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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KC:  What inspired you to work with this collection?

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

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

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

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

KC: What would you do differently?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KC: What barriers or challenges did you face?

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did you get into archives? 

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

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

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

How did you get your current job? 

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

Tell us about your organization.

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

Could you describe your collections?

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

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

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

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

What are some of the challenges unique to your collections? 

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

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

What is the favorite part of your job? 

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

What advice do you have for aspiring archivists? 

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

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

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

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

Deborah S. Davis on Building a Successful Archives & Special Collections Program Through Constant Advocacy

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.

This is the title card for a Question and Answer session between COPA member Rachael Woody, and Deborah S. Davis, Full Professor and Director of the Valdosta State University Archives and Special Collections.



Rachael Woody (00:10):

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.

Deborah Davis (00:46):

Thank you so much for having me. I’m really honored.

Rachael Woody (00:50):

Wonderful. Yes, of course. So to get us started and in the mood to talk about Archives, I’ll start with a pretty broad question that you may answer however you’d like, and that’s, why Archives?

Deborah Davis (01:04):

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.

Rachael Woody (02:23):

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.

Deborah Davis (02:54):

Yes. It has been a joy and my life’s work.

Rachael Woody (02:59):

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?

Deborah Davis (03:18):

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.

Deborah Davis (04:35):

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.

Deborah Davis (05:39):

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.

Deborah Davis (06:34):

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.

Rachael Woody (08:01):

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.

Deborah Davis (08:32):

I’ve talked to my students and some of them are lone arrangers or said, they want me to take charge of the Archives. Currently, it’s in a closet. How do I do that?

Rachael Woody (08:44):

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.

Deborah Davis (09:22):

You have to build up your credibility so that when you are the ones saying who you are and what you need and where you’re going, you’ll be listened to, but it doesn’t happen right at the beginning.

Rachael Woody (09:36):

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?

Deborah Davis (10:03):

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.

Rachael Woody (11:03):

Yes. That’s such an important point where I tell clients like, if you are not Google-able, you don’t exist.

Deborah Davis (11:11):


Rachael Woody (11:12):

That is just the nature of our society right now. So I love that you had that foresight to do that so early on.

Deborah Davis (11:20):

Thank you.

Rachael Woody (11:21):

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?

Deborah Davis (11:36):

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.

Deborah Davis (12:45):

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.

Rachael Woody (13:59):

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.

Deborah Davis (14:39):

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.

Rachael Woody (15:48):

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.

Deborah Davis (16:20):

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.

Deborah Davis (17:29):

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.

Deborah Davis (18:15):

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.

Rachael Woody (19:08):

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?

Deborah Davis (19:34):

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.

Deborah Davis (20:34):

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.

Deborah Davis (21:42):

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.

Rachael Woody (22:33):

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-

Deborah Davis (23:03):

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.

Rachael Woody (23:35):

Yes. So important. Thank you for sharing that. You’ve built this great program. You do extensive teaching. I know you’ve also done numerous and publications. How do you balance it all?

Deborah Davis (23:51):

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.

Deborah Davis (25:04):

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.

Rachael Woody (26:07):

I love that your strategy, it’s built in sustainability and more powerful in the end, if you’re building on building blocks to what you’re working on.

Deborah Davis (26:19):

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.

Rachael Woody (27:13):

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?

Deborah Davis (27:39):

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.

Rachael Woody (28:12):

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?

Deborah Davis (28:39):

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.”

Deborah Davis (29:46):

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.

Rachael Woody (30:34):

I love that. Getting so many awards isn’t surprising, but I still want to reflect back to you. Those are a lot of awards.

Deborah Davis (30:44):

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.

Deborah Davis (31:35):

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.

Rachael Woody (32:12):

That is an important point. Thank you for sharing that strategy, especially for new to the profession and new to their Archives people.

Deborah Davis (32:20):

Yeah, it works.

Rachael Woody (32:23):

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?

Deborah Davis (32:44):

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.

Deborah Davis (33:55):

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.

Deborah Davis (34:38):

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.

Deborah Davis (35:23):

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.

Rachael Woody (36:31):

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.

Deborah Davis (36:58):

Yes, yes.

Rachael Woody (36:59):

So having that happy customer.

Deborah Davis (37:02):

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.

Rachael Woody (37:56):

That’s a pretty big deal. That’s a big fish caught.

Deborah Davis (38:00):

Yes. Yes. We have other collections that are like that as well, and that as we have committed extra resources to processing, committed web space to advertising them, they’re excited and happy.

Rachael Woody (38:20):

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.

Deborah Davis (38:32):

Thank you.

Rachael Woody (38:35):

Now we’re bringing it home. We’re almost done here and you’ve covered so much great stuff. My next question is, are there any sort of remaining challenges that you face at this point in your career?

Deborah Davis (38:48):

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.

Deborah Davis (39:56):

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.

Deborah Davis (40:38):

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.

Rachael Woody (41:21):

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.

Deborah Davis (41:51):

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.

Rachael Woody (42:32):

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?

Deborah Davis (42:47):

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.

Rachael Woody (44:02):

Thank you so much, Deborah. I so appreciate the answers that you’ve shared with us today and for giving your time.

Deborah Davis (44:10):

That is great. I’ll look forward to seeing it, and it was a total pleasure to be able to go down memory lane and say some of the things that I got to say today.

Rachael Woody (44:23):

Yes, yes. I really appreciate your honesty and candidness because that is what ends up being the most helpful for us.

Deborah Davis (44:31):

Great. Great.

Rachael Woody (44:32):

All right. Thank you so much, Deborah.

Archival Innovators: Rachael Cristine Woody on the Creation of the Archivist-in-Residence Program.

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.

What it comes down to is this: If we as professional archivists aren’t paying new archivists to do professional-level work, then we are not just perpetuating an unethical system, we are actively facilitating the devaluation of our work.

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.

To read more about reprioritizing the budget, please see Rachael’s post on Lucidea’s Think Clearly Blog: Unpaid Internships: A Reason to DEAI the Museum Budget.

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.

We have to be our own heroes here and save ourselves.

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:

Email: consulting@rachaelcristine.com

Q. Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

RCW: Yes, I’d like to take a moment and thank our co-sponsors for this project. We just signed on a second group of sponsors who I am particularly grateful to as I know COVID-19 has impacted everyone. Many of these sponsors are doing so for the second year in a row and their involvement in supporting this program signals to me that they are companies who have a great respect for our work as archivists. Those Gold-level sponsors are: Schellinger Research, Lucidea, Emporia State University School of Library and Information Management, Hollinger Metal Edge, and Permanent.org. With Gaylord Archival and the Northeast Document Conservation Center supporting this program at the Bronze-level.

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


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 archivesaware@archivists.org!

Catherine Stiers on Using Reddit as an Archival Outreach Tool

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.

StiersCatherine 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.

A picture of the Charleston, South Carolina Orphan House.Charleston, SC Orphan House,” from the Leah Greenberg Postcard Collection, College of Charleston Libraries

Screenshot from r/Charleston subreddit

Screenshot from r/Charleston subreddit

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.

A historical postcard depicts a beach scene on Sullivan's Island, South Carolina.

“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!

Share Your Thoughts with the Archives in Context Podcast!

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

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

How to contribute:

Option 1: Leave us a voicemail

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

Option 2: Email us

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

Submissions will be open November 9-30, 2020.

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

Archival Innovators: Bridgett Kathryn Pride, the Reference Librarian of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division and Art and Artifacts Division within the New York Public Library.

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.

Bridgett Kathryn Pride, the Reference Librarian of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division and Art and Artifacts Division within the New York Public Library.

In this installation of Archival Innovators, SAA Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) member Rachael Woody interviews Bridgett Kathryn Pride, Reference Librarian of the Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division and the Art and Artifacts Division of the Schomburg Center for Research inBlack Culture, one of four research libraries within the New York Public Library system.

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

RW: How did you get into archives, or why archives?

BKP: Actually Rachael, you inspired me quite a bit. I am not sure that I would have taken the path into library science, and then archives without your suggestion when I was in undergrad. Once you recommend I look into the field, everything just sort of fell into place. While I was earning my BA in Literature I was working in the university library and bookstore and loved it. I remember being really interested in learning about book preservation, especially from an “arts and crafts” perspective. I was romanced by the idea that rare books, and historical documents needed specific kinds of care to last in perpetuity, and had to know more.

After finishing my Literature degree I took some time off, then went back to school to earn a BA in History, my other love. Once I finished there, I went straight into library school for a double masters in LIS/Archives, and History. I was thankful to find a program at Simmons University that provided a pathway to complete both degrees together. It was in studying history that I realized people sharing my identity were hard to come by. I had to work extra hard to learn about queer Black women, and decided that the only way to make sure this problem is addressed is by doing the work myself. I began focusing my historical study in grad school on Black women artists and activists.

RW: How did you get your gig at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture?

BKP: The same way as anyone else! I applied when I found the job posting. I knew that this was my dream job! I get to help researchers navigate collections created by Black folks, and I get to work with art and other historical artifacts. I remember being brought to tears during the end of my interview when Tammi Lawson, the curator of the Art and Artifacts Division said her favorite part of working at the Schomburg was that you get to celebrate being Black every day. In our field, that is dominated by white supremacy, hearing that was like being given breath after being on the brink of drowning. 

RW: Please describe the work you do there.

BKP: As the reference librarian, I meet with researchers to discuss their projects, teach instruction sessions for visiting groups and classes, build research guides on specific topics, and manage the public services workflow for my divisions; including scheduling research appointments and monitoring the reading room.

RW: Please describe the collections or one of your favorite collections.

BKP: Our collections are created by and about people of African descent. The collection was first imagined by Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a Puerto Rican born Black man who was told by one of his teachers that Black people did not have their own history, and did not create anything worthy of study. He then spent his life collecting “Vindicating Evidences” of the intelligence, creativity, and genius of Black people around the globe. 

I have SO MANY favorite collections, from the Black Panther Party Harlem Branch Files, to the Storme Delarverie Papers, to two short letters written by Nella Larsen discussing the “small get together”  she would throw before the Cullen-DuBois wedding (that ultimately none of her guests would attend). One thing that I love about our collections is how much they feed into one another. For example, we have both Lorraine Hansberry and Langston Hughes’ papers. Each collection includes a folder of correspondence that was written to the other. You can almost read them side-by-side to see their beautiful friendship. One of my favorite items is a play bill that Langston sent Lorraine from when he went to see A Raisin in the Sun, the title of which is from Langston’s poem “Harlem”. On the cover, he wrote that he saw the play and watched the entire audience “cry all around” him because it was so beautiful.

RW: You were selected as a Rare Books School Mellon Cultural Heritage Fellow. Can you tell us more about that, the process you went through to become a fellow, and the work you’ll be doing as a fellow?

BKP: I am a part of the inaugural class of 15 fellows who work in multicultural collections in the US. I found out about the fellowship because the curator of the Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division Is a Rare Book School instructor. She had sent out the announcement that this fellowship had just been funded and if we were interested, we should apply. Because of my interest in Black zines, and how they have been used by the community to spread information, I was eager to apply. There was an application with several essays about why I was applying and how I intend to share what I learn in our field, then a few interviews. The object of the fellowship is for us to develop skills for documenting and interpreting visual and textural materials in special collections and archives, to raise awareness within professional communities about the significance of inclusive, multicultural collections, build connection with diverse communities and public through strategic programing, outreach and advocacy, and advance our careers by establishing new pathways and skills for personal growth. Since the Corona Virus hit, all of our in person classes, conferences, and meetings have been postponed, however we have been meeting monthly for guest speakers, and to discuss articles. Rare Book School has also been hosting other open events that many of the fellows have attended. 

Bridget Kathryn Pride pictured holding a pamphlet she created, entitled Reading & Creating Zines.

RW: You recently created Exploring Black LGBTQ Studies in the Schomburg Center’s Archive, a libguide. Can you please describe your work on this project? Where did the idea to create the libguide come from? What inspired it?

BKP: One of my main jobs as a reference librarian is to teach people how to navigate the collections at the Schomburg. One popular theme I address in both instruction sessions and research consultations is how to identify collections created by queer Black folks. Because I am a part of this community, I was more than thrilled to build a guide to help researchers access these collections. The year I started at the Schomburg Center, NYPL was celebrating Stone Wall 50, the 50th anniversary of the StoneWall Riots. They had received some grant money to process collections by and about queer folks, and made a big push to provide access to LGBT+ collection materials. However, I found that it was hard to locate Black people in these collections. Furthermore, it was really hard to locate Black women. My goal then became to highlight the collections at the Schomburg Center to address the violence done by excluding Black voices.

RW: What barriers or challenges did/do you face?

BKP: At first I thought I was wrong! I kept thinking that there was no way that they would have forgotten to include Black people. I kept thinking, maybe I just am bad at searching. But then realized that I was not the problem, the folks making the decisions on what archival materials to collect didn’t think outside of their own identities. Then, I also discovered that while there were collections that specifically discussed LGBT+ or queer studies, there were lots of collections at the Schomburg Center that were created by queer folks that could not be located using search terms dealing with queerness. For example, you will not find James Baldwin’s papers when searching “Black Gay Authors”, only “Black Authors.” I discovered that even at the Schomburg, parts of people’s identities had been erased.

I was also disappointed to learn about the general lack of collecting that focused on all members of the LGBTQ+ community. Specifically, trans folks are not represented, asexual folks, are missing, and so many others are not represented. Over all, while previous work to document LGBTQ+ stories were focused largely on cis gay White men, the Schomburg also appears to have a bias for cis gay Black men.

RW: 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?

BKP: I struggled with how to explain the issue that some well known queer folks would not be findable using the guide. (See James Bladwin example). After many revisions, I settled on just being explicit about what the “Queer Studies” subject heading meant, rather than explaining what it excluded. The other part I was surprised by was that non-Schomburg NYPL folks had lots of thoughts and feeling about using the word “queer”, which I heavily identify with. At the end of the day, I ended up changing the guide title, removing the word “queer” in most instances, and focusing on the fact that no mater if the word is queer, or LGBT+, this guide focusing on Black queer folks was now Out in the world.

RW: Where would you like to see the work continue?

BKP: I would like to see a review of our subject headings used on collections that have not been identified as “Queer studies”. Labeling someone as a “Gay Black Author” is important and valuable for a lot of our researchers.

RW: What tips do you have for budding innovators?

BKP: Find what you are passionate about and go from there! Our field is in a transition period. We need to be thinking outside of the box to share our collections in creative ways so that people can continue to see their value. Right now I am doing that with research guides and zines. I am sure there are many other ways to engage with users based on other interests.

A group of children from Beginning with Children Charter School in New York City pose at the Schomburg Center. These children worked with Bridgett to create a zine discussing the book One Crazy Summer and what they learned about the Black Panther Party during Bridgett’s class.

These are sample zine pages from a two volume series created by the students from Beginning with Children Charter School. You can view, download, and print zine volumes 1 & 2 here and here. These are designed to be printed double-sided, flip along the short edge.

RW: In your own words, how would you describe the importance of archival records?

BKP: Archives show us the important journeys of people living their lives. Through archives we see a snapshot of time and place in the materials that were kept. It is a unique experience for every person based upon what they valued. Archival records are as diverse as the people in the world. It is our job to make sure that we are allowing these stories to be available for future generations, and that this diversity is captured.

RW: What is your favorite part of the job?

BKP: I love teaching! I recently started leading zine workshops at the Schomburg to connect young users with the concept of the archive. It brings my heart so much joy to see the faces of Black and Brown learners see themselves reflected in history, not as enslaved people, but as innovators, creators, and activists. That is priceless!

RW: What’s next for you?

BKP: Lots of things! I am about to publish a new research guide on the history of Black protest as it is documented at the Schomburg. [The guide was published on September 21, 2020–after this interview–and is linked here.] I am working with my team on reopening plans, and learning the best ways to teach instruction sessions online. I am working on a few blog posts for NYPL, so I can start completing my own research again, and I am hoping to collaborate with my colleagues on a few other new projects. The wish list of projects and programs is never ending. I need more hours in the week to do everything I am interested in.

RW: How can people connect with you to learn more about your work?

BKP: Folks can find me on Linkedin, Instagram, and Twitter!

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

“A Finding Aid to My Soul” A Storytelling Event Celebrating Archivists on October 1.

Pitch Your Story - COPA (1)

Archives Month Kickoff

Join SAA in celebrating the diversity and commonality of the archivist experience! Five storytellers—Kathy Marquis, Jessica Newell, Micaela Terronez, Melissa Barker, and Ethel Hazard—will share true stories about their unique, moving, serendipitous, mysterious, and often humorous encounters in the archives. This free event, sponsored by the Committee on Public Awareness, will be hosted by two-time Moth GrandSLAM winner (and former Moth director of education) Micaela Blei.

Time: Oct 1, 2020 07:00 PM CT

Register at https://zoom.us/meeting/register/tJMqcO2qqTgsE9OW0hRGHT34jFa-iXcEIEFW

If you were at either the 2018 or 2019 editions of A Finding Aid to My Soul, you know what incredible storytellers your archivist colleagues can be. If you weren’t able to attend either of those events and want a preview of what to expect, here’s a story by Joyce Lee Ann Joseph from the 2019 edition of A Finding Aid to My Soul.

Want to hear more archivist stories? Selections from past Finding Aid to My Soul events can be found on the Archives in Context podcast.

Responses & Retrospectives: Cecelia “Cece” Otto on Reimagining Living History Performances in the COVID-era

CeceOttoSuffrageChair01_hr-819x1024This is the latest post in our series Responses and Retrospectives, which features archivists’ personal responses and perspectives concerning current or historical events/subjects with significant implications for the archives profession. Interested in contributing to Responses and Retrospectives?  Please email the editor at archivesaware@archivists.org with your ideas!

In this installation of Responses & Retrospectives (COPA) member Rachael Woody of Rachael Cristine Consulting LLC interviews Cecelia “Cece” Otto, a classically trained singer, composer, international best-selling author and historian who has performed in venues all over the world both as a soloist and in ensemble. In 2013, she completed her cross-country musical journey An American Songline, performing 30 concerts of historic vintage music on venues along the Lincoln Highway. Cece then went on to create other historical programs such as The Songs of World War I, and is currently performing a program about the women’s suffrage movement and developing a concert program about Prohibition. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and has written books and recorded albums based on her research.

When we last heard from Cece Otto she was about to embark on a year-long tour of her women’s suffrage movement program and provided an interview for our Archives + Audiences series. Then COVID-19 hit, cancelling many of her performances that had been months–if not years–in the making. Over the last six months, Cece has reimagined her living history program and agreed to share with us her ideas, tips, and lessons-learned so that all archives, museums, and cultural heritage organizations can find the inspiration and know-how to pivot their own programming.

RW: How has your work shifted with the COVID-19 cancellation of events?

CO: It has shifted in a dramatic way. Prior to COVID-19, all of my appearances and concerts were in-person and 95% of my merchandise was bought at these events. When everything shifted in mid-March and events nationwide started to be cancelled or postponed, I had to hit pause and really think about how I could and should connect with audiences and venues. I wanted to continue to provide something of quality, but I had to think if my type of historic performing would translate well virtually. I pride myself on giving everyone an authentic experience, and performing virtually felt inauthentic in those early stages of quarantine. 

My calendar was booked solid and I had dates and speaking engagements all over the US. Everyone wanted to hear the Women’s Suffrage program, and I was on track to have my most profitable year in seven years. (I know things were similar financially for many sites and institutions too.) Each organization responded differently — some cancelled my shows right away, some waited until the last minute. Each state had their own COVID policies and I was trying to stay on top of it all. Some concerts in the last half of March were rescheduled to August to commemorate the ratification of the 19th amendment, but even then most of those events were postponed yet again because of various factors.  

That being said, there were some bright moments in all of this. I did my very first livestream performance with an organization that had booked me in 2018 because they had the funds and flexibility to make it happen. They were willing to pivot to keep their patrons engaged. When some venues mentioned above rebooked me, they told me I was the first person they thought of. Some places even noted that people had contacted them asking when I was going to be rescheduled. Because it’s an election year, people so badly want hear the songs and stories of the women who fought for the right to vote for over 70 years. 

RW: [Oh yes!] You recently performed live via YouTube premiere. What was that like?

CO: I have to admit, I was nervous about performing via a YouTube livestream. I didn’t know what to expect. Would people turn up? Would people comment on the songs and/or watch the whole concert? There were so many unknowns. But that being said, it was a fun experience. People did turn up! I had people from 15 states in all US time zones as well as people in Canada and Australia tune in to watch, which to this day still blows me away. All in all, I was able to reach regular fans and new fans who had never heard me before.

It was a little weird to not see people. I had to imagine applause at the end of each song, and I ended up saying “thank you” after every song, just like it was in a real show. The chat on YouTube was pretty active, but I couldn’t see it because I was on camera the entire time. Luckily, I had two people moderating comments, so when we did the Q&A at the end of the program the questions were all ready to go. 

That being said, it is a much more intense experience to perform for a camera and no physical audience. People are communal by nature, and we communicate verbally and non-verbally with each other even in a concert setting. The energy in the room that performers and audience members create is unique every time, and while the songs can remain the same each show is different because of people’s reactions. When you have no one there to perform to, that energy is gone and it can be hard to figure out how to introduce songs and talk about the topic at hand. Some songs I think played better in virtual setting because I could emote more and be more passionate on stage, others felt the same virtually as they did in-person, others may be better as live songs only. Because of these shifts, I was exhausted the next day after the show. But overall I was extremely pleased with how it all turned out.

RW: What were the technical, logistical, and theatrical considerations for delivering a virtual performance?

CO: Anyone can go live and be virtual these days, and I didn’t want this to be every single thing that’s appeared since we all went into lockdown in March. I had pressure from fans and organizations to “just get something up there”; many famous musicians were giving free concerts in their living rooms and they felt I can and should just do it like these top musicians did. While I appreciate that they put me in the same category, I financially am not in the same place as an independent musician and historian. The piano player has to get paid too, right? And taking virtual tip jar donations wasn’t going to cut it. This is music from a century ago, and I wanted to give it the proper treatment it deserves. 

My first obstacle was location, and it’s a big one. Theatrically, I had to think about what suited the music best. I live in a home that’s not a vintage home, and my pianist here in the Pacific Northwest has a period home, but a bad wifi connection for streaming a concert. The summer had vintage locations still very much in lockdown here in Oregon, and knowing I had to find a venue for the YouTube concert mentioned above, I put out a call to several places. One venue that I’d performed at a few times before immediately said “yes”, knowing that there would be less than five people in the building when the concert was happening so they would stay within COVID guidelines. They had a lovely parlor in the building that dated to the 1920s, the piano was in decent shape, and the wifi was excellent, so I knew that this space would be perfect. I will say that when thinking about filming, take into consideration the weather, lighting, and if the building has air-conditioning. When I did the test run it was earlier in the day and it was nice and cool outside. The day of the concert, it was 87 degrees outside, the parlor faced west and had no air-conditioning, so by the time the evening concert happened, it was warm and we had no fans to cool things down. It all turned out fine, but you want to be as comfortable as possible when you film.  

Next up was the additional equipment and software I needed to be able to stream properly. I had decided to use YouTube because its sound was better than most platforms, and all people needed was a link — no one had to download anything or needed a password to get in. I purchased one of those ring lights you’re seeing everywhere these days that had the capability to attach a webcam, and I used a USB microphone sat on the floor in front of me off camera. Everything hooked into my laptop and was streamed through YouTube and OBS, which is a free software that people can use for video broadcasting and live-streaming. Last but not least, we brought cleaning products so we could clean all of the surfaces before we left for the night. All in all, we found quality equipment that was less than $150, so any person or organization can and should invest a little if you’re thinking of doing more online content. It will make all the difference in the long run. 

RW: What challenges and opportunities do you see for performing virtually?

CO: The biggest challenge as a performer is that people will forgive bad video, but they NEVER forgive bad audio. If you have distorted audio or silence they will stop listening and watching almost immediately. My mouth didn’t match what I was singing sometimes and it’s a known YouTube issue, but people forgave it because the audio was crystal clear during the entire livestream. As a performer there were three things I had to keep in mind: 1) I had to find a platform that is inexpensive and easy for me to use 2) People know how to find and easily use the platform and last but not least, 3) It again has excellent audio quality. As much as Zoom and Facebook Live have their perks, the audio quality is inconsistent and the sound for music is terrible (talking is fine, music not so much). Many of these platforms are working on rolling out better audio for events in the future, but in the interim I chose YouTube because of its track record. 

Another challenge I again see is people arguing that my fees for my programs and services should be lower because I’m not traveling anywhere and not standing in front of them, which is extremely frustrating. Years of research and rehearsal need to be taken into it all, and I again think wearing period clothing is essential to the art and message of the music, which means I’m taking close to an hour to be camera-ready for a virtual performance. Add in the time and production costs for the filming and editing to create some virtual, and you can understand why rates need to stay where they are.  

But on the flip side, the opportunities to reach new audiences are and have been amazing. It would have taken months of touring to reach fifteen states and two countries, and I’m grateful that organization honored their 2-year commitment to me to make the livestream happen. I also have seen a hunger for people to learn more about me and how I do what I do, and that goes beyond just the professionals and academics in the field. While we’ve all been at home these past several months, we’ve been more curious and thinking about all the things we normally don’t think about. As a performer for many years, I didn’t think people wanted to see “what’s behind the curtain”, but what I’ve found out is that they do. Our world and society is looking back at historic events in ways they never have been before, and the public at large wants to know more. They frankly are yearning to know more. 

RW: What other opportunities do you see for innovating upon your work during this COVID-19 era?

CO: There’s more than I originally imagined! I’m so glad I hit pause and took the time to really think through what I could do and what would serve audiences and historical sites the best. I am grateful I took this time, I truly feel I’m able to provide something virtual that is a good substitute for an in-person show. There are real-time concerts and events of course, but there’s so much that can be done with repurposing what content I do have so more people have access to it. I’ve already taken the first livestream concert and given it to my Patrons on Patreon as a “thank you” for their support, and I was even able to use it to get more members (more on that later). 

I know budgets will be tight for many organizations in the next few years, so until live performances come back fully, I’ve set up three different virtual options that can give something new to members and patrons.

1) Concert only: This is an unlisted online link to one of my concerts that you could use and share with your patrons. They would have access to it for 30 days to view as many times as they like. I would absorb all production costs for this license; all you have to do is give them the link and you’re set!

2) Concert link with live Q&A at the end of the concert: You’d get the link as noted above, and then I would come on at a specific date and time of your choosing to talk with people and answer questions about the songs and my research. Q&A sessions can last anywhere from 15-45 minutes depending on how we get going!

3) Full exclusive livestream concert with Q&A: This option would be me in full costume performing the full program, with the Q&A session at the end of the program. The link would also be made available after the livestream for a set amount of time so if anyone misses it they can see it. Given people’s bandwidth these days, the concert would be 45-50 minutes long with 10-15 minutes of Q&A to keep screen fatigue to a minimum. 

RW: How can people support you and your work during this time?

CO: Until live events return, there are several ways that people can help. Booking virtual events, talks, and purchasing licenses to previous concerts are one way to support my work of course. My Patreon page is a great place for individuals and institutions to continually support what I’m doing as well, and there are various tiers. I’m building an online community there that’s not dependent on algorithms, and I talk behind the scenes about what I’m finding in my research. Patrons will get first access to music, videos, livestreams, and more. I’m even doing AMA (Ask Me Anything) chats. As more members join, I’ll be able to financially do more livestreams concerts that only they will have access to. 

I’ve also got books, concert program booklets, CDs and flash drives of music that people can buy from me directly. If people want to buy items in bulk, I offer discounts as well. Here’s a link to my Amazon Author page, and you can also find my songs distributed on iTunes, CD Baby and more. If finances are tight, something as simple as subscribing to my YouTube channel or leaving a review on Amazon or Facebook make a huge difference in my overall visibility. 

RW. When things are safe to return to in-person performance, how can people contact you about booking a show and is there anything they need to know?

CO: While the centennial of the 19th amendment occurred this year, many people have asked for this concert to be performed in 2021 and potentially beyond 2021 depending on when things get back to “normal”. And rightfully so! These songs and stories need to be heard, and as long as voting rights continue to be challenged, I welcome the opportunity to continue performing this program. 

I’m excited to report that I’ve also been researching and putting together a new program of Prohibition songs that will be ready next year! Not just the good time “fun” songs of the 1920s, but there are songs from the Temperance movement too and earlier. I’ve done programs of several important moments in American history, and I have been thinking about doing “artist in residence”-style performing where I could be in one location for a week performing a different concert every day. I love the idea of also doing talks and workshops with people in the community as well. This music is such a powerful learning tool, and I believe it’s a great way for us to open up and discuss sensitive topics. I feel the need to share that I’m very aware that venues and audiences will be different when we all come back together again, and I’m taking that into account. We’ve collectively been going through so much, and while we’ll all appreciate live entertainment more after this, I also know that we’ll all be processing this time in the months and years to come so the songs need to reflect that as well.  

I heartily recommend that if anyone is interested in working with me, they contact me sooner rather than later so they can ensure they have the date(s) they want. Once things get moving again, I have the feeling my calendar will fill up quickly! They can contact me personally at: cece@americansongline.com, via the American Songline website, or through any of the social media platforms below. 

RW: Where can people find you?

CO: There are many places they can find me online! My website is a great place to go first to learn more, and that link is www.americansongline.com. My YouTube channel is the next best stop—you’ll get to see excerpts of performances and hear testimonials from people who have attended the show. That link is: https://www.youtube.com/user/AmericanSongline. Of course, I’m on all of the major social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, and I often post fun vintage, retro photos as well as concert and travel updates. Thanks again for the opportunity to share my experiences six months on, I really appreciate it!

This post was written by Rachael Woody based on an interview conducted with Cece Otto. The opinions and assertions stated within this piece are the interviewee’s alone, and do not represent the official stance of the Society of American Archivists. COPA publishes response posts with the sole aim of providing additional perspectives, context, and information on current events and subjects that directly impact archives and archivists.