“What Do Only You Know?”: A Conversation with Davia Nelson of the Kitchen Sisters (Part 3)

Since September 2018, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva of The Kitchen Sisters have featured archivists in their series The Keepers. In December, Committee on Public Awareness chair Caryn Radick spoke with Davia Nelson. This post shares the final Part 3 of that conversation (see Part 1 here and Part 2 here). Remarks have been edited for length and clarity from a transcript of the original telephone interview.

CR: Recently, archivists have started doing podcasts. What advice would you give them about communicating about their work?

Keeper of the Day, No. 13 The Emma Goldman Papers Project. Photo courtesy of the Emma Goldman Papers

DN: I love the thought of archivists and librarians podcasting. I think it’s a great idea. I hope more and more people do.  I think people are hungry for great podcasts. I think that librarians and archivists have a huge community of listeners and a waiting audience. So I urge all of you to think about it. I think that finding the oral medium — you don’t want to go too long. If you find yourself wanting to host one, think about really saying the most important things, I mean finding your voice. I think so many archivists have such great personalities and are great storytellers. So really honing who you are, what your voice is, really making good judgement calls. When you put something in a case to show the public, you’ve really thought a lot about what’s going to go in that case and what’s going to resonate and why it’s important, and I think the same thing is true for a podcast. Just because you have it doesn’t mean it’s going to be a fascination to the rest of the world, or maybe the rest of the world doesn’t understand why they should be fascinated and then that becomes the job.

I think just kibitzing back and forth is fun. I think people would have a good time doing it. And I think that often times people don’t have enough time to get to tell stories and speak, but I think you want to go lean, better to leave people wanting more than feeling like this is going on too long. We’re always working with those constraints, and we are always trying to discipline ourselves. And keep it lively—use a lot of different kinds of materials and different voices. One person going on for a really long time is hard. And highlighting the treasures in your collection or highlighting the things that you feel are injustices that you want to bring to the fore, highlighting each other.

We always ask, “What do only you know?” That’s what led us to some beautiful stories with archivists.

CR: It’s a good question. I know that I’ve come across papers where you would find yourself saying “I’m going to go to so and so’s office and just tell them what I found because I can’t be the only person on the planet who knows this.” And it’s always a pleasure when you can connect somebody new and in the wider world outside of the archival community to that kind of material.

DN: Oh, we live for that moment.

CR: Sometimes you just find random things in places that you don’t necessarily expect to find them, and as you know, it can send you down a complete rabbit hole.

DN: So many times we think we’re working on a story about X, but we find a piece of archival audio and it leads us completely down a new road, and I always feel bad for the story that got abandoned. But you know, I think it’s just the truth, and for us, as I told you, the “always relied on the kindness of archivists” was going to be in 2001. So here it is.

CR: I was going to ask which episodes of The Keepers moved you the most.

DN: Well, I think the interview with Mary Schuler Dieter [Pack Horse Librarian] because she was starting … she’s lost a lot of her memory. She remembered so little of the present but she could go back to the past and it was a voice … Rolling Stone reviewed that story—who would have guessed that Rolling Stone would review it, like we were Amy Winehouse with a new record. They reviewed that story and they talked about her voice sounding like someone beyond time, and it took three and four members of her community going to her to help us record that. I found her on the telephone, but she could not tell me where she was, and I wound up calling the city government of her town to try and help me find this woman who I’d been talking to … the whole community became galvanized and during the course of the interview she broke out weeping … the poverty and the hard times that she lived through, it all roared up in her, but she persevered to tell the story and I think that interview was the one that tore me apart the most.

But I’ll tell you, being with the hip-hop archive, being with all those young people at Harvard—so many of them people of color, kids who just, they were there at Harvard, but they didn’t really feel like they’ve quite belonged at Harvard, and there was the hip-hop archive and they were in there doing these fellowships and these studies, and these investigations. And in these papers and this research were the rigor and the commitment and that feeling of place. That was another just profound discovery, and the power of an archive to bring an 18-year-old out of some community where they had so little growing up, and to give them a feeling of place and belonging and purpose and their own history being honored. That was just stunning.

CR: That’s great … I think that’s what we hope to do.

DN: Well, in our book you do it, we cannot thank … When Nikki came to the Society of American Archivists [conference] last year, that was one of the first forays for the project and she just came back so ignited and we still have that well of material that we’re drawing on, and it helped shape the whole vision of the project. We’ve continued to go to various archivist gatherings and do presentations and talks and recordings there, and we hope to continue to work with the community in the coming year. We’re 44 Keeper of the Days into a year-long project. So I hope people will contribute and follow them and appreciate all the people that we’re trying to highlight and pay homage to.

CR: I was going to ask how you choose your keeper of the day.

DN: We have this epic notebook, a big binder where we log all the calls that come in or transcribe all the emails—there’s hundreds of them that we’re pulling from—and people we meet at a party, people that we know, you walk into a library and you meet someone, the museum knows we’re doing this project. They reach out to us. Lawrence Ferlinghetti is turning 100 in March, and someone told us about the Urban Forester of San Francisco who every year on Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s birthday walks to all the sites that were primary in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s life and he reads a Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem at every site as he makes the pilgrimage to City Lights Bookstore. And then this year on the occasion of Lawrence’s hundredth birthday, he’s going to plant most likely an olive tree and it will become Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day in San Francisco. So now we know what we will be doing on March 24th as Keeper of the Day. It happens spontaneously and it happens pre-planned. People are on the hunt for us. Sometimes we find the story, sometimes the stories find us, right?

Feel free to suggest please. Send us emails or call The Keeper hotline,  415-496-9049, or go to kitchensisters.org and you can suggest there.

CR: What’s next for the Kitchen Sisters?

DN: We’re doing a slew of Keeper stories. We have probably 10 in progress right now. We are doing a collaboration with SFMoMa on a big project that’s going on here that involves stories of urbanization and gentrification. We’re doing stories in collaboration with Wendy MacNaughton, the graphic novelist [recently featured in ArchivesAWARE], and with Laurie Anderson. We have collaborated with Wendy and we’re going to do one about her, we’re going to make a Keeper out of her stories of the San Francisco Library that she did from [her book] Meanwhile in San Francisco and then Frances McDormand, the Academy Award-winning actress, is going to host our hour-long Keeper special.

CR: Wow. She’ll be our celebrity spokesperson?

DN: She has been the host of two or three of our Hidden Kitchen specials, and she is sort of our muse.

Your community has been so supportive. I would just like to say in closing: thank you to the Society [of American Archivists], to all of you for the work you do and for being open to us and supportive and igniting us. You all launched the series. So thank you for that.

CR: Thank you. I think that our Committee on Public Awareness does a lot, but somebody like the Kitchen Sisters taking this on does a lot more to help spread the word.

DN: Well, it’s great. We could collaborate together. We always say collaboration is queen. What a pleasure and an honor. Thank you so much.


To suggest Keepers of the Day, call the Keeper Hotline at 415-496-9049 or go to http://www.kitchensisters.org/keepers

Visit this page to support the work of the Kitchen Sisters.

“Say Everything Out Loud”: A Conversation with Davia Nelson of the Kitchen Sisters (Part 2)

Since September 2018, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva of The Kitchen Sisters have featured archivists in their series The Keepers. In December, Committee on Public Awareness chair Caryn Radick spoke with Davia Nelson. This post shares Part 2 of that conversation (see Part 1 here, final Part 3 forthcoming). Remarks have been edited for length and clarity from a transcript of the original telephone interview.

CR: Could you describe the research process when you put together an episode of The Keepers?

DN: It’s epic. We try to gather … everything. We have a lot of mottos of the Kitchen Sisters. One of them is “say everything out loud”—say what you’re looking for, say what you’re working on, so we will say it to each other. There’s four of us here at the Kitchen Sisters—Nikki and myself, Nathan Dalton, and Brandi Howell—and we’re all working on these stories together, each of us taking a different aspect of it, but we’ll get one idea or one name and then we’ll just dig in. We’ll go “Okay, well, I wonder who might have archival interviews.” Let’s say the pack horse librarians—so we’ll start digging into all the universities, all the libraries, all the historical societies, anybody who’s an archivist or librarian or a keeper that might intersect with that story. You always pray that there are these oral histories done before you that you can then glean from and add to your piece, and we’re always imagining when we’re recording that the Kitchen Sisters of the future will come along and take our material and turn it into the next generation of story.

PackHorse1-WPAPackHorseLibrarianLineUp

Pack Horse Librarians. Photo courtesy of University of Kentucky.

So we always are slating our interviews at the top … saying who we are about to interview, what the date is, what story it’s for.  So we often have the voices of dead archivists and librarians woven into our stories because they slated those tapes for their library and we’re always hoping people will do that thinking of the future. It also makes for such more interesting stories than us setting that up in a traditional narrated way. Our stories rarely have narration, rarely have our questions in, so we’re always looking for all kinds of people to tell other people’s stories. Are any of the grandchildren alive? Are any of the children alive? Who has written articles? Who was a neighbor of a pack horse librarian? Who worked with the WPA, who was part of relief efforts in Eastern Kentucky? Who lived in that Hollow?

We just sit there and think as broadly, deeply, and widely as we can and do a huge reach. We’re in conversation probably for every story with at least 20, 30 people, maybe more, to find what we’re looking for.

CR: What kind of challenges have you faced getting material for the podcast?

DN: Sometimes, like when we wanted to get tape of Henri Langlois, the MoMA had it in New York, but I think we had to deal with an archive in Italy to get permission to get that MoMA recording. Sometimes you’re crossing institutions and cultures and [figuring out] who can actually give you the go-ahead. In a way it’s funny—when we started doing this work, all archives were basically open. Nikki and I began in the late ’70s and you could just go to the National Archives and Library of Congress and Smithsonian and basically plug into a tape recorder and make copies of all these phenomenal recordings that they have there, and all early Kitchen Sisters stories are based on these forays we did into the archives where stories were revealed to us because of what we uncovered. Now everything is so much more protected and so much less available. I worry about the privatization of history … the same way that water sources are getting privatized and people are trying to take away … I feel like so much of this is the rights of humanity to know its history, and I worry about young people, if they’re not allowed to have history. We’re trying to reach across generations to make people fascinated with cultures and histories and heritages that they might not know about. And having access to this living material is so essential for that and honors people whose stories aren’t told usually.

CR: Have your perceptions of archivists changed as a result of work on this series, and if so, how?

DN: My reverence—I would say our reverence—has just … I didn’t know that it could get higher, but it’s that much higher. We really have just seen archivists go to the mat for protecting books, for protecting information, for making sure that things aren’t buried, making sure things are available free to the public. Librarians have turned libraries into community survival centers, people have so expanded what those things mean. They are the keepers of their community. I would also say it takes a certain kind of personality to have the patience, the tenderness, and the vigilance to spend a lot of time just protecting, guarding, preserving. But it’s also a kind of … I want to say … not snappy, snippy,  but it’s a … they won’t suffer fools, let’s put it that way.  A lot of opinions in the archival community, a lot of righteousness.  They work hard and they have a vision, they have standards. It’s a moral group.

CR: Sometimes people want to … call out what they see as being problematic or what they need to do to preserve the archives and move things forward.

DN: Well, they know the history, they know the consequences. A lot of archivists and librarians and historians and keepers are ahead of the culture and are impatient. They’re saying to everybody else, “What are you waiting for? Come on,” and so if they see something they feel is unjust or not right [they’ll say it]. I feel like with so much of social media, the whole culture in this time of Trump has turned the culture into a “calling out” culture. And I think that’s unfortunate all the way around. I think there’s a way to really call attention to important things. We did the whole series because we think archivists and librarians are the leading edge and our heroes, and are some of the nation’s. I don’t think they get enough attention and enough credit, and [I think they] should be revered and known and appreciated, and tell great stories, and are sitting on some great stories and material. Grace and kindness and patience with each other in the culture—I would ask for that across the board. That’s just my opinion.  I think people are working really hard. Everyone’s working really hard, but there are also disgusting things going on and that has to be called out too, so okay, I get it, I get it.

[Stay tuned for Part 3 of Caryn’s interview with The Kitchen Sisters’ Davia Nelson!]


To suggest Keepers of the Day, call the Keeper Hotline at 415-496-9049 or go to http://www.kitchensisters.org/keepers

Visit this page to support the work of the Kitchen Sisters.

“We’ve Always Relied on the Kindness of Archivists”: A Conversation with Davia Nelson of the Kitchen Sisters (Part 1)

Since September 2018, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva of The Kitchen Sisters have featured archivists in their series The Keepers. In December, Committee on Public Awareness chair Caryn Radick spoke with Davia Nelson. This post shares Part 1 of that conversation, which will be published in three parts. Remarks have been edited for length and clarity from a transcript of the original telephone interview.

The Kitchen Sisters. Photo by Patrick Bolger

CR: Why did you decide to do a series featuring archivists and keepers?

DN: We had meant to do the Keepers series right after we did The Lost and Found Sound series which was at the turn of the millennium. Lost and Found Sound was about how sound shaped history, and about history shaped by sound, vanishing voices, sound on the verge of extinction, endangered sound, and rare recordings.

We did them every week for a whole year and so many of them were archivally based and we worked with so many historians and archivists and librarians. They just dug out all these rare recordings and things that only they knew about and we realized we felt that archivists and librarians were some of the unsung heroes of the country and we wanted to do the series then. We were going to call it We’ve Always Relied on the Kindness of Archivists. Then 9/11 happened and instead of going into the archivist project we did the Sonic Memorial project, which was archiving in lower Manhattan and telling those stories and involved, again, so much archival audio and rare recordings and the work of the archiving community. Then it got put aside for all those years when we did the Hidden Kitchens series and then The Hidden World of Girls, and The Making Of. . . . Then, the new president was elected and we began to see a lot of the government websites getting pulled down, especially in regards to climate change and science, and we watched the archival community spring to action and the librarians become activated, and we thought “These are the people who are committed to the truth and to history as it happened, and to facts, and to nurturing their community, and being protectors of the free flow of information and ideas,” and we said to ourselves “Remember how we were always going to do The Kindness of Archivists?” Only now the times called for a different title and it became The Keepers. It’s been long in the coming is what I would just say, and it’s a light that we wanted to be shining for over a decade.

CR: What keepers or collections have you learned about that surprised you?

DN: Well, it’s surprised us that the whole series started with The Hip-Hop Archive and Research Center at Harvard. We were just developing the series and coming up with the ideas; our little byline on it is “stories of activist archivists, rogue librarians, curators, collectors, and historians. Keepers of the culture and the culture and collections they keep,” and then  “guardians of history, large and small, protectors of the free flow of information and ideas, individuals—sometimes we say eccentric individuals—who take it upon themselves to preserve some aspect of our cultural heritage.” And we were starting more in that place of thinking about all the people fighting for the constitution, the Bill of Rights, climate change, all those archival areas, but immediately people just wanted [to know about] the cultural work archived and expressed equally and all the communities whose voices hadn’t been heard. Whose work is archived, whose work is preserved, who is in those archives? And it was someone at NPR—they had just hired their first hip-hop critic there and I met him in the halls at NPR—he said, “Why don’t you think about going to the hip-hop archive at Harvard?” I’d heard about it somewhere years ago, about Dr. Marcyliena Morgan who was archiving hip-hop way back when, like a decade ago. I’d always meant to profile her for the Hidden World of Girls, but with him saying that, it moved us to Harvard because the juxtaposition of hip-hop and Harvard caught our ear. (Story: Archiving the Underground: The Hiphop Archive at Harvard)

Also at the same time we learned that Lenny Bruce’s daughter had been archiving Lenny Bruce for all these years, but in her house, and this archive was getting older and frayed and was beyond her capacity to keep in the way that it should be preserved. We stumbled onto that story that the daughter of Hugh Hefner and the daughter of Lenny Bruce were working together to preserve this archive and bring it to Brandeis University. (Story: The Lenny Bruce Collection)

For stories that just boomed out … I had read this piece in The New Yorker about Henri Langlois and the Cinémathèque Française, which was one of the earliest and most profound film archives in the world. It’s been in France since the ’30s, and he was at the center of all political controversies. They stopped the Cannes Film Festival because of him one year. He archived thousands and thousands of films across the transition from silents to talkies, and his archive became one of the centerpieces of this series and that really surprised me. And it’s still going today. [Story: Archive Fever: Henri Langlois and the Cinémathèque Française]

Probably the most startling story that we’ve been come to in this path is the Pack Horse Librarians of Eastern Kentucky, this WPA program that got women with a horse or a mule during the heart of the Depression … Their coal country was really undergoing a massive change that was industrializing in a way that was throwing a lot of people off the workforce. Eleanor Roosevelt among others had this thought to employ women if they had a horse or a mule and a pillowcase or a saddle bag, and they started getting books to Kentucky. They would ride up on these circuits through the hollers into the way-out back remote communities of Eastern Kentucky, where there was really high illiteracy, and bring books and magazines.  Those women with their grit and their pillowcases and their commitment—that they were able to feed their families was so remarkable. (Story: The Pack Horse Librarians of Eastern Kentucky)

I think we found the last living pack horse librarian too, and that was probably the most moving part of the whole series so far for me. She’s well in her 90s and living in a home in Kansas.

CR: Yes, I heard that podcast and it was pretty incredible.

DN:  I love that as the books and magazines fell apart they would then make scrapbooks out of them. That was really extraordinary, so enterprising, so scrappy these women, which dovetails so much for us because we’ve done a whole series called The Hidden World of Girls and the women they become, and that story could have fit in all aspects of what our work centers around—unknown histories, little-told stories, voices of people whose stories seldom make it into the mainstream media.

[Stay tuned for Part 2 of Caryn’s interview with The Kitchen Sisters’ Davia Nelson!]


To suggest Keepers of the Day, call the Keeper Hotline at 415-496-9049 or go to http://www.kitchensisters.org/keepers

Visit this page to support the work of the Kitchen Sisters.