Live Action Clue: How Professor Plum and Senator Scarlet Help the Wilson Library at UNC, Chapel Hill Solve the Mystery of Student Engagement

The Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill has presented Clue, a live action mystery event twice a year since the fall of 2012. Clue is designed to bring people into the Wilson Library and demystify both the building and the special collections and archives housed within.


Emily Jack is the Community Engagement and Outreach Librarian at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and has been involved with the Clue team since its inception in 2012. In the following interview with COPA member Chris Burns, Jack describes the work the UNC team puts into this innovative and fun outreach activity and the enthusiastic reception it has received.

Burns: The Wilson Library has produced a live action Clue event every semester since the Fall of 2012, how did you come up with the idea?

Jack: Wilson Library is a beautiful building that looks classically academic. Because of its appearance, many undergraduate students have reported feeling intimidated by the library – or avoiding it altogether.


Wilson Library, on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, houses the University Library’s special collections and Music Library.

In 2012, a (now retired) employee named Becky Garrett monitored the Fearrington Reading Room as a part-time job. Her professional background was in recreation therapy, a field that uses recreation to achieve therapeutic goals. In other words, her professional orientation was to solve problems with games, and she brought that lens to the problem of students feeling intimidated by the library. So, Becky suggested a live game of Clue for students, and we formed a committee to make it happen.

That first game in 2012 bore almost no resemblance to today’s game. It was more like an elaborate scavenger hunt. Now it’s an immersive narrative game, played on a custom web app, with a three-part mystery to solve, during which players interact with costumed characters and have up-close experiences with collection materials. But we couldn’t have the current version without building from the original version, sparked by Becky’s great idea.

Burns: Why Clue?

Jack: Students perceived Wilson Library as mysterious and old-fashioned, which is also the atmosphere of Clue. Using Clue as the narrative basis for the game gave it a familiar cognitive hook for students to attach themselves to. In essence, it served as a safe and easy bridge between two entities that share aesthetic similarities: one familiar and beloved (the board game Clue) and one intriguing but intimidating (Wilson Library).

It also made our marketing efforts much easier than if we had built a narrative game from scratch.

Burns: How does the event work and how does it make use of the collections and staff at the Wilson?

Jack: Our version of Clue aligns with the original in some ways – for example, its three-part solution, consisting of a who, a what, and a where. But, notably, ours is not a murder mystery. It’s a supernatural narrative with a ghost-related mystery.


Clue players use a historic map to identify a mystery location in the library.

Using a mobile app, teams complete three activities, each aligning with one part of the solution.

Those activities include:

  • Interrogating six suspects, who are held for questioning around the library. To earn access to interrogate, players answer questions about exhibitions and other details in the library.
  • Using historic (reproduction) maps and wooden overlays made in our makerspace to find a code word, and then a hidden location, and finally a map of the library itself.
  • Interpreting communications from the ghost, and using logic (and student TV clips from the 1980s!) to determine which of a set of collection items is the correct one.

The game is fairly complex; this is just an overview. Collection materials, exhibitions, and staff interactions are woven throughout gameplay. Afterward, while they’re waiting for their scores, players watch a video purporting to tell the ghost’s origin story, but which also serves as a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the closed stacks.

One important aspect of the game is that it’s immersive – both narratively and spatially. Because the narrative is immersive, the players don’t feel like it’s a learning game or an elevated tour of the library. And because of its spatial immersion, they leave feeling completely confident in navigating the library.


Players interrogate a suspect.

Burns: What’s the reception been like among students, staff, and faculty at UNC?

Jack: Reception has been overwhelmingly positive. Students tell us – and their peers – how much they love the game. Most importantly for our purposes, it has been universally successful in meeting its intended goal of lowering the intimidation barrier to visiting Wilson Library.

In post-game surveys, students report feeling surprised by how cool Wilson is and excited to return. They also say things like “I used to be afraid to go in the building. Now I feel way more comfortable walking around.”

We offer the program twice a year and it fills up with a long waitlist every time.


Players answer questions about an exhibition to earn access to interrogate a suspect.

Burns: I imagine it takes a fair amount of work to pull this off, how have you managed to keep it going and keep it fresh each semester?

Jack: It is labor-intensive. But we have a great committee of staff who feel invested in the program and excited about working on a fun and creative project.

At this point, the planning process runs like a well-oiled machine. Hat tip to Alison Barnett and Katelyn Ander, the committee’s current co-chairs, who are remarkably organized. But we also make regular updates to the game’s structure and content, which keeps the planning interesting.

For game night, we recruit library staff from across the libraries to play all the roles. With a staff as large as ours, there are always new people who are eager to participate.


Planning committee members and game night staff monitor check-in status on game night. Left to right, Luke Aeschleman, Rebecca McCall, Katelyn Ander, Dayna Durbin.

Burns: Is this an idea you would encourage other libraries and archives to try?

Jack: Using games is a great way to bring new people into libraries and archives. Clue is a fun structure to use, although I always encourage other institutions to make any game their own. Our design is very location-specific. For instance, our structure takes advantage of the fact that we have six public areas, and there are six suspects in Clue. In a smaller setting, you could do something just as successful; you would just have to take the scale into account.

I also encourage people to start small. Our game is successful because we started with something manageable and built it up over time.

ACRL will publish a book this year called Games and Gamification in Academic Libraries, edited by Eva Sclippa and Stephanie Crowe, which will include a chapter about Wilson’s Clue program for anyone curious to know more.

Burns: What other games do you think might work?

Jack: I love the idea of doing something with classic video games like Super Mario Brothers. It would also be fun to take other cultural phenomena like movies and turn them into games.

Burns: What’s next for the Clue team at the Wilson Library?

Jack: We’ve been talking for years about building in some sort of AR or VR component, but we haven’t yet hit on the right way to fit it into the narrative.

Fortunately, former staffer Luke Aeschleman designed the web app to be very flexible and user-friendly, and capable of accommodating just about anything.

Archival Innovators: Dr. Meral Ekincioglu

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.

1. Dr Meral Ekincioglu

Dr Meral Ekincioglu (courtesy of Dr Meral Ekincioglu).

In this installation of Archival Innovators, SAA Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) member Rachel Seale interviews Dr. Meral Ekincioglu on her research project and its findings in regards to diversity and underrepresented architecture communities in archives at pioneering schools of architecture in the United States.

Please describe your innovative project.

As a scholar with Ph.D. degree in postwar architecture history and a member of Society of American Archivists (2019-2020), my current research project aims to investigate diversity and inclusion in current historical documentation practice at archives and collections established by pioneering schools of architecture in the country. As participants of my research project (archivists, curators and librarians in architecture) have indicated in their written responses, they don’t know such research study information so far. With the rising tension on  women, politics of gender and other identity-based issues happening in schools of architecture in recent times, such as “Convergence” organized by Harvard University-Graduate School of Design-Women in Design Group where I was one of the panelists,1 my purpose with this research project is to stimulate a critical awareness of current strategies, policies and methods of historical documentation practice in architecture education with an emphasis on diversity and inclusion, and to establish a dialogue between the field of archive and architecture to make progress together on this subject.

With this research problem and concern, I contacted leading schools of architecture whose graduate programs were ranked the top ten (2018-2019) according to survey conducted by Design Intelligence 2 and published by Architectural Record. 3 In particular, my focal point has been “schools of architecture” because education is the core of all other dimensions of architecture, such as academic career, teaching, the construction of (critical) architecture history-historiography, professional (design) practice, etc. Architecture record archivist at the Yale University-School of Architecture; special collection archivist at the Harvard University-Graduate School of Design; librarian at the Princeton University- School of Architecture; 4 curator at the architecture and design collections at the MIT Museum; architecture, urban planning, and visual resources librarian at University of Michigan; art, architecture & engineering library; head of special collections at University of Rice; and library manager at the Kappe Library-SCI-Arch have kindly participated to my research project. In addition, the director at Archives & Records at the American Institute of Architects (AIA), in Washington D.C., has shared how the AIA has advocated for some research and archiving to document women in architecture and underrepresented groups of architects to increase diversity in the profession, and the AIA’s organizational records within this context.

Where did you get your idea and what inspired you?

The starting point of my scholarly and architectural concern about lack of diversity and inclusion in historical documentation of multicultural United States architecture has been my advanced academic research project on immigrant, foreign-born women architects and politics of gender that I conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for two years. Secondly, following sentences (2016) by Professor Kenneth Frampton, architecture historian and critics at Columbia University have given a very significant impetus for my current research project: “….in trying to expand modern architectural critical history, the big issue is, what you include, and what you exclude…” 5 Thirdly, statements by Elizabeth Chu Richter (FAIA 2015 AIA President) has another motivation for me: “….There is plenty of anecdotal information that suggests there has been progress in building a more diverse and inclusive profession. Yet, the information is just that- anecdotal…..We need data, not anecdote…” 6 As the American Institute of Architecture-Diversity in the Profession of Architecture, Executive Summary (2016) also underlines, there is more work to be done to support and promote equity, diversity and inclusion in architecture, 7 and diverse and inclusive historical documentation in architecture is not an exception with this critical context.8 Finally, my architectural and personal roots come from Istanbul located in-between West and East cultures with its multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious history; and I worked as publishing coordinator and journalist in architecture. In other words, it is a natural desire for me to promote diversity in my expertise field due to my own roots, and effective communication among people, disciplines, fields and cultures has been always one of the important missions for me throughout my career in architecture.

What worked? What didn’t work? Were you surprised by the outcome or any part of your experience? 

First of all, I would like to say that most of archivists, librarians and curators with whom I have contacted for this research project responded to me in a positive and supportive way. I think that they are deeply aware of critical issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion in today’s multicultural U.S. architecture. When I had the opportunity to meet some of them at their programs, they were very open to establishing communication, to know my own scholarly research experience on immigrant women architects & politics of gender, to discuss recent critical issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion in architecture. Their supportive approach and openness in communication have been very motivating for me to continue this research.

2. Jessica Quagliaroli -Meral Ekincioglu-Yale University

Dr. Meral Ekincioglu and Jessica Quagliaroli, Architecture Record Archivist at Yale University, School of Architecture (courtesy of Dr. Meral Ekincioglu).

In terms of surprising facts and outcomes of this research experience, the systematic documenting and collecting of historical documents at the schools of architecture who have participated to my research project did not seem to have a long history, according to participants’ written responses: The end of the 1960s – 1970s seem to be a threshold to establish their architectural archive programs or collections. More surprisingly, one of the architectural archives programs at a leading school of architecture began around 2000.  If we remember, the historical background of the early architecture programs at major universities as first courses taught goes back in the country to the 1800s, and one of its characteristics is the role of immigrants from various cultures in its progress. With this historical background and characteristics, architecture education has been undergoing several challenging transformations in the early 21st century, like globalization. 9 Within this picture, the most well-known collections (including models, photographs, and architectural drawings, etc.) now in existence began to be developed since the 18th century in order to support teaching of architecture in the country as Alfred Willis points out in his essay. 10

In this respect, there seems to be a highly critical big gap in diverse and inclusive historical documentation practice at leading schools of architecture in the country, such as historical materials on pioneering profiles of foreign-born, underrepresented, minority students and professional -design- practitioners in their own history. Secondly, in spite of this critical picture, most of participants could not share a mission statement in effect to uncover, support and promote diversity in the content of archives and collections at their schools of architecture. Thirdly, although the architectural world has been using digital tools and apps extensively, and digital archives and collections enable everyone to search historical information and materials easier and faster, most of participants pointed out that their programs don’t have a digital archival project; one of them has a digitization project “underway”; one of them has “piloted” digital initiatives by scanning significant amounts of materials from their collections, etc.

Needless to say, increased access to historical materials for everyone has a remarkable potential to support and promote new findings and scholarly discussions on diversity, equity and inclusion in (multicultural US) architecture, its (critical) history and historiography. Among participants, the SCI-Arch library has a noteworthy project: Digitization SCI-Arch videotapes of public lectures which were approaching the end of their 40-year lifespan. Finally, we have been witnessing the appointments of women deans and head of departments in the US architecture in recent times, such as at MIT (J. Meejin Yoon as the head of the department of architecture, 2014-2018); Columbia (Amale Andraos as the dean of Columbia GSAPP, 2014-present); Yale (Deborah Berke as the dean of school of architecture, 2016-present); Princeton (Mónica Ponce de León as the dean of school of architecture, 2016-present); and Cornell (J. Meejin Yoon as the dean of Cornell University College of Architecture, Art and Planning, 2019-present).  They have remarkable contributions to architecture in various ways. On the other hand, in terms of my research problem, one of the crucial questions is what those successful women’s academic leaders have brought to support and promote more diverse, inclusive and equal historical documentation practice at their programs and institutions in architecture so far; and what is their near future vision for this endeavor?

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

For this project, I plan to contact and to ask the same research questions to the next ten archival programs and collections at schools of architecture according to the same survey; and it would be great to bring together relevant archivists and architects to discuss together how to take steps for new developments on this subject. I completely agree with a participant’s comment: “there is a certain degree of inter-disciplinarity that needs to understood.” Needless to say, development in more diverse and inclusive collective memory in architecture might have a very positive impact on from pedagogical agenda to hiring practices, more diverse and inclusive workforce and leadership profiles for economic productivity in the field, more inclusive built environment and architectural spaces for everyone in the society regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, etc. For this, I think that we (research community and practitioners in historical documentation in architecture) should collaborate with each other in a more effective way.

4. With Rafael Reif the MIT President

Dr. Ekincioglu with Professor Reif, the MIT President, after their conversation about her advanced academic research project on immigrant women architects, diversity and inclusion in –the US- architecture and historical documentation in the field (courtesy of Dr. Meral Ekincioglu).

What barriers or challenges did you face?

If I could reach out to some archivists and organizations relevant to my research topic, it would be great to comprehend this issue and to discuss what we can do together. 11 Open communication channels among various people and organizations, effective and long-term dialogue are very important to better understand the current problems, challenges and struggles for diverse, equal and inclusive architecture, and what can be done for historical documentation practice in light of these issues. In addition, according to the e-mail by Cornell University (on February 5, 2019), they did not have an archivist or a curator specifically attached to architectural and visual documents; so it was another challenge to find out their methods, strategy, policy etc. on diverse historical documentation for their own history. Finally, I could not find information if there is any recent data, survey etc. on the diversity in archivists and curators’ profile in architecture collections in the US.

How did you use archives /this project as a catalyst for getting different groups to talk to each other (cross-generational, cross-cultural, etc.)?

As a catalyst in-between archives and (critical) architecture history, in the coming months, I am very glad that my conference abstract has been accepted by “Midwest Archivists Conference (MAC) 2020 Annual Meeting” and hope to establish a productive bridge between two fields. In addition, two organizations have kindly invited me to present my project and discuss its findings with my concerns on diversity and inclusion. (Under current health issues, we have decided to re-schedule those presentations ). In addition, I have also contacted Boston Society of Architects, New England Society of Architecture Historians and the Archivist Round Table of Metropolitan New York Inc. to share my research studies on this topic. With those connections, I would like to bring into focus some questions and issues in-between two fields and professions; such as how can we raise awareness of each other’s work and research studies by considering recent critical discussions on diversity, equity and inclusion in (the US) architecture; what can we can do together (archivists and architects) to stimulate new architectural research on diversity, equity and inclusion, and for diversification of the archival records in architecture; what are long-held traditional practices, methods and policies in historical documentation of (multicultural US) architecture and how we can break down these traditions for more inclusive, diverse practice in this field; what are the changing role and responsibilities of archival programs and  their practitioners as a response to rising influence of globalization, migration and gender-based political arguments in today’s (US) architecture; what are the expectations by archivists from scholars, professors, students and practitioners in architecture for more effective collaboration to support diverse and inclusive historical documentation.

What was your institution/archives like before you started developing this project?  Does your institution have a history of supporting innovation in archives?

During my research studies at MIT, I have also created and developed a collection on pioneering Turkish women architects from the first (1930s-1960s) and second generations (1960s-present) for the Archnet that is  partnership between the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) and the Aga Khan Documentation Center, MIT Libraries. (AKDC@MIT). This collection also includes a few significant (immigrant) Turkish and Turkish-American women architects with their contributions to postwar American and Turkish architecture. Archnet is is an open access on architecture, urbanism, environmental and landscape design, visual culture, and conservation issues as related to Muslim and Muslim-majority societies, their past and present. I think that there was a big gap in their sources on leading women profiles and documentation practice from those architecture cultures and geographic locations. As one of the significant feminist cases from modern, secular and Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, women architects in modern and contemporary Turkish architecture have been a timely step to get attention to diversity in women architects (It is in-progress to upload the entire collection and its editing). In addition, following my appointment with the curator at the MIT Museum (Architecture and Design Collections) for my current research project (April 2019), I am so glad to learn that it was organized “Women of MIT Wikipedia Hackathon as a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Department of Architecture” on August 6, 2019. 12 When I began my advanced academic research project on immigrant women architects in postwar US at MIT in 2014, one of my essential concerns was the lack of historical documentation on (diverse) women architects, and today, I am happy to witness such efforts at the Institute related to the history of its architecture program, one of the oldest one in its field.

3. Dr. Meral Ekincioglu presentation at the 71st Society of Architecture Historians International Conference April 2018

Academic presentation by Dr. Meral Ekincioglu based on her archival research on  pionnering Turkish and TurkishAmerican women architects in postwar US at the 71st Society of Architectural Historians, International Conference, St. Paul, MN, 2018 (courtesy of Dr. Meral Ekincioglu).

Thank you for this opportunity to reach out to your readers in archive and relevant fields to raise an awareness of diverse and inclusive architectural memory in today’s US.

Trained as an architect, Dr. Ekincioglu is a scholar in postwar architecture history and the subjects of her current academic study are politics of gender, multiculturalism, diversity and inclusion in her expertise field. Following her Ph.D. degree in Architecture, she conducted her advanced academic research project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-History, Theory and Criticism of Architecture Program for two years.  Her scholarly endeavor brings into focus a critical insight into the politics of gender in institutional policies, academia, the profession, education, history and history-writing, and examines cross-cultural relations and transnational (design) practice in postwar architecture.

In her expertise field, she presented her research projects at the MIT-HTC Program, the International Women in Architecture Symposium at Virginia Tech., the MIT-Women’s and Gender Studies Program, the Women’s Studies Speaker Series at the CUNY-Graduate Center, Harvard University, the 71st Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) – Annual International Conference where she was awarded by a SAH fellowship. In addition, she was a panelist at “A Convergence at the Confluence of Power, Identity and Design” organized by the Women in Design Group at the Harvard University, Graduate School of Design, at “A Square and Half – The Colors, A Tribute by Ivaana Muse” at the MIT Museum, a speaker 51st NeMLA, Northeast Modern Language Association, Annual Convention at Boston University (Convention title: Shaping and Sharing Identities: Spaces, Places, Languages and Cultures), at WikiConference North America on reliability / credibility information at MIT, and “Media in Transition 5 and 6”, two international conferences organized by the MIT-Comparative Media Studies.

Her recent conference abstract, “Tracing Diversity in Historical Documentation of Architecture Education in the US” has been accepted by Midwest Archives Conference, 2020 Annual Meeting. Dr. Ekincioglu is also an author and a contributor of two international publication projects on women architects (forthcoming 2021).

Prior to MIT, she was a research fellow at the Harvard University, Aga Khan History of Art and Architecture, Ph.D. Program, and  research scholar at the Columbia University, Graduate School of Planning and Preservation, Ph.D. Program for her Ph.D. dissertation research. She created and developed the collection, “Women in Modern and Contemporary Territories of Turkish Architecture” at MIT to contribute to documentation of diverse women architects profiles, conducted short documentary film projects on immigrant and underrepresented figures in architecture, and has a certificate by Consortium for Graduate Studies, Gender, Culture, Women & Sexuality (GCWS) at MIT. Dr. Ekincioglu was a member of Society of American Archivists (2019-2020).

Notes and references:

  1. See,, last accessed on 1.20.2020.
  2. See for its survey,, last access on 1.18.2020; for research methodology of this survey, see,, the last accessed on 1.9.2020.
  3. See for its publication, Gilmore, D., 2018, Top Architecture Schools of 2019, Architectural Record, September 4;; the last accessed on 12.10.2019.
  4. Based on their e-mail on February 22, 2019, the Princeton University, School of Architecture was without an archivist at that time.
  5. See for Kenneth Frampton conversation at the Harvard University, GSD, ChinaGSD Distinguished Lecture: Professor Kenneth Frampton, “Chinese Architecture”,, (1:01:06), 10.29.2019.
  6. See for its reference, Diversity in the Profession of Architecture Executive Summary 2016, the American Institute of Architects,, p. 2, accessed on 10.15.2019.
  7. See, Equity, Diversity, And Inclusion Commission Executive Summary January 25, 2017,, accessed on 10.15.2019.
  8. At that point, I would like to underline a recent data project related to architecture history: The Society of Architectural Historians has just launched the SAH Data Project to collect information on the status of architectural history in higher education in the US. As it is indicated on their official link, their surveys aim to determine where and in what ways the field of architectural history is expanding, receding, holding steady, and to consider the structural or cultural factors behind such trends. See, “Society of Architectural Historians Launches Surveys for Study of Architectural History in Higher Education” by SAH News | Feb 21, 2020,, last accessed on 3.15.2020.
  9. For a well-detailed and in-depth discussion on the history of architecture education in the US, see Ockman, J. (ed.), Williams, R. (research editor), 2012, Architecture School: Three Centuries of Educating Architects in North America, published on the Centennial Anniversary of the Association of Collegiate School of Architecture, 1912-2012, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
  10. See, Willis, A., 1996, “The Place of Archives in the Universe of Architectural Documentation”, The American Archivist, Vol. 59, No. 2, Spring, pp. 192-196; its link:, last accessed on 1.20.2020.
  11. Such as the current curator of Drawings and Archives at Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library at Columbia University, the New England Archivists (NEA) and AIA New York’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
  12. See cwJeSc0_AkiJYKzswYsZUw#.XgvjvUdKiM,;, (In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Department of Architecture), last accessed on 1.15.2020.

Do you know an Archival Innovator who should be featured on ArchivesAWARE?  Send us your suggestions at!

Archives + Audiences: Cecelia “Cece” Otto Performs Historical Concerts with Vintage Music

CeceOttoSuffrageChair01_hr-819x1024This is the latest entry in our Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work.  In this post, we feature COPA member Rachael Woody’s conversation with Cece Otto and her experiences using historical materials to create her concert programs featuring vintage music.

Cecelia “Cece” Otto is 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 touring with 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.

RW: First, tell us a little more about American Songline. What led you to create it and what is its purpose?

CO: An American Songline® is an ongoing project dedicated to preserving and sharing the story of America through unique, experiential musical performances — some have called it “Hamilton in reverse.” I combine music and history to talk about important points in American history in a concert program, and people of all ages not only enjoy the music, but are also educated as well.

As a classically trained singer and composer, I was doing auditions for opera companies all over the US. But when the economic crisis of 2008 arrived, many artists like myself found funding was cut, ensembles greatly reduced in size. I thought about what I really wanted to do (sing, write music, travel), and the words “singing travelogue” popped into my head. I then thought about all of the amazing roads that network this country and the history that lies underneath them. Many of our roads and highways from the early 20th century had been in use long before that, and there was so much history there. I then saw that one of the earliest cross-country highways, the Lincoln Highway, was turning 100 years old. With the heydays of the highway being from the 1910s-1930s, I knew there were many great songs about the road that told stories, and also that there was more there that I could find with more research.

RW: What inspired you to use historical materials to create your programs?

CO: When I was in the preliminary stages of doing research for my inaugural Lincoln Highway program, I was living in Chicago. I first looked at used bookstores and sheet music stores in the Fine Arts Building where I often met with my voice coach. One afternoon I went through stacks of sheet music looking through all of the songs, and I have this vivid memory of touching this music and wondering how many times people had gathered around the piano to sing this song together before it showed up in this store.

cece2_Shirleah-Kelly_3kx2k-1-682x1024There’s such a wealth of music from the Tin Pan Alley era (c. 1880-1940), and it’s often overlooked. Even when I was teaching music history to undergraduate students, we didn’t touch much on American popular music from this period. We don’t have accurate sales counts, but we know billions of pieces of sheet music were sold in the 1910s. Radio didn’t exist yet at this time, and recordings, vaudeville, and silent films could be expensive, so the main form of entertainment for many people was to sing and play music themselves.

For the Lincoln Highway program, I was able to work with archives in several states to obtain copies of concert programs from venues along the original 1913 route. It was fascinating to see what they were programming at this time. We tend to think of classical music as a static genre, but different songs were performed in recitals than are heard now. I researched some of these songs and found even more history that brought out local communities along the way, and I knew I could give a fun and meaningful concert for people as I traveled along the route.

RW: You’ve created and performed several musical programs based on historical materials. Can you tell us more about your process and what goes into creating these programs?

CO: After a performance in a library, I was talking with their head programmer and she noted this big centennial that had just occurred in their community. I then started to think about big events that would be happening nationally in the next few years, and the next step in the timeline was to then create a World War I program. Suggestions from other venues came in, and it was easy to create custom programs to fit important themes as well as what was in a place’s collection.

Creating these programs is a combination of research and audience feedback. Once people heard what I was doing, they would reach out to me with song ideas and suggestions. People were even sending me sing-along booklets and sheet music! They knew that even if I didn’t perform the music, I’d give it a good home and/or get it to a place where it would be preserved.

RW: How do you choose which songs to form your program?

SLG_4720-3Kx2K-683x1024CO: It can be tough to choose songs sometimes depending on the theme of the program. Suffrage music is documented in writing – we have the lyric books they would sing from at meetings and protests, but sheet music for songs (both traditional and popular) has been a little more elusive. Meanwhile, there were over 14,000 songs written about World War I alone!

There are few things I think about when creating a program: 1) Vocal range and meter – Is this something I can physically sing, and is it the same tempo as all of the other songs I’ve chosen so far? If the songs sound too much like each other (i.e., all slow or fast songs), it sounds the “same” to most people’s ears and the audience will lose interest quickly. 2) Relatability – Will modern audiences be able to relate to this song? Before each song is sung I usually do a brief explanation and share some history about the song so listeners can hear it as it was intended all of those years ago, but if it requires too much explanation and/or talks about things people won’t understand, I’m not likely to perform it live. 3) A story arc – Songs that tell a good story and/or offer a different perspective on the topic of the show are crucial. While each song tells its own story, I look at the bigger picture to see how the song will fit in an entire program. I find there’s a flow that appears with these songs that makes sense, and it’s like putting a puzzle together.

RW: Please share a story of one of your great archival finds or a fond memory of an archives visit.

CO: I had the opportunity to explore all of the sheet music and music concert programs in the archive of Yellowstone National Park, and it was fascinating. There was a whole subgenre of American popular music that I didn’t even know about until I was looking through their collection! The oldest park in the United States has an amazing musical heritage; so many lodges entertained people when they came to the park on vacation over the decades, it’s a revered place in our culture and I loved learning about it through those songs and stories. I could have spent days listening to the cassette tapes alone!

RW: How have archives helped to inform your work?

CO: The archives I’ve worked with have been an invaluable tool to my research and process for bringing this history back to life. Because of the sheer quantity of music that existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I always keep finding “new” songs that haven’t seen the light of day in a long time and/or have no existing recordings. Recordings (when available) are also an important tool in regard to seeing lyric variations as well as hearing how a singer originally sang the song. Even if I’m not able to perform them, the poetry gives a window back in time that helps me think about how to perform and talk about these songs.

RW: Is there something you’re still searching for and haven’t found it in the archives yet? (We know people ;))

CO: Ha! I like hearing this. 🙂 When I was putting together the women’s suffrage program, I stumbled upon a poem called “One Hundred Years Hence” which was put to music and first performed in 1875. The poem speaks of what the world would look like 100 years after women got the right to vote, and after I read it I felt a mixture of emotions because so much of the poem had not come true. It made me think about what a 21st century audience would think; would they laugh, cry, or both? I tried locating the original sheet music to this song and had no luck finding it, so I actually had a female composer who was a friend of mine write new music to the poem. It gives it a new interpretation, but I’d love to find the sheet music and see what the original musicians performed.

RW: Were there any barriers to using or accessing the collections? If so, please tell us about it.

CO: Yes, I sadly have run into problems with collections before. There are of course certain issues when it comes to public domain materials and copyrights, but there’s so much music that is in the public domain from this era it can and should be accessible for everyone. I have run into incomplete digital scans and/or sheet music copies, where the front and back covers are there, but the inner pages have been omitted, flipped around, or they are sometimes in other pieces of music. I’ve also seen digital scans of songs where they only scanned the chorus of the song and not the verses (i.e. usually the catchy part that everyone remembers), which is frustrating as it’s omitting a part of the song that should be included for future records. Even if it’s culturally insensitive words, disclaimers can be included to note that the materials contain words and ideas which were appropriate for the time, but are inappropriate now.

RW: What’s one thing you wish the general public knew about archives?

CO: I wish they knew how much has been amassed and painstakingly preserved in our culture by archivists and librarians. (And lovingly preserved at that!) As Americans, we grew up learning that modern ideals are more favored in our culture, and that the past should stay hidden. That what’s in an archive are just dusty books, photographs, and some important documents to big points in history. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. There so many everyday items, depending on the collection, and those letters and scrapbooks I read and looked through were more meaningful than the big stuff. It shows how much alike we all really are, no matter what century it is. This concert program in a scrapbook may look like a list of songs to most people, but to the person who saved that piece of paper it was an important event for them. It’s like us saving a ticket stub from a concert.

RW: What are some of the reactions you’ve received by performing these history-based programs?

CO: The reactions to the programs have been extremely positive nationwide — people of all ages love the songs and the stories and they love being immersed in an experience that “takes them back in time.” The programs have been an excellent vehicle for talking about more sensitive subjects like war and human rights, and after the show people have shared with me how a song in the program made them think differently about history, American culture, and their own life experiences. Older folks adore hearing these songs being sung again, as it brings back good memories, and I have even found kids and teenagers like this music. We all yearn for a good melody, and when many of the children hear these songs for the first time they are often singing along to the chorus by the end of the song.

Many people I think are also genuinely surprised at the variety of music and the sense of humor the songs have from this era. The sentimental love songs tend to get more airplay in movies and television today, while the funny songs full of jokes and innuendo might be forgotten. Audiences think that people from 100 years ago were very prim and proper, but they had all of the same thoughts about life and were just as informal as we are today. I think that’s what really bonds the audience with the material in the end: the knowledge that people in the distant past felt and thought pretty much the same as we do, and that we have a lot more in common with our forebears than we realize. There’s something about hearing that conveyed in a song that makes it so meaningful. Music brings people together, and so does their shared past, and to combine those things into one fun, memorable and educational experience is such a privilege. I look forward to continuing my work for years to come, and to uncovering more great stories to tell and more great songs to sing from our country’s history.

Cece Otto is currently touring the United States with her Centennial of Suffrage program. To view up to date program offerings please visit An American Songline®. You may also find more videos of her performances via her YouTube Channel.

There’s An Archivist for That! Interview with Rebecca Cline, the Director of the Walt Disney Archives


Photograph of Rebecca Cline. Courtesy of Walt Disney Archives Photo Library.

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.  COPA member Rachel Seale, Outreach Archivist at Iowa State University, brings you an interview with Rebecca Cline, the Director of the Walt Disney Archives.

Becky Cline joined The Walt Disney Company in 1989, and became a member of the staff of the Walt Disney Archives in 1993.  Today, as Director of the Archives, Becky is charged with collecting and preserving all aspects of Disney history and making the material available to researchers from all areas of the Walt Disney Company — as well as to historians, writers, documentarians, and fans around the world. Her many responsibilities include maintaining and conserving the Archives’ collections of historical documents, artwork, character merchandise, costumes, props and memorabilia.   In the years since the Archives was established at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California, it has grown from a one-person department to its current staff of twelve, and has come to be recognized as a model among corporate archives in the country.

In her position with the Archives, Becky has also enjoyed participating in the research and development of many new and exciting programs and fan-based initiatives for the Walt Disney Company including the development and operations team for D23: The Official Disney Fan Club.

Born in Glendale, California, and raised in Los Angeles, Becky attended Glendale College and California State University Los Angeles, majoring in Theater Arts.  After college, she worked for two years in the Rare Books Department of the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, where she received her first taste of library/archives work.

As an author, Becky has co-authored the books Disney Insider Yearbook, The Walt Disney Studios: A Lot to Remember ­(Sept., 2019), The Art of Disney Costuming: Heroes, Villains and Spaces Between (Aug., 2019) and the upcoming Holiday Magic at Disney Parks (Summer 2020), and has written numerous articles on Disney history for magazines such as Disney’s twenty-three, Disney Magazine, The Disney Channel Magazine, Persistence of Vision, and The E-Ticket, as well as many other Disney internal publications and websites. She is also a frequent speaker on behalf of The Walt Disney Company, giving talks and presenting seminars on Disney history.


Cover: The Walt Disney Studios: A Lot to Remember by Steven Clark and Becky Cline, Disney Editions 2019. Walt Disney Archives Photo Library.

How did you get your gig?

I started out in the Walt Disney Archives as a (Semi-Senior) Secretary.  After college I planned to work in live technical theater which was my major, but couldn’t find steady work, so I took a job as a Library Assistant in the Rare Books Department at the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA.  I had always loved libraries and reading, but after two years there I discovered a passion for rare books and materials and had a great desire to work in that field instead.  In 1989, I heard from a friend that they were hiring a file clerk at the Walt Disney Archives and so I jumped at it.  They had already filled the role, so I took a job at Disney Home Video for four years and then finally got a secretarial job in the Archives in 1993.  Then, I learned everything I could about Disney and began writing and researching on my own.  Eventually I was made an Assistant Archivist, and then moved on to build out our Collections department as the Manager of Collections, focusing on working with the department’s dimensional assets.  When our Chief Archivist and Founder, Dave Smith, retired in 2010,  I was made Director­ – a role I’ve held ever since.  I just celebrated my 30th anniversary with Disney and 26th with the Archives.  Oddly enough – I have no institutional library training, but my theatrical background has been of inestimable value in an entertainment archive setting – working with props, costumes, sets, art, curating exhibitions, budgets, and scheduling, assisting historical researchers and being a spokesperson, and acting as a presenter and on-camera interview subject – I wear lots of hats!


Becky Cline (Director, Walt Disney Archives) speaking at D23’s Destination D event – 2014, Walt Disney World, Orlando FL. Courtesy of Walt Disney Archives Photo Library.

Tell us about your organization.

We were founded in 1970 as the first studio archives in the film/entertainment industry – and we are the largest of our kind.  We now have a staff of 30 and work as teams in multiple areas – Research, Collections, Exhibitions, Operations, and a Photo Library and Digital Lab.  The staff is comprised of employees from various backgrounds with various experience – some have traditional library and archival training, museum training, academic and film studies training, some even have business management training.  They are all fantastic historians as well and are very passionate about The Walt Disney Company and its history.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Describe your collections.

The collections of the Walt Disney Archives cover all aspects of The Walt Disney Company.  We keep all historical documentation from Walt Disney and Roy O. Disney as co-founders of the Company, to motion pictures, television, theme parks, consumer products, publicity, publications, media collections (physical and digital), and corporate history.  As the Corporate archive of the entire Disney enterprise, we cover the history of all areas and brands under the Disney umbrella – including ABC, ESPN, Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and now 21st Century Fox.  Last year the Fox Archives merged with our department, and we are now one.  Our collections are extensive and rather amazing in scope – from almost the beginning of Hollywood history, to today.

Research Collections

A significant portion of our research collection centers on Walt Disney, the man.  Books, articles, speeches, interviews and more than 8,500 photographs just of Walt, himself.  We also chronicle the history and genealogy of the Disney family. There is also a complete set of Company annual reports from 1940 to the present along with Company phone directories, employee periodicals, stockholder materials, and corporate officer materials.

Although the Company’s film collection is housed elsewhere, the Archives collects many films on various formats for reference, including all home entertainment releases, television programs, interviews, special events, and employee training films.  We have scripts for Disney live-action films and television programs along with dialogue cutting continuities for animated films, costume breakdown and continuity books, shooting call sheets and other production information.  Feature animation art is held in a special library that is part of the Walt Disney Animation Studios, but the Archives contains the live-action film, television, publicity and commercial art of the Company.  We also keep documentation about the animated films, including shooting drafts, original story concepts, and transcriptions of story meetings – which are quite enlightening.  Walt Disney first arranged a clipping service in 1924 and ever since the Company has been the subject of countless magazine and newspaper articles.  These are generally arranged by year and subject.

Press releases, press books and movie posters help tell the story of the studios and filmed product the Company has released over the years, too.  We also maintain biographical material – including audio interviews and oral histories with many key Disney Cast Members, Employees, and Imagineers through the decades.  Typed transcripts of significant interviews and speeches are available in both text and digital formats, for reference.  Disney publications have been published in the U.S. since 1930 and we have a complete collection of more than 10,000 titles catalogued.  There are also thousands of international Disney books, published in more than 40 languages.  The Archives also maintains a complete file of domestic comics strips, books and magazines, along with most international titles, dating back to 1932.  We also have preserved a practically complete collection of Disney recorded music – CDs, phonograph records and cassettes as well as digital files.  We also have printed sheet music, production cue sheets, and song folios to round out our musical documentation.

The Archives also houses a vast collection that traces the history of all twelve Disney Parks, from Disneyland in Anaheim to Shanghai Disneyland in China.  The research collections for those parks and resorts include correspondence, films, ticket media, employee publications, menus, Guest collateral and ephemera, and special event project files.

Dimensional Collections

Since the late 1920s, tens of thousands of merchandise items have featured the likeness of Mickey Mouse, and millions of items have featured our film, television and park properties.  While we have never attempted to collect every item ever produced, we do maintain an excellent sample collection, catalogues, correspondence files, licensee materials and photographs that tell the story of our merchandise endeavors since the 20s.

Dimensional assets from our films, television and streaming properties, as well as theme park attractions, are one of our most interesting collections.  Some of our thousands of props and costumes include the ornate prop storybooks that open Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Annette Funicello’s Mickey Mouse Club sweater and mouse ear hat, the 11-foot long Nautilus shooting model from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Davy Crockett’s ‘coonskin cap’, Mary Poppins’ carpet bag and the 20 foot -long “miniature” model of the Black Pearl from the Pirates of the Caribbean series.  Our dimensional collections also include awards, animation models, live-action film models and maquettes, artwork, blueprints and drawings, park attraction vehicles, set pieces and much more – it’s a true treasure trove!

Our exhibition program was conceived with the intention of sharing these fabulous pieces of dimensional Company history with the world.  To that end, we have been creating and presenting exhibitions for Disney fan events across the U.S. for the last decade, and even expanded to Japan and Hong Kong in recent years. This year we are launching a new traveling exhibition program that will let us share some of our favorite assets and stories with new audiences around the globe.

Photography Collections

With the addition of the incredible photo library collection of the Fox Studios in 2019, our Photo Library collection of physical and digital media now numbers over 20 million items.  The various types of negatives and color transparencies preserved in these collections cover all aspects of Disney history, from its beginnings to the present day.  We have built and are constantly adding to a new online digital asset management system which is available to Disney employees (and outside researchers with approval from the Disney Legal Department.) This is a continually growing digitization program that uses state-of-the-art equipment and processes to capture all parts of our collection – some even in 3-D!  It is one of our major initiatives and an accomplishment we are very proud of.

What are some challenges unique to your collections?

As with any Archive, our main challenges are always space and staffing!  Even with what seems to be a large staff, when you look at the magnitude and various types of materials in our collections and the scale of our outreach programs – exhibitions, fan events, publications, historical lectures, training, internal orientations – it doesn’t seem like nearly enough staff.   We also have to create and maintain proper storage facilities for everything from paper documents, original art, and fragile negatives to ride vehicles, automobiles, sailing ships, Audio-Animatronics® dinosaurs, and even Cinderella’s ornate coach!  Our other main challenge is one that just about every other archival collection faces today, too, and that is the collecting and processing digital history.  What used to come through the doors as paper is now digital and that requires a whole new set of skills to find, process, store and share.  In our case, it is massive amounts of digital imagery and audio material.  We are working through these issues with our new digitization programs and are seeking to implement a new and upcoming internal collections management system to not only help keep track of catalogued materials, but also to help with our knowledge management – with half a century of institutional knowledge at our fingertips, we want to make sure we’re doing all we can capture why and how we work the way we do here at Disney, for future generations, and archivists!

What is your favorite part of your job?

I must say I have a fantastic job that I love dearly – I get to work with wonderful, iconic historical assets, but my favorite part has to be working alongside the amazingly talented people here at Disney.  I’m very blessed to have the opportunity to meet and share our history with the best and brightest filmmakers, artists, actors, musicians, animators, authors and creatives in the entertainment industry.  I also get to share what I love so much with the millions of Disney fans out there in some pretty great ways – through our exhibits, events produced by our official fan club, D23: The Official Disney Fan Club, historical presentations at theaters, parks and cruise ships, and even on film and television.

Upcoming celebrations

We open our new traveling exhibit, “Inside the Walt Disney Archives: 50 Years of Preserving the Magic,” at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, CA on March 7, 2020.   With lots more to follow, be sure to keep up with us on social media – we have some exciting plans in the works!



Why do you love being an archivist?

On Valentine’s Day, the Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) asked archivists to share their answers to this question. Check out their responses below.


Special thanks to everyone who participated!

We’d love to hear from you! Why do you love being an archivist? Tell us on Twitter using #ILoveBeingAnArchivist or email


Responses and Retrospectives: Geof Huth on What We Do and What We Mean: Regarding a Petition to Add a Candidate to the SAA Ballot


This 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 with your ideas!

Geof Huth is the Chief Records Officer and Chief Law Librarian at New York State Unified Court System. He’s a co-host of An Archivists’s Tale, a poet, the editor of the nanopress dbqp, and an honored member and former Council member of the Society of American Archivists.

Rachael Woody, a member of SAA’s Committee on Public Awareness reached out to Geof Huth and invited him to write this post. She did so because (at the time of the invitation) Huth was the only publicly known person to have signed the SAA 2020 election petition to add a third Vice President/President candidate to the ballot and also contribute to the #52Fund—a fund created in direct response to the petition. Through this post COPA hopes to offer membership insight into this issue via a member who has experienced a portion of it. For complete transparency, Woody is identifying herself. She provided some content suggestions and editorial challenges, some of which Huth accepted to incorporate. As this is a longer post she provided suggestion of headers to indicate intent of the sections and she chose to bold some of the sentences throughout.

Woody extended an invitation to Nominating Committee Chair Lae’l Hughes-Watkins who later published a post via the SAA Leaders List and SAA’s Off the Record blog. Additionally, an invitation was sent to Samantha Winn, creator of the #52Fund. Her post can be found here. For related reading, please see Ruth Kitchin Tillman’s post from January 16 (soon after the petition was released) that helps to contextualize some of the reaction to the petition. Membership and related organizations have also published posts including: VP candidate Courtney Chartier, SAA Fellow Terry Baxter, and the Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia blog. On February 5, 2020 SAA Council released their statement on the petition.


I have been walking the earth long enough to realize that we humans never fully understand each other, that we think we agree (or disagree) only to discover the opposite is true. To be sure, we don’t even understand our own motivations as well as we must.

That prolog will guide my explanation of why I signed on to the petition to add another candidate to the SAA 2020 slate of candidates. Please note that I do not assume any of the other signers agree with anything I am writing here, and note that I will not allow anyone to read or comment on my words here before I send this off to SAA. I write this sprawling and personal essay because I was asked to and because I believe in dialog. I believe in addressing disagreements directly and respectfully. I do not expect or even hope to change minds. I am not asking anyone to reverse their decision about the petition, though I will (eventually) be asking us all to consider ways to improve how we disagree. I may unintentionally anger people during this discussion, but my goal here is to be honest and respectful.

First, a few words about where my thinking comes from—words that will seem weirdly personal, and that is because it is the individual who thinks and feels inside their head, and I will reflect the individual I am.

I come from a violent family, one that was often filled with eruptions of anger wrought upon the small children that we were. (I have written about my childhood before, so this will not be news to many.) Because of that, I try to quell anger in myself, though I am less and less able to do that on the streets of New York these days—something I’m working on. I am flawed, and I make new mistakes every day.

The Fireworks

A friend of mine asked me why I had signed this petition and asked about the request for signers, so I sent them a copy of the note I had received.[1] As I have said to a few people, I did not consider that email privileged information, and I’ve been a government archivist and records manager most of my life, so I always default to access. I explained to my friend, though only vaguely, why I signed the petition. I also noted that I did not understand, at the time, why this was a controversial act. My thoughts on this are complex (at least to me), and they have changed, to a degree, with the addition of new information.

I also told that friend of mine I could handle the fireworks, but I turned out to be wrong. The fireworks came, and they were often in the form of anger, a human response I can understand and accept. But my childhood has made me feel anger too hard, meaning I felt the drawdown of depression dull my senses, which has been my only (and unsuccessful) protective response to anger since childhood. I did not expect to feel this soporific pull, this partial shutdown, but I did, and I feel it again now as I write about it (as I have every time I reread this paragraph).

I hate hate. Hate is a poor replacement for humanity, but it is one we employ quite often. If someone thinks differently from us, or acts differently, or is in any way different, we often lean into hate. And the sibling of hate is anger. I can accept righteous anger as a valuable currency in human relations, but anger can also blind us to the humanity of the people we disagree with.

Some of the responses to the petition were built on anger, which surprised me, partly because I did not understand the context of their thoughts, because I had thought too shallowly about this. For reasons I’ve noted, I could not read much of the commentary, but I identified three reasons people used to explain the decision of the petitioners: racism, elderliness, and privilege. I would claim I’m guilty of all of those, but this requires some clarification.


As I’ve often noted to friends of mine of diverse backgrounds, I believe everyone is racist or biased in some way, every one of us of every race, of every background. This is not to say I believe everyone practices the kind of institutional racism that has plagued the United States since before its founding. It means that, in some ways, often unconsciously, we all will have at least the slightest notion that a person different in any way from us is somehow not as good as one more like us. I realize this point of view of mine is an outlier opinion, but I believe it’s true, even as I personally try to treat everyone fairly and equally in my human interactions.

As an example of how we can all struggle with biases: I spent a few weeks once trying to convince a close friend that it was irrational for them to think that a transgender female friend of ours was somehow strange, that there was something weird in not always identifying as cis. This friend was gay and shared a community with our transgender friend. Even in the face of the prejudices and disbelief my gay friend had faced from people they knew, they fell into the same trap of thinking as society had long taught us to think. I don’t consider myself a person who works hard to make people more accepting of others, but I do work at it.

I recently experienced an example where I had to evaluate whether unconscious racism was in play: In responding to this second friend who had asked me about my decision to sign on to the petition, I wrote the following paragraph. At the time, I was working in one of my literally filthy archives, one filled with dust, dirt, and trash, and I wrote this on my phone:

My staff is extremely diverse: black, white, Asian, Hispanic. It does not look anything like the extremely white SAA. When this controversy erupted (which eruption I was not smart enough to foresee), I was literally working on proposal to upgrade staff in my records center, where from the manager on down everyone is Hispanic, black, or Asian. My goal was to raise the grade and the pay of our two lowest graded staff so they’d be paid commensurate with their work. Yesterday, I responded to notes from HR questioning the grade I’d chosen, and I noted it was commensurate with other staff doing similar work in our main facility, that the grade was merely fair. I wondered for a second if race was an issue in their question, but I realized there was also a mix of races in the other group. I think the bias was against the idea that someone working in a records center could be of high enough status for such a grade. Another kind of bias. But I also decided all I can do is argue the point to convince HR to grade these people for their work. So I have to understand their thinking. I have to ask them what they think.

Given this story of mine, I will note that I understand how some archivists concluded the petition had racist underpinnings. Even if totally unconscious, such racism is something we should fight against, and so people did. However, just as I considered unconscious racism as a possible motive but dispensed with that idea after some consideration, I believe racism is not the source of this disagreement among us.


I will admit I am at least approaching being old. I’ll turn 60 this year. I am technically a baby boomer, but I came at the tail end of that generation and I have almost no connection to their lives and the cultural touchstones therein. I was a child during the Vietnam War, for instance, so I had no chance of being conscripted. I will push back on our tendency to define people by their age and generation, however, because that is an ism we do not seem to want to shake. My children are Millennials, and I’m constantly arguing with people near my age about the characteristics they assign to that generation, noting that my children do not act almost in any of the ways the caricature of Millennials suggests. And I would claim that caricatures of my generation, or sub-generation, are no better. I don’t believe people are merely automatons created within a single monolithic “generation,” trapped entirely by their random year of birth. Certainly, the petitioners (not all of whom I know) appear to be around my age, so people reacted to that fact, but at the same time they did not consider those of that same age group who certainly must have declined to sign the petition. We are not our generation. We are individuals.


Finally, I will admit I am a person of a great privilege. Even though my childhood was sometimes chaotic, I grew up the son of a diplomat. I have lived on most continents on earth, I have had the benefit of a good education, and I am well paid. Being white didn’t hurt—I realize I had an unfair advantage over many people since we live in a society that continues to be inhabited by racism. Yet in my early adulthood, married with one child, I was extremely poor for four years. Those years were hard, but they gave me perspective. When people speaking to me denigrate the poor, claiming they just need to run their lives differently to succeed, I explain to them what being poor is like, how actions people believe are easy to implement are often impossible for a person living on the edge.

Privilege, however, can be used for good, for evil, for the mundane, and for the important. There are good people with privilege and bad people without it. The signers, it appears, have some level of privilege, yet that may have nothing to do with their personal decisions, although the whole of our experiences and personalities always affects our decisions.

Why I Signed

So why did I sign on to the petition? Note that I can give my reasons, but I cannot and am not giving the reasons the other petitioners signed. I assume their reasons varied.

First, I signed because I’m always in favor of more choices, so I saw the petition as a way to allow for more options. I’m generally in favor of competition. Second, I almost never think anyone is ready to lead SAA, not because they aren’t great people or great archivists, but because leading the Society is a huge challenge that must be operated over the course of a brief amount of time. To be a great president of SAA, you need to know the Society deeply (more so than I do) and you must be a manager of time, people, and work who is also extremely skilled at making a difference in the space of a single year. And you must have the time available for the job. It is a rare individual who will have those skills (though I can think of a couple who have). This is not to say that the two candidates chosen for this position were lacking; it’s just that I did not have information demonstrating they did.

Argument Against Signing

Eventually, while thinking about the petition, two notions came into my head. The first is that the #52 (to use that hashtag used by others to refer to the petitioners) had decided the slate should be amended in regard to the most important choice on the ballot, and they implemented a change legal in the rules that govern our association. But, more importantly, I also realized that I had not considered the human element of such a change: I never considered the slap in the face even one modification to the ballot would represent to the committee. Even worse, I did not consider the pain this would cause the candidates. I did not consider the human pain, something I try to address in my personal interactions but one I often fail to meet given my propensity for constant humor and occasional cluelessness. By overlooking human feeling, I forgot about people’s humanity, I forgot the heart they bear in their chests, I dehumanized them by not considering this most basic fact of all of us. Despite this point, I will argue here both for and against the petition.

Civil Disagreement

Defining a set of candidates as inadequate to the jobs they were selected for, without considering how they would experience that decision, is a dehumanizing act. I say this even though it is too late to make a difference—I do not believe in penance. But assuming the reasons why people signed the petition, as others have done, is not much better. We cannot know what guides another. In this case, maybe all three of the reasons (racism, elderliness, and privilege) explained above are true, in each one of us signers, to some extent, but that is a broad conclusion to base on supposition alone.

I will note, however, that when friends of mine came to these conclusions and made public statements to that effect, I was not aggrieved by their opinions. Instead, I was pleased they forthrightly stated their convictions. Maybe they even knew I would not mind they disagreed with me. I see disagreement as a positive (unless the disagreement is constant and unbending). Different points of view help us see the world more clearly, as responses to the petition by my friends and others have helped me see better what I should have seen without help.

Friends of mine also served on this Nominating Committee. I had dinner with one of them soon after the submission of the petition, and I briefly explained myself (after first confirming they were indeed on the committee). When making the decision to sign the petition, I had forgotten who was on the committee, so I could not have made the decision based on the makeup of the committee, and I would not have decided differently if I’d known their makeup. We don’t really know what others know, but we often assume they know what we know, even when we don’t think they think as we think. I did not see adding an additional white woman to the ballot as a sign of racism, so I couldn’t understand, at first, why a friend of mine told me people would see this petition as a racist act because the chair was African American. I see it now, but I also doubt racism affected any petitioners’ decision in the first place. I have served on the SAA Nominating Committee as a Council member, as well as on nominating committees for other organizations, so I know decisions are almost always made by the body as a whole, no one person being responsible for any decision and everyone supporting each candidates though possibly to varying degrees.

The Role of Petitions in SAA

When I wrote back to the second friend who reached out to ask me to explain my motives as a petitioner, I wrote saying essentially what I have written here, but I also said that the petition resembled many actions SAA has seen over the years. When I served on SAA Council, members submitted quasi-petitions to us. People asked SAA to diversify the venues for our conferences, to respond to controversies in the archival world (sometimes in cases where the issue was more political than archival), and to develop a code of conduct for SAA events. Individual members also speak at our annual business meetings to ask for change. The most important instance of these, from my point of view, was when a member noted that the cost of the lowest paid membership tier represented slightly more than the percentage for the highest tier, which led to a rejiggering of our tiers and the addition of an additional highest one. While on Council, I argued incessantly in favor of adding that higher tier (in favor, I’ll note, of an increase in my own dues), but I was told it would be impossible to implement. Yet this one member convinced Council after talking for five minutes, and that made my day. I told that person they were my hero. Because of these situations, I see petitions as a way of possibly improving things. Note, however, the “possibly.”

Certainly, these other ways of petitioning SAA differ from the petition in question, but these show that petitioning, in various forms, is something we do. Some members, likely a majority, see the petition changing the ballot as something that is wrong or bad, because it is something they oppose. But other members have also opposed various other petitions, including most of those above. And the petition process we employed in the case before us is codified in our rules. That formal process, however, includes a very big difference: the petitioners alone, without the intercession of Council or anyone else in SAA, can absolutely ensure the change is made. However, most petitions SAA members make do end up succeeding even in the absence that guarantee.

Many have argued that the petitioners did not accept the decision of the Nominating Committee, which is true, and they also argue that the petitioners should have accepted the full decision of the committee. I don’t see these as strong arguments since we have a long tradition of members disagreeing with SAA Council decisions, even though SAA Council is also elected to make decisions for us. In my view, we (as members, as individuals, and simple human beings living on the same planet) always have a right to question. Just as we have a right to be wrong.

Amending the Petition Signature Threshold

I cannot verify the motives of the others who signed the petition, but I believe the petitioners came to their personal conclusions absent any assertion of white privilege, unconscious or otherwise, which I say even as I realize that we often make decisions on the basis of unconscious biases. Part of the petition process, as codified, did worry me, and that was that we needed merely 50 members to sign on to make this change. I’ll note that associations often have rather low thresholds to reach to add a candidate to a ballot, but 50 is terribly low for an association of our size. Although I signed the petition, we must reconsider this part of our by-laws, and at the very least the numbers needed to file such a petition must be changed to a significant percentage of the membership. That change will ensure the number of signers always represents a certain portion of the total membership. The current low threshold is anti-democratic, because it allows too low an unelected portion of the membership to change the slate for the whole.

Arguments Posited about the Petitioners

People have argued that the petitioners should not have used the option of petition because doing so undermined the Nominating Committee’s judgment. I understand this point, but there are a couple of reasons I don’t agree with this. First, the petition does not undermine the original decision; it modifies it by adding to it, just as we individually can add in a write-in candidate. The difference here is that this option gives members a third choice to check off on the ballot and gives the added person a chance of winning (unlike a write-in candidate). Despite the petition, the two candidates nominated by the committee remain on the ballot and, I believe, will be the candidates most likely to succeed.

Another argument against this petition is that it nullifies the will of members to have the committee they voted for make the decisions. This argument assumes the petitioners did not also vote for the members on the committee. For instance, I know (after reviewing the membership of the committee) that I voted for three of its members. It is important to remember that the right to petition remains in the bylaws, and members also voted for that provision.

I did not sign the petition because I was opposed to the members on the committee or because I considered them incompetent. I just had a desire for more choices. At this point, this certainly sounds like a strangely small reason to have made that decision, but that’s merely the reality of it.

I am always in favor of dialog, so the idea of setting up a conversation to discuss the slate might have appealed to me. It’s possible someone would have made a point during such a discussion that would have dissuaded me from my decision. But I never imagined dialog as an option. Since we had a slate before us, I reacted to that reality. I still don’t know if we have enough candidates to ensure at least one will have the skills I think a person needs to be successful in such a position. But we only rarely have enough information about candidates to know how good they will be at leading SAA. Even when I think I do, I find out later I was wrong, that I’d based a decision on faulty information or assumptions.

Seeking Out the Humanity in Others

During my career, I have tried to find ways to make SAA more diverse and more inclusive. I am certain I have failed on both counts. I fear diversity overall is probably degrading in our profession. We are beginning to attract more people of color to our ranks, but at a slow rate. At the same time, the male population has declined steeply since I joined SAA. If we look at diversity holistically, as I do, both these tendencies are holding us back. I think we are better at inclusivity, because we believe in it. But we are still human, so we unintentionally act in ways that make people feel unwelcome. We know we need to do better.

I am white, but I’ve lived in majority non-white parts of the world much of my life and in multi-racial neighborhoods most of my life. I’ve lived in Africa (east, west, and north), the Caribbean, South America, and elsewhere. I expect people to look different than I do. I can’t say that this life has made me more accepting of others, but I hope it has.

As a high school senior, I had a choice of taking a class in Christology or working with handicapped children, some severely so. I chose the latter, which gave me the opportunity to help children via occupational therapy. I would teach them how to move a peg from one hole to another, how to learn to conduct repetitive tasks that could find them a small job sometimes in the future. It was a difficult position to hold, but not because it was difficult working with the children. I loved working with them, and they loved me back—because I was kind, I paid attention to them, I cared for them. They would smile when we worked together, because I always reflected back to them their humanity, their physical and emotional reality, their value. I remember one little girl’s smile from that time, how alive she was before me. It was a hard semester because so many of them were so physically unwell they would not live long, and some would never think or know or see in the full way that most of us do. Yet I was sorry to leave them, to abandon them.

None of this is meant to exonerate me for what I failed to consider in my decision. I present this information because I hope it represents the core of myself, a core that might not always be apparent, but also evidence of something worth considering about others. It is also a note to remind myself how I am not now always as good as I should be about avoiding the provision of hurt against another human soul. I write these words to remind us how we never know enough about a person—and that includes all the Nominating Committee members, the candidates, and even the petitioners. We can try and we can fail, and it is always in the trying that we allow ourselves the possibility to be redeemed.

To Amend and Heal

I am not even vaguely conservative, but I have a few close conservative friends, and I’m always willing to talk to them about politics and to disagree with them gracefully. After years of careful conversation, one of these people became a liberal, but we also found bases for agreement over the course of that time, those long conversations. We discovered how we were alike and forgot how were different. Dialog is always better. Kindness is preferred. Compassion is mandatory. I’ll try to reach these goals myself.

Even though I believe in the inherent racism of everyone, I also believe in our ability to fight that tendency, to talk to each other, to accept the humanity of others, and to strive towards a kindness that brings us together even when we face stark disagreement. I remain hopeful for humanity, even if tentatively so. Still, I do feel a little defensive at the suggestion that I am possibly intentionally racist, a defensiveness built on the fact that I had no intent to hurt anyone—I merely succeeded and continue to succeed in doing so.

All I’m doing here is telling you what I think, noting how I did not try at all hard enough to understand how others thought, and suggesting that the other petitioners have other complex reasons for their own decisions. If you know any of them, reach out and explain your concern, your disagreement, your pain. Regardless, please do not hold against them anything I have said here. Hold it against me.

The #52 Fund

Once our petition became a controversy, people banded together to create a positive out of this rupture in the profession. A call went out asking people to donate to a fund supporting Society of American Archivists’ travel costs and membership fees for LGBT people and people of color. I donated to the fund as soon as I found out about it. I did so for a few reasons, one being that I always donate substantially to archival associations and causes. Another was merely to show support to members of SAA who have interpreted this act of mine as an indirect attack on them. It was not a way to ask for forgiveness. As I’ve noted, I do not believe in penance.

Humanity and Civility

I do not write this to change minds, and I write this even though I’m sure there is a good chance these many words might divide us even further. But I feel a responsibility to write and to say this:

We archivists sometimes argue angrily and quickly, without allowing time for reflection to reveal the complexities of the issue before us. I also believe we exaggerate the importance of some disagreements, we see divisions as greater than they are, but we also help to make that gulf between us wider. So I’m asking us to be better than I have been, to think about the human on the other side of a thought, to talk to each other before we talk about each other, to allow disagreement to exist as a way to find agreement.

This request requires something else of us, something we are less likely to embrace in our partisan present. We need to allow people with points of view differing from ours, whether personal or political, the right to air their views civilly and to receive civil responses. We need to see the flowering of humanity stuck between our differing beliefs. Societies that function well—and we are a society—have this level of respect and don’t require everyone to believe as one.

I say this without hope for success, but I light, or try to light, a small candle in the darkness so we can see where we are and can travel faster to our destination.

This post was written by Geof Huth. The opinions and assertions stated within this piece are the author’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.

[1] Here is the text of that email:

Dear SAA colleagues,

Sorry for the impersonal email blast, but I’m trying to be as efficient as I can about distributing this.

I am unsatisfied with the lack of a choice of two candidates with significant (from my perspective) organizational experience posed by the slate recently put forward for the office of SAA Vice President/President-Elect by the Nominating Committee for the 2020 election ( I feel strongly that SAA members need a choice of candidates for Vice President/President-Elect who have deep, varied experience working for our profession within our national organization, and multi-faceted connections to the concerns of SAA’s membership. As such, I have worked with a small group of SAA colleagues to draft Kris Kiesling, a long-time SAA member and professional educator, to be a candidate for this office in the 2020 SAA election under SAA Bylaw 5C, which states the following:

“An eligible member may also be placed on the ballot by submission of a petition signed by fifty (50) individual members. Such petitions must be received in the executive office by February 10.”


I am emailing you to solicit your signature on the this petition before the end of January 2020.

To be clear, this petition, if successful, will simply add a third candidate to the 2020 election ballot for the office of Vice President/President-Elect. The successful candidate will be determined by the results of the 2020 election to be held in March.

If you aren’t familiar with Kris, she recently completed a three-year term (2015-2018) as a member of SAA’s Council, and you’ll find additional information about her professional and SAA background in her SAA Continuing Education faculty profile (

Responses and Retrospectives: Samantha Winn on Mutual Aid in Response to Electoral Frustrations and the Creation of the #52Fund

blogphoto-e1407431979462This 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 with your ideas!

Samantha Winn is an archives worker based in southern Appalachia with an interest in comparative archival practices, information ethics, and facilitating dialogue across different communities. An SAA member since 2012, she currently serves as the appointed Vice-Chair/Chair-Elect for SAA’s Committee on Public Policy. Former service includes chair of SAA’S SNAP section (2015-2016) and co-chair of the Design Records Section (2016-2018). She is passionate about community organizing and mutual aid as a means of effecting social change.

On 15 January 2020, the Society of American Archivists announced an unprecedented change to the 2020 SAA Election ballot. 52 SAA members submitted a petition, in accordance with SAA bylaws, to add SAA Fellow Kris Kiesling to the Vice President/President-Elect ballot. Many  current and former SAA members have covered the precipitating events at length, including VP candidate Courtney Chartier, Ruth Kitchin Tillman, and SAA Fellow Terry Baxter. The Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia blog drafted an especially comprehensive summary of the events leading up to and surrounding this petition. In late January, COPA leadership invited me to write about a fundraising effort I launched in solidarity with the 2019/2020 SAA Nominating Committee and the original election slate.

On 16 January, I announced a peer-to-peer fundraiser called #52Fund to support the participation  of QTBIPOC, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, disabled, and multi-marginalized archives workers in professional engagement. Initially, I challenged 52 people to help me cover membership fees, conference registration and travel costs, LIS program tuition, medical expenses, and other financial barriers to professional participation for groups historically marginalized from SAA leadership. My goal of 52 donors and the hashtag #52Fund referenced the 52 signers of the election petition. I wanted this campaign to demonstrate that at least 52 people were committed to Lae’l Hughes-Watkins’ call to nominate and elect leaders who “have a strong portfolio of success in making room for historically underrepresented identities in leadership positions, who advocate for success of these communities and are willing to call out and address discriminatory practices within the profession and in spaces supposedly designed to nurture and support emerging leaders and change agents.” I also liked the idea of countering the petition with a community fundraiser, to reflect the plurality of tactics available for effecting institutional change.

Following the recommendations of Courtney Chartier and Harrison Inefuku, I originally imagined this as a targeted effort to raise funds for the Brenda S. Banks Travel Award in memory of SAA’s first Black president, Brenda Banks. Established in 2017 by the Archivists and Archives of Color Section, the Banks Travel Award funds registration, membership, and travel expenses for one archivist of color each year. This proved to be a logistical challenge, however, as the SAA Foundation administers the Banks award from a broader funding pool. The SAA Foundation was unable to direct allocations to Banks award recipients or facilitate the sponsoring of a second award for SAA 2020.

Since this fundraiser was driven by a desire to explicitly benefit members historically marginalized from SAA leadership, it did not feel appropriate to direct funds towards a general SAA Foundation pool. Instead, I offered potential donors two options for giving which I hoped would reflect the spirit of the Banks Travel Award. First, prospective donors could give directly to SAA Foundation’s Mosaic Scholarship Fund, Harold T. Pinkett Student of Color Award, and/or the Brenda S. Banks Travel Award and report their giving as part of the fundraiser. Donors could also contribute directly to a mutual aid fund, which I would distribute upon request to individual QTBIPOC and other multi-marginalized archives workers.

My initial goal of 52 unique donations was met in about 36 hours. We passed our first stretch goal of $5,200 in the first 4 days. We reached the second stretch goal of $10,400 in about 2 weeks of fundraising. As of 11 February, we have collectively raised nearly $14,000. Of this amount, we have distributed about $11,100 in direct mutual aid to approximately 25 colleagues. Roughly $2,600 has gone to SAA funds which benefit archivists of color; this only includes amounts that people reported in a Google form, so the total for SAA Foundation contributions may be higher. My hope is to find 8 new funders by 1 March to help us reach the final stretch goal of 208 unique donors (representing four sets of 52). Many funders gave in response to electoral frustrations and perceptions of gatekeeping by long-tenured and well-established SAA members. However, donations have also come from Kiesling petition signers and individuals with no prior knowledge of the fund’s origins or SAA election controversies.

Mutual aid may be a new concept for some SAA members, but it is well-established among organizers and activists in LGBTQ, BIPOC, disabled, and rural communities. This campaign reflects the legacy of many different social justice movements with which I have been affiliated. Where we have succeeded, I am deeply indebted to the wisdom and leadership of Erricka Bailey (who can be hired for strategic planning, trainings, and consultations at, Hannah Morris of Pineywoods Voice, Itza Carbajal, and Dr. Brandy S. Faulkner. Among many other things, Bailey and Morris taught me how to run a successful direct aid campaign and redistribute financial resources to historically marginalized groups. Carbajal taught me how to harness discontent for positive change and have a great time doing so. Dr. Faulkner taught me to identify, understand, and harness political power. I have also been profoundly influenced by the work of Montgomery County’s Dialogue on Race group and its affiliated giving circles.

For more information about #52Fund, please visit

This post was written by Samantha Winn, an archives worker in southern Appalachia and the founder of the #52Fund. The opinions and assertions stated within this piece are the author’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.


Responses and Retrospectives: Jeremy Brett of the Concerned Archivists Alliance on the Altered Photo for NARA’s Exhibit “Rightfully Hers,” and the Subsequent NARA Apologies

CAA Logo

This 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 with your ideas!

My name is Jeremy Brett. I am an archivist/librarian, as well as one of the founders of the Concerned Archivists Alliance (CAA) and incidentally, a former employee of the National Archives and Records Administration.  The CAA is a group of information professionals, paraprofessionals, and information science students, committed to freedom of information, the protection of privacy rights, and to holding public officials accountable for their actions. We believe that a democratic society cannot thrive in an atmosphere of secrecy and oppression. Our group came into being as a response to the troubling 2016 election of Donald Trump and its implications for both the future of the American documentary record and the likely use (and misuse) of records under this administration to do harm to Americans.[1]

I’m writing this Responses & Retrospectives post in response to questions from some people about our group’s response to the recent scandal that took place with regard to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). On January 18th, the CAA published online an open letter to David Ferriero, the U.S. National Archivist, expressing our deep concern with the revelation that NARA had made multiple alterations to an image of the 2017 Women’s March, featured in its exhibit “Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote”. These alterations included the blurring of certain words on posters that referred to parts of the female anatomy, as well as that of the name of Donald Trump. Our original letter is found here. We invited our colleagues in the archival and other information professions to sign the letter in protest of this action. Gratifyingly, we have received more than 200 signatures to date.

As we noted in the letter, “Your explanation for this action, given by Archives’ spokeswoman Miriam Kleiman, is that ‘as a non-partisan, non-political federal agency, we blurred references to the President’s name on some posters, so as not to engage in current political controversy … Modifying the image was an attempt on our part to keep the focus on the records.’ This reasoning is offensive to the intellectual honesty and professional acumen of librarians and archivists across the country who collect, preserve, and make accessible to the public similarly sensitive material on a daily basis and without alteration or censorship.”

We of CAA stand behind that contention. Archivists owe an ethical and professional duty to the truth and to history, duties that NARA, with permission given at the highest levels of its administration, violated. We exist in a new and troubling political climate, where high government officials and media personalities alike feel free to shade the truth, to hide facts, and to lie outright to us, even in the face of evidence that proves the opposite. Therefore, it is more important than ever for archivists and archival institutions to nail their colors to the mast of truth and ensure that the materials they curate – as well as those materials’ public expression – are accurate, whole, and unaltered. Our letter pointed out that in altering the image, NARA had violated the Code of Ethics of the Society of American Archivists, which states “Archivists may not willfully alter, manipulate, or destroy data or records to conceal facts or distort evidence.” Although the Code is not legally binding, nor is NARA as an institution required to adhere to it, that Code serves as the ethical bedrock of the archival profession in the United States. We would have hoped that as the preeminent public archives in this nation, NARA might find itself inclined to align itself ethically with the rest of the American archival community. We are saddened to find out that apparently it disagrees. Instead, NARA chooses to stand by its self-definition as a “non-partisan, non-political federal agency”, even as it removes the name of Donald Trump from an historical image “so as not to engage in current political controversy.” This is not ethics and it is not professionalism. We believe, instead, that it is an instance of cowardice in the face of power at worst, incompetent thinking that fails to draw obvious conclusions at best.[2]

The same day that we published the letter, NARA announced in a public apology that the altered image would be removed. The apology (which can be read here) gave no explanation for NARA’s motives in altering the image in the first place, though it was careful to try and elude blame by noting that the image was not a NARA-held record but an image licensed for exhibit use. (As if, frankly, that made any ethical or moral difference.) The apology was, in our opinion, wholly inadequate and failed to address any of the reasons why the original action produced so much outrage in the archival and library communities.[3]

People have asked why we continued to offer our letter for signatures in light of NARA’s “apology”. We discussed whether to remove our letter from our site or at least whether to stop accepting signatories in the aftermath of NARA’s statement. We decided that it was important to stand by our original complaint. As archivists and information professionals, we believe that this was no mere mistake. We believe that the image alterations constituted an act of anticipatory obedience by NARA staff and administration, rendering invisible certain kinds of political speech in service to NARA’s political masters.[4] As one of CAA’s founders noted in a tweet[5]:

Screen Shot 2020-01-24 at 3.07.11 PM

Apologies are not magic shields that protect one from one’s original error, nor are they erasers that instantly wipe away mistakes. We say that there is little that is more threatening to the future of our democracy than public servants who abandon our collective founding principles and their professional duties in order to curry favor or to head off possible criticism. That is what we believe happened with NARA in this case.

We have received some online pushback – some thoughtful, some less so – for both our original letter and our decision not to withdraw it after NARA’s “apology”. Without responding to any specific critic, we offer this explanation generally for our actions because we love our profession. We believe wholeheartedly in its vital importance to the nation in which we live. We believe passionately in our duty to ensure that voices are not silenced, that principles are not overturned in the name of either obedience to power or partisan politics, and that the people and communities we serve deserve a history that has not been altered.  We will not surrender those values.

On January 22nd, Ferriero issued a more substantive apology, in which he stressed that “this decision was made without any external direction whatsoever” and that “[w]e also wanted to avoid accusations of partisanship or complaints that we displayed inappropriate language in a family-friendly Federal museum.” Although this new apology certainly offers a fuller explanation, it still raises troublesome questions with which NARA and the archival community must grapple with going forward.

  1. We also wanted to avoid accusations of partisanship or complaints that we displayed inappropriate language in a family-friendly Federal museum.”

We believe this motive was short-sighted and, in fact, both an act of cowardice and a misunderstanding of NARA’s own mission. It’s hardly “partisanship” to show that a protest against an important political figure contained signage bearing that figure’s name. In fact, what IS partisanship, what IS taking sides, is to blur out that name, because to do so neutralizes a historical situation that was anything but neutral and downplays the public hostility against that figure. To do so only benefits Donald Trump himself. Ferriero later in the apology notes, “as a Federal agency serving the American public, we must incorporate non-partisanship into everything we do.” We would argue that NARA’s actual job as a servant of the American public is to present historical truth, regardless of how that truth makes particular politicians or parties appear.

Avoiding in advance “accusations of partisanship” is troubling in its own right. We worry that NARA was overly concerned about right-wing pushback – something that high government officials have weaponized in recent years – and was intimidated in advance into silencing women’s voices and rendering the image nonsensical by blurring out the name of the protest’s subject. If true, this is disquieting, and it is sad.

As for “inappropriate language”, one might argue whether references to female anatomy are profanities or offensive terms, rather than simple terminology. However, it alters the meaning and context of the protest being depicted by leaving those terms out; those terms were integral parts of the rhetoric being passionately expressed that day (as I can testify, having attended the Women’s March in Austin) and to blur them out removes that rhetoric. Personally, I would argue that NARA does families with children no favors by presenting them with a sanitized, “clean” version of history, rather than giving children the opportunity to ask questions – however troublesome – about what they see and read.

  1. However, we wrongly missed the overall implications of the alteration. Our action made it appear as if we did not understand the importance of our unique charge: as an archives, we must present materials – whether they are ours or not – without alteration…”

We agree that, yes, this decision certainly made it appear so. Because that is, in fact, what it actually did. Ferriero eludes the issue by claiming “our action made it appear as if we did not understand”, as if that wasn’t what actually happened.  In truth, NARA clearly did not understand its crucial charge, else it would not have made the decision to present an altered image. We find it worrisome that NARA administration seemed to have forgotten its ethical duty during this process.

At the same time, we do appreciate this expanded apology and explanation, and are gratified that NARA recognizes the need to thoroughly review its processes. It is our earnest hope that NARA going forward will live out the true meaning of its mission. NARA and its preservation of the archival record are crucial to ensuring a healthy, functioning democracy and an informed citizenry, and as archivists we want to support NARA in that all-important calling.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in the 1967 essay Truth and Politics that “[t]he chances of factual truth surviving the onslaught of power are very slim indeed; it is always in danger of being maneuvered out of the world not only for a time but, potentially, forever. Facts and events are infinitely more fragile things than axioms, discoveries, theories—even the most wildly speculative ones—produced by the human mind; they occur in the field of the ever-changing affairs of men, in whose flux there is nothing more permanent than the admittedly relative permanence of the human mind’s structure. Once they are lost, no rational effort will ever bring them back.” It is this we fear the most, and it is this that NARA risked with its alterations of the image on display. Let us all strive in our professional lives as archivists, all of us, to do better.

This post was written by Jeremy Brett, a founding member of the Concerned Archivists Alliance. The opinions and assertions stated within this piece are the author’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.



[1] In CAA matters, including this post, we all represent ourselves as individual archivists and our views are not necessarily those of our respective employing institutions.

[2] For a useful look at the implications of NARA’s action, Masha Gessen’s January 19th in The New Yorker is instructive:

[3] For examples of this concern, note the January 19th statement issued by the Society of American Archivists ( and the January 21st statement from the American Library Association (

[4] We note the incredible irony in NARA choosing to obscure the protest language and outrage of women, in an exhibit devoted to and celebrating the struggle of women to secure the right to vote.


There’s An Archivist for That! Interview with Krü Maekdo, founder of the Black Lesbian Archives

Krü Maekdo wearing t-shirt that says "Black Lesbian Archives Grassroots Tour 20[??]"

Photo of Krü Maekdo (courtesy of Krü Maekdo).

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.  COPA member Rachel Seale, Outreach Archivist at Iowa State University, brings you an interview with Krü Maekdo, the founder of the Black Lesbian Archives.

Krü Maekdo has been an innovator in community organizing, gracing stages around the world sharing, her charm, wit, and presence, while contributing to the exciting LGBTQ+ renaissance in many of our communities. CEO of Maekdo Productions, a multi-media and event planning company for women in the LGBTQ+ community as well as the Founder of Queer Black Creatives and Black Lesbian Archives. She works to diplomatically build and connect the world in creative ways. A Creative Director specializing in, Multi-Media, Event Planning, Kosmic Rootwork and Astrology.

For info, visit:

How did you get your gig?

I created the Black Lesbian Archives June 2017 after realizing that the stories of our lives were not being documented online, in our local libraries, institutions, collection departments, etc. I felt it would be a great way not only to bring awareness, but to build our communities through experimental storytelling. As well as educating ourselves through our own generational linkages and experiences.

Tell us about your organization.

The Black Lesbian Archives idea started after spending some time in Williamsburg, VA then moving to Chicago, IL. The first exhibit was created after attending an exhibit about Lesbian herstory in Chicago of the 60s, 70s & 80s. I noticed there was a lack of Black Lesbians in the exhibit and everything truly sparked from there. The first exhibit was held at Affinity Community Services in June of 2018 through July and the rest is herstory!

Table top sign that says "Black Lesbian Archives. These archives are on loan. Please feel free to look through, but leave them here! Thank you! With Affinity and logo on the right.

(photo by Law91Media)

Describe your collections.

The Black Lesbian Archives collections I would describe them as having a whole lot of personality! So raw, so honest. They come in all different shapes and sizes. Mostly physical but eventually transferring into digital so we can make them available globally in a way that’s more accessible to all.

What are some challenges unique to your collections?

One of the challenges is figuring out an innovative way to preserve archives without having the largest set of funds/backing and to keep it going. The more I learn about archival preservation, the more I understand there’s so much you wouldn’t expect that goes into the backend of archival preservation. We gonna make it work for us though.

What is your favorite part of your job?

My favorite part of this project is the collaborative effort. Hearing and learning the ways in which we archive. Also the storytelling aspect of archiving which is my favorite! We have created a whole community about how we are growing and preserving the stories of the past, present and future interweaves our destines.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

With the new year comes a new opportunity to participate in the Black Lesbian Archives Grassroots 2020 tour. The Black Lesbian Archives Grassroots 2020 was created to bring awareness, educate, preserve and bridge generational gaps within our communities so in turn, we can understand ourselves and the communities beyond us.

Krü Maekdo sitting on steps with tee that says "Black Lesbian Archives Grassroots 2020 Tour"

Photo o Krü Maekdo. Promo for the Black Lesbian Archives Grassroots 2020 Tour (courtesy of Krü Maekdo).

For more information check out and email: or call 469-430-8568. Leave a voicemail and we’ll get back.

Stay tuned for future posts in the “There’s an Archivist for That!” series, featuring stories on archivists working in places you might not expect. If you know of an archivist who fits this description or are yourself an archivist who fits this description, the editors would love to hear from you—share in the comments below or contact to be interviewed for ArchivesAWARE!

Asserting the Archivist, no. 4

Margot Note--2This post was authored by guest contributor Margot Note, CA, CRM, IGP, PMP. Note is the principal and founder of Margot Note Consulting, LLC, an archives and records management consulting business in New York. She’s a professor in the graduate Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College and an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Library and Information Science program at St. John’s University. She’s the author of five books, including her newest Creating Family Archives: A Step‐by‐Step Guide for Saving Your Memories for Future Generations published by the Society of American Archivists.

This is the fourth post in our “Asserting the Archivist” series on the importance of highlighting archivists and archival work in outreach efforts, rather than just focusing on the collections themselves. SAA’s Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) chose a Q&A style for this post to highlight Note’s work and, specifically, her writing as an outreach mechanism that helps to assert the archivist.

Q. We know your origin story into consulting from the Off the Record guest spot and the Archives in Context podcast. So, I’d like to focus in on your writing for this starter question as you’ve written several books over the course of your career thus far. How did you get into professional writing and what was the impetus for you to write your first book?

I started with book reviews. I’d be reading these books anyway, so I figured that I should receive them for free! A publisher contacted me while I was in graduate school studying the topic of my first book, so I turned my papers into chapters and expanded the manuscript.

My books stem from obsessive curiosity. I write about a topic to understand it. What I discover can help people in similar circumstances.

Q. Your most recent book Creating Family Archives was published by the Society of American Archivists, but you’ve also published with Lucidea Press, and have self-published. Can you speak to what those experiences were like, what you enjoyed, and what was challenging?

Each book experience is unique, especially the level of interventions by publishers, editors, and advisory teams. I enjoy the writing flow and the progress of a manuscript.

The most challenging part of writing is getting feedback. Constructive criticism is an opportunity to communicate better with my readers, and I can fix misunderstandings or errors before the final draft.

Q. What have you found are the benefits of writing books for professional literature?

Beyond learning, a big bonus is status. People who don’t understand archives remember me as “the writer.” Authoring a book makes you an expert in the eyes of many. It’s helped me get hired.

I’m touched by the notes that I’ve received from people who’ve said that my books helped them. I also love to see myself cited!

Q. What is your advice for getting over writer’s block?

Use the Pomodoro Method. Set a timer for 25 minutes and write, then rest for 5 minutes. After four Pomodoros, take a 20-minute break. I promise myself that I can stop after one Pomodoro, but I always want to continue.

For low-energy days, I reduce my time to 15 minutes. I focus on any effort towards a goal without judging the quality.

Done is better than perfect.

I believe in mindset. If you think a writing project will be hard, it will be. I seduce myself into the writing process with tea, candles, incense, lighting, and music.

Drinking 5 Hour Energy helps too!

Q. What advice would you like to share with archivists who are aspiring to write their own books?

To quote the anarcho-punk band Crass, “You alone can do it. There is no authority but yourself.”

Forget gatekeepers or mentors. Make your own opportunities, like self-publishing. My book with SAA grew from an earlier self-published edition. No one deemed me an expert—I did it myself.

The universe rewards action.

Archivists note the lack of diversity in our collections and the profession, but I also want our professional literature to better represent our field through the voices of archivists working in non-traditional ways too.

Q. Are there tips or writing resources you would recommend for those who wish to write about professional topics?

Here’s a blog post with my tips:

Find the most enjoyable part of writing. I revise zealously.

I create a list of changes needed to be made in a spreadsheet. For instance, I translate feedback on a peer-reviewed article into action steps. I then tackle the tasks, completing items from the easiest to the hardest. Approaching writing this way takes the emotion out of it.

Q. In the Archives in Context podcast you speak to how you’ve found you needed a different vernacular to convey both archival concepts and the value of archives. This is also demonstrated in Creating Family Archives where you introduce archival concepts and best practices in an approachable manner. What tips would you give an archivist who needs to communicate archival concepts to non-archivists?

I talk about storytelling, memories, or legacy. For people with technical or project management backgrounds, I’ll talk about lessons learned. For executives, I mention institutional knowledge or business insights.

I emphasize enduring over historical or archival value, because people think of archives as being old. They might not realize that archival records can be born-digital in the present.

I show my students that archives are welcoming, that archivists can help them, and that primary sources reveal wonders. I explain just enough about archival principles so that they understand why collections are the way that they are.

I also talk about archives in relation to personal or family items.

Someone may never visit a repository, but they have collections of love letters, emails, or photos that they treasure.

Q. Focusing on conveying the value of archives — a universal struggle — how have you found being a consultant has helped you hone that message, especially as you’re not just selling yourself, but you’re also selling the value of archives?

Selling is helping someone solve a problem. Clients reach out because their problem is painful enough to seek advice. When they talk to an expert who has solved similar issues, they become at ease.

I’m proud of my business. I have a killer work ethic and an iron will. My self-confidence was forged by discovering how strong I am in challenging situations. When you project positivity, clients notice.

Q. What’s next for you? Is there another book in the making or another project you’re looking forward to?

Another book, I’m sure. My focus is on creating a business that supports the life I want to lead and finding a balance between work and play.

Do you have a favorite example of archival repositories or organizations/businesses that “assert the archivist” in their outreach efforts? Or would you like to share your experience incorporating archival work into your outreach? Please share in the comments below or contact to be a guest contributor to ArchivesAWARE!