Archives and Audiences: Tiffany Warmowski, MacMurray Foundation & Alumni Association

This is the latest entry in our Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work. In this post, Tiffany Warmowski, the Chair of the History and Museum Committee with the MacMurray Foundation & Alumni Association discusses the MacMurray Archives and its new home at the Jacksonville Area Museum. MacMurray College located in Jacksonville, Illinois closed in March of 2020.

AP: Can you provide a brief history of the MacMurray College Archives, its connection with the Jacksonville Area Museum and your role as Chair of the Committee?

TW: The MacMurray College board of trustees announced the closure of the 174-year-old institution in March 2020. Within a month, a few trustees began the paperwork to form a foundation with three goals: provide scholarships, continue to engage Alumni relations and preserve the history of the college. 

When I was asked in late spring 2020 to volunteer on the foundation board, I asked to help with the archives. I was one of the only local-to-Jacksonville people on the board, so they were happy to agree to that. In addition to the processed archives of the college, many staff members, while cleaning out their offices, brought items to the basement of the library to be added to the archives, even though there was no longer an archivist. I entered the scene and was met with file cabinets, boxes and spreadsheets of processed archives, and a large collection of documents and artifacts that were not yet processed (and are still not yet processed). In October of 2020, all of that was moved to the Jacksonville Area Museum, which hadn’t opened to the public yet, after an agreement was signed between the City (the museum is a city entity) and the MacMurray Foundation. The museum opened September 2021.

Moving the archives from MacMurray College to its new home at the Jacksonville Area Museum.

Before the archives were moved, I went building-to-building with another volunteer and looked for items that we felt should be added to the MacMurray Collection. We found student records from approx. 1900-1968. I quickly learned these files are federally protected. The foundation contacted the Illinois State Archives and learned best practices to protect the academic, medical and other sensitive information in these files. With the blessing of an Institutional Review Board at Illinois College, these student files are being studied by a sociology class, following best practices for protecting PII.

Besides the student records, there are board of trustee minutes going back to the very first meeting that established the college, committee meeting minutes for dozens of faculties, student and other committees, department self-studies, the entire public relations archives (press releases, photo prints, slides, negatives), yearbooks, archives specific to each college president, several college professors and scrapbooks for dozens of student organizations as well as personal student scrapbooks.

In addition, there is a Lincoln Collection of over 400 books, dozens of magazines and pamphlets, statues, framed art and other Lincoln-related items. This entire collection was donated by Rev. Lester Schriver (a college trustee) in the early 1940s.

AP: You mentioned that you weren’t originally asked to work with the archives. What prompted you to work with them?

 TW: I wasn’t remotely interested in the history of MacMurray College when I was a student there from 1994 to 1998. But through the lens of its closing and the possibility of losing these amazing buildings, I realized how very interested I was. I had the opportunity to be on the board and I joined to preserve the history because there were some pretty neat things in the archives that I just didn’t want to go away.

AP: Who have you turned to for assistance?

TW:  I don’t have a public history, archiving or curating background, but I do know people that have those things. One of my mentors, Dr. Claire Jerry, was a professor at MacMurray. She taught our humanities classes, and she became a good friend of mine. Now she works at the Smithsonian in DC. She has been a great resource for us.

Additionally, Samantha Sauer, the archivist and curator for Illinois College just down the street from MacMurray College, has been an amazing resource. Her student, McKenna Servis, was the Museum intern last summer and now she is the museum’s part-time manager. She’s really taught me how to discern what’s important and how to tell stories.

AP: What have been some of the challenges/barriers the project has faced?

TW: The museum is in a former Post Office that was built about 1900. Except for our most valuable and fragile items, the bulk of the archives are housed in a basement and a large main-floor room, and neither are climate controlled (although they are dry.) It’s difficult to work there right now because it’s very cold. We do most of our work in the temperature-controlled areas of the museum, but that limits what we can do because what needs to be done right now is organizing and moving and boxing things and that can only be done in the large, cold rooms. We face the challenge of not having an archivist on staff. The museum has a part-time museum manager. That person is tasked with running the museum and spending 1/2 of her time on MacMurray-related work, since the salary is split between the two organizations. We also need additional archival boxes and other materials needed to maintain the collection.

Additionally, I think this town is good at volunteering, and we have a lot of opportunities for volunteerism in our town. To be asking for yet another way for people to volunteer, I feel like people are already kind of stretched thin, especially right now.

AP: How has the Jacksonville community responded to the MacMurray College archives finding a new home?

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. People are very glad to know the history of the college is being preserved. There has been a lot of sadness and grieving for those related to the college and I believe the knowledge that not everything is lost is helpful for them.

AP: What is the most interesting part of the archival collection you have worked with?

TW: I mentioned the student records, which are protected because of the information that’s in them. We discovered from these records that MacMurray was part of a federal program that educated Japanese women who were either incarcerated during the Japanese internment tragedy or were headed there. We don’t know exactly which Japanese students came through the program or who just came at the same time during World War II, but we have some records from students who are in that program. There was a woman who entered the internment camp in Idaho with her family, and she was able to come to MacMurray to finish her education. I know that she’s not the only one, and I was happy to see that MacMurray was a shining light at that time. There’s also an article in the local newspaper about a Japanese student and a Chinese student who were roommates at MacMurray during World War II. Their countries were adversaries during the war and they got along and were able to have a peaceful friendship on campus that was recognized by the local paper and by the community.

AP: What are the plans for the MacMurray College archives after the 10 year agreement ends?

TW: I believe the plan currently is to evaluate things when the time gets closer and to perhaps do another 10 years or something longer. I would also love to find some grants for hiring somebody to digitize what we have to make it digitally available. McKenna and the volunteers are where we have to start for right now and although we don’t have a plan for getting an archivist, I absolutely see the need for one.

For now, the Museum has a MacMurray Hall that’s dedicated to the college which is full of exhibits. We’re having a gathering in lieu of what people would call homecoming this June. The people that are going to be visiting the Museum are going to be people from the 1970s through the 1990s and I would really like to have some exhibits specifically for them to see. Right now, we have the history of the College starting in 1846 until about 1975 and we have a lot of artifacts mostly from the early 1900’s. I’d like to have more current, relatable exhibits.

AP: Is there anything else you would like to mention?

TW: The MacMurray foundation is really grateful for our partnership with the city and the Jacksonville Area Museum. The Jacksonville Area Museum board has been very supportive of MacMurray and the physical space that they’ve given us. We’ve kind of taken over and we’re just grateful for the support of both the MacMurray community and the broader Jacksonville community.

MacMurray Hall in the Jacksonville Area Museum dedicated to MacMurray College.

Sometimes I look at these old pictures and read the histories of the Presidents and their wives who gave every ounce of energy and money that they had to help this College succeed. I feel like we failed them sometimes, but also this is just a natural progression of life. Things start, things are great, things are hard, and then things end sometimes. I’m trying to remember that their efforts weren’t in vain because they educated thousands of women first and then people, including me. I know a lot of people are much better off because of MacMurray.

Archives + Audiences: Alexandra Horowitz, Voices Storytelling & Media

This interview is part of the Archives + Audiences series on the ArchivesAWARE blog. The Archives + Audiences series 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.

The ArchivesAWARE blog is ran by the Committee on Public Awareness (COPA), under the auspices of the Society of American Archivists. In this installment, Archivist and COPA Member, Rachael Cristine Woody, interviews Alexandra Horowitz and her experiences using oral histories and related archival materials as a writer, filmmaker, and producer.

Alexandra Horowitz is a writer, director, and producer based in the Washington, DC area. She founded Voices Storytelling & Media as a way to harness the power of archival material — such as oral histories, interviews, diaries, letters, and photos — to personalize history and current events. Alexandra has produced films for the Jewish Museum of Maryland, the Capital Jewish Museum in Washington DC, the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, and Washington DC’s Theatre Lab. Her documentary short Reawakening was selected to screen at Jewish film festivals across the country and has been been featured in public programs at Jewish museums and organizations. A former Senior Producer at CNN International, Alexandra spent nearly ten years covering business and economics for CNN and its various networks from bureaus in New York, Washington, London, and Hong Kong. During that time, she produced full shows and individual stories, hard news and features, live and recorded broadcasts. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post. Alexandra holds degrees from Brown University and the University of Michigan.

Interview Transcript

00:15

Alexandra thank you for being here today. Would you please take a moment to introduce yourself.

00:20

Sure, thank you so much for having me. It’s really a pleasure to be here. My name is Alexandra Horowitz, and I am the founder and executive producer of a small media content producer called Voices Storytelling and Media. I started it during the pandemic My background is as an independent filmmaker, and a television news producer.

00:48

Excellent, and I’m really looking forward to having this conversation with you. The series we’re doing this interview for us the archives and audiences. And part of what the Committee on Public Awareness is so interested in is how archives are actually used, how archivists help participate and between the archivists and collections, how they can be used in new creative ways, even if they’re not new ways like non-traditional academic ways so I’m really looking forward to hearing your answers. And my first question for you is you’ve researched written and filmed and produced media using oral histories and archival materials. So can you tell us a little bit more about your process and what goes into creating those works.

1:33

Absolutely, I’d be happy to. And I just want to say, in terms of using archives in creative ways. I love that. I mean that’s what I do and that’s what I’m trying to do with Voices Storytelling and Media is look at different ways that archives can be used creatively whether it’s podcasts or digital exhibits or film audio educational materials; I just think there’s so much potential out there. What I have done until this point has been using archives for film and I have based them on oral histories. Sometimes on one oral history, Where we’re profiling, a person, either for an event where the person is doing a public program, for example, and going through the person’s oral history and taking this hour and a half or two hour oral history, and finding, you know, sort of a five minute story in there that is relevant to whatever the story is you’re trying to tell. Right? If it’s an exhibit, what is the exhibit trying to say? If it’s a public program, what is the purpose of the person being here? Just to pull out from that long, oral history, the sort of the core story that is relevant to the event or the exhibit. And so that is one way by profiling one person. The other way I’ve done it, is to take an oral history, a collection of oral histories and find one theme through that collection so I did a film called Reawakening, which was about the Charlottesville Jewish community’s response to the unite the right rally is in August of 2017 and the oral history was not about the unite the right rallies, it was just a profile of the Jewish community of Charlottesville. So each person and I used about eight or 10 oral histories, each person had an oral history of about an hour and a half to two hours talking about their whole background – their Jewish upbringing and what brought them to Charlottesville and how they practiced and their involvement with the Jewish community and what they did professionally I mean it had 99.5% of each interview had nothing to do with the unite the right rallies, but because the unite the right rallies happened everybody spoke about it in the interview. And so, I was able working with the professor who conducted the oral history. I was able to pull out sound bites from each person and put them together in a film that looked at the response of the community to this event. So, I guess that’s the first point I want to make is that the, the oral history, don’t have to be about the specific theme that you want in the final product. Right. So, so, with both of those ways of doing it, either with looking at one oral history in depth, or looking at a theme through a collection. After that the process is kind of the same, like, I go through. I listen to them, I go through the transcripts, I find the most powerful sound bites the ones that really speak to the subject and are heartfelt and compelling. And I literally just take a highlighter and highlight all of those. And then I put them together, I look at what I have in my yellow highlights, and I put them together in a story form like what story are all of these individual soundbites telling and what kind of narrative arc can you develop from them and there usually is one, thankfully.

06:03

And after that, and I don’t write any narration, I mean I really want the work I do to be – I mean I called my company Voices — it’s meant to be the voices of the people in the oral histories, it’s not meant to be, you know, my voice kind of linking everything they have to say. And then I go through and once I have the script developed from the sound bites, I look for visual archival material, mostly photographs sometimes video. Sometimes newspaper or other printed material that can be used to illustrate what they’re talking about and sometimes that comes from libraries and collections. Sometimes it comes from the people themselves or other organizations that have been involved in whatever the subject matter is. So, that is largely the process, and it’s a very fulfilling one.

07:12

Thank you so much for sharing that. Your approach and your use of the oral histories and equipment, archival materials. In general, indicates to me at least it’s like you knew that these were available and knowing the archives and archivists can sometimes have a hard time getting the messaging out that, hey, we’re here. Please use us. I’m wondering what in your background or experiences, first introduced you to oral histories and archives.

07:48

So I will say, kind of being thrown into the fire. I had worked. I mean most of my career I worked for CNN, and when, and I had no experience with archives, but I was doing daily news and when you’re on deadline, and you need video at least, I mean I worked there a while ago, but at least at the time I worked there what you did when you needed video that you weren’t going out and shooting was you call the library and you said what do we have and they made it available to you and then you used it. So, so that was my entire experience I had no… I just didn’t think about archives. I had to do a shoot once at the National Archives, but that was, I don’t even remember the story was it wasn’t relevant to using archives. So then, okay, flash forward, many years, I took some time off stay home with my kids, I started up again as an independent producer, and I did, I produce the film that is linked to this, it’s Marian Ingram, it’s a profile of a woman who is a Holocaust survivor who came to the US in the 1950s and then worked in the civil rights movement. And I have this great oral history and I had the script, and I needed pictures, and I thought, okay, I also had a deadline, where am I going to get these pictures? And I had, I had no idea there was no library to call I was kind of at a loss as to what to do and I, I started Googling and I started hunting around and I went to the Library of Congress website I mean there’s so much online I don’t know what people did before collections were really online but now you can sit at home as we all have been doing for a long period of time and have access to enormous resources around the country and around the world. So, I just started Googling and I found material in large archives like the Library of Congress and I found material in small, you know, smaller towns and libraries and universities, and, and it was, I mean to me personally I, you know, it was just this amazing discovery that there’s so much out there that can be utilized that. That’s just amazing and I wish more people knew about.

https://vimeo.com/324248271/39c4f95bba

Marione Ingram: Civil Rights Activist, Author, Holocaust Survivor. Film produced entirely from archival material for the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, now the Capital Jewish Museum.

10:26

Thank you so much for that answer, it’s I think it’s very helpful for us as archivist, to hear how people found us because it usually is, you know, it starts with a Google search or, yeah, asking that question of like this, this should exist where would it live?

10:45

Right, right, and it was largely entirely a Google search, but now, you know, now that I’m not so new to it I feel like there’s a whole network of people and there’s probably a listserv where I could say, you know, I need this. Does anyone have it and could I use it?

11:04

Thank you so much, that was a great answer, and very informative for us, too, and circling back to the archival materials for your work. You touched on this a little bit but just in case you had more to share. We’re curious about how you choose the videos and archival materials that you incorporate into your work.

11:25

Um, I think it, It starts with the stories that organizations want to tell, right? Is there an exhibit? Is there an event? Is there a film that’s being made for a classroom? And then, I think, in terms of the oral histories, the sound bites. It’s what is going to tell the story, the most powerfully, so not just the content, I mean, sometimes you just need a soundbite that says X because you have to get from point A to point B and it doesn’t make any sense if there’s not something that connects it but really what I look for is those that have the most heart, you know, like what is going to make people really feel and see another person’s story or another person’s point of view. And there’s, you know, much of the way that we have told history is now being revisited voices are being included, that have not previously been featured so prominently. And I am sure that there is just a wealth of archival material that that can be used to tell those stories and to help, you know, organizations that are revisiting their narratives and trying to add dimensions to race, gender, for example, that there has to be a wealth of material out there that can be used for that.

13:03

Could you share, like either one of your most favorite archival finds or like a fond memory you have working in the archives.

13:11

So, my favorite find is something that I thought I wasn’t going to be able to use and it was when I was doing this video, I have Marian Ingram, and she had volunteered and did some organizing for the March on Washington. And I hunting around I found this film that USIA had produced in, you know, in the 1960s afterwards and it had the MLK speech in it, but it also had people arriving and it had buses and it crowds and tents and. And it was just a godsend. And then I tried to get permission to use it and it seemed like a really complicated process and I had a deadline and I didn’t think I was gonna get it in time. So, I you know I put the paperwork in and went through the channels but then I forgot about it really because I didn’t think I was ever going to get to use it and then two days before I was set to edit, I got an email out of the blue. That said, “Yes, of course you can use it. The only thing you can’t use is the Martin Luther King sections because that’s protected by his estate, but anything else is fair game.” So, you know as it’s in the public domain so you can use it, and it was just sort of this waterfall of riches to be able to use it.

14:46

That is a great story, I’m so glad to hear that. When you’ve been working with archival materials and within archives and with archivists. Are there some examples of how the archives and those materials have helped to inspire and inform your work?

15:03

Um, yeah, they’re, I think it’s encouraged me to want to do more with archives. Because I think history is so important, and I, I just think… I love history. I hated history in school, I took as little of it as possible, but the, the parts of history that are really sort of rich and I think that that can teach the most powerfully, our photographs are hearing people’s stories. Yes, it’s not a collection of facts and sometimes it’s remembered with a point of view that sometimes is the one you want to teach and sometimes maybe isn’t but, but it’s, it’s heartfelt and it’s powerful and it’s, you know, the human experience. And so, I think that all of that is there in the archives in the way that it’s not usually in the history books, and so I just find that really encouraging and the more those archives are able to be accessed and used I think the more creatively we can teach connect to people, you know, whether it’s in museums, whether it’s in film, whether it’s in education and in classrooms. That there’s that connection through archives that there. You know there isn’t in other ways.

16:41

I love the word you chose to describe that as connection I think that is a powerful and, but yes, you know, simplistic, in its most awesome form in terms of as archivists, trying to have materials to be used and connect with communities to make sure that they are represented the I mean, so many ways that we could have more meaningful connections.

17:07

Yeah, and I think that the more archives, I mean I’ve always done it. You know from the producer and where I’m looking. I don’t know what archivist do proactively but I would say that the more that you can look around in your community, about what’s going on in classrooms and museums and public events, and see if the resources that you have. I think a lot of times people in the communities just aren’t aware of these repositories of material that, you know, that could be being used by the community. So maybe it’s up to the archives and archivists to try to connect with those people, or at least make known that the resources are available.

18:04

Yes, I think that is definitely, as, as the field which I can’t speak for everybody but my, my observation and experience has been, this has, has very much been a perpetual issue for us in how to one not only message value of collections but to make sure we’re actually connecting with the community in the way the community wants to be connected with. So, it’s definitely something I think it’s fair to say many of us are aware of and, and we are a very awkward work in progress toward better connections. But yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head with that one.

18:44

Yeah, I think, photos in particular you know I’ve gone, sometimes to the Library of Congress website just to look at photos if I needed them on a certain theme, and a photo can just say so much one photo that they can speak volumes about whatever the subject matter is, and, yeah. So, I just think for people in your communities to know what resources you have available is a really powerful thing.

19:27

Speaking of resources in use, is there an item or an area of a collection that you would like to use but like haven’t been able to find.

19:39

Um, I know you have connections. I’m not at the moment but I am so glad. Now to be in touch with this network of people that you know I certainly will turn to it in the future as needed, when things come up.

20:00

Yes, please do. We are here and we’re available so we welcome that. Great, that’s great. So, thinking about access to archives, and I know with COVID-19 obviously all of our realities have gotten a little bit more challenging. Yeah, but, but thinking about your past work, have there been any sort of barriers to access or any challenges specific to trying to reach archives or use the collections?

20:37

Um, for the most part, no. I tried to use. I mean in the past I’ve tried to use material that’s in the public domain.

20:45

And the times that I have had to get permission. It hasn’t been difficult. In fact, my experience has been more that professionals want their collections used and are very helpful in helping you use them, I had in the the film that I’ve linked there is a, there’s a visual of a burning, cross it towards the end of it, and it just all of a sudden realized I needed a burning cross and I googled it and I found these resources but I needed it soon. And so there were all these pictures online so I picked one and it was from East Carolina University and I emailed the person there and he was very nice and very accommodating and within, you know, I said “Well what do I do need to do to have permission to use this? Can I use it?” and, you know, “Is there a fee and how do I get is? Can I get a digital copy?” and all of this and I think within an hour maybe or two, I had permission I had the digital copy of the fill of the photo, and he couldn’t have been nicer and that has generally been my experience is that people are and especially I think I do. I generally work with nonprofits, and so if people know it’s for a community event. I use some news footage I know it’s not, I guess it’s archival news footage, it wasn’t that old, but for Charlottesville. And I went to the local television stations and at first they were like okay you know it’s this many $1,000 a minute of footage that you want and I said but it’s for, you know, an exhibit at a local historical societies. “Oh, okay well if it’s for that. We’ll send you our reel.” So, I think that when people know it’s, you know, you’re not trying to sell it, you’re not trying to put it on your Facebook page or, you know it’s a community. It’s for public history. Then I’ve generally found people to be very helpful and accommodating.

23:13

I’m very glad to hear that, that used to not be the case, way back in the day so I’m very glad that’s been your experience. What’s the one thing you wish the general public knew about archives?

23:26

Think I wish that the public just knew how much was there. And, and what an enormous resource it is, you know, I’ve got to think for teachers, for writers, for obviously for any kind of research, but I think people don’t necessarily know like I even working in media, for no more than a decade I, I didn’t have any idea so I think just for people to know what’s there, and how much is contained in them, you know, in one oral history. You know, you find things sometimes like a little piece of an interview that has nothing to do with bigger picture but it is sometimes the most valuable piece of that whole searches for people to realize what what’s out there. You know that, that we don’t normally see but that if you go looking, you might have to look a lot, but maybe with the help of an archivist. That it’s there.

24:39

Excellent, thank you so much for that answer, I think that that was such a great way to put it for us in terms of like that is something to focus on making sure that people know when that we exist and to just how much is there, and that we want you to use that kind of thing. Yeah. Excellent. Circling back to your work. And the the projects that you have done, what has been some of the feedback you’ve received, and general reception that kind of thing?

25:10

So generally good, but the one thing that has been consistent, is that people are always surprised that you can pull a storyline, like a five minute you can make a five minute film out of, you know, an hour and a half, two hour two and a half hour oral history or out of a collection that’s you know, 15 hours of oral history 20 hours of oral history that you can pull you can, you know, say I’m going to do this theme or I’m going to and you can pull a tight knit. Powerful story compelling story out of that. I think people in my experience tend to think, oh yeah, there’s an oral history on “X” and so it’s going to be everything about X, but when you, when you look for that one specific theme or that one specific subject that you can pull, you can pull a really compelling story that maybe has to do with the greater whole, and maybe doesn’t. But people are always surprised, in my experience to see that, you know, it’s like pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

26:31

And speaking of your work and of yourself, where can people find you online and connect with you?

26:39

So, my, my website is voicesstorytelling.com, and that has my email address on it it’s got my portfolio on it it’s got my email address on it, and more about my work on it so it’s voicesstorytelling.com.

27:07

Thank you for spelling that out and we will try our best. Right. I tracked I think so. I’m expecting it to be that hard to spell it’s not hard to spell when

27:18

I type it. But anyway, it’s voicesstorytelling.com, and the company’s Voices Storytelling and Media.

27:29

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us or anything? I didn’t ask that you would like to answer?

27:35

I would just say, I’m happy to be a resource or consultant with, if any, you know, if people have archives, archival material that they’re thinking of using, I’m happy to talk to anybody you know, not for any fee or anything, but just to a brainstorming session. Or, if somebody doesn’t have ideas but has this collection and wants to talk about how could they use it. I’m always happy to brainstorm, or do informal consulting to help give some shape and guidance if that’s helpful to anyone. Please feel free to reach out.

28:20

Thank you so much for that offer I imagine that would be particularly helpful, and I’m mentioning this for people listening not, not so much yourself, but you know, bringing in grants are seeking donor funding, sometimes connecting with an expert like yourself and even just getting like a one page. Here’s what Alexandra would do if we get the money…

28:43

Right, right, well they know I’m absolutely happy to help with that I have written grants myself I’ve received grants myself. And I am happy to give some shape and form to what you could do with your archives, if that’s helpful in anyone’s grant proposal writing.

29:02

Absolutely, yes. So, people who are watching slash reading definitely take Alexandra up on this offer. Well thank you so much for your time today, Alexandra. Is there anything else before I formally close our interview?

29:12

Um, no, I am really think very highly of archivists and archives and all that you do to preserve our history. And I know I would like to get those voices and get those materials out there. And so that’s, that’s it. I mean, please feel free to call and brainstorm or, you know, anytime I’m happy to do it and I’m so happy to be here today and to have found this connection.

Art as a Representation of Native American Resiliency: Samantha Manz on the Minnesota Historical Society’s Native American Artist-in-Residence Program

This is the latest entry in our Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work. In this post, COPA Member and Archivist, Angie Piccolo interviews Samantha Manz (Cherokee Nation)  about the Minnesota Historical Society’s Native American Artist-in-Residence program (NAAIR.) Manz is the collections associate for the Minnesota Historical Society’s Native American Collections and program associate for NAAIR.

AP: Please tell us about your program.

SM: The Native American Artist-in-Residence program is funded by the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies and we work with Native American artists from North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. They don’t have to be tribal enrolled members, but they do have to be affiliated with a tribal nation. When I say artists, we’re not working with fine arts artists, we’re working with people who are learning about traditional arts, such as beadwork and quillwork.

This year we have an artist who is learning how to make traditional Dakota dugout canoes and birchbark canoes. A few years ago, Denise Lajimodiere (Ojibwe) learned how to birchbark bite, which had almost been lost. So we try to work with artists who are working with the type of traditional art form that is almost lost to the community.  

In a pre-Covid world, we would have two artists-in-residents, but this year we have three artists who are studying jingle dresses, canoes, and quillwork. In addition to the artist-in-residency, we have the Encouragement Grant and this supports younger and upcoming artists. The Encouragement Grant allows them to visit the Minnesota Historical Society Collections and buy supplies.. We try to provide a lot of feedback for artists too, because a lot of them are community members and applying to the NAAiR program can seem intimidating and discouraging. And if they are rejected, then they won’t want to reapply and that’s not our goal. 


Framed square birchbark biting design of a large floral flanked by many dragonflies. Made by Denise Lajimodiere, Turtle Mountain Ojibwe, in 2015-16 during her time as a Minnesota Historical Society Native American Artist-in-Residence. 2016.108.7 (Accession Number)

Over the years,  we have acquired pieces from different artists. We allocate $7,500 per artist for MNHS Collections to acquire contemporary items.  For example, April Stone (Ojibwe) is a black ash basket weaver and we only have one piece from her in our collections. She made a traditional Ojibwe black ash burial basket. We were able to buy several smaller pieces from other artists. So it depends on the artist. 

Additionally, part of the artist’s contract includes public programming. In the past, artists have conducted three public programming events, but this year we are only requiring two public programs. Artists can host public programs on their reservations, community centers, and at MNHS.

When people come to these events, we have them answer a few questions of what they learn and then we keep track of all of that. Right now, the program is shifting to thinking less about the artist’s interactions with the community and more of how we’re impacting the community on a whole. Sometimes for artists, working with their community means taking on an apprentice and teaching them. So we’ve had a few artists in the past who’ve had an apprentice who’s learned from them and came with them to look at our Native American collections.

Sometimes the artists go and look at other museums, like the Minneapolis Institute of Art. One year we had an artist who went to the American Indian Museum in DC, and looked at their collections. We try to combine collections research with traditional Native American art. So they’re learning from the collections, we’re learning from them, and then they’re going out and teaching the rest of their community.

 AP: What are some challenges that are unique to this program?

SM: I think right now, especially with Covid, it’s harder. In the past we’ve been able to go out to community members, like different reservations in the area or in South and North Dakota, and do application workshops and answer questions, which is harder to do in Covid. So that’s one challenge and the other challenge is whether or not we’re able to support them with what we have in our collection. So I think those are the two biggest challenges. Also having to reject artists even if their work is beautiful and we love it. It’s harder to get them to reapply, especially because they’re community artists versus fine art artists who are used to applying for such big grants. So we’re trying to bridge that gap between what’s a community artist and how we define artists.

AP: What do you like most about your job?


Table accent fully beaded with plants indigenous to the Great Lakes region. Made by Minnesota Historical Society’s Native American Artist-in-Residence Jessica Gokey, Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. 2015.35.1 (Accession Number)

SM:  I really love interacting with the artist when they come in and look at our collections, the things that we learn from them, and what they learn from us. I think it’s a really great opportunity to see how these objects are living in a lot of ways because there’s so much knowledge within objects. Particularly with 3D objects, there’s so much cultural knowledge within them, as well as traditional knowledge.

The artists are able to learn from objects in ways that non-Native artists can’t. That goes for really any artist who comes in to look at our collections. They’re able to teach us things about what they know from their community, and then we add it to our database. I think it really shows that the objects and collections are living and we can learn from them in the same way that they can learn from us.

AP: What are some of your goals for the future of this program?

SM: I think in a lot of ways, how can we continue to help grow this program? What do we want it to look like in the future? Do we want it to continue to grow? How do we want to capture community development? I would love to see more work within the Twin Cities as well, and particularly with the youth. I think we have so many great Native organizations and in the Twin Cities where we can work on combining art and sovereignty and getting people more involved on a day-to-day basis versus just having the artist. I would love to do more community engagement with it.

AP: What do you hope people (both the artists and audience) take away from this program?

SM: For artists, it’s great to see them take this grant and then continue to apply for other grants and have other amazing opportunities and showcase their work in other museums and continue to show in contemporary and more mainstream institutions. I think it’s great to see Native artists participate in some of these mainstream museums that we don’t see and for people to see native artists on a daily basis. For the Native people who feel disconnected, they are able to take these opportunities to learn and grow in their communities and cultures and reconnect with them. 

For non-native people to be able to interact with Native artists and learn more about native history, Native arts and see that on a daily basis and see that represented fully. There’s all these representations of Natives as stoic and daunting. I think having those representations challenged is great and to see the vibrancy of the material culture really shows how resilient Native communities are.

Link to the webpage: Native American Artist-in-Residence Program | Minnesota Historical Society (mnhs.org)

Advocacy for Archives, History, and the Humanities.

Bryan Whitledge is Archivist / Manager for University Digital Records for the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University. He currently serves as vice-chair of the Society of American Archivist’s Committee on Public Policy (SAA-COPP).

Dr. Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress, and Bryan Whitledge, SAA Committee on Public Policy, at the 2020 National Humanities Advocacy Day events.

Have you ever considered how archives are funded? – we are talking about a true assessment of where the dollars are coming from to support archives and enable all of the work to collect, preserve, and make historical documents accessible? Chances are, it is a twisted knot of all sorts of tangled threads. And chances are, one of those threads, if we chase it to the end, involves some sort of federally backed public funding. Maybe it was a one-off grant for a small preservation project in the past couple years. Or maybe, years ago, there was major building renovation helped by a federal matching grant. Or maybe an archives is home to an ongoing multi-year project employing several people. Federal spending surely does not make up the bulk of archives expenditures at institutions across the country, but it does account for millions of dollars each year. And these dollars are often the difference between a particular project seeing the light of day or sitting on the shelf for another time.

So how does this money make it into the federal budget to be doled out to archives? Well, it doesn’t magically fall out of the sky. Nor does Uncle Sam have a particular soft spot for archives, history, and the humanities. The robustness of the programs that support the work of archivists and our researchers is because of the advocacy efforts of people across the country—people who, for generations, have worked to inform legislators about the importance of supporting archives, history, and humanities-related projects.

National Humanities Advocacy Day

For several years, professionals and students from across the country have traveled to Washington, DC, each March for a major humanities advocacy effort. In 2021, everything went virtual, but the goal is still the same: advocate at the federal level, with a core focus on increased funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). As those who work in humanities-related fields know, the NEH isn’t the only federal program that supports humanities learning, teaching, and research. For this reason, the organizers and advocates also include an archives-specific prong to their advocacy agenda: increased funding for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). This is National Humanities Advocacy Day.

The name, “National Humanities Advocacy Day,” is a little misleading – it is not just a single day, but rather a major event put on by the staff of the National Humanities Alliance (NHA) and affiliated organizations. In the lead up to the event, NHA staff do much of the legwork of coordinating the advocates, scheduling meetings with legislative staff members (and, on occasion, legislators), gathering research on each legislator, and producing the concise information handouts for advocates to pass along to congressional offices.

In the days leading up the day of advocacy, advocates from each state are introduced to each other and they attend sessions to learn about legislative advocacy and the major messages NHA is asking advocates to hammer home. The NHA staff also provide advocates with research tools to find information that can be helpful when talking to a legislative staffer. For example, if a group of advocates is trying to speak to the local impact of NEH funding, there is no better source than the lists of grants awarded to a particular representative’s district. When an advocate can tell a Congressional office that the NEH has distributed $5 million of grant funding to seven different organizations in the district over the past 10 years, that gives a legislator something to think about in terms of the impact on their constituents.

In addition to information gathering and message honing, the days before Advocacy Day are used to fire up the participants with an inspiring keynote address. In 2020, the keynote, which included a special shout out to the archivists in the room (three of us), was delivered by Dr. Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress.

After a good night’s sleep, it is time for the big day – a day that could have upwards of ten meetings with different congressional offices. Advocates head to their meetings armed with their messages, their packets of information to leave with staffers, and their “I’m an Archives Advocate” pin (or another humanities-related slogan). Each meeting centers on the same kernel of information: funding for archives, humanities, and history is of critical importance.

But each meeting is a little different. For the legislator whose Facebook profile photo shows their family aboard a historic tall ship that sails the Great Lakes, maritime history is the ticket. For the staff member who mentions finding a copy of their ancestors’ naturalization certificates in the National Archives, family history is the angle. For the office displaying flags from all of the branches of the military, this is the occasion to talk about the NEH-funded programs to collect veterans’ stories as well as the services offered by NARA to support veterans.

So, what is the goal of walking miles back and forth between congressional office buildings for a bunch of 30-minute meetings with staff members who have hours of meetings each day (or clicking links for back-to-back-to-back Zoom or GoToMeeting video chats)? In some cases, the goal is action—asking a legislator to sign on to a letter of support. In other cases, the goal is getting on the legislative staff members’ radars during the budget drafting process so that they keep an eye out for archives, history, and the humanities in the proposed budgets. In yet other cases, it is about forging a relationship with a congressional staffer, someone who you can call on when there is a matter of urgency—and someone we can help when they need an archives and humanities expert.

Dr. Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress, and Barbara Teague, Executive Director of the Council of State Archivists, at the 2020 National Humanities Advocacy Day events.

SAA and Public Policy Advocacy

National Humanities Advocacy Day also allows archivists to connect and build strong relationships with our humanities advocacy partners. This past year, as the COVID-19 public health emergency took hold, SAA asked members to complete a series of NHA surveys about the needs of archivists and the impact of the humanities in our everyday lives. Last year, as Congress went to work crafting emergency funding bills in response to the pandemic, NHA staff used the information gleaned from these surveys to ensure that the $75 million for the NEH in the CARES Act would specifically include archive. While over 80% of NEH CARES grant applicants were denied because of the overwhelming need for emergency support for cultural organizations across the country, dozens of archives jobs were preserved by the funding and the Council of State Archivists received a grant that helped CoSA weather the crisis.

This year, two members of SAA’s Committee on Public Policy—Jess Farrell and me—were among the contingent of archivists who joined in the National Humanities Advocacy Day efforts. We show up to support our state advocacy groups and to offer an archivist’s point of view to the conversations. There is no shortage of work to be done and many members of SAA will continue to team up with our partners to advocate for archives and the humanities at the federal level.

But this will not be enough. Advocacy for archives at all levels of government will be imperative for archives to survive the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. For those who want to be more involved in telling policymakers of the importance of archives, SAA has many members who are happy to provide archivists with more information and guidance. You can start by checking out the public policy advocacy resources on the SAA site or contacting a member of SAA-COPP.

The Intersection of Archives and Natural History

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

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

KC: Please tell us about your organization.

New Guinea bird specimens.

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

KC: What kinds of collections do you preserve?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archives + Audiences: Andretta Schellinger, Historian and Author

 

QgPHFj_Y

Andretta Schellinger of Schellinger Research. Photograph courtesy of Schellinger Research.

This is the latest entry in our Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work.  In this post, we feature COPA member Rachael Woody’s conversation with Andretta Schellinger and her experiences using historical materials to write her books.

 

Andretta Schellinger graduated from Pacific University with a Bachelor’s in History and Sociology before attending Hawaii Pacific and receiving a Master’s in Military and Diplomatic studies. While in Graduate school, she received an ORISE Fellowship to work in the records room at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command on Hickam Airforce Base, now known as the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). After leaving JPAC, she used her experience to start Schellinger Research, a company based on the belief that history should be shared through the digital and physical world and actively works to build the bridge between them.

RW: First, tell us a little more about From Knights to Skulls and The Men Beyond the Stones.

AS: “From Knights to Skulls” is a look at how culture, both military and civilian, affected the artwork, or nose art, that was placed on planes from World War I through Vietnam. It digs deeper than what was painted into the why’s and who of the artwork. While the book is out of publication, McFarland & Co have republished it as “Military Nose Artwork”. The new book is slightly different and updated, as it has a chapter on current conflicts and what the future holds for nose artwork.

“The Men Beyond the Stones” came about due to my never-ending search for information, particularly the who and why of something. I wanted to know who the men were, how they died, and why they were memorialized. It goes deeper than just a snapshot into their lives, as it looks at the creator of the structure, and the one individual who was from the county and died, but was not included.

2020-03-28

Books written by Andretta Schellinger, author and historian. Photograph courtesy of Schellinger Research.

RW: What inspired you to write these books and use historical materials?

AS: “From Knights to Skulls” was my graduate thesis and what inspired me for it was History of Aviation and Airpower, a graduate class I took. I didn’t know what to do my final paper on, and while talking to the professor he suggested Aircraft Nose Art. I was instantly hooked, and during my Artist, Imagery and War I continued with the progression of Aircraft Nose Art. While sadly the professor who introduced me to the topic left the university before I started working on my Thesis, I pushed through and really began to appreciate culture and the way that culture and history are intertwined. Historical documents for that book kind of fell into my lap, especially nose art imagery.

As for “Men Beyond the Stones,” when I first moved to Oregon after living in Hawaii for graduate school, I travelled to Maryhill’s Stonehenge, a fully built representation of what the English Stonehenge may have looked like centuries ago. On the inner circle’s pillars are bronze plaques representing the men who died from Klickitat County during World War I. I wanted to know more about the men other than their name, birth date and death date. Using my knowledge gained in part at JPAC, I started to research. I relied on the military records to give me a good view of what their life was like during service, but for their child and young adulthood I used newspaper articles.

RW: You’ve written several books and articles, can you tell us more about your process and what goes into creating these written works?

AS: When I narrow my focus to a specific topic that I want to research, I make sure to always look for information that was already published. For both of my books, there was not a lot of information published that looked at the things the way I looked at them. For example, there are many books on military nose art, but those that do look at the culture side, tend to skim over that, and focus mainly on the pictures of the planes and the art. Those are great for the general audience, but not what I had questions about.

Or there could be information out there, but not in one location. Like with “Men Beyond the Stones”. There are many websites that briefly touch on the memorial aspect of the stones, but they’re not comprehensive, because the writers were not looking at those specifically, but more as an addendum to their intended focus.

After that I gain the documents I need, be it newspaper articles, military records, or other primary documentation to assist me with my research, I start writing. I am not one of those authors who outlines a book down to specifics and then essentially fills in the outline. Some authors use that method and it works great for them. I am the type that starts typing out what I want to say, with my source material near so I can grab it when I need an answer for something. While it works for me, I do not recommend this technique for everyone.

RW: How do you choose which materials to inform your books?

AS: That really depends on what I am writing about. For information concerning individuals like my current project, or “Men Beyond the Stones” I seek out information about the individual. For projects that are broader or that I haven’t narrowed the focus on, I tend to go broad with the materials and them slim down as I get narrower on my focus. I cannot even begin to count how many resources I started with for “From Knights to Skulls” because I had no idea where it was going to land. As I narrowed down both the culture and art side, I was able to remove sources that were not pertinent.

I believe in including everything that I use, no matter how seemingly unimportant it is, because, especially with “From Knights to Skulls,” it was intended as higher level reading material, and I wanted to give future researchers all of the tools that I had when I wrote it. I do not believe in hiding or leaving things out because ‘I found them’, I am a firm believer in source sharing whenever possible.

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

 

ScanningSetup

Portable scanning station setup with overhead scanner. Photograph courtesy of Schellinger Research.

AS: When I worked for JPAC, I spent a lot of time at NARA scanning military documents for use to help identify remains brought back by our teams. I remember the first time I walked in, bright eyed and bushy tailed thinking I was going to solve all the problems with my laptop and scanner. Only to be told by the archivist, who I later learned had been there for 15 years and became well acquainted with, that I could not bring in my laptop or scanner until I had taken a test. There I was, about to take on the 1500 files that I had requested of them not a month earlier, having to leave the room to take a test. The archivist personally handed me the test with a look, that I could only describe as pity. Awhile later, she handed me my archive license and told me to be careful with the documents. Off I skipped back to my laptop to start processing and scanning the documents.

 

RW: How have archives helped to inform your work?

AS: In some cases, the archival documents have inspired my work, in that I have found something while searching for something else that has taken me down a rabbit hole. That rabbit hole is usually deep and consists of me having books and documents everywhere in my office. For example, while working on “Men Beyond the Stones” I learned about a unit that I hadn’t heard about before. That has since led me to start researching, and I have a book in process.

Most times, what the archives do for me is to help broaden my subject matter. Sometimes I get hyper focused on one thing, and while reading the documents, I find small branches that can help to not only fill in gaps in my knowledge, and the knowledge I wish to impart in my work, but also to fill out the work itself. One good example is that I hadn’t looked at the use of propaganda as much as I should have when I was working on “Knights to Skulls”, but when I started looking into culture, one thing that kept coming back around was the use of propaganda to manipulate.

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

AS: I still have some soldiers that I can’t find images for from “Men Beyond The Stones” and while the book is published, I still look to hopefully find that long lost photo. It’s the little voice in the back of my head saying, “you should have looked harder.”

I am currently working on a book about the Lane County Spanish American War deceased, so I am starting to search for those individuals. I doubt there will be many images, but you never know until you look.

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

 

OverheadScanner

A CZUR overhead scanner used to safely scan materials. Photograph courtesy of Schellinger Research.

AS: One of the biggest barriers that I have discovered is the lack of digitization, which is one of the reasons I started Schellinger Research. It is often impractical to fly around the US or even the World to find that one piece of paper that may make or break your writing. Jobs, families, financial constraints all play a part in creating a barrier for some researchers.

 

For this reason, I’m a big proponent of digitizing and, at the very least, documenting what a collection contains. That way researchers can view the collections from their home, or a local library. I feel this will vastly broaden the collective knowledge available and it will give a voice to those who may under other circumstances be unable to share their resource with the world.

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

AS: It’s not just large nondescript buildings that have workers wearing glasses with chains. It’s small archives in the back of museums, it’s cubbies at libraries that are full of documents you can’t check out, it’s in your grandmother’s’ attic (we all have that grandmother who has collected everything about something). Archives can be everywhere and of every size.

Also, archivists don’t just love the material they are processing, but they love sharing it with others. I have had archivists who were giddy with excitement to show me something they found while digging for something I asked for. And in some cases, digging is exactly what happens, because there are not enough days, man hours, or people to process all the archival material that’s being made on a daily basis. Be kind to the archivists in your life, they are the keepers of the materials you may need.

RW: What are some of the reactions you’ve received by writing and publishing these written works?

AS: The reaction from “Knights to Skulls”, and its new incarnation “Aircraft Nose Art” has been quite mixed. Some people love how I got into the culture behind the art, others hate that I didn’t add more images of the planes themselves. Some thought that I did a great job connecting culture to the aircraft art, others felt they could have done it better themselves.

For “Men Beyond the Stones”, the response has been almost universally positive. From people not knowing about the reason Stonehenge is there, to others really appreciating that I looked at it from the service members point of view.

While not all reviews, both positive or negative, are helpful, the ones that are help me to become a better writer, historian, and overall more aware of those around me and how my work affects them.

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.

Archives + Audiences: Dan Lindsay and Ben Piner on “LA 92” (Part 2)

“LA 92” theatrical and TV release poster.

This is the latest entry in our Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work.  In this post, we feature Part 2 of COPA member Nick Pavlik’s conversation with Dan Lindsay and Ben Piner about their work on the acclaimed documentary LA 92, which examines the 1992 Rodney King protests in Los Angeles entirely through archival footage.  Lindsay co-directed the film, while Piner was a producer and archival researcher for the project. Remarks have been edited for length and clarity from a transcript of the original telephone interview.

See Part 1 of the interview here.

NP: Are there any other major challenges that stand out to you, separate from the ones you’ve already referenced?

BP: Just from the acquisition and licensing side, the one that comes to mind was when, about halfway or maybe three quarters of the way through the post-production, we got wind that CBS had applied a new restriction on raw footage. And with the emphasis that we had on raw footage, that we had already cut in minutes and minutes of that content [into the film], that was a major alarm for us.  And we ended up having to take some very significant proactive measures in order to try and claw back the content that we had taken for granted as being available, and pay them for it and include it in the film. I just remember, in actually clearing footage [generally], there were many little things that could threaten a piece of footage’s viability. And when you start to think about that over the course of an entirely archival film, it was just a real bear to get it out the door.

NP: Yes, I can imagine!

DL: Now I think about the “aha” moments. When I think of the progress that has been made, in terms of digitizing stuff and making things searchable on databases online, I don’t think there is a world in which we would have been able to make this film fifteen years ago. It just wouldn’t have been possible to pay to create screeners for all these things, and to be able to search the archives the way that we have. It’s something that TJ [Martin] and I have talked about. I think this form of documentary filmmaking is going to just become more and more prevalent as technology progresses. Not only on the side of us as community members [increasingly] filming our own lives, but also in terms of being able to digitize a lot of this stuff, and make it searchable in databases so it’s not so cumbersome to try to go through what exists. I think that’s really exciting as a filmmaker. So, hats off to the archivists in the world that do the work to actually preserve that stuff.

BP: That’s a good takeaway too. The level of appreciation you feel when an archivist can deliver a moment in the archive for the film. It’s a lot of years between [the creation of footage] and making sure that it’s something that can be sent in a WeTransfer link, for instance. We try not to take it for granted. It’s an interesting combination of being frustrated and also being grateful for what exists.

NP: That’s certainly gratifying to hear as an archivist, and I certainly hope we see more films of this type and of this caliber. They really are shining a light on that raw footage, things that have never actually seen any commercial broadcast before and really get to the heart of the stories. The footage in your film is really disturbing, powerful, and heartwarming all at the same time. And it’s just really amazing stuff that I feel most people have never seen before in relation to the Rodney King events.

DL: The other thing that comes to mind, in terms of what the future looks like and these types of films, is that I think there are going to be interesting moral questions that will present themselves. In terms of, like you said, things that were not broadcast, moments in between interviews, when maybe the subject isn’t really aware that they’re [on film].  I think now we have a better awareness of when we’re being filmed and when we’re not. There’s less of an understanding of privacy. But when you go back to something in the mid ’90s or late ’90s, and it is that raw, really human moment that says something about us as human beings but maybe that particular person wouldn’t want to be used.  I think there are going to be a lot of interesting questions that will arise out of those decisions that both filmmakers and archivists will have to make, making judgments in that regard.

NP: Yes, absolutely. In the latter half of the twentieth century, up until the social media explosion, video and film were heavily in use as a medium of course, but as you said, there wasn’t that expectation necessarily that the product of that film or video would ever be made public.  Whereas now, it’s almost a given that we’re all just expecting, “certainly this is going to wind up online somehow.”

BP: One last thing – just thinking about what made the film work in the way it did, I think we’d be remiss not to bring up the role that the score played and how it was married with the archival footage in a way that had a lot of intention.  The composers and directors worked really hard on that piece of it.  The footage itself was compelling, but I think without the score to accompany it, it was a really different experience, obviously. That’s true for any film, but I think it’s especially true for LA 92.

NP: That’s a great point. The score was fantastic.

BP: It augmented the archive in a way that I didn’t really appreciate until I saw it in its finished form.

NP: Do you have any tips or advice for other documentarians or filmmakers utilizing archival footage in their films?

BP: I would just go back to, from the acquisition standpoint, just [building] relationships, thinking of these archives and the people who run them as people and treating them respectfully and having gratitude for what they’re doing, needing to go out of their way, of what their normal day might be, to field these kinds of requests.  At the end of the day, that just paid off over the long haul.  And I think that if relationships are one of the top pieces – instead of just thinking about giving me what I want, thinking about it more in the terms of collaboration with the archives – I feel like that’s appreciated, and it’s this build on itself to a place where you can get further than you could if you didn’t prioritize it.

DL: I think on a creative side, the one thing that pops up in my mind is having personal responsibility for what you’re going to use, to not use stuff just because it’s provocative, and to know that your duty is to tell a story that is hopefully enlightening something about us as people, not just for shock value.  It’s irresponsible if that’s all you care about. Again, some of this footage is captured without people necessarily knowing that it’s going to be later used in a film.  Just keep that in mind as you’re progressing forward.

NP: Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience doing archival research or using archival footage in LA 92?

DL: I think the recognition of the people that go out of their way to save things and preserve things, because the history of our civilization is wrapped up in our artifacts. And to be able to have more and more of those primary resources, I think, just allows us to learn more about ourselves, to hopefully have our history inform the current time that we live in.  I think the recognition of the people that do that is really important.  I had that appreciation before we made the film, but it’s definitely grown as a result of making it.


Dan Lindsay is an Oscar and Emmy winning director of documentary films. Along with his directing partner TJ Martin, Lindsay’s films include Undefeated, which won the 2012 Academy Award for Best Feature Length Documentary, and LA 92, winner of the 2017 Prime-time Emmy for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking. They are currently in production on a feature length documentary on the life and career of Tina Turner, which is scheduled for release from HBO in 2020.

Ben Piner is a documentary producer and archival researcher. In addition to LA 92, his most recent credits include the Netflix Documentary Series’ Flint Town and Dogs.  He is currently co-producing an upcoming HBO feature-length documentary on Tina Turner.

Archives + Audiences: Dan Lindsay and Ben Piner on “LA 92” (Part 1)

“LA 92” theatrical and TV release poster.

This is the latest entry in our Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work.  In this post, we feature Part 1 of COPA member Nick Pavlik’s conversation with Dan Lindsay and Ben Piner about their work on the acclaimed documentary LA 92, which examines the 1992 Rodney King protests in Los Angeles entirely through archival footage.  Lindsay co-directed the film, while Piner was a producer and archival researcher for the project. Remarks have been edited for length and clarity from a transcript of the original telephone interview.

NP: What made you decide to do a film about the Rodney King protests?

DL: The idea of the film was brought to us by the producers, Simon Chen and Jonathan Chen.  They had set up the project with National Geographic and, when they came to us, there was an idea of doing a look back. The twenty-fifth anniversary of the civil unrest was coming up, and the thought was to revisit that moment. Simon and Jonathan approached TJ [Martin] and I to direct the film. TJ and I took some time to think about it, and eventually came back and said we’d be interested in doing it, but we would want to make it using exclusively archived material and not do any original interviews or shoot any new footage.

If I remember correctly, there was some discussion of a “plan B” of doing interviews in case it wasn’t possible to make the film out of just archives. Obviously we’re not the first people to do something like that, it’s a difficult thing to do. But I don’t think TJ and I had ever considered that back-up plan to be viable. We were going to make this film the way we wanted to make it.

NP: Following up on that, what was it that made you want to make the film entirely out of archival footage and dispense with creating any new footage or doing present-day interviews?

DL: There were multiple reasons. One was to allow the audience to be back in that moment of time and not have contemporary interviews in retrospect that would possibly create a distance for the audience between this event and their experience of watching it. We also didn’t want such a complicated topic – not only the civil unrest itself, but the events leading up to it and all of the underlying issues that led to it – boiling that down to a ninety-minute film felt a little irresponsible to us. So, we wanted to take that moment, the footage that existed, and present it in a way that people could come into it unfiltered and hopefully draw their own conclusions or spur a conversation.

We also come from a background of what’s referred to as vérité filmmaking, or direct cinema, where we are going out and just being a “fly on a wall,” and then putting together a film from that. So we thought that if we could think of these archives as if these were videographers that we had sent out to help us shoot this event while it was happening, it would be like making a film like that. Essentially, you shoot what you can shoot, and then you try to create the narrative and the edit. That felt like a way to be able to do that with a historical film.

NP: Regarding all the archival footage that you used, where did you end up finding all of the footage? And how did you go about securing the permissions to use the footage?

BP: We started out, I think, where most productions like that would start out, regardless of whether it was going to be archival only. And that led us along a path that we continued on for the duration – it was months of time – of trying to find content. I think along the way, when we were in Los Angeles, we also had the luxury of contacting some of the people who had recorded stuff on their own outside of the news entities here. And that was one of the more interesting parts of it, and I think we got some content from people who were literally down at Florence and Normandie [Avenues] filming. You can get some stories from them that inform the way the footage might get used as well.

But we had a relationship with one local news company called KTTV and KCOP.  They were part of the Fox Family that we were a part of with National Geographic, and that opened the door – a pretty significant door – to getting in there and getting some air checks, just bits and pieces of the way that archive has been retained by a guy named Mitch, who was a really diligent archivist and still is there. He has taken a lot of time over the years to make his archive date-searchable, and you can come to him, time after time, with different requests and he would always find what was available and send it back out.

With all of these, you need to get the information about what’s licensable and the rates, and what’s restricted and how it’s restricted – is raw footage restricted? Every local place like that, and the national places too, all have different sets of rules that apply to how the footage can be incorporated. So it was a lot to keep track of, and we just kept at it, chipping away. You’d see something in one clip that would make you want to go check into something else. We often would see moments that would be clipped, or were somehow cut away at a moment that we wanted to see more of. It’s a lot of following back up and just bugging people to look again, to look deeper, to turn these people who are in charge of these archives into collaborators. It was a lot of relationship building and maintaining relationships with these folks, over the course of months. And you really do have to ask them a lot.

DL: We went to the “usual suspects” at the beginning. What they sent back was the standard clips that a lot of people like; it’s almost like the greatest hits, so to speak. It did take a while to get a lot of the people – the archivists, the different networks – to wrap their heads around that what we really wanted was this raw material. And that’s not something that is often desired. [Usually when] somebody’s doing a historical piece on anything, they can just say, “Give me a thirty-minute reel of the best stuff,” but we were really looking for the stuff in between that.

NP: That’s very interesting, because that happens a lot as an archivist or working in archives, when somebody has materials they’re interested in donating, for instance, they’ll [often] bring out what they think are the “greatest hits” among the things they have to show as a sampling. A lot of times those’ll be artifacts, say, a pistol that was used in a famous [historical] battle or something. But knowing the types of things that other researchers are going to be [more] interested in, you’re really looking, as an archivist, for that raw material.  So I really relate to that.

DL: To use your analogy of the pistol that was used in some battle, that stuff – the “significant” stuff – exists out in the world because lay people understand that it’s significant. But it’s the everyday stuff that doesn’t seem as significant that is really, when telling the full story, the hardest stuff to find, and it’s the fabric that connects the dots between the real big moments that we tend to as a society.  These things get filtered down into bullet points.

NP: Yes, exactly. And tragically, so often that’s the stuff people end up throwing away because they don’t realize the significance of it.

DL: Right. For sure.

NP: Going off something that you had mentioned – the things that, when you were doing archival research, you would see in footage that would really interest you, but then [the footage] would cut out, and you’d try to go looking for where that [footage] picked up amongst the raw materials. Were there things that you were hoping to find in your research that you ended up never finding?

BP: The first thing that comes to mind that falls in that category, I think, was news content, specifically from the Spanish-speaking community here in Los Angeles. We looked very hard and made a lot of calls to, I think it was Univision and [some] other places that we were trying to source content. We were literally on the phone with folks in Mexico, at one point, trying to see if their main location in Mexico could have retained any of the broadcast. We were able to get some radio, I think, that was in Spanish and a little bit more and that POV was addressed a bit, and we wanted more of that. We wanted more options from that. So I think what we included, ultimately, was from a very limited stash of content that could have been included. It’s always tough.

There was an interesting situation with a guy named Reggie, who, similar to a lot of these folks at the time, had stuff go out to different channels.  He had done a deal right after everything had happened, and was a little confused about whether he retained the rights to his footage. He had seen bits and pieces of the stuff that had been included in the hard copy. Ultimately, we ended up finding out that he did have rights to his footage, and he had the original tape. That was an instance when we had a glimpse of something that was pretty interesting, because he was right at Florence and Normandie. He was down there right at the tail end of some of the most famous violent scenes that made their way out. And the raw tape that he ended up getting ended up being pretty powerful and we were able to include it in the film. So, they weren’t all in vain, but there were definitely some pursuits that just led to nowhere.

NP: Continuing in that vein, was there anything about the archival research process that surprised you, or did you have any major “aha” moments in the research process?

DL: Just from direct insight, I think there was a bit of naïveté on our part in thinking that more stuff would be archived in its original form. Just knowing what is required on our side when we deliver something, in terms of deliverables to a network, all the different versions [we make], making sure that there’s a textless version and there’s a version with the audio split out on one track, etc. You make all that stuff that you give to these places, and then when you go to the archive you find that they only have the main version with the titles all over it.  That’s the only thing for me that was surprising, just how there wasn’t more raw material out there.

BP: I can tail up on that too, just to say that I had never really pushed as hard on archives as we did for this film, and I guess I ended up being surprised at how much more there was sometimes after having been told that everything had been spent as it related to what we’d asked for. A level of persistence, in that sense, really did pay off over the course [of the project]. But you really have to have the time in order to allow these people to do what they’re doing and to go radio silent for a month, and then all of a sudden they’re back and they’re providing interesting content again.

[Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview with Dan Lindsay and Ben Piner!]


Dan Lindsay is an Oscar and Emmy winning director of documentary films. Along with his directing partner TJ Martin, Lindsay’s films include Undefeated, which won the 2012 Academy Award for Best Feature Length Documentary, and LA 92, winner of the 2017 Prime-time Emmy for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking. They are currently in production on a feature length documentary on the life and career of Tina Turner, which is scheduled for release from HBO in 2020.

Ben Piner is a documentary producer and archival researcher. In addition to LA 92, his most recent credits include the Netflix Documentary Series’ Flint Town and Dogs.  He is currently co-producing an upcoming HBO feature-length documentary on Tina Turner.

Archives + Audiences: Dan Lamothe on the “Letters from War” Podcast

This is the latest entry in our Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work.  In this post, ArchivesAWARE brings you an interview with Washington Post journalist Dan Lamothe on his work on WaPo‘s  Letters from Wara podcast about the World War II combat experiences of the Eyde brothers of Rockford, Illinois.  The podcast is centered around the four Eyde brothers’ letters – one for almost every day of the war – which are read by voice actors who are themselves military veterans.

Logo for the “Letters from War” podcast, courtesy of The Washington Post.

AA: How did the Eyde brothers’ letters come to your attention?

DL: The Eyde letters first came to The Washington Post’s attention through Joseph Alosi, an Arizona businessman who bought them at auction some years ago. As we detailed in the Letters From War podcast and complementary newspaper special section, he was interested in seeing whether it would be possible to find related family members. I made a trip to Arizona in 2016 to view the letters at a pizza shop at which Joe’s wife is a manager, and spent hours going through them. He agreed to loan them to The Post afterward so we could do additional research and put together the project.

AA: What was it like to see and read the letters for the first time?

DL: I found it stirring. For one, their condition and appearance immediately makes them feel like a part of history. The pages of many of them are tissue-paper thin, and the envelopes bear the markings of Army Post Office (APO)  processing used to deliver mail to the troops at that time. Some of the letters are mundane, with basic descriptions of routine life in the military. Others are gripping, especially when Frank Eyde describes the U.S. invasion of Tulagi, a Pacific island, and Ralph Eyde describes being wounded both on the Alaskan island of Attu and the Pacific island of Kwajalein. The letters ripple with excitement, anger and sadness as they recount what they saw.

AA: What made you decide to share the Eyde brothers’ story with a wider audience through the medium of a podcast?

DL: The sheer volume of letters – there are hundreds of them written over a span of several decades – and the way in which they capture the voice of each member of the Eyde family presented us with some unique opportunities. We also were fortunate to pursue this project with no specific timeline, allowing us to seek documents from the National Archives through the Freedom of Information Act that provided additional context, including illuminating information about Frank’s struggle to transition home after the war. The brothers Eyde undertook an epic adventure, and a podcast seemed like an excellent medium to capture that, with old broadcast clips and period music providing a sense of time and place as voice actors shared their words.

AA: The podcast’s voice actors – all themselves military veterans – provide great readings of the Eyde brothers’ letters.  How did you find military veterans who were such skilled actors, and how did you go about working with them on the readings?

DL: The Post sought veterans through organizations like the Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP), a non-profit with a stated goal of helping veterans integrate in their communities through the arts. Scores of veterans expressed interest, and we cast the parts based on their experiences, comfort with public speaking and ability to connect with the characters in the story. They are Michael Ball, who served in the Marine Corps and Air Force; Zachary Burgart, who served in the Marine Corps; Jeffrey Chiang, who served in the Navy; Brendan Wentz, who served in the Army; and Rachel Ziegler, who served in the Air Force.

AA: What were some of the major challenges you encountered?

DL: One of the first challenges was processing the letters and making sure we were not missing anything important. That took reading virtually every piece of mail in the boxes that Joe Alosi found, and sorting them in a way where we could synthesize what we knew and sort it into workable information. I had significant help on this from Jessica Stahl, the Post’s director of audio; Carol Alderman, a podcast producer; and Julie Vitkovskaya, a digital enterprise editor. We also had to transcribe the most important letters word-for-word, an effort that took several of us to complete. Another significant challenge and mystery was figuring out how the letters came to be abandoned in the first place, and who the closest surviving family members might be. I did that through a combination of searching through old obituaries, phone calls and asking help from the public library in Rockford, Ill., the brothers’ home town.

AA: Where are the Eyde brothers’ letters now?  Do you know if there are plans for them to be donated to an archives where they can be preserved and accessible to others?

DL: The letters are back with Mr. Alosi, who purchased them more than a decade ago and loaned them to The Post. At last check, he was researching options for what might come next. As you might expect, several museums have inquired about them.

AA: Do you have any advice or tips for others who may be interested in bringing archives to life through podcasting?

DL: This project came to life because of organization, first and foremost. By knowing what we had, we were able to build around the central element – the letters themselves, as voiced by the veterans – while Carol layered in music, sound effects and audio from the time period. I narrated, but as a general rule, I spoke in places where we did not have another method to tell the story. Additional reporting also was really important, so I’d definitely recommend looking beyond archival material to enrich your story. In this case, obtaining the military personnel files of Frank Eyde through FOIA and details about the battles in which the brothers participated from the Marine Corps History Division and the Army Center for Military History helped a great deal.

AA: Is there anything else you’d like to share about your experience working on Letters from War?

DL: It was powerful meeting Vicki Venhuizen, a cousin of the Eydes who remembers them from when she was a child. Interviewing her as primary source about the Eyde family helped fill in gaps in the story, and also underscored an important point: this was a family of real-life people who sacrificed for their nation at an extraordinarily difficult time in which loved ones sometimes went years without seeing each other. I’m grateful for her willingness to meet with me, a stranger, and share details about herself and them.

More information on the Letters from War podcast is available on the main podcast website, as well as Dan Lamothe’s background column and long-form special section story on the Eyde brothers and their letters.  Lamothe has also authored a piece on Edythe Eyde, the brothers’ trailblazing cousin who started America’s first lesbian publication.


Dan Lamothe (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on the Pentagon and the U.S. military. He joined The Post in 2014, and has traveled extensively since then on assignment. Lamothe has embedded with U.S. troops in combat in Afghanistan multiple times, and also has reported from the Aleutian Islands, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, the Arctic Circle, Norway, Belgium, Germany, France, Singapore, Australia, Mexico, Spain and the Republic of Georgia.  Further information about Lamothe is available at his WaPo profile page.