The Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) is pleased to bring Micaela Blei, PhD, two-time Moth GrandSLAM winner and former Moth director of education, to ARCHIVES*RECORDS 2019 this August in Austin, Texas at the JW Marriott. Blei will be teaching a FREE two-hour “Storytelling Workshop” on Saturday, August 3 (1:00 PM – 3:00 PM) and hosting a storytelling event, “A Finding Aid to My Soul,” on Sunday, August 4 (8:00 PM – 10:00 PM). Pitch Your Story by June 27 for a chance to participate in the event. If selected, you’ll receive guidance from Blei to help whip your story into top shape.
In this interview conducted by Chris Burns of the University of Vermont and past chair of COPA, Blei discusses how she got into storytelling, her time working at Yale’s Beinecke Library, storytelling education, what we can expect from her as the host of “A Finding Aid to My Soul,” and how archivists can apply storytelling to their own work.
Micaela Blei has years of experience working with individuals, organizations, and communities to shape and share the important stories of their lives. Her acclaimed workshops are invitations to reflection, spaces for discovery, and—most of all—a lot of fun. Her own stories have been called “heartbreaking and hilarious.” She’s appeared on The Moth Radio Hour and live on sold-out storytelling stages nationwide. In 2016, Micaela wrote the storytelling curriculum now used by more than 1,500 educators around the world. Some of you may also know her from her keynote address at RBMS in 2017.
Burns: How did you get into storytelling?
Blei: I found storytelling in 2011, when I left teaching to go to graduate school in education, and could finally stay up late enough on weeknights to go to shows. I found myself at a storytelling show in Brooklyn, and I loved the feeling in the room, loved the kind of community it created—I got up there and it just felt really right! I started going all the time, began teaching it, and ultimately I changed my doctoral research to be about storytelling and identity.
Burns: You actually have some firsthand knowledge of archival work. Can you tell us a bit about your time as a student employee at the Beinecke Library at Yale?
Blei: I often say it’s the best job I ever had (it’s a tie between that and scouting real estate in the Caribbean, which is a whole other story). It was my work-study, to help out Pat Willis (then the Curator of American Lit at the Beinecke) with her correspondence and filing. But we got along so well, and I got really passionate about what she was doing, so slowly I got to do more and more curatorial things. Pat let me be in charge of exhibits—small ones at first—and it was my first experience with really going on an independent intellectual/research journey. I’m so grateful to her for that!
Burns: Your experience educating aspiring storytellers is pretty impressive and includes creating The Moth‘s educational program. What’s a favorite moment of yours from a past storytelling workshop?
Blei: I think my favorite moments are when storytellers are finding out new things about each other through their stories, even if they already knew each other. One of my favorite moments was in a high school workshop: two boys had signed up together and they were best friends. They cracked each other up all the time, and then one of them shared a story with the group about how it felt when his dad passed away the previous year. When it was time to give “feedback” and responses, the teller’s best friend said: “I had no idea, man. You seemed so together that year. I’m so glad I know what you went through.” It reminded me that sometimes, weirdly, it’s easier to share vulnerability with a group than a trusted friend.
Burns: You will be hosting SAA’s storytelling event this August during ARCHIVES*RECORDS 2019 in Austin. How do you think about making the night work for both the storytellers and audience? Will there be any surprises? Big musical numbers? Pyrotechnics?
Blei: No big musical numbers planned, unless there is a big demand, in which case I’ll pack costumes . . .
I think a lot about the kindness of a storytelling audience: this isn’t about impressing each other, it’s about connecting with each other. It takes the pressure off. On the audience side, it’s this chance to step into someone else’s experience and realize—that’s happened to me too! Or I never realized that’s what that’s like!
As host, I will also be trying out my absolute best archive jokes from my Beinecke days.
Burns: What are the odds that you might share a story?
Blei: Quite high! I’ll tell a little something at the beginning of the evening, to help set the mood . . . and in my workshop on August 3, which I am so excited for, I’ll probably start us off with a story.
Burns: Why do you think archivists should consider learning more about storytelling as it relates to their work?
Blei: I think learning more about storytelling can help introduce some new tools, but more importantly, remind you that you already have powerful tools that you can use with new intention. We tell stories all the time! Realizing that this is something we are already good at—and can apply it with an awareness—can be so effective in archives work.
I also think that this workshop will help re-frame what “having confidence in public speaking” means. It’s a little bit of a different approach and so many people have found it really helpful.
Burns: Is there anything else you’d like to share regarding your work as a storyteller and educator?
Geof Huth and Karen Trivette are the husband and wife team behind An Archivist’s Tale, a podcast featuring “archivists in conversation with archivists, discussing their work and passions and how they care for the historical record and present the storied past.” Geof and Karen have had a remarkably productive year since releasing their first episode on February 10, 2018, with 47 episodes available as of this writing and more on the way. In this post, COPA member Chris Burns flips the script and interviews the interviewers, asking Geof and Karen why and how they created this podcast and what they have learned along the way. [Full disclosure: Chris was a guest on Episode 7: There’s an Archivist for You.]
Chris Burns: Where did you get your idea and what inspired you?
Geof Huth: I had the original idea to do the podcast, which was inspired by the convergence of a few facts of my life at the time. First, my daughter (the almost famous Erin Mallory Long) has had a podcast for years, one focused on the television show Friends. Truth be told, I’ve barely listened to that show, since my interest in Friends is deep enough but not nearly as deep as my daughter’s.
For the last couple of years, I’ve had two other realities in my work life: I have spent at least 30% of my time working on my feet as my records management unit arranges and describes about 12,000 cubic feet of old court records (old meaning back to 1674), and the physical process of merely arranging such volume had left me with lots of empty air time in my head. Atop that, I accepted an additional position as Chief Law Librarian, which required me to drive three hours from Manhattan to New York’s Capital District and then back at least once a month to be with my unit based there. My life had become filled with empty air, and I always have to fill empty air, so I began to listen to podcasts (almost exclusively political ones—maybe not a good idea) to fill that space.
One day (January 10th, 2018), while listening to podcasts as I drove back to Manhattan on the New York State Thruway, I said to myself, “If Erin can do a podcast, then I can too, and I’d love to have deep talks with archivists about their work.” (Well, maybe not exactly those words.) After driving a few miles, I thought, “Wait, I’m married to an archivist! Karen and I should do this together, and an additional voice will make it more interesting.” Not to mention she has a beautiful voice. As soon as I arrived home, I began chattering to Karen about this idea, and we began to draw up a plan for the podcast.
In case it’s not clear, Karen and I are married. That helps us run the podcast because we can discuss issues as we walk places or have dinner or sit on the couch.
Karen Trivette: Geof was the chief inspiration behind my involvement in the podcast. That said, I felt I had an interesting career path or paths (academic and professional) and wanted to share them with others in the field. More so, I always enjoyed hearing how others came to the field of archives management and learning what drives them to stay engaged with and impassioned by the work. I love what I do for a living and love the fact that others do, too; the details are mesmerizing!
We struggled initially with what to entitle the program; after much give and take, we arrived at “An Archivist’s Tale,” since that’s what we wanted to elicit from the conversations. I must admit, I was influenced by the PBS television series, “A Chef’s Life” when I came up with this title; I love how Chef Vivian Howard introduces each episode and thought it would apply well to our endeavor.
Chris: How do you decide who to interview and what do you ask them?
Karen: We have two standard formal questions we ask each subject; first, we ask, “What is your archivist origin story?” Or, “How did you become an archivist in the first place?” It is truly amazing how very different everyone’s story is… I must give credit where credit is due: Bob Clark, Director of Archives at the Rockefeller Archive Center, and the first person we interviewed, proposed telling his own archivist origin story. We adopted the language immediately and it prompts nice introductory content.
From there, we usually have many other questions from the subject. Usually, the exchanges flow quite naturally and conversations develop organically as we go along. The second fixed question is posed about two-thirds to three-quarters the way through each interview, the question being, “What keeps you passionate about the work you do?” Again, the responses never cease to amaze and inform. They have actually caused me to rethink my own motivations and inspirations to do the work I do day in and day out.
Geof: Choosing who to interview is a strange balancing act having much to do with availability. We began with well known archivist friends of ours who were planning to visit New York City. Being based in Manhattan is a boon to us, since so many people come here for work and pleasure. But we are not always in New York, so when we travel—to conferences or for fun—we reach out to archivists to schedule conversations where all of us will be.
What we are really looking for is diversity—of everything: type of work, location of work, ethnicity, race, gender, anything we can think of. Yet we’ve not always been successful finding interviewees who could talk about specific topics. We’ve been turned down by the archivists in public libraries we’ve reached out to, and the one community archives we contacted did not respond to our request. We are a good venue for the voices of archivists, but we are also certainly not the big time, so we don’t always expect a yes.
Beyond diversity, we have developed some themes, areas we focus on. One has been the Archives Leadership Institute, which I attended in the first year and Karen attended this year, ten years after me. I’ve been present at ALI for most of those years and helped run it for the last six. Because of our connection to ALI, we have recorded a number of interviews with people who have attended, run, or taught at ALI, including the entire steering committee I served on.
We also look for people working on special projects or working in an interesting niche that’s not quite archives but which is archives enough for us. It’s important to note that our focus is not on famous archivists but on archivists in general. Some people think they are not important enough to interview, so we tell them why we want people to hear their voices—why we want to document all kinds of archivists and all kinds of archives and records work. Our tagline is “Giving Voice to Archivists,” and that is truly our goal. We want archivists to tell our shared and diverse story.
Chris: What are some the unexpected things you’ve discussed with your archivist guests?
Geof: Maybe the first thought that comes to mind here is how I’m surprised when archivists know something I didn’t imagine an archivist would know, such as you, Chris, knowing of my poetry writing professor Hayden Carruth. It makes sense that you did, since his papers are in your university’s collection, but it is still a surprise.
I’m amazed by what I learn about the people we talk to. Who knew Stacie Williams was a Sconny (or what a Sconny was until she told me)? Why didn’t I know that Vin Novara was formerly a professional musician, which then made sense he worked at a repository focused on music? I’m surprised by how deep conversations reveal facts about people I know well, but facts they may not have otherwise mentioned.
Sometimes, I’m startled by my own reaction to guests, such as when I went into a passionate oration about IBM’s importance to our understanding and management of knowledge because it has been willing to play the long game—having spent generations thinking about and improving information management, often in ways that have helped archives.
And the podcast has changed my thinking, as the conversations have taught me more about archives. For instance, I used to be fairly rigid in my thinking about archivists doing oral histories. I wasn’t against our doing that work, because I saw the value of it; I simply didn’t see it as an archives’ function. But now I accept archivists as the initial creators of records, and I think about how other meta- or para-archival activities (as I varyingly call these) add information to our stores of knowledge, and I accept that archivists can be the best people to do this work.
Karen: The most unexpected element for me is the fact that some archivists need permission to speak to us. Some archivists could not even get their supervisors or institutions to grant permission at all, while other archivists are asked to limit what they say. I find this disappointing given archivists’ mission to make information accessible.
Chris: What’s something fun that you’ve learned?
Karen: This is a difficult question to answer! It’s like selecting your favorite child…every subject brings something amusing to the table and the fact that it is a fun field to be a member of makes our exchanges full of enjoyable experiences. I’m always entertained by folks’ academic and career trajectories and the enjoyment they relay in their stories. How people arrive at their archives destination, and where they want to go further, entertains me to no end!
Geof: Just talking to people is enjoyable. Every guest makes me laugh or think or pontificate. I tend to become excited by the intellectual work of archivists and by the ability of archives to deepen and extend human knowledge. That might not sound like fun to many, but sometimes when you hear me on the podcast you can hear that I’m at the edge of my seat with excitement. It’s the way I am. I’m filled with passion about our work, which is why we have a question about passion. For me passion is purpose—as it propels us forward even as it draws people to our work.
Chris: What advice do you have for archivists who are considering producing a podcast?
Geof: Have a plan. We sat down and figured out what we were going to do first. We essentially worked out a business plan that didn’t consider money at all (except for initial costs) but focused on management and promotion. That gave us a foundation to build upon. We began this adventure knowing what we wanted to do.
The corollary to that is to be willing to change or abandon that plan at any time. Not everything works out, so we have had to change plans. We originally wanted to release an episode every week, but we ended up with so much content that we have been a weekly show since our second episode. Now, our guests have to wait a month or six weeks for their episode to “air.”
Karen: Know your equipment! I have a fraction of the understanding Geof has regarding our equipment and I am slowly getting more knowledgeable and comfortable with it. We keep things fairly spare and mobile as far as the equipment goes and it still pushes my comfort boundaries.
Geof and Karen and their mobile recording studio.
Chris: What’s next?
Karen: We are always seeking interview opportunities and we’re lucky to have so many of them. That said, we also make opportunities happen as often as possible. For example, we recently traveled internationally for the International Council on Archives section on University and Research Institutions annual conference, held in Salamanca, Spain. We decided early on to invite speakers and organizers to be interviewed. We were lucky to engage with Dr. Shelley Sweeney and Mr. William Maher. Our equipment is minimal so taking it with us, even across the ocean, is easy! Another opportunity we’ve identified is aligning interviews with professional development outlets. For example, there are a few SAA-DAS certificate training courses soon to be offered in the Austin, Texas area; I am thinking about taking these courses so we’ve considered trying to arrange to interview Dr. David Gracy while there.
Geof: We have plans. We have been trying for months to schedule a recording with two archivists we know who are married to each other. This will give us two pairs of married archivists together on the podcast (counting Karen and me as the second pair), so we’re thinking that setting up such pairings might be another theme for us. We might call these “A Couple of Couples of Archivists,” or something like that—and maybe peer a little into the workings of marriage from an archivist’s perception. And we want to record episodes in every state in the union and in more countries. We want to have reach. We want to have more reasons for people to listen to the interesting archivists we talk to.
We want people to listen to archivists, so we promote every episode we create. We owe that to our guests. On October 20th, 2018, we reached and exceeded 5,000 hours of listening. Certainly, that is a small number in the real world, but good enough in the archives universe.
We view ourselves as a media company (which is how we identify ourselves on Facebook), and so we try to act like a company, if a tiny one. We have stylish square business cards, and we add content besides links to episodes to our social media feeds so that people are reminded of us. We post an almost daily archives quotation. We post dispatches from archives conferences we attend. And I have started writing short essays (1,000 words or so) on archives and posting links to them on our feeds. I’d planned this writing as a personal way to think concisely and publicly about archives, and we thought it would be helpful to associate these with our podcast.
The Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) presented “A Finding Aid To My Soul,” an open-mic storytelling session on August 18 at the COSA/NAGARA/SAA joint meeting. The event was a smashing success, with twelve archivists sharing stories to a packed room that were sad, funny, profound, and even a little scary at times.
SAA and COPA will be sharing recorded audio from a number of the storytellers over the coming months. To kick things off, and in the spirit of the Halloween season, here are a couple of ghost stories shared that evening by Jennifer Overstreet and Terry Baxter.
They are a little spooky and do contain some graphic content, so listener beware.
Jennifer Overstreet, Graduate Student, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Terry Baxter, Archivist, Multnomah County Archives
The Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) presents “A Finding Aid To My Soul,” an open-mic storytelling session celebrating the diversity and commonality of the archivist experience. Storytellers will have five minutes to share true stories about their unique, moving, serendipitous, mysterious, special, and often humorous encounters in the archives (no props, please).
Terry Baxter, Multnomah County Archives – Encountering ghosts in the archives.
Krista Ferrante, MITRE – Job interviews are tough but interviewing while 9 months pregnant is torture.
Virginia Hunt, Harvard University Archives – The ten things they don’t teach you in graduate school all learned in one particularly strange donor experience.
Petrina Jackson, Iowa State Special Collections and University Archives – My encounter with a burnt cross, and how this item had a personal, visceral impact on me.
Elizabeth Myers, Smith College Special Collections – A tragic love story set amongst the Communist Party and World War II.
A Chance to Tell Your Story:
Five additional storytellers will be selected at the performance. Contact Chris Burns at firstname.lastname@example.org in advance or sign up at the event for a chance to share your story.
Serve as a Judge:
Three teams of judges will be selected from volunteers in the audience to determine the top storytellers. Prizes will be awarded. Contestants will be judged on sticking to the five-minute time frame, making the archivist central to the story, and having a story with a beginning, middle, and end.
Sit Back and Enjoy the Show:
Come hear the tales of your colleagues in what promises to be an engaging and entertaining event.
Friday August 17, 2018 8:00pm – 10:00pm Marriott Wardman Park Hotel Virginia AB Cash Bar
You won’t want to miss “A Finding Aid To My Soul”!
As a teaser, here are a few stories from The Moth (featuring respectively a library card, thoughts on memory, and a letter from Iggy Pop) to give you a flavor of what this format looks and sounds like and some examples to aspire to.