Archival Innovators: Valerie A. Metzler, Independent Archivist/Historian

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.

Valerie Metzler

In this installation of Archival Innovators, SAA Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) member Sami Norling interviews Valerie A. Metzler, independent Archivist/Historian. On hearing from Valerie that she believes herself to be the first full-time private practice archivist in the U.S., we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn more about her career, and to feature Valerie as an Archival Innovator!

SN: Valerie, could you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your path into the archives profession?

VM: I was halfway through college as a psychology major when I realized that, while the subject was interesting, I thought I might not like it as a career. I looked at what courses I liked best—English and History—and chose the latter and thought I might work in a museum. This was 1974 and I barely knew the word “archives.” But, when an internship at the State Archives of Pennsylvania became available my senior year, I hopped the train three days a week and worked there as a 3-credit course. I loved it!

My first job in the field was as an archives technician at the U. S. Army Military History Institute (MHI, now USAHEC, the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center). In this role, I worked with personal papers and oral history interviews of members of the Army and their families from Revolutionary War to the present. Because MHI was a public repository, I helped researchers from around the world. During this time, I maintained memberships in the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC) and SAA. After taking courses in paper and photo conservation, I then became the in-house conservator at MHI.

After seven years at MHI I sought to expand my expertise and went to MARAC and SAA conferences to make connections for jobs. The position I ended up in certainly fit the bill in providing new experiences to expand my knowledge of the field—it was a brand new archives with a well equipped in-house conservation lab, and a business archives. I wanted something different—and I got it!

After starting my new job, I missed the interaction with the public more than I realized I would, and I missed working with personal papers. The good news was that by living in Chicago, I had the benefit of joining the Chicago Area Archivists and the Chicago Area Conservation Group and by doing so, networked with professionals far more than were present back home in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

SN: Was there a specific project, event, or other development in your career or the archives profession that inspired you to strike out on your own as an independent archivist? What were the steps that you took early on to establish your independent practice?

VM: It was the networking in the Chicago area that led me to start my own business. I kept hearing about families, historical societies, and businesses large and small who wanted to preserve their history. And, while there were several employed archivists who moonlighted as consultants, they could never devote the time and hands-on assistance that these projects needed and still keep their day jobs. I decided to enter into full-time private practice as a freelance archivist, not just a consultant. I did do consulting work, but the majority of my work was (and remains) the hands-on establishment of archives and training of staff to maintain the archives after I have gone.

Early on, I realized that to remain completely independent, I should never devote full time to one project, i.e. instead of being a contract archivist always chasing the next gig, I took on any jobs that came my way and staggered my days or even hours among my various clients. That has remained my operating procedure these 34 years in private practice. Neither did I limit my work to just archives. Since 1985, I have also conducted oral history interviews and edited them and have done a variety of historical research for clients, including genealogy. I also teach in lecture and workshop settings.

One significant early step in establishing myself as an independent archivist was to find a name for my business. I never liked the “Metzler Associates” model, especially when you knew it was only one person! And, I wanted a name that clearly stated what the business was rather than some contrived invention. I figured that most folks were unfamiliar with the specifics of what an archivist does, so I had better not confuse them with a cutesy name. So, I followed the “Valere Metzler, Attorney-at-Law” model and came up with Valerie Metzler, Archivist/Historian (VMAH).

SN: Having worked as an independent archivist since 1985, you must have had the opportunity to contribute to some pretty interesting projects, and worked with a variety of archival materials and collections. What have been some of your favorite projects?

VM: My favorite projects are those which include all three aspects of my work. A good example of that is when a family business asks me to establish their archives, conduct oral histories with founders, and research their family history. Without naming the 500 clients of VMAH over these years, my favorites are those which take me into subject area new to me. Also, I love to travel, so the ones that take me far afield–especially to other countries–are definitely on the top of my list.

SN: The Committee on Public Awareness was formed in 2014 to assist SAA Council and SAA members in promoting the value of archives and archivists to a variety of communities and the broader public–something that the field as a whole has struggled with for some time. As an independent archivist, have you ever struggled in communicating this value to potential clients or project partners?

VM: I would have to say that I have not struggled much in communicating the value, since I can only think of two potential clients who contacted me in 34 years who did not move on to hire me.  Sadly, to my knowledge, those two never did get an archives started.

SN: Do you have any tips, or have you developed an elevator speech to communicate the value of your skills as a professional archivist?

VM: I have not perfected an elevator speech but always give the person who asks what I do (followed by the inevitable variations of, “What??”) all of my attention and answer to the questions they pose.  Also, this point is not exactly about my skills, personally, but I always urge folks to consider public repositories over keeping historically valuable items in their own homes where they may be lost to fire or the whims of future generations.

SN: Is there anything else that you’d like archivists and archival students to know, or tips that you’d like to share about building a career as an independent archivist?

VM: Join all of the professional member associations that you can afford and attend their conferences—and volunteer for positions within those organizations.


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

Archival Innovators: Doug Boyd, Director of the University of Kentucky’s Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

This is second entry 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.

Doug Boyd, Ph.D.

In this post, COPA member Vince Lee brings you an interview with Doug Boyd, Ph.D., Director of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries.  Dr. Boyd is a recognized leader regarding oral history, archives, and digital technologies. He recently managed the Oral History in the Digital Age, which was funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.  Boyd currently leads the team that envisioned, designed, and is implementing the open-source Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS) system, which synchronizes text with audio and video online.  He holds a PhD in folklore and ethnomusicology from Indiana University and previously served as the manger of the Digital Program for the University of Alabama Libraries, Director of the Kentucky Oral History Commission, and Senior Archivist for the oral history and folklife collections at the Kentucky Historical Society. He authors the blog Digital Omnium: Oral History, Archives and Digital Technologies, is the co-editor of the book Oral History and Digital Humanities published by Palgrave MacMillan in 2014, and Boyd is the author of the book Crawfish Bottom: Recovering a Lost Kentucky Community published in August 2011 by the University Press of Kentucky.

VL: Please describe your innovative project.

DB: In 2008 I designed a web application called OHMS (Oral History Metadata Synchronizer) to enhance access to online oral history by connecting a text search of a transcript or an index to the corresponding moment in the audio or video.  OHMS is a 2-part system that includes the OHMS web application and the OHMS viewer.  The web application is where you do the work of synchronizing a transcript or indexing your interview.  When indexing an interview you create linkable segments that include a range of metadata fields that include the following fields: segment title, description, partial transcript, keywords, subjects, GPS coordinates, as well as hyperlinks which can be used to link the user to related web resources, or link the user to photographs.

The second part of OHMS is the OHMS Viewer.  The viewer was designed to interact with a local CMS and can be incorporated in free systems such as Omeka or WordPress just as simply as it is integrated into more complex systems such as CONTENTdm, Islandora, or Blacklight. OHMS was designed to provide an affordable option for enhancing access to online oral history and it has transformed our workflow at the Nunn Center.  Prior to launching OHMS, the Nunn Center was averaging 300-500 interviews that were being accessed each year.  Today, Nunn Center interviews are being accessed online an average of 10,000-12,000 times per month.  In 2011 the Nunn Center received a national leadership grant from IMLS to make OHMS open source and free.  In 2014, OHMS was released to the public, and at this time, there are over 500 individual and institutional OHMS accounts in over 35 different countries.

VL: Where did you get your idea and what inspired you?

DB: Prior to working at the University of Kentucky I managed the digital program at the University of Alabama.  During this time I thought a great deal about web usability and design, as well as the user experience working with digital library/archives platforms at the time, especially with regard to archived oral histories.  Prior to my experience at the University of Alabama, I was the Senior Archivist for the oral history collection at the Kentucky Historical Society and had grown frustrated with the discovery and usability challenges posed by archived oral history (and all time based media).  Most oral history interviews are not transcribed, which creates a great deal of challenges for both the archivist and the user.  The result was that the rich interviews in our oral history collections were mostly going undiscovered and ignored.  I began thinking about possibilities.  The digital program at the University of Kentucky had experimented with time-coded access to online oral history, but this required manual markup of a transcript.  OHMS grew out of my obsession with enhancing access to archived oral histories, but also to create empowering opportunities for more sustainable workflows in the archive.

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

DB: Developing OHMS was definitely an iterative process.  Keep in mind, we originally designed OHMS to work only with the Kentucky Digital Library, our primary access point at that time.  Also, initially OHMS only worked for synchronizing transcripts.  One of my favorite innovations of OHMS was when we designed the indexing feature.  Indexing really has been transformative for us, and now for so many individuals and institutions.  It provides an option for enhancing access to untextualized oral histories when transcription was not a financial or practical reality.  Last year the Nunn Center put over 900 indexed interviews online.  If we had transcribed all of those interviews, it would have cost the center over $250,000, which of course we would not be able to afford.  We would have only been able to provide online access to about 75-100 interviews that year.  One of the overarching goals for OHMS from the beginning was to create more sustainable workflows that were both effective and efficient, and that has clearly worked very well.

What did not work? The original plan was to have the OHMS Viewer be a plugin for 3-4 popular content management systems.  Once we really sat down at the table to talk about this it became abundantly clear that we would never be able to maintain and grow that approach after the grant ran out.  While this meant that the OHMS viewer was not as integrated as it could have been with a select few content management systems, it meant that there were fewer dependencies, making the OHMS Viewer portable enough to interact easily with any system.

VL: What would you do differently?

DB: Automating account setup far earlier in the development journey.  It was not until this last development cycle that we automated the account setup process.  Manual setup of each account was fine in the very beginning when there were few OHMS accounts beyond our internal use at UK.  It was such an honor to interact with so many wonderful oral history projects around the world.  However, there came a point where I was manually setting up 10-20 accounts each week.  Automating account setup had been on the development roadmap for several years, however, it kept falling down as a priority.  I would always ask questions such as “do we make OHMS bilingual, or do we make things easier on me.”  The last year or so automation became essential as so many account requests were coming in. While this does make things easier on me, it really is an important step toward sustainability.

VL: What tips do you have for budding innovators?

DB: It sounds cliché but do not be afraid to experiment.  The original version of OHMS was created and launched for $10,000 using internal funds (not a grant).  While $10,000 is an incredibly large amount of money, for a digital project, this is extremely affordable.  We found an creative programmer, drew up many designs on napkins and moved forward with development.  Also, think about sustaining your innovation early in the process.  While we did receive an IMLS National Leadership Grant, we had already created and implemented OHMS several years prior to getting the grant.  All of our development since the 2011 grant has been internally funded.  You can do magical things with a grant, what you cannot always do is sustain the work once the grant has run out.  I am pretty proud that we have designed OHMS to be sustainable whether there is a grant in play or not.

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

DB: We have received wonderful attention.  In a way, this attention was not driven by OHMS, but by the enhanced discoverability of the oral history material being delivered via the OHMS Viewer.  Often the media is first drawn to the contents of the interviews, and then they have the “a-ha” moment where they realize how amazing the interface is.  Additionally, I have lectured a great deal about OHMS, which has raised general awareness of the tool within the oral history and archives community.  I have spoken about OHMS throughout the United States, in Australia, China, the UK, and several countries in Europe.  When I go on the radio, or when I narrate our podcast The Wisdom Project, I will give OHMS a brief mention.  I will say something to the effect “You can listen to these interviews in their entirety using our magical search system called “OHMS,” a system we developed at the Nunn Center.” While this sounds self-promotional, it is intending to raise general awareness and plant seeds.  While media attention is important, it is vitally important to raise general awareness of OHMS among the audience that OHMS is serving, so I get as excited about a mention on a student blog, or in The Signal (a blog published by the Library of Congress) than I do about articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education or a mention on NPR.

Boyd working with a colleague on an oral history interview in OHMS.

VL:  Do you have a collaborator? If so, how did you find them?

DB: Definitely.  Internally, our team at the Nunn Center and University of Kentucky Libraries have been critically important.  Eric Weig, Mary Molinaro, Kopana Terry, Danielle Gabbard, and Michael Slone have all played essential roles in making OHMS a practical reality.  When you are at an academic institution working on a project like OHMS development, the Deans of University of Kentucky Libraries (Terry Birdwhistell and Deirdre Scaggs) continue to be essential collaborators.  Jack Schmidt was the original programmer who we contracted to write the original code.  Externally, each programmer who has worked on OHMS has been an essential collaborator, especially Shawn De Cesari who worked for the company we contracted to rewrite the code during the IMLS grant.  Recently, we have worked closely with AVPreserve on the development of OHMS and this collaboration has proven incredible with regard to helping me shape the vision and development direction of OHMS.   In each case, programmers who have worked on OHMS have been so much more than just work-for-hire programmers, each one bought in to the mission and vision of OHMS and have always delivered far more creatively than they were being paid for.

The other collaborators who are critical to mention are those early adopters of OHMS who continue to give amazing feedback about development and usability priorities.  Institutions like the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies at the University of Georgia and the Brooklyn Historical Society were critical early on in the process.  These institutions took a chance on OHMS early on and gave profoundly important feedback early on.  More recently, working with organizations like Oral History in the Liberal Arts, the students and faculty at West Chester University, as well as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have been important on the development of OHMS as a pedagogical tool (more on that later) as well as shaping my work in adding the bilingual aspects of OHMS.

Finding collaborators is about recognizing the opportunities and proactively empowering those collaborators to feel part of the process, part of the team. Now, our collaborators are broadening out to other institutions, such as Indiana University, who have begun to collaborate on the development of OHMS and help take the system to the next level.  Indiana University recently contracted AVPreserve to add Avalon capability to OHMS, which has been transformational on many levels.  I am very excited about seeing what comes next with regard to collaborators on development.

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

DB: As mentioned above, I initially funded development using some Nunn Center endowment funds that had accumulated over a few years prior to me coming to the University of Kentucky.  The Deans and Associate Deans at the University of Kentucky have always been open to experimentation and they all gave me the space to move something like OHMS from the idea phase into actuality.  Having their trust was essential to securing the initial internal funding.  Externally, we did receive an IMLS National Leadership Grant in 2011.  This was a critical development as it provided the support needed to rewrite the entire code and rethink OHMS as a system that people outside of the University of Kentucky could use.

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

DB: I have received a Fulbright Research Grant to spend 6 months in Australia to work with the National Library of Australia.  The NLA created a system similar to OHMS.  The Fulbright grant is a way for us to collaborate in a substantive way on how we can work together to elevate both systems and explore international standards for enhancing access to online oral history. We are moving in to the next active development stage where some exciting things are happening.  Most importantly, when I return from Australia, the top priority is to establish an institutional consortium that will help guide and sustain OHMS development moving forward.

VL: What barriers or challenges did you face?

DB: Of course, the major barriers are always funding and available resources.  Again, I am proud that we have been able to sustain the work of OHMS long after the IMLS grant was complete, but major paradigm-shifting development will need more grants. Upon completion of the grant there were some aspects of OHMS hosting and minor development that fell to programmers at the University of Kentucky Libraries.  We have very talented IT staff, but OHMS hosting and development had to be absorbed and balanced with many competing (and sometimes conflicting) priorities.  We have since moved hosting and development to AVPreserve, which has been an incredible experience.  We have expedited development and OHMS is no longer a conflicting/competing priority for the UK Libraries IT staff.  This really was a great move on so many levels.

Of course, OHMS is no longer something that only serves the Nunn Center.  Since there are OHMS accounts in over 35 different countries, I need to think about OHMS accounts and users on an international scale when making even small development decisions.  Last year some of our international partners reported that the OHMS Viewer was not effectively searching characters utilizing diacritics.  As a result, we had to shift some priorities around.  While this is neither a barrier nor a challenge, it is an exciting shift in focus for me to have to think so broadly about our development roadmap.

VL: Were you able to leverage help from students, interns, or grad students for technological or experiential aspects of the project?

DB: Absolutely.  We have a full team of student indexers at the Nunn Center who have provided incredibly valuable feedback on OHMS development, as well as on the resources and tutorials that we have created on using OHMS.

VL: Are there plans for implementing this project in curricula or as a resource to faculty/students?

DB: Absolutely. First, the Nunn Center’s collections are now accessed on a massive scale.  As designed, OHMS has enhanced discovery and usability, and as a result, faculty and students are using oral histories in the classroom on a much larger scale.  However, there has been an unexpected shift in how OHMS is being used in the classroom.  Even before OHMS had been released publicly to other institutions, I started using the back-end of OHMS in the classroom.  Specifically, students were assigned indexing projects in my graduate and undergraduate classes.  After the first semester, I very quickly realized that OHMS could be utilized as a powerful pedagogical tool.  Since then, we have collaborated with several professors at the University of Kentucky, as well as at Universities around the country who are designing entire courses around using OHMS to work with oral history in the classroom in powerful and effective ways.  The Going North and Philly Immigration projects at West Chester University, the Jewish Kentucky project here at the University of Kentucky are some higher profile examples, but smaller scale classroom initiatives are popping up around the country allowing the archives to engage faculty and students in new ways. Additionally there have been several recent journal articles in the Oral History Review focusing on OHMS as a pedagogical tool, as well as the article “Connecting the Classroom and the Archive: Oral History, Pedagogy, and Goin’ North” featured in Oral History in the Digital Age.

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

DB: OHMS has transformed access to our oral history collection at the Nunn Center.  In 2008 we had 300-500 interviews being accessed annually.  Now the number averages 10,000-12,000 each month. This level of access has perpetuated a renewed interest in oral history at my institution.  The Nunn Center is currently maintaining over 50 interviewing initiatives at any given moment, which has connected us to new communities around Kentucky, as well as working with communities and individuals on a national and an international scale.  We used to work only with projects on the state-level, however, now we have projects all over the United States, as well as in Haiti, India, Pakistan, as well as a current interviewing project in Ecuador.  This volume of oral history is, by definition, catalyzing connection.  Much of this success is due to the success of OHMS and our commitment to enhancing access to our archived oral history interviews.

VL: What was your institution like before you joined? Does your institution have a history of supporting innovation in archives?

DB: The Special Collections Research Center in the University of Kentucky Libraries has had a history of experimentation and early adoption.  One of the things that drew me to the University of Kentucky in 2008 was the fact that I knew I could work very closely with the digital program.  So I came in to a context that was supportive and curious.

VL: What was your strategy for shifting the culture of your institution to be open to your innovative projects?

DB: Honestly, I did not have to do much beyond earning the trust and confidence of leadership.  I was able to recognize a problem—major discovery and usability challenges to accessing oral history—and articulate a potential solution.  I am a big believer in creating a “proof of concept” which is what we had when we built the initial version of OHMS.  Once leadership saw OHMS in action, there was very little convincing that was needed at that point.

Archival Innovators: Bryan Giemza, Director of UNC Chapel Hill’s Southern Historical Collection (Part 2)

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.

Bryan Giemza

This is Part 2 of Lindsay Anderberg’s interview with Bryan Giemza, Director of the Southern Historical Collection (SHC) at the Wilson Special Collections Library, part of the University Libraries at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (see Part 1 here).  Part 2 continues Lindsay and Bryan’s discussion on how one archive was able to launch multiple innovative projects while challenging the notion of who creates and maintains archives.

LA: Your projects obviously require a lot of collaboration— from grant funding to partnerships both international and local. Can you talk about these partnerships both on a large scale, for example your Mellon grant funding, and about smaller, local connections that have propelled these projects forward?

BG: Funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has certainly enlarged the scope of what we can develop.  It offers the opportunity to grow our collaborations outward in expanding circles.  It enables the development of the backpacks and put us on a footing to contribute our methodology to the project in Yucatán, for example.  The Mellon Grant gives us the opportunity to pull together a Community-Driven Archives Team with multiple graduate students, library colleagues, coinvestigators in other institutions, and talented people and administrators.  Another key element to our model is working with community liaisons, who help us do the translational work of explaining archives work to communities, and explaining community needs to archives.

Train the Trainer session: Participants at the San Antonio African American Community Archives and Museum (SAAACAM) work with Dr. Karida Brown to conduct oral histories and store digital files.
Image Credit : B. Bernetiae Reed, SHC Community-Driven Archives.

At the same time, these projects are intensely local in nature.  Professor Karida Brown, one of our co-investigators and an innovator in her own right, always points out that you can’t be local enough.  When she was framing up what became the East Kentucky African American Migration Project—one of the SHC’s community partners—she started with the received tools of sociology and mailed out a survey to would-be participants. People in the community responded dutifully, but she realized that the instrument flattened everything out. It didn’t really get at their stories. It wasn’t until she really started talking to people one-on-one that she could begin.  She realized that the survey had been a false start and went back to the drawing board, which really put the project on a footing for success.

Fostering those local connections and surfacing the stories eventually led Karida to the Southern Historical Collection through word-of-mouth referrals from academic advisors. We are connected with larger partnerships and circles of like-minded colleagues who work in this area, too, from the west coast to the east, and finding strength in those numbers, as well as the lessons we learn from community partners.

LA: What is your advice to someone who wants to launch an innovative project with their archives, but might have limited funding or an organization that is not open to change?

BG: In writing about all this, the sheepish fact of the matter is that I work in an institution that is very well resourced, I have the backing of grants, and I work with very talented and creative colleagues.

So, it’s very easy for me to talk about how projects work…. And it’s hard to offer answers that aren’t too pat.  All I can say is that you can be creative and use your reputation in service of others to change things. Put your products in the public domain. Where funders are concerned, it’s important to move your ideas tangibly into practices and products, not just as proof of concept but as proof of the sort of success that others like to invest in. It’s better to come from a place of strength before need.

Backpacks in use: The SHC Community-Driven Archives Team collaborated with Public History graduate students from North Carolina Central University and community members in Princeville, NC, to conduct oral histories and to discern needful resources and cultural projects.
Image Credit : Claire Du Laney, SHC Community-Driven Archives.

Another perhaps too-easy answer is to start small or structure the strategic partnerships that extend your reach and resources. This doesn’t do a lot to disrupt power and funding disparities where larger institutions are concerned, but it gives you a way to tap into the aquifer.  When you are bringing something of value, turn the tables and set the terms.

Last bit of advice: borrow shamelessly and make sure you know what’s going on in your corner of the marketplace of ideas before setting out.  Be careful about reinventing the wheel; figure out how to borrow it from someone else. If you’re applying for a job, go ahead and float a budget and ask for startup money to achieve the vision on the front end—that’s what entrepreneurs do, and it lets you put something on the table when you ask others to participate.  Part of innovating is developing a thick skin. Expect to hear no often and remember that you only have to hear yes once.

If your organization is not open to change, as I see it, there are two options. You can take the long view and begin a change management campaign, as I mentioned earlier.  Or you can move on to an institution that is open. If it comes to that, my advice is to vote with your feet.  You owe it to yourself. If you’re interested in justice and innovation, align yourself with a place that makes it possible.

LA: Is there anything else you’d like fellow archivists to know about your projects or tips for how to launch similar projects at their institutions?

BG: This is a good moment to put in a shameless plug for the Practices in Community-Driven Archives Handbook that we’re developing as part of the Mellon grant.  It’s still a few years out on the horizon, but we are designing it to be useful to practitioners of all kinds. We’re the first to say that these are simply practices—not best practices, but the results of our experiments and learning, since every project is different—so your mileage may vary.  But maybe there’s something you can use there.

The contents of the Oral History Archivist in a Backpack include how-to guides, audio equipment and thank you cards. The Community-Driven Archives Team provides basic tools for oral history success and affirms the importance of community-curated histories.
Image Credit: Aleah Howell, Wilson Library, UNC-CH

We’re currently renovating the web presence for our community-driven projects, and we’re constantly adding our products and training materials as we go.  So if you wanted, for instance, to create a set of Backpacks for a community project, you can find all of the elements of the backpack, down to the pricing, in our online helps.

One other suggestion. Say things at meetings and have your elevator speech ready—ideas have to be reducible to terms that a child can understand quickly.  Speak them out loud.  Language is the first step toward making the ideal into the real, and if you sit in meetings and bite your tongue because you’re worried that your ideas aren’t good enough, nothing will happen.  The African proverb says it best: the open mouth gets fed.

LA: What’s next?  How will these projects continue or are you launching something new?

BG: Well, there are a lot of things. I am excited about the upcoming release of a fulldome movie that will bring our archival materials on southern history to a new format and to new audiences.

And I have a longer vision in mind for building on the potential in Archivist in a Backpack.  It’s about gradually scaling up capacity for community archives.  What if we could create archivally sound storage units—the sort of thing that municipalities throughout the region could afford to include in their planning—and harvest those pods to depositories supported by regional consortiums of libraries and archives?  Repeat the process and enhance inclusivity in each cycle? Community groups that aren’t interested in starting their own brick-and-mortar archive want to know that their materials will have a good archival home that respects the rights of their creators. As a profession, I think it’s a good thing when archivists consider how to join ranks in the scholarly dissemination of participatory methods. We can build outward from there.

These projects certainly have a momentum of their own.  Sometimes good writers turn out stories by creating characters and turning them loose to see what they will do.  Maybe we can think about projects and invention the same way.  Pick up one little piece of the challenge, start the project, and see where it wants to lead you.  We think about innovation as something you do, often through a kind of hard-nosed wrestling with a particular challenge.  But that puts “problems” first instead of people—the characters, so to speak. The reward of good work is more of it, and if you see innovation as a natural outgrowth of generosity, spontaneity, friendliness—well, maybe innovation has an animation of its own, and becomes the sure guide to better places.

Assembling the Archivist in a Backpack kits at the Southern Historical Collection

Archival Innovators: Bryan Giemza, Director of UNC Chapel Hill’s Southern Historical Collection (Part 1)

This is the inaugural post in our new series Archival Innovators!  In this new series, we aim 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.

Bryan Giemza

Our first Archival Innovators post brings you an interview with Bryan Giemza, Director of the Southern Historical Collection (SHC) at the Wilson Special Collections Library, part of the University Libraries at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Bryan’s bio is contained at the end of this post).  Bryan and the SHC might already be on your radar as archival innovators thanks to the publicity around Archivist in a Backpack and the Maya from the Margins project, the latter of which was awarded SAA’s 2018 Diversity Award as well as a Spotlight Award for team member Bernetiae Reed.  COPA member Lindsay Anderberg, Interdisciplinary Science & Technology Librarian and Poly Archivist at New York University, spoke with Bryan to find out how one archive was able to launch multiple innovative projects while challenging the notion of who creates and maintains archives.

This is Part 1 of Lindsay and Bryan’s interview; stay tuned for Part 2 next week!

LA: Could you start by telling us a little about Archivist in a Backpack and how it fits within the concept of participatory research?

Assembling the Archivist in a Backpack kits at the Southern Historical Collection

BG: Archivist in a Backpack distills some basic tools of archival trade into a kit that’s small enough, and accessible enough, to act as starter material for a community-driven archive project.  We know from experience that oral histories are great for jumpstarting community-driven archives projects. And we know that people love the tangibility of archives experience.  You can see that in the moment of electricity when a student opens a nineteenth-century journal for the first time.  So, the question was, how do you get people of all ages comfortable thinking about themselves as archivists in a way that’s fun and interactive and ultimately empowering?

That’s what participatory research is all about: moving away from methods of enquiry that perpetuate the idea that expertise comes from outside a community. In the world of archives, it addresses a recurrent problem, that communities have limited say in what goes into an archive, what happens to it afterwards, even in its interpretation. Archivist in a Backpack is a kind of hook, it’s a straightforward way to get people into the participatory process and to say, You can do this, too.

Assembling the Archivist in a Backpack kits at the Southern Historical Collection

Assembling the Archivist in a Backpack kits at the Southern Historical Collection

LA: What about your Maya from the Margins project? How does that draw on participatory methodology?

BG: The spirit of participatory research infused Maya from the Margins, too. A lightbulb moment came from conversations I’d had with Latinos who were at best reluctant to acknowledge their indigenous past. I knew that young North Carolinians with both Latinx and indigenous roots often feel like outsiders. Their identity is really complex, and as second-generation Americans they’re at an uneasy remove from the experiences and culture of their immigrant parents. In addition to barriers to inclusion, the historic suppression of indigenous culture and language in Latin America poses a problem if you want to transmit a living history. Colonialism is not exactly a force for making people the curators of their own histories—which is what we’re trying to do.

Khristin Landry-Montes and Douglas “Biff” Hollingsworth (Collections and Outreach Archivist, Southern Historical Collection) prepare backpacks that have been translated into Yucatec Mayan for distribution to teachers and students in Valladolid, Mexico

When I visited the State Archive of Yucatán, I viewed Mexican plantation documents that were every bit the counterpart of items held in the Southern Historical Collection, and I began to discern in the archive some common themes in history, movement and migration.  How could we bring people together around the topic of Mayan identity, and, in the participatory mode, enable them to take ownership of those histories, and claim that common ground?

The core idea was to create programming and archives-based exhibits by pairing a cohort of young Maya-identifying people in Yucatán with counterparts in North Carolina. Along with two Morganton high school teachers and two UNC-Chapel Hill undergraduate student mentors, the student participants visited the Southern Historical Collection and the State Archives of Yucatán, crisscrossed North Carolina and Yucatán, and collaboratively curated a travelling exhibition that was displayed at exchange sites.

Daniela Garrido Durán uses backpack materials to interview Khristin Landry-Montes at a teacher training workshop sponsored by National Geographic at Universidad de Oriente in Valladolid, Mexico

LA: There’s a been a lot of talk in the archives profession about diversity, inclusion, and social justice, but I think people can be unsure of how to enact these ideas within the existing structures of academic and cultural institutions.  Can you talk about how your projects aim to disrupt power disparities and to empower communities or individuals?

BG: Sure!  One thing I can say from experience is that the challenge endemic to enacting the ideals of participatory research is making sure the implementation of projects matches the soaring rhetoric.  That’s actually where a lot of the space of invention comes in. The conceptual forms have to find embodiment in institutional and operational procedures, and finally, the tangible. We find ourselves answering a thousand sub-questions: for example, what’s the appropriate workflow, and what are the rights considerations, for ingesting material from a community history harvest?  Often it’s a case of first impression.  It puts demands on the imagination of the participants, the practitioners, and the institution.

Assembling the Archivist in a Backpack kits at the Southern Historical Collection

Let me try to make this a little more real and a little less aspirational or abstract. We gathered feedback on Archivist in a Backpack from community partners by including in each a stamped card to be returned to us. One community partner reported, “We all witnessed how meaningful it was for the … participants to get those protectors, a certain kind of unexpected acknowledgement of the value of their memories.” Here again, tangibility matters; having the plastic sleeves made interviewees feel their material is cared for by someone else and not just of value to them.  Archivists can’t be everywhere at once; not everyone has the experience of seeing their materials foldered and rehoused.  There’s intrinsic power in letting the community member be the bearer of that gift.

History from below, as a school of thought in public history, needs to be matched with archives from below.  It’s an orientation toward finding what’s not in the grand narratives and making it present and accessible.  This manifests differently in diverse disciplines, but there’s a kind of interdisciplinary convergence happening, in my view.  It’s happening in sociology, anthropology, public health, and so on.  It’s not an accident that Maya from the Margins required partnerships with colleagues in anthropology, a nonprofit, archives and higher ed abroad, and institutions across campus.  Participatory research provides the common ground for the real interdisciplinary work that we hear a lot about but that’s so rarely achieved.

Delores Porter and Adreonna Simmons use backpack materials to conduct an interview in the historic black town of Princeville, NC

Certainly there’s a built-in tension in the fact that institutions innately want to control narratives. It’s revealing to speak with communities where outside institutions have walked away on their own terms, or pursued their own extractive ends.  The traditional quid-pro-quo nature of collecting ignores the fact that generosity is usually repaid handsomely and that it takes a relationship to bring a person, a story, to an archive.  There’s a long way to go with all this. We still have a hard time paying community experts, for example, and reaching carceral populations, and finding ways to fund community projects directly.

LA: What was the Southern Historical Collection (SHC) like, both in content and in practice, before you started working there four years ago?

As one element of the backpack, these oral history prompt cards pertaining to the terminology of cenotes were translated into Yucatec Mayan and Spanish

BG: The Collection’s origins give it a tremendous magnetic force, since good collections have a way of attracting more good collections. I happened to be hired under a charter for change.  The SHC had a longstanding tradition of outreach, so I wanted to think about how to shift it beyond the podium.  We operated in a fairly conventional manuscripts mode: the goal traditionally has been to get primary material behind thick archival walls.  I was interested in how we could make those walls less intimidating and how we might render them invisible in a manner of speaking.  We took the time to do some planning and to hold ourselves accountable, which put us in a position to do more than react and to set a proactive collecting agenda. My SHC colleagues Chaitra Powell and Douglas “Biff” Hollingsworth bring tremendous creativity and experience to all of these efforts.  Our team agreed that we would be inspirited by an ethic of outrageous generosity and joyful participation, and that we would not lose sight of that simple mission.

LA: Since you were hired under a “charter for change,” what was your strategy for shifting the culture of SHC and launching these innovative projects?

BG: When I joined the Southern Historical Collection, I was determined to shift toward a participatory paradigm as a way of collecting that chimed with the best part of our “Of the People” institutional history. It offered a means to perpetuate a culture of respect and reciprocity. It’s a collecting ethos that will carry into the future, because collecting, broadly, is all about people and relationships. Those relationships are the most important corrective to the selective vision of academe. One of my favorite aphorisms is, No one sees his own ears.  Participatory research methods tend to point to our blind spots.  This is healthy not just for academic institutions; it’s good for communities, and it’s fundamentally an equitable way to go about the process. The power differences between academic institutions and communities—particularly those underrepresented in archives—are beyond enormous. From a collections standpoint, it’s like, the balance of power is tipped in favor of the institution before you arrive, not to mention while you’re there, so how do you continually put yourself in the perspective of a community member?  In those conversations, how can you be aware of the silencing effect of legacies and power disparities that extend well into the past?

Everett Fly, George Frederick (SAAACAM – San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum) and Bryan Giemza. SAAACAM is one of the community partners that is deploying Archivist in a Backpack

There is also an admittedly wonkish side to the business of change management; reading a book or two on the topic or taking a course can be helpful. It sounds calculated, and it is: you can develop a campaign for change, and that’s what I set out to do with the SHC team. We thought about how we might build allies across the organization, knowing that we wouldn’t get perfect buy-in from everyone, and that’s something we would have to accept and write off.

Trying to usher in community archives as a new way of thinking about what we do posed a lot of challenges, and it’s still a work in progress.  It’s a first principle of change management that most major change initiatives don’t pan out, and the ones that do require an absolutely relentless communication campaign. That’s very hard to do when you’re building the airplane in the air and doing your best to be responsive to communities.  We’ve been persistent in delivering the message that this work is essential to our identity. Put differently, community-driven archives aren’t just what we do—they’re who we are. It’s another gift to work in a place where others are innately disposed toward trying new things in service of others—and where there’s room for failure.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our Archival Innovators interview with Bryan Giemza!

Bryan Giemza is Director of the Southern Historical Collection in Wilson Special Collections at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he has been developing practices in community-driven archives. He is author or an editor of six academic books on American literary and cultural history, including Irish Catholic Writers and the Invention of the American South and Images of Depression-Era Louisiana: The FSA Photographs of Ben Shahn, Russell Lee, and Marion Post Wolcott. As principal investigator of grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and National Endowment for the Humanities, among others, he has led a variety of public humanities projects concerning the history and culture of the U.S. South. In 2019 he joins the faculty of the Honors College at Texas Tech University as professor of humanities and literature. Among his duties: working with students in the Sowell Family Collection in Literature, Community and the Natural World.

Ball State University Drawings + Document Archive: The Movie

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Today we bring you an interview with Carol Street, Archivist for Architectural Records at Ball State University, and the outreach innovator behind
Drawings + Documents Archive: The [LEGO] Movie


Question: What was your inspiration for this video?

Carol Street: As always, inspiration came from a number of places. My 9 year old granddaughter, Anna, is probably my greatest inspiration when it comes to many things, but especially LEGO. Thanks to her, I’ve amassed a not insignificant collection of LEGO bricks and figures, and even created a LEGO model of the Drawings + Documents Archive. But the actual lightbulb moment came when I saw the wonderful stop-motion LEGO movie by the Library of Social Sciences at the University of Copenhagen. The video was the brainchild of the library director Christian Lauersen, who wanted a brief video to introduce students to the resources available at his library. He wrote a fantastic blog post on the making of the video and his reasons behind it, all of which I agreed with. There was that moment after the video ended where I thought—hey! we can do that, too!

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Screenshot of the Ball State University Drawings + Documents Archive video on YouTube.

 

Q: For the archivists out there who may be intimidated by the time, resources, and level of creativity required to produce an outreach video like this, could you give some insights into the production process for this video?

CS: There is a significant amount of time involved in making even a short video like this. As the only staff member in the archive, I would never have time to do this myself. Luckily, this year I have a very creative graduate assistant, Raluca Filimon, who embraced the project even though she had never made an animated movie before. Although it may seem daunting at first, the movie is really just a culmination of a lot of small projects. We began the process by breaking it down into those smaller projects—such as write a script, create scenes, borrow equipment, learn how to film LEGO figures, select music, record the narration—that ultimately resulted in the finished film. Because it was a fairly long process, we made sure to celebrate the major milestones along the way. Those moments of celebration built momentum for the next phase of the project.

I’ve been very fortunate to have some great graduate assistants from the College of Architecture and Planning.  They’re not only incredibly creative, but also good at project management and research. Raluca did a fantastic job bringing my ideas for the film to life. I had specific goals that needed to be reached, but allowed plenty of space for Raluca and other students to inject their own creativity. All of the graduate assistants who work in the archive added to the film in different ways. There were a lot of “what if….” moments where we would ask things like “what if the astronaut showed up at the end with the disco ball?” Sometimes those ideas were shot down, but others—like the fantastic disco finale—made the final cut. In the end, the process was very much a team effort that brought the students together.

 

Q: What other forms of outreach do you utilize for the Drawings + Documents Archive, now or in the past? How does the video diverge from and/or compliment those efforts?

CS: We utilize all of the typical forms of outreach, such as exhibits, instructional sessions, a newsletter, and a blog. Our audience is well-versed in design and very creative, so we try to also approach outreach in creative and interesting ways. Last fall my graduate assistants came up with a fantastic promotional campaign that is still filling up the cases outside the archives. The campaign is called “Be inspired” and shows photographs of students and faculty holding up something in the archive that inspires them. The person in the photo writes on the poster what inspires them. Right now our new architectural history professor is holding up a drawing by Piranesi and she wrote that she’s inspired by “historical context”. It’s a fresh, patron-driven way to showcase the amazing collections we have in the archive.

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The Drawings + Documents Archive video features the Indiana Architecture X 3D collection.

We’ve also branched out into 3-D printed modeling of buildings and building details that are represented in the collection. The project is called Indiana Architecture X 3D and it has probably been our most effective form of outreach in terms of student reach. The models appeal to younger students who have yet to learn how to model and equally attract older students who are suitably impressed by the level of detail we can create. They all enjoy checking the 3-D printed model with the actual drawing to see if we were accurate in our modeling skills. Even faculty, who can be just as challenging as students to reach, specifically ask us to show them to visitors, potential students, and their classes. The project also allows us to now give something back to our donors who generously support the work of the archive. At the holidays we sent donors small, 3-D printed ornaments based on the collection, which were a big hit and garnered a lot of interest, good will, and even further financial support.

 

Q: What impact/results are you hoping to see from this video?

CS: I’m hoping that our students enjoy the film and remember the archive when it’s time to conduct research. We often throw far too much information at students during our instructional sessions because we feel it’s our one chance to tell them all about the archive and we want to tell them everything. Students couldn’t absorb all that information at once even if they wanted to. The more instructional sessions I give, the more I realize the time is best served by essentially building bridges for students to cross when they actually need us. I strive to make the archives a friendly, non-intimidating place where they can feel comfortable asking for help when their assignments or interests lead them here. And what’s friendlier and less intimidating than LEGO?

I’d also like everyone to equate archives with fun, not dust.

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