives & Special Collections program at Valdosta State University. Davis is a Full Professor and the Director of the Archives & Special Collections at Valdosta, a program she’s been building since 1998. During Davis’ tenure, she has turned a closet (literally) archives collection into a thriving teaching lab, and has earned multiple awards for her and her team’s work.Davis shares with us her advocacy strategies and her secrets for how she’s built her program through outreach, innovation, fundraising, good customer service, and pure grit.In order to deliver the maximum amount of information to our audience, Davis agreed to record our Q&A session, and Woody donated the money towards producing a full transcription so that we can all have access to Davis’ words of wisdom.
All right. Thank you everybody. I am Rachael Woody. I am a member of the Committee on Public Awareness, and our mission at COPA is to help promote and protect the value of Archives and archivists. I’m here today with Deborah Davis and Deborah is at the Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections, and Deborah’s agreed to chat with us today about her extensive Advocacy work building the program that she has at Valdosta. I’m so excited to speak with you today, Deborah on this. So thank you for joining us.
Well, when I was going through library school, I was kind of a generalist, but I was interested in preservation. So I took a class in preservation and I did a preservation field study. Then I stayed home with my baby for three years and taught [adjunct 00:01:25], taught English. Then when it came time to start my library career, I started rather obviously as an instruction, a library instruction coordinator. So I did that for five years and I kind of felt like I was on a treadmill. If it’s Monday, it’s history, if it’s Tuesday, it’s English, if it’s Thursday, it’s nursing and you’re constantly jumping from thing to thing. When the person who was serving as the archivist wanted to get out of Archives and be more involved in reference, I was like, “I want that.” My director was like, “Why do you want that? You have the most highly visible library and position on campus. Why would you want to go down there to that closet?” I said, “Because I think I could make something out of it.” So he grudgingly let me take it, but I was right.
Oh my goodness. I love that story in terms of those are common … Like what your boss told you, those are common things that many of us have heard in terms of Archives isn’t typically the glamorous out front job, and especially when it starts out as a very small, in the closet literally program, but I’m so glad that you had the gumption to take that on and that you’ve had such success with it.
Wonderful. Well, thank you for sharing that answer. Question number two for you. If you could please describe the Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections when you started and you alluded to this, but what is the size and what were the challenges and opportunities?
Was about 900 square feet. It was under the stairs on the first floor behind the men’s and women’s bathrooms. It had collections, some collections, but it was a total mess. Every archivist that had come before me had decided to rearrange the way Archives was done. It had a card catalog, but the card catalog was completely divorced from the location. So you couldn’t find anything with it, and the last archivist had gotten so frustrated she pulled all the boxes off the shelf, put them back on alphabetically. So the Archives was organized alphabetically, which means that office of minority affairs was under O, office of affirmative action was under A and diversity was under D and they’re all the same office. It also meant that each time you wanted to add to a collection, anytime you got additions, you had to shift the entire holdings of the Archives to fit them in.
So I knew it was a disaster. I also knew that we didn’t have collections to … That was going to bring people to us much. So the first thing I did was make a web page and put up some digital content to get people interested in us. I looked around the Archives and I decided, what’s the purpose of this place anyway? What could it be? I decided that it could be a teaching lab Archives, that it could bring students in there to explore collections that maybe outside researchers wouldn’t be interested in, but that we can make the students be interested in, and we could also teach them about various aspects of archival work. So I had that, but what I didn’t know was original order, [provont 00:05:35], series, records groups. I didn’t know that stuff.
So one time I went to a training, the first year, and I poured this out to somebody from the Georgia Archives. She said, “GHRAB, the Georgia Historical Records Advisory Board offers grants, and they can offer a grant to send a consultant out to you to help with this.” So I said, “Okay.” So I wrote a grant and I got a consultant and he came and spent a week with me and I basically sat at his feet and absorbed everything he had to say. We got out the phone book which was organized hierarchically and we looked at a few org charts and we started records groups and series for our university Archives.
The manuscripts were easier. It was manuscript one, manuscript two, manuscript three, but we needed records [groups 00:06:42] for our university Archives, which comprised the bulk of what we had. Then he went away and based on our conversations, wrote a policies and procedures manual with every kind of form you could want, basic steps, the definition of the records groups, how to do the locations, how to do all of it. Then he also suggested that I get further training. So I took that, I had already asked for other training and been told there wasn’t the money to do it. So I took the consultants report to my director and says, “Look, he says, I have to have further training.” So they found the money to send me to Georgia Archives Institute for an intensive two week, all-day training on how to do Archives. So at the end of the first year, I had a website, some digital content, information on how a policies and procedures manual for how to proceed forward and training. So that was sort of the condition that I found it in, and the first obstacles that I was able to overcome.
You touched on so many wonderful things here. The first one being the very common, overwhelming problem of when an Archives has somewhat existed, but without necessarily an archivist, trained archivist with it. So discovering multiple different ways it had been organized or identified over the years and the problems that come with that. So I know many people who will watch this interview later will be able to relate to that.
Yes, and as you said, being able to go and get a grant to bring in a consultant to help do some foundational things, like getting policies and forms set up. Then the other point that as a consultant, I found amusing and a somewhat sad, but common way where I often work with other archivists who are credentialed. They know what they’re doing, they know what they need, and they’ve communicated that need to their boss, but it’s not until I say that same need as the consultant or the outside person where they’re like, oh, okay.
Absolutely. Yes. That is an important point. One follow-up question I had for you was, you had mentioned in this first year or so, you knew you needed some sort of online presence and you wanted to get some things online, which is a wonderful instinct for creating awareness for Archives. I’m wondering, was that just something you knew you needed to do or can you explain a little bit more as to why that was important?
Well, I had been one of the early website makers as library instruction coordinator, and I had put our instruction on the web using like, here’s the class, here’s all the things the class needs to use. Here it opens up in frame. So they can’t just go somewhere on the internet and mess around while you’re talking. It was trying to solve a lot of issues that we had. So when I went down there, I was already familiar and comfortable with this and I felt like just to exist, the Archives needs a website and it needs content. The content worked really well because when Arcadia Press was looking for schools to highlight in their college history section, they found it and they contacted me and asked me to write a book. So I did.
You’re welcome. So I know we touched on this, but for my third question, you’ve built such an amazing program and I know you’ve shared some of the challenges and opportunities. Is there anything else that you wanted to share related to that?
Oh yeah. It’s been 22 years of taking the Archives to new places and advocating for it. We have a volunteer program that over the years has brought about 800 students into our library to do indexing and sometimes processing. We had a 200 box collection that had to be processed. We didn’t have the people to do that. We didn’t have the range to do that. We threw those volunteers and they went through and did all the preservation stuff and entered all the file names into a database by box, and we had our finding aid after we added biographies and a scope note. We did that for free. I know in [PLP 00:12:31] says, don’t pull staples. Well, these were free workers. They could pull staples, and the person who donated this was a historian. So he was used to staple lists collections.
So he thought we’d done all kinds of great things, and I had done it for free and now we have them indexing our student newspaper. We have them creating a vital records index for our local newspaper, so that people … And we get requests from all over the country from genealogist who want this obituary, this marriage announcement, this kind of thing and that was just one of the things. We created a very vibrant teaching program, which I guess I’m going to talk about later. We worked with alumni relations. We worked with teachers, we found a way to situate ourselves into whatever program was going on. Whatever the mission statement was of the … And the strategic plan was at the university, we made sure we fit in there and we made sure the news that we fit in there got up to where it was supposed to be. We took advantage of every report to tell our story. We just kept going.
There are so many great things in this, and I just want to underscore the points you made, where it is so critical for Archives to make sure that they are securely housed within whatever the strategic plan is. From the perspective of when resources are scarce, which seems to be a constant issue that Archives need to make sure that it’s clear to everyone that they’re doing mission critical work. Then the second really important point you brought up is nobody else is going to pay attention or shout your praises. You have to let people know and as you said move the good news up the chain.
Yes, yes. So whatever project you’re doing can become something to situate it higher than you are. When you first started out as an Archives and you look around at the mess and the lack of finding aids and all this, and there’s a common despairing feeling that comes over people. They think I’ll never get the resources. I’ll never be able to do it, and I hear this from archivist at conferences, but you’ve got to commit yourself to getting the resources, to getting the people. If you’re lousy at processing, hire somebody who’s detail oriented. You keep with the big picture. If you are … Hire a student to scan and build that student position up so that it only makes sense for them to give you a tech position, and all of those things are just part of telling the story and pushing and pushing and pushing.
Absolutely. Thank you for sharing that. My next question for you is I understand that the Archives and Special Collections are housed within the humanities and social sciences versus the library, which for our audience, usually in this model, that’s typically where you find the Archives is in the library. I would love for you to share with us how that happened, if you can discuss the pros and cons that come with the Archives being in that location versus the library.
Okay. We are still physically in the library. I still sit on the department heads council in the library. We still have a lot of things and some of our expenses like telephones and copy machines and stuff are still part of the library, but I do have my own budget. What happened was my husband became … When the last director left, my husband was interim director and after a long search, he became dean of the library. So he is now head of the library. They have to do something with me. They suggested a whole bunch of things. The thing we picked at the time was under the graduate school because we wanted it to be an area that touched the whole campus. We didn’t want to become just part of history or just part of the art department or something like that. So we went under the graduate school, I worked very well with that dean. That dean was moved to the college of humanities and social sciences.
We split our college of arts and sciences. So this was a new appointment. He carried me with him and it has been a wonderful opportunity. It allows me to teach more because he expects … He teaches, he expects his department heads to teach. So now I teach fall and spring. I teach with the history department and I teach … These are semester-long classes. It doesn’t count all the Archives instruction that I do, but I teach with the history department, I teach with the MLIS department. I also have become written into the curriculum of the history department.
These classes will be offered, Archives is this percentage of that class. So not only the class I teach with them, but other classes that they bring in to me. There might be a work project for history 3,000. There might be library and Archives instruction for other classes. So it has solidified and made permanent a program that I’ve worked for years to build and that gives me a lot of security that our teaching program is very stable and very good. I’ve also understood more what the issues are for teaching faculty now that I’ve seen it from the library side and now that I’ve seen it from the teaching faculty side.
Digging more into this teaching program you’ve created. So in addition to growing the Archives and Special Collections, you have this teaching program, which I love the description you used earlier, where it’s a lab. The Archives are a teaching lab. So I would love to hear, how did you go about creating that? Was it easy or hard? What sort of tips would you give fellow archivists?
It was hard. It was hard because when I came on as archivist, nobody in the history department was working with Archives. There was somebody from women’s studies and she wanted to use the classroom because it was an interesting looking space. We had a few displays up on boards that made it look interesting. So she wanted to teach small classes in there, but nothing really going on. So what I started doing was teaching wherever anybody would take me. You need to talk to sixth graders about career day. The English department wants something and I just surrounded the history department, made sure … Wrote letters to let them know what we could do for them. Made sure they knew what we were doing, and I went after the new faculty, the faculty that [as 00:20:30] historians knew the value of Archives.
Didn’t know that some library director, two directors ago had off some historian and he had decided that the Archives was now worthless and he’d take everybody to the historical. So they didn’t know that. So they thought, here’s an Archives I can work with and we started all kinds of programs from work projects to more straight Archives orientations to even library BI, that included primary sources. So I’ll draw up my library teaching experience to teach them books, journals and primary sources. So we just built it. I teach with math. I teach with education. I teach with journalism. I teach with English. I teach with history and slowly, as people found out … And I teach with art. As people have found out what we have and as I have pushed what we can offer, our teacher program has expanded, expanded.
The only personal library that teaches more than I do is the BI coordinator. I teach as much as all the reference librarians and I teach more semester-long classes. So it’s really been a labor. I like to teach. Teaching is something … And it’s also something I think an archive should do. The mission of these comprehensive universities is teaching. Research and service are important, but teaching is central. So position yourself so that you are an important part of instruction. It gives you security, it shows what your Archives has to offer and it’s just really important to situate yourself there.
Yes, 100%. I have also worked in a university setting and everything you said I had encountered and felt as well, but everything from teaching being so important and you get more recognition for the value of your work being a teacher. So therefore the Archives is sort of legitimized, to the challenges of one history professor at one time got disappointed or grumpy. So you had to find the ends where you can as you-
Yeah, and we’re faculty. So we have a university promotion tenure, and the library can say, these people are eligible for promotion tenure but if that university committee, of which there’s only one librarian, doesn’t recognize what you do, doesn’t recognize how this fits and teaching fits. So it sits there and it makes all the other things you do fit too.
Well, you present what you’re working on. What are you working on right now? How can you get that into a conference that maybe has an overarching theme that year and you can make it fit? So this is what I’m working on. So let’s make sure we present it. Take opportunities to publish, especially with other people. We just had an article come out last … Well, this year, 2020 that was written with the department head and the history teacher and me, and it was on this cohorted freshmen class that we had developed. It talked about assessment. It talked about Archives. It talked about the whole thing and it was easy to do because we wrote it together. The book counts as a peer review publication, and that was a labor of love. We used a lot of pictures. We used a lot of captions that were primary sources, and that book has been in print since 2001 and it spent about 12 years as the best selling local book.
So just take the opportunities as they come. If you do something with a professor, ask him, “Hey, why don’t we do an article about this?” Because they need to publish too. So if you go in jointly with them, you get your publications, they get theirs and you should plan to have a presentation at least once a year. I had two in the fall, I’ve got two planned in the spring and they’re all things that I’m currently working on. If you present at one conference, you can present the same thing at another conference to a different audience. Just look at it as something that’s part of your job to do. It’s part of getting your Archives out there beyond your institution and becoming a statewide player or a national player.
Yeah, it is. I have an ear condition. That means when I fly in an airplane, my eardrums rupture. The only way to avoid that is to get tubes in your ears, which is expensive and painful. So I, long ago decided that my contribution to SAA would be whenever SAA came close enough for me to drive, when I did get involved in believes and doing library and Archives training and believes that was enough of a labor of love, that it was worth the pain and the money of the ear tubes. I made my impression within the state because I didn’t have the choice to make it nationally.
I think you raised an important point where whether it’s health issues, where I also suffer from chronic pain conditions, autoimmune issues, and excuse me … For many people, if it’s health stuff or family stuff, et cetera, we all have personal lives that we need to pair with our professional lives and making those strategic choices in terms of where can I balance those priorities?
Yes, yes. That is very important because you will burn out. You have a great idea, it takes time away from your work and you’re going to do this and you never get the time to do it. You never published anything and all of a sudden you’re up for tenure and you’re in trouble. Whereas if you take it on as just part of your work, it’s the next step after you finished the project, it gets done.
It gets done. I love that. My next question for you, Deborah, is you’ve received recognition and respect from your university through your constant advocacy and doing amazing things, but also being really good at communicating those things up the chain. What does … For you, what does that constant advocacy look like and do you have any tips for advocacy that you could share with us?
When I first heard about advocacy, it was kind of presented as going up to the legislature and advocating, and I’m like, I don’t do advocacy, but then it dawned on me that I do it every day. So what advocacy looks like for me is always keeping the Archives in mind. Whatever you’re doing, find a place for the Archives within that. Are you sitting on a committee? How can the Archives assist with the work of that committee? Are you meeting with faculty? What can the Archives do to meet the needs of some of those faculty? You’re always thinking about your Archives. You’re always speaking up for the Archives. You’re always making sure people don’t forget the Archives. You’re sort of a one-note pony, but eventually everybody knows you, and if you’ve done enough special projects and you’ve had enough of an impact, they’re like, “Oh yeah, you’re the Archives. You do that such and such.”
Over the years, we’ve won awards and we won a national award for a website we did for our folk life collection. I’ve worn awards from working with [inaudible 00:29:59] I’ve won awards from working on campus with our African-American studies program, and in 2000, I won a statewide award. In 2018, I won the president’s Excellence Award for service. That is a kind of late career award that sort of sums up all you do and I was very proud to get it because it meant that all the stuff I had been doing had been heard and had been recognized.
Yeah. I’ve got a little area in Archives that I just put up little plaques and stuff like that and they’re to me, but as far as I’m concerned, they’re the Archives’ awards. They’re the Archives awards because the Archives allowed me to do all the things that I did. To go back to publishing, when you first start … And presenting, when you first started as an Archives, you have nothing credible to say to the Archives community. You need training, you need work, you need to build your Archives. You have nothing credible to say, but … Unless you’re already trained, but you’re sitting on your Archives and nobody is doing research on your Archives.
So do research on your Archives and tell the story of Valdosta state and get that story out there and write articles about that, that may appear in local history publications. So you keep presenting and you keep publishing, but you just do it within a different thing and once you’ve built yourself up and gotten certified and feel like you have something to say within the profession, then your focus switches away from the local history and towards professional publication.
So we’ve touched on this a little bit, but shifting more towards grants, you’ve been able to cultivate an endowment and a foundation. So in addition to bringing in grant funding, are there some lessons learned or strategies you can share with us, in terms of the financial shoring up of the Archives and Special Collections?
Grant writing is very important. Over the last 22 years, I’ve written 19 grants, or I’ve gotten 19 grants. I’ve written more than that. We tried for awhile to write one grant a year. One year we wrote two and got both of them, and that was crazy, but we try to write one grant a year. They’re relatively small grants. I’ve been on a big federal grant once for three years, and our portion of it was small, but the grant itself was $800,000. I’ve gotten $3,000 grants, $4,000 grants, $25,000 grants. I’ve gotten them from private estates. I’ve gotten them from public people like the Georgia Humanities Council, like the public libraries, granting agency within the state, like the Council for the Arts, like the Georgia Historical Records advisory Board. I’ve gotten several from each one. So grants are important.
The endowment came about from a close relationship that I was able to build between me, the Archives and the longest serving president’s wife and the president. They believed I had worked with them on all these public programs and displays and all this kind of stuff. The president edited my book that I wrote before we send it off to the editor. They just felt like I was turning the Archives into something that they had always wanted it to be, so that when they died, they left a life insurance policy for $100,000 to our Archives.
So satisfied customers can be sources of an endowment. My foundation fund, which has about $8,000 in it right now is a place where I can put the interests funding from the endowment and let it build up so that I can buy equipment and other things. I use it to send students and graduate students to conferences. That’s why we always have a graduate student because we do value added. They don’t just have an interesting job to do, but they get to go to conferences. I’ve presented with students before. I’ve done poster sessions with students before, and we fund their trips through the foundation.
We use the foundation for food, for events, so that our events are always a little more special than just the speaker or the exhibit or the whatever is, there’s going to be nice food and people know that. So they want to come to our events. The foundation is funded sometimes through donations, always through me. I give $125 a month to that foundation, and over time that’s $1,000 a year and that funds a lot of the basic things that we do. The extra donations are just wow, extra and good things that we can do, but it is great to have a foundation to fall back on to, to add to your operating budget, to be able to do things and do extra things. The endowment is good for that, too. We’ve bought art collections. We’ve bought rare maps. We’re saving it right now, trying to get up enough for a new scanner we want.
You raised a point that I’ve heard recently in another conversation I had with Bridgett Pride and the way you talked about that happy customer, I think was the phrase you used and how Archives, whether we think of it this way or not. It really does come down to relationships and providing a good customer experience.
We’ve struck above our weight by customer service by going the extra mile. Like we got some papers from an author and she was being approached by Duke University’s Archives for those papers, but she had been to Valdosta State. So if we could do right by her, we would … She would give us her papers and we did, and she was a very happy customer. Later on, we wrote a grant and we did public programming with her and brought her out into the schools and used the collection and had a giant conference. We just tried to make that customer as happy as we could because we had beat out Duke to get those papers.
Well, thank you for sharing those strategies that I know, especially for our newer professionals, learning what sort of funds to even think about and how to go about that will be so valuable for them to hear from you. So thank you.
Yes, I will be retiring in two years and something. So succession planning is very important to me because I’ve put my life into this and I don’t want to see it fall back. So, I don’t have input into who the next archivist is, but I do have input in who the interim archivist is. So I’m working with one of my staff members to make sure he gets experience in all the needed areas that I do. Like teaching, like just some of the other areas that I do. Like, look, we’re going to write a grant. I want you on this. I want you sitting on committees. He’s already involved at the state level. Just some things that can make this person more … And you should seek this certification and DAS certification and you should do it within this timeline.
So just some things to make this person more attractive candidate. I also have things that I want to finish. A book that I want to write the points out. These are the things that work. These are the things that don’t work. These are the areas where I see weakness in a few years. So that when the person comes in, they don’t try to reinvent the wheel because if something’s working, leave it alone and focus on what’s not working. Just because you happen to be really good at something, that’s something you’re really good at might not be what the Archives needs.
So here’s the needs. Here’s where you can situate yourself and start presenting and publishing about this to get your tenure and that sort of thing. So that’s what I worry about. Are there other collections that we need to make sure we highlight before I leave so they have a strong standing within the Archives and there are. So I want to make sure to do that. I’ve gotten the teaching program written into curriculum. So I feel secure that the teaching program will continue even if I’m not here.
What a wonderful gift that you were leaving in terms of making sure that there’s a good succession plan, both in terms of leadership, but also you’re still supporting that person and the Archives as a result with saving them the overwhelm and the … As you said of reinventing the wheel, by giving them a guideline of like, don’t miss a beat here. You can continue running with this.
I hope so. That’s what I want to do. That’s what I’m enthusiastic about doing. I don’t want to get so over committed that I don’t get time to do that, and I think that it’s going to be important because this Archives has grown and grown and grown. It’s now important within the campus, and I don’t want to see it fall back because somebody comes in who doesn’t appreciate what’s already here and know what to do to take it in a new direction.
Well, Deborah, I have one last question for you. You’ve given such great advice all throughout this interview, but I am wondering, is there any other advice you have in specifically thinking about our archivist colleagues that are just starting out?
If you’re just starting out, take advantage of as many webinars as you can, as many training sessions as you can. Get involved at the state level. The state often offers training that is, it’s not as expensive as SAA training. So get involved in the state level and work your way up to the national level. Do not despair. Find out what you have that’s good and build on that. Define your Archives. Why do you exist? What can you beat people? What do you have to offer and write that as your mission statement and your collection development statement should be broad because if you’re a small Archives, one single collection edition can take you in a new area. That’s what we’ve done, where Valdosta State, where the surrounding South Georgia region, but we’re also in supportive curriculum and that gives us a broad area to expand and to use those new collections to reach new people.
This is the latest post in our new series Archival Innovators, which aims to raise awareness of the individuals, institutions, and collaborations that are helping to boldly chart the future of the the archives profession and set new precedents for the role of the archivist in society.
In this installation of Archival Innovators, SAA Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) member Rachael Woody was interviewed for her role in founding and sponsoring the Archivist-in-Residence program at Northwest Archivists. Woody is known in professional circles for her advocacy work on behalf of archives and for her role in protecting and promoting the value of archivists. She’s also previously written on the value of archivists for ArchivesAWARE!, here, here, and here.
Rachael Cristine Woody is the owner of Rachael Cristine Consulting LLC, a firm that provides services to archives, museums, and cultural heritage organizations. She specializes in establishing collection programs, teaching grant acquisition strategy, and implementing digital collection management platforms. During her 15 year career she’s successfully revived the archives at the Freer|Sackler Museum of the Smithsonian Institution and launched the Oregon Wine History Archive at Linfield College. Woody is active in Northwest Archivists and the Society of American Archivists’ Committee on Public Awareness, the Ad-Hoc Salary Transparency Working Group, and the Independent Archivists group; and is an alumna of the Archives Leadership Institute.
Q: What is the Archivist-in-Residence program?
RCW: The Archivist-in-Residence program offers $5,000 stipend for one graduate student (or recent graduate within two years) to receive an Archivist-in-Residence opportunity. The purpose of this residency is three-fold: 1. To offer upcoming and new professionals with paid career development opportunities to apply knowledge in archives, libraries, museums, or a related field; 2. To teach new archivists how to accurately calculate the value of their education, experience, and overall value as an archivist; and 3. To provide an opportunity for archival organizations to work toward the long term goal of eliminating unpaid work within the field. This is a unique experience for a new professional to develop a project based on their career goals and work directly with an organization to determine the project’s scope and outcomes.
The Archivist-in-Residence application is now open with a deadline of March 1, 2021. You can read more and find instructions for application here.
Q: What was the impetus for the creation of the program?
RCW: For several years now I’ve researched and written on the value of archivists. Our profession is chronically underpaid and the numbers show (when accounting for inflation) that the salaries for archivists are going down, not going up, not even staying the same. The standard entry job position descriptions we see out there are requiring a masters degree, sometimes two, in addition to 1-3 years of experience. And the degree most commonly sought and “required” (according to most job positions) has a minimum 5-figure dollar amount attached–leading to even more crippling student loan debt. Due to two recessions in 12-years and other market factors, there are more entry-level archivists than there are jobs. All of these issues are contributing to a profession on the brink of collapse. So, how does this relate to why I created the Archivist-in-Residence program? Partly it’s because we have to start somewhere when it comes to untangling this problem. Unpaid internships are unethical. They take advantage of people by forcing new professionals into the untenable position of uncompensated labor that takes time away from their paying jobs. And on top of that, many of these unpaid interns are paying for the “opportunity” of unpaid work because school credit costs money.
Additionally, unpaid internships serve to contradict and undermine any Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives the organization may claim to be committed to. Unpaid internships are a gatekeeping mechanism–only those who can afford to complete unpaid work will pass through to become an archivist. And at this point we should all be aware that the socioeconomics at play here have racial oppression corollaries.
Q: What challenges did you face in starting the program and how did you navigate them?
RCW: The most pervasive challenge I ran into were people on the NWA board who couldn’t conceive of how the program could work. I had to attend several NWA board meetings, write several explanative emails, and address multiple rounds of Q&A before I received the green light to start the pilot program. I’ve found the overall nature of archivists tends to be overcautious, and to be fair this type of program had never been done at a regional organization before. It was uncomfortable for them and they needed a lot of information (sometimes repetitively) to feel confident in saying: Yes. What it came down to for me was persistence and constant communication.
Q: Why do you think there aren’t more programs like this one available?
RCW: I think what I experienced (mentioned in the previous answer) is commonly found in many organizations. Also, this is a complicated problem. I know many archivists want to pay interns but the organization either doesn’t have money period, or chooses not to prioritize funds to appropriately fund internships. For example, a colleague shared with me that their historical society was offering an internship stipend below minimum wage. This caused them great concern and they took this concern to the director. The director was shocked. They simply hadn’t done the math and they increased the stipend the following year. What’s needed at many organizations is education on living wages and professional-level pay, advocacy from staff to force changes at the organization, and fundraising when more funds are needed. And that’s all going to take time.
Q. What is the ideal outcome you hope to achieve with this program?
RCW: My ideal outcomes are two-fold: 1. Teach archivists how to calculate their value and reenforce that value with an increase in appropriately paid opportunities; and 2. Show organizations that we can be part of the solution. And overall, I want new professionals to have a better experience than I’ve had in this profession. Recognizing and paying each other our worth is the ultimate sign of respect and I want more of that in our profession.
Q: What barriers or challenges did/do you face?
RCW: In addition to the above, the most frustrating opposition I receive is the old line of: “But these students need to have an internship in order to graduate and get a job. Do I just not hire them (as an unpaid intern)?” Look, it’s not all or nothing here. This is a complicated problem that requires multiple angles of attack and it’s going to take time to create permanent change. When I say unpaid internships are unethical, I’m not saying stop everything immediately. I know that’s unrealistic. But what I am doing is challenging *you* to make steps towards change. Prioritize finding funds to pay students and stop capitulating to the superficial resistance of the “But we’ve always done it this way.” crew.
The other challenge that we will continue to face is lack of available funding at our organizations. This has always been a problem, and will remain a problem as we watch COVID-19 continue to wreak havoc economically. Some of this is reprioritizing budget lines to prioritize staff and intern compensation (a direct DEI support mechanism), and fundraising funds from donors or grants–both of which LOVE to pay for student labor. Knowing that organizational funding can be such a challenge is part of why I chose to found and sponsor the Archivist-in-Residence opportunity.
Q: What worked? What didn’t work? Were there any surprises in the process of developing your work, or lessons learned that you can share with us?
RCW: Fundraising took work, but was ultimately a smooth process. It helped that my company funded 50% ($2,500) for the first residency, because that meant we had a solid foundation to move the residency forward as a possibility. The other pleasant surprise was the team I’ve had the pleasure of serving with. This residency model is common in the arts, but there was no model for us in the archives field at a regional organization. We had to figure out application, financial, and other logistics from scratch. After working with them closely on this program for going on 2-years, I can say this has been the best committee I have ever served on. They have each worked hard and have been incredibly dedicated to all aspects of the creation of this pilot program. They are:
Erin Stoddart, University of Oregon (Oregon) Kathryn Kramer, C.M. Russell Museum (Montana) Laura Cray, Oregon Historical Society (Oregon) Rachel Thomas, George Fox University (Oregon) Sara Piasecki, National Park Service (Alaska)
Q: Where would you like to see the work continue?
RCW: For the Archivist-in-Residence program at NWA, I would like to see our program moved from pilot to permanent and to increase fundraising so that we can fund more residency positions. More broadly, I would like to see other regional and national organizations adopt this type of program, in addition to doing their part to advocate for and protect the value of our collective labor.
Q: What tips do you have for budding innovators?
RCW: Creating something new is challenging and risky. A lot of people are going to say no, because that’s what they’re comfortable with. Failing is a possibility. However, trying new things, challenging the status quo, and creating new opportunities are the only way we’ll be able to move forward.
Q: What is your favorite part of this program?
RCW: Once our first resident got started and again when they completed their residency, I felt such pride. It took a lot of work to make the residency a possibility, especially during COVID-19, and I am so so proud of myself, my team, and Abbey for the incredible work we’ve done.
You can read more about Abbey (the first Archivist-in-Resident) and her project here and here.
Q:What’s next for you?
RCW: I have been pondering this myself. I would like to see the Archivist-in-Residence transition into a permanent program, and I think I will spend more time this next year on performing larger advocacy work for archives and museums as COVID-19 has had a devastating financial impact. To read more of my thoughts on this issue, please see the post I wrote for the Northwest Archivists’ blog: 5 Actions to Take Right Now to Combat COVID-19 Economic Fallout.
Q: How can people connect with you to learn more about your work?
RCW: They can reach me or learn about me on the following accounts:
This is the latest post in our new series Archival Innovators, which aims to raise awareness of the individuals, institutions, and collaborations that are helping to boldly chart the future of the the archives profession and set new precedents for the role of the archivist in society.
In this installation of Archival Innovators, SAA Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) member Rachael Woody interviews Ariane Moser on Artive, a U.S. non-profit for the protection of cultural property through the use of technology.
Ariane Moser is COO of Artive Inc. and has gained a wealth of art world experience including risk management, research and due diligence while working for galleries in Switzerland and companies like the Art Recovery Group and ArtBanc International in London. Ariane is also Chief Art Officer at ArtRatio, where she further explores her interest in the relationship between the art world and technological innovations. She studied Art History and Sinology at Zurich University and holds an MA in Art Business from Sotheby’s Institute of Art.
Q: Please describe Artive’s innovation on the traditional database and how it works to identify, return, protect, and preserve cultural heritage items.
From the very beginning, Artive’s vision had been to build a database that would be highly scalable, flexible and adaptable to future technological advancements. The database has also incorporated a number of technological features that help identify claimed works of art and maintain the independence of the data held on behalf of registrants. In addition to your regular field searches and free text/keyword field searches, the Artive database also operates with integrated image recognition technology and blockchain anchored timestamps of data that has been provided for searches against the database.
Q: Where did the idea to create Artive come from? What inspired it?
Initially, the database was created to address the current modern-day risks that could impact the safe transaction and movement of works of art and cultural property. It was important to have a platform that independently collected and reported on claims that go beyond theft, plunder and missing object – legal disputes, unauthorized reproductions, loan agreements, illegal exports, financial liens are some examples of other risks that could go undetected if not checked prior to a transaction.
With time, we felt that our mandate grew beyond advising and providing tools for risk management. This was also about telling the stories that travel with the objects. So, it quickly also became about raising awareness of objects and their history and so much of our work is inspired by connecting and telling those stories.
Q. What barriers or challenges did you face?
As is a challenge for every non-profit, securing funding has always and will always be a challenge that comes with this “trade”. Other barriers that we faced were much subtler. A side effect of our main work – collecting and registering claimed works of art and cultural property – is a potentially more transparent marketplace. And perhaps that is where it may clash with the mentality and the dynamic of current art market procedures. Finding collaborations within the art market, which is also where the very objects that we are recording are circulating, has therefore not been easy at times. This is ultimately a challenge because we need those alliances to make a difference.
Using technology as a tool to do our work may also sometimes bear its own challenges in a market that has been known to be rather on the slower side of keeping up with technological developments. It is in our nature to be hopeful, though, so perhaps this year’s pandemic will have shown that there is great potential in utilizing technology, resulting in sensitizing users to the advantages of working with digital tools.
Q. Please share an example of how Artive has been used to identify, return, protect, and preserve cultural heritage.
This year, Artive received a request for a search of an object against the database prior to a sale. The buyer had requested a due diligence report be run on the object of interest. In the process, a match with an already claimed work of art was identified.
Not one case is the same as another and so how we proceed from a point of location and identification will always depend on who is involved, if the object is still part of an active investigation, in what countries the different parties are etc.
What happened in this case, was that Artive was able to bring the theft victim, the current holder and a trusted, independent recovery expert (Art Recovery International) to a round table, so that – through mediation – the object could be returned to its rightful owner.
Of course, the same scenario can apply to cultural artefacts being sold on the private and public market, where a nation or community has a claim on an object…if we manage to locate, identify and flag objects that shouldn’t be circulating and that shouldn’t be sold, then that ultimately contributes to their protection.
Q. How does Artive use archives and archival records to aid in Artive’s work?
In single instances, Artive uses archives and archival records as part of any in-depth provenance research projects. Artive is, in a way, like an archive in digital format itself. Artive’s goal is to seek partnerships and relationships with as many archives as possible in an effort to either link or digitize the archival material. The broader the audience and the access to relevant information, the higher the chances of locating and identifying objects become.
Q. In your own words, how would you describe the importance of archival records?
To me personally, archival records are like witnesses, giving testimony beyond the lifetime of what they’re recording. There is no research without archival records. Without this documentation, there is no understanding of our past and therefore, there is no conscious knowledge of our present and future. Archival records are gatekeepers to the different realities and truths that have existed before us and the evidence they hold is invaluable and irreplaceable.
Q. What tips do you have for budding innovators?
If you’re fortunate, you will have assembled a team that is diverse but that shares the same DNA. A strong team will make it possible to drive your mission forward and inspire other people to join you. It may feel like you’re sprinting the length of a marathon at times, but so long as you’re open to change course without losing sight of your vision then you will find it easier to keep going. And you don’t have to do it alone, either. Build networks and partnerships with like-minded peers, share resources etc. As much as we like to be independent and shake off our competitors, we are all interconnected and there is great value in collaboration.
Q: What’s next for Artive?
We are still focused on our two initiatives, the Open Access initiative and the Digital Outreach initiative. The vision really is to diversify both, the types of claims and the types of objects that are registered on the database and make it all accessible to the public. We would like to build as many bridges to other custodians of digital data so that the world can become a more connected world.
Do you know an Archival Innovator who should be featured on ArchivesAWARE? Send us your suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org!
The College of Charleston Special Collections in Charleston, South Carolina has found a new way to connect its archival collections with their audience through a popular internet forum: reddit. Reddit is a forum where communities can form to discuss a person, topic, or event; share cute animal photos, and ask or answer question from the communities that gather there. Committee of Public Awareness member Rachael Woody sits down with Charelston’s research and outreach specialist Catherine Stiers, to learn more about Stier’s outreach work within reddit.
Catherine Stiers is a Research and Outreach Specialist at the College of Charleston Special Collections in Charleston, South Carolina.
RW: How did you land on reddit as a possible outreach and engagement tool?
CS: I decided to propose a Special Collections reddit account (CofCSpecColl) when brainstorming additional ways to engage with our community following the onset of social distancing back in March. Personally, I use reddit as a way of keeping track of what’s going on where I live, from restaurant recommendations to traffic warnings. Unlike most other social media platforms, reddit is broken down into subcategories, or subreddits, which can be based around common interests or geographic locations. I already knew from experience that the local Charleston board includes both an invested group of locals and a rotating array of tourists who would be interested in Charleston history.
From r/archivists to r/askhistorians (which has over a million members), it’s clear that history is being discussed on reddit from both experts and amateurs. R/askhistorians in particular has built a reputation of reliability. They held a virtual conference this year and produce a podcast. While r/askhistorians appeals to those who already consider themselves history enthusiasts, I wanted to reach people who may not be likely to visit subreddits specifically for historical or archival research, but would still be interested in the content.
When I come across a visually engaging item that I think will catch the attention of people scrolling through their feeds, I post it, along with a paragraph or two of background information.
RW: How do you use reddit as an outreach mechanism?
CS: When I come across a visually engaging item that I think will catch the attention of people scrolling through their feeds, I post it, along with a paragraph or two of background information. I tend to stay away from heavily text-based materials because they don’t draw the eye as much as a colorful image does. A postcard of the old Charleston Orphan House and a before-and-after picture of a well-known downtown street have performed the best so far.
Language in the post should include links to other institutional websites or open-access resources for readers to explore if they’re interested in learning more. I also try to tie in information about the College of Charleston Special Collections sources and encourage Redditors to reach out to us for their other local research needs.
Although Reddit is not one of our primary outreach tools, I’ve found the level of engagement to be much, much higher than either Twitter or Instagram.
RW: What results have you achieved by using reddit?
CS: Although Reddit is not one of our primary outreach tools, I’ve found the level of engagement to be much, much higher than either Twitter or Instagram. I’m continually surprised by how willing people are to share stories they otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to.
I think the most successful result we can hope for is spreading the word that Special Collections exists and that we are here for people’s research needs.
One example of a successful post was this postcard of the Charleston Orphan House, which doesn’t exist anymore. It was established in 1790 as the first public orphanage in the United States and operated until the 1950s. The building was demolished and one of the College of Charleston’s dormitories stands there now. Longtime residents have strong memories associated with the building and commenters wrote about their relatives’ experiences living there. Commenters were open and willing to share their private family stories without being prompted. That’s part of what makes reddit a useful outreach tool- commenters aren’t restricted by a limited number of characters. I think the most successful result we can hope for is spreading the word that Special Collections exists and that we are here for people’s research needs.
RW: What are some of the challenges present in using reddit and have you been able to mitigate or circumvent them?
CS: Like on all social media platforms, copyright and permissions are a challenge. Although I always include a disclaimer, it wouldn’t be difficult for someone to take the image and use it without properly citing Special Collections as its repository of origin. Additionally, other Reddit users often feel the need to jump in and add their own information, which may or may not be accurate. It’s encouraging to see commenters get involved in the dialog, but it can be difficult to fact-check everything and correct mistakes. Readers also sometimes treat posts like an AMA (ask me anything) event and will ask questions that are really best suited for a research consultation or in person visit. It can be time-consuming to answer their obscure questions or redirect them to the proper place.
“On the Beach, Sullivan’s Island, SC,” from the Leah Greenberg Postcard Collection, College of Charleston Libraries.
RW: Do you have any lessons learned you can share with us?
CS: You have to have somewhat of a thick skin! Reddit has a reputation for being harsh, and sometimes it’s true. The first time I posted, a user latched onto my request that anyone wanting to use the image had to DM me first to fill out a publication request form. They questioned how I had the authority to ask for something like that, but were understanding once I explained the situation.
RW: What advice would you give organizations who are interested in trying reddit?
CS: Choose your subreddits carefully. If you are part of a university library and want to reach more students, the university’s subreddit might be a good place to post. Unfortunately for us, r/CofC is inactive. If you want to reach an even broader audience, a state subreddit like r/SouthCarolina is what you’re looking for. It’s best to familiarize yourself with how Reddit works before diving in.
Be sure to stick around and answer questions after submitting your post. Some of the best interactions we’ve had have resulted from follow-up questions and direct messages. Unlike Twitter and Instagram, you have to closely monitor Reddit posts to get the most out of them.
RW: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
CS: You can follow the College of Charleston Special Collections on Twitter @CofCSpec_Col and on Instagram at cofcspeccoll!
Archives in Contextwants to hear from you! In this special episode focused on archivists and archival work during COVID-19, we want to encourage you to share advice and reflections with archivists during this difficult time. Do you have advice for finding joy or practicing self-care? What are you thankful for? You can respond to any of the following prompts:
What have you done to practice self-care this year?
How have you found joy in 2020?
In this difficult time, what advice do you have for your fellow archivists?
What are you thankful for this year?
How to contribute:
Option 1: Leave us a voicemail
Dial 206-395-4635. Your call will go straight to the Archives in Context voicemail. After the beep, respond to any of the prompts listed above. Your voicemail can last up to 3 minutesonly.
Option 2: Email us
Email email@example.com with your response to any or all of the prompts. You may choose to respond in written form or you can record your voice and send it to us as an attachment. Please keep your responses brief so that we can include as many as possible in the episode.
Submissions will be open November 9-30, 2020.
Responses received may be edited for length and clarity. Not all responses received will be included in the episode. By submitting an email or voicemail, you are consenting for your words and/or voice to be included in a future episode of Archives in Context. Individual names of contributors will not be included in the episode.