Steering Share: Steve Duckworth

Steering Shares  provide an opportunity to learn more about the I&A Steering Committee and the issues that the committee members care about. This introduction post comes courtesy of committee member Steve Duckworth, University Archivist at Oregon Health & Science University.

Steve Duckworth
Steering Committee member Steve Duckworth
What is your favorite thing about your job or the archives profession?

My favorite thing about the archives profession, in general, is that within every collection I’ve seen, even the ones that are 95% bland meeting minutes, I manage to find something that intrigues me or makes me laugh (often just at the absurdity of the past). And I think this really informs how I see and deal with the present. I’m a late-comer to the archives profession so perhaps this will wear off someday, but I rather hope not.

The thing I enjoy most about my current job though, is that I get to work with and mentor a couple of library school students. I work in a health and sciences archives (i.e., medical/nursing/dental/etc. school), so we don’t have a library program. However, we do have a bit of money in the budget to hire student workers and since Portland has an MLIS program (at Emporia State University), there is a good pool of library students to hire for these positions. So, even though I don’t officially teach any archives courses, I do get to train and mentor these students in archival practices; help them shape their resumes and cover letters, and navigate the job application process; and guide them as they find their own voices and places within the profession. I get to answer their questions, learn more about what they are being taught in school, and have my choices and assumptions questioned. So, not only are they learning and gaining professional experience, I’m constantly learning from them and reevaluating the work I do.

Having been a music teacher before embarking upon the archivist lifestyle, getting this experience back – of teaching what I know and learning from those I teach – is something I highly value having in my life again.

What made you want to join the I&A Steering Committee?

I had already been involved with I&A – having been on one of the on-call research teams for 2 years. Being still relatively new to the profession, I was finding my niche and really liked what I saw coming out of the I&A Section. I liked how they tackled both issues within the profession itself and within archives, as well as related concerns in current news and events. And I was also drawn to the different forms of blog writings that they had invited anyone to contribute to. To me, it seemed like they were working hard to make anyone feel like they could be a part of the change they wanted to see.

I especially liked (and even once wrote for) the “Archivists on the Issues” series – where the ever ‘neutral’ archivists were finally allowed to have a public opinion. Anyway, after two years of on-call news searching and blogging, the call for Steering Committee members spoke to me … I could have a say in the future of this group and the initiatives they take on for the next two years. So, now I get to manage one of those news teams, write blog entries (such as this), and help shape the direction of I&A.

What is an archival issue that means a lot to you?

One of the thorns in my side with the archives profession how we value our labor – or do not value our labor. We have a lot of unpaid labor happening, and this is something many people have spoken of. We also have a lot of under-paid labor. And a ton of temporary positions. And contract positions. Many of us are aware of these concerns. I was personally lucky enough to move into permanent employment after one project archivist position, but I know plenty of people who bounce around from project position to project position – and not out of the sheer joy of relocating every year or two.

I have a related issue with passion. I truly hope you love your job and enjoy going to work every day. However, if you’re being paid to work 40 hours per week, but end up working 50, 60, or more hours on a regular basis because of your passion (or the tenure-track-inflicted passion you are required to exude), you are also part of the problem. I’m sure this statement will bother a lot of people, but unpaid work in all forms devalues the work archivists do. When we accept lower pay and higher hours, we signal to people that we can get by, that our work isn’t worth that much, that money isn’t a huge concern – because we love what we do. [Editor’s note: Fobazi Ettarh writes eloquently about this in her post “Vocational Awe?”]

This devaluation also hinders access to the profession. If you can afford to be underpaid or potentially unemployed after a 2-year position ends or move to a new city to take one of these jobs where you’ll likely have to pay for your own healthcare and miss out on employer sponsored retirement savings – you probably have some privilege you may not even be aware of. Your privilege may also allow you to work extra hours because you can afford to only have one job or you are single or don’t have children or are coupled and have easier access to child care (there are a lot of ways this can play out; I’m just trying to make a point). This leaves the not-so-privileged trailing behind in the race to find a job – and then the rest of us sit around and try to figure out how to diversify the profession. I don’t mean to rant here, but perhaps this is where my passion has gone. Perhaps working as a struggling freelance musician for over a decade before entering this profession taught me more about the value of work and the joys of employee-sponsored benefits. Perhaps I’m trying to use my own privilege to affect some change. And obviously I don’t have this all figured out yet. But, this is definitely an issue that needs more attention.

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Steering Share: Stephanie Bennett

Steering Shares  provide an opportunity to learn more about the I&A Steering Committee and the issues that the committee members care about. This post come courtesy of committee member Stephanie Bennett, Collections Archivist at Wake Forest University.

What is your favorite thing about the archives profession?
Steering Committee member Stephanie Bennett
Steering Committee member Stephanie Bennett

There are lots of things that I enjoy about our profession – providing access to unique materials that tell stories and demonstrate history outside of rare books; working with our students, who brighten my days with their good-natured smiles and 90s renaissance denim; researchers full of questions; finding aids with well-structured, clear information. But my favorite thing is archivists! I have so much respect for my coworkers and professional colleagues – interesting people who are invested in our work and who also have developed other aspects of life, deeply. We are archivists and also artists, activists, bakers, gardeners, hikers, many adoring pet owners, movie buffs, sports enthusiasts, woodworkers, and on. I thank y’all for being generous with your skills and passions – archival or otherwise – on the clock, on the internet, and over lunch at SAA annual meetings. I do my best to pay your goodwill forward!

What made you want to join the I&A Steering Committee?

I admired the work of Issues & Advocacy and wanted to help make it happen! It can be a struggle to fit professional work into busy lives (see above), for all of us who have the means to join committees and those who do not. But committees are so useful for helping us all advance goals at work and on a broader societal level. They – we – take on some of the bigger questions or issues that I am too tired to tackle alone after a day on the job, days when I struggle to go for a run or eat some pizza (or both). Individually I’m not going to think deeply about innovative ways to talk to various communities about archives and archivists, advocating for work that confronts our biases instead of concealing them, finding sparks of inspiration from conferences that I haven’t gone to. But that’s what I&A is for! My time on the section’s steering committee has been as rewarding as I had hoped when I put myself up for nomination.

What is an archival issue that means a lot to you?

Most things that are intrinsic to archives are important to me. As a Collections Archivist, my day job centers around providing access to all, eliminating backlogs, and introducing people unfamiliar with archives to our field (not sure how many archivists can get away with not having to explain our work to the uninitiated!). But I am really, really, passionate about archives salaries and other things wrapped up in the “people at work” part of our profession: salary and other benefit negotiations, well-developed leadership in archives and libraries, fair pay for us and our paraprofessional colleagues, and all that jazz. One day, I would love to do proper research and  advocacy in this area, because I think these topics are tied up in how archivists advocate within our institutions and in our communities and countries. But my brain and my planning skills haven’t caught up with my ambitions yet! I’ll let I&A know when they do.

Steering Share: Samantha Brown

Steering Shares  provide an opportunity to learn more about the I&A Steering Committee and the issues that the committee members care about. This post come courtesy of the current I&A Intern, Samantha Brown. Along with serving as I&A’s intern and Social Media manager, Samantha works as an Assistant Archivist at the New-York Historical Society.  

I&A Intern Samantha Brown
I&A Intern Samantha Brown
How did you first get involved in archives?

The first time I considered a career in archives was after I completed my undergraduate degree. I knew that I wanted to work in libraries, but I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do. Throughout high school and college, I had worked in a public library and enjoyed my job. However, being a public librarian wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. I wanted to find something that would combine my love for research, cataloging, libraries, museums, history, and politics into one career.

Since I was undecided, I sought out the advice of some librarians I knew. One suggested that I should look into becoming an archivist. While I knew about archives and their use by historians, I never thought about the people that maintained those records. After doing research on the internet and speaking to a few more librarians, I decided that being an archivist might be what I was looking for. With an idea in mind, I went ahead and applied to an information studies program that had a concentration in archives. After taking the introduction to archives class in my first semester of graduate school, it seemed like being an archivist was what I was looking for but I needed confirmation. I needed to actually work in an archive to see if the ideas I had in my head matched reality. Luckily for me, a class called “Archival Representation” was half in the classroom and half at a field site. In class, I learned the theories behind processing archival collections. At the field site, I applied the theories from the classroom and applied them to processing and describing an actual collection.The class was an amazing experience and helped me realize that archives were the thing for me. I loved taking an unorganized box of materials and creating something that is useable and accessible to researchers.

Once I finished this class, I wanted to make sure, once again, that working in archives was what I wanted and not something I just liked because of a class. That summer, I set up an internship working in the special collections department of a local college. For the three months of this internship, I was able to complete a variety of tasks and expand my knowledge of what it meant to be an archivist. Just like the class, I loved my experience. With two different experiences under my belt, I positively knew I had made the correct choice and made it my mission to become a professional archivist.

What made you want to be an intern for the I&A Section?

I decided to apply for the internship with the Issues & Advocacy Section because I wanted to connect with other archives professionals and use some of the skills I had gained working in public libraries to promote archives and archivists. In my current position as an assistant archivist, I am working in an isolated setting and don’t have much of an opportunity to meet other professionals or do outreach. By working on this committee, I hope to meet other archivists who can teach me about aspects of archives that I don’t already know about. Along with learning from others, I also want to share experience that I have gained from working in other types of library environments.

What is an archival issue that means a lot to you?

A problem that faces archives and archivists is visibility. While people know about historians and deeply care about the work they do, they do not know as much about the people and institutions that make the work of historians possible. This lack of visibility means that people don’t know about the importance of archivists and the records that they steward. While there have been great efforts by archives to create social media pages that will reach a wider audience than those we usually see conducting research, it’s questionable whether or not that is enough to make people care about archivists and the work they do. This means that along with gaining more visibility, we also need to inform people about our work and how our work impacts them as individuals as well as the impact that archives have on society at large.

Steering Share: Vice Chair Courtney Dean

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This kick-off post comes from I&A Vice Chair/Chair Elect Courtney Dean, a Project Archivist at the University of California at Los Angeles Library Special Collections.

I&A Vice Chair Courtney Dean
I&A Vice Chair Courtney Dean
1. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE THING ABOUT YOUR JOB OR THE ARCHIVES PROFESSION?

In my current position at UCLA Library Special Collections, I oversee the day-to-day operations of the Center for Primary Research and Training (CFPRT), an innovative program which pairs graduate students from across campus with special collections projects in their field of expertise. I give the CFPRT scholars a crash course on archival theory, and train them in arrangement, description, and preservation best practices. Often times it’s the first interaction they’ve had with primary sources, and it’s thrilling to watch them realize their projects and hear how their experience in Special Collections directly affects their own research. Aside from the students, I love the strong community of practice among the archivists I work with. We hold informal study groups to expand our skillsets in things like RDA, XML, and born-digital archives. It’s exciting to be constantly learning and surrounded by such smart and passionate colleagues. Finally (last thing!) I’m inspired by the meaningful conversations about issues like transparency, ethics, and privilege that are happening within my unit.

2. WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO JOIN THE I&A STEERING COMMITTEE?

I’m heavily involved in a local professional organization in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Archivists Collective (LAAC), which I co-founded with some friends of mine a few years ago, and I really enjoy directly interacting with local archivists, archives, and communities. After the recent presidential election though, I felt like I wanted to step up and do more in terms of national advocacy for things like IMLS, NEH, and NEA funding, and raising awareness about the importance of archives in general. I’ve also long admired I&A efforts to spotlight issues like neutrality, climate and environmental data, and #ArchivesSoWhite, which was another big motivating factor for my involvement. I served on one of the News Monitoring teams last year, but this is my first year on the Steering Committee.

3. WHAT IS AN ARCHIVAL ISSUE THAT MEANS A LOT TO YOU?

There are so many issues! As Rachel mentioned, a focus on digital preservation is absolutely essential. Not only does inaction put our existing collections at risk, but bigger issues of government accountability and an inclusive historical record are at stake. I come from a community-oriented service background (in my prior career I worked in community mental health) so issues of accessibility, inclusiveness, and historical silences are also of utmost importance to me. I’m heartened that the profession is finally beginning to acknowledge systemic oppressions and the implications for our collections, access and use, scholarship, collective memory, and the makeup of the field itself. Of course we still have a long, long way to go! Lastly, an issue near and dear to me is the (over)reliance on temp workers in our field. I’ll save that for another post though!

Steering Share: Chair Rachel Mandell

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This kick-off post comes from I&A Chair Rachel Mandell, Metadata Librarian at the University of Southern California Digital Library.

I&A Chair Rachel Mandell
I&A Chair Rachel Mandell
1. What is your favorite thing about your job or the archives profession?

My favorite thing about my current position is that I get to work with both digital and analog archival materials at the same time. As a Metadata Librarian in USC’s Digital Library, I am tasked with describing archival materials in a digital environment. I often use the original document, photograph, etc., to assist my description of the digital surrogate, in addition to spending my days toiling with spreadsheets, troubleshooting imports, and tinkering with file size and resolution. By working with both new and old technology, I retain what motivated me to join the archives profession in the first place – the tactile, tangible handling of historically and culturally important artifacts – while also staying up-to-date on relevant library and scholarly information trends and practices.

2. What made you want to join the I&A Steering Committee?

This year will be my third full year serving in some capacity with the I&A Steering Committee. Two years ago, I began as the Issues and Advocacy intern, working on ways to improve the Issues and Advocacy Toolkit. At the time, I was working as a grant-funded Project Archivist and found it very difficult to acquire the institutional support to pursue professional development opportunities outside of my current position. As my internship year came to a close, I found myself really enjoying working with the Issues and Advocacy Steering Committee. I had learned so much more about the inner-workings of SAA and also met a lot of people beyond my regional archival groups and local organizations. I decided to run for Vice Chair/Chair-elect. I was ready to take on a leadership role, as I had also secured myself a permanent faculty position so I had more institutional support and time to pursue volunteer positions. This year, I am so excited to step into the role of Chair. In today’s political climate, our section is more valuable than ever, as we raise awareness, engage with difficult and perhaps controversial issues, and do our part to strengthen the archives profession.  

3. What is an archival issue that means a lot to you?

The commitment to digital preservation. As digital technology/tools continue to advance and develop, we as archivists need to remember that digital ≠ forever. The commitment to perpetuity needs to be explicit in every new tool and every new digital surrogate that we create. For example, a new digital publishing platform called Scalar, developed here at USC, aims to transform scholarly communication into something more interactive, non-linear, and born-digital. This tool is beginning to gain traction, as students are even beginning to use it to publish their theses and dissertations. However, a known issue with Scalar is that there is no explicit commitment or workflow dedicated to the preservation of these projects. The ability to embed media is exciting, but there is no way to ensure the links don’t fall victim to link-rot. The Scalar environment provides innovative ways of interacting with research and scholarship, but there is no assurance that this environment will exist forever. I have no doubt that there are answers to some of these questions, but as we in the archives profession move forward with the creation and use digital technologies, I would like to see this issue of preservation built in to new tools of all kinds and not only considered after content has been created.

So SAA’s Going to Austin. Now What?

This post was written by Stephanie Bennett and the Issues & Advocacy Section’s Steering Committee, in light of the recent news that SAA was keeping its commitment to hold 2019’s annual meeting in Austin, Texas. 

With the announcement from SAA president Tanya Zanish-Belcher that SAA’s 2019 will be in Austin, despite a Council discussion about moving it, SAA members – and all archivists and humans who move about the world – have some thinking to do. And some work to do. Some of us – though not the Californian archivists among us – will attend the meeting. The I&A Steering Committee once more poses questions that we’ve been asking amongst ourselves:

  • How can we, as an organization and as individuals, support the activists of Texas?
  • Is it a betrayal of our personal beliefs or heteronormative myopia if we do attend, in part because we “pass” the Texas legislature’s guide of acceptable personhood?
  • As Eira Tansey points out, the battles between more liberal cities and restrictive, conservative legislatures are happening across the U.S.; where will our harassed queer colleagues find safe harbor?
  • Should we, how can we, support our professional organization(s) in the long run so that these choices between financial precarity or personal harm are no longer required? Does SAA need  (as writer Paulette Perhach called it) a F*ck Off Fund?
  • How can we work within the profession to change foundational systems of oppression? (And all of the questions we posed previously, really)

As an institution, SAA and its component groups, including the sections, have the responsibility to be mindful of how we spend our time and money – especially in Austin. We’ve been watching and listening as Representative John Lewis models the ethics and actions of “good trouble.” At Issues & Advocacy, we are committed to spending our money at LGBTQ-owned and -friendly businesses and establishments that recognize that black lives matter. We will seek opportunities to collaborate with queer archivists to do service and/or fundraising to benefit Texan activists and organizations fighting against the state’s restrictive and occasionally unconstitutional or overturned laws. And we welcome your ideas! If there is an event or organization that you would like to see supported or a topic that you would like to be discussed but do not have the bandwidth to undertake, let us know.

That said, the Society of American Archivists, as a 501(c)(3) non-profit, is not permitted to engage in “political campaign activities as defined by the IRS. We are not lawyers, but we do understand that  limits to SAA’s work exist, and, as a body within SAA, the limits for Issues & Advocacy’s work as well. But as individuals, we have the right to political activity and related speech. For those of us who will attend the meeting, we look forward to working in Austin, as both individuals and professional archivists.

 

Archivists on the Issues: Women Archivist Leaders and How to Become One

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today is the final post from Adriana Flores, Archivist and Special Collections Librarian at the University of Puget Sound, who has been blogging at Issues & Advocacy this year.

After attending the Society of American Archivists’ annual conference this past week, there’s no question that women are present in our profession. From the sea of cardigans to the long bathroom lines, women make their presence known. As I looked around at all the amazing female leaders in SAA, the idea of reaching that level of leadership myself seemed daunting. It made me wonder: do most women in SAA feel like they have the resources to claim leadership positions? Do we encourage women to seize leadership roles in SAA, and furthermore, at their own institutions? This blog post will reflect on some of the amazing role models of female leadership in SAA and highlight some resources and tips for those interested in climbing the leadership ladder.

Female Leaders in SAA History

If you look at the numbers of SAA leadership at the highest level, they tell an interesting story. Twenty of SAA’s 72 presidents since 1936 have been women; female presidency started with Margaret Cross Norton as the fourth SAA president in 1943. Since 1972, 7 out of the 9 executive directors have been women. Women archivists can look to this history of female leadership for inspiration as we progress along the leadership path outselves.

As I researched this post, I came across Michele F. Pacifico’s essay, “Founding Mothers: Women in the Society of American Archivists, 1936-1972,” in American Archivist. It is a wonderful read that explores the role that women played in SAA during its early years and highlights discrepancies between male and female membership and leadership.

Since SAA’s conception, women have been guiding and shaping it. In 1935, the American Historical Association created a “Committee of Ten on the Organization of Archivists” to establish a national organization of archivists (Pacifico 372). Two of those committee members were women. Pacifico writes:

Both [Margaret Cross Norton and Ruth Blair] had been active in the AHA Conference of Archivists and were interested in developing a separate professional organization for archivists. As early as 1929, Norton had encouraged archivists to detach themselves from historians. (372-373).

The vision and determination these women expressed is inspirational. Although their male counterparts outnumbered them, they were an integral part of developing the profession we are a part of today.

As archivists, we can learn a lot from Pacifico and the women she writes about. Although her essay was published in 1987, similarities to today shine through. She explains that between 1937 and 1972, only 10.9% of conference presenters and participants were women. She writes, “A close examination shows that year after year the same women were asked to present papers, chair sessions, or teach workshops” (378). During my time as an SAA member, I have seen people present year after year and I encourage more women to step forward and seize those opportunities.

Tips for Seizing Leadership Opportunities

  1. Apply to be an SAA intern for a section or committee. If you are a young professional and looking for a way to experience section leadership, apply to become a section intern. SAA emails about this annually in the spring.
  2. Find an SAA section you enjoy and put your name forward for elected positions. In “Roundtables as Incubators for Leadership: The Legacy of the Congressional Papers Roundtable,” Leigh McWhite writes, “For professional newcomers, the smaller scale of the roundtable environment will prove less intimidating than the much larger organization of SAA. Regardless, leadership often requires that you volunteer yourself” (309:6). Section steering committee nominations are open every spring, also. If you know you’re interested, email steering committee members to let them know.
  3. Write for a blog, section or regional newsletter, Archival Outlook or The American Archivist. Writing for an SAA or SAA-affiliated publication can be a great way to get your name out there, while not requiring the time commitment of section or committee service. Often publications will send out a call for pieces, but if you have a great article idea, contact the publication you are interested in.
  4. Present a poster or be part of a panel presentation at SAA annual conference. Posters are a great gateway to professional presentations if you are nervous about public speaking. That being said, archivists are a friendly bunch and often a supportive audience for people who have presentation jitters. Calls for annual conference presentations usually go out around October.
  5. Find a mentor who you want to emulate and ask questions! Mentors provide professional knowledge, guidance, and support. Even if you are only able to have an informational interview instead of an ongoing relationship, talking with someone who has a job or position that you’re interested in is invaluable. Seek out a colleague, a fellow alum from your graduate program, a professor, or another professional who you have connected with. SAA’s program might be a useful start, too. Mentorship can happen at any stage of your career. Don’t hesitate to reach out to people who can help you take the next step in your career.

I hope my findings and reflections on female leadership in SAA have invigorated you to take the next step in your own career and leadership journey.

References

Finding Our Voice: Advocacy in a Difficult Time

This post was written by Courtney Dean and the Issues & Advocacy Section’s Steering Committee, in light of several recent events.

In light of recent acts of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, personal attacks on the SAA-run Archives and Archivists listserv, and reports of harassment against several SAA 2017 panelists whose sessions addressed diversity, inclusion, and the dismantling of white supremacy in archives, the I&A Steering Committee has been considering the following questions and invites you to join with us:

  • How can we work within the profession to change foundational systems of oppression?
  • What can we do, individually and collectively, when colleagues are being harassed for their work and/or their ethnicity, gender, etc.?
  • How can we as a section provide a platform for elevating traditionally marginalized voices in the profession?
  • How can we create a safer space for difficult and vulnerable professional conversations?
  • How can we further SAA’s goal of inclusiveness?

Over the coming weeks we will be brainstorming our role as section within SAA, but we would also like to hear from the profession at large. SAA Council’s statement in response to A&A listserv activity provided the following prompt: If you have ideas about 1) how the List might be improved or 2) any new communication tools that we might consider as an enhancement to or substitute for the A&A List, please send your ideas to SAA President Tanya Zanish-Belcher at president@archivists.org.

Today’s Council statement regarding the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, VA, echoes the invitation to email members of Council or president@archivists.org. Specifically, sending along resources that can be included in a “toolkit that will offer specific information and resources on how our profession can work with communities to identify, combat, and dismantle acts and symbols of white supremacy” may be useful.

The I&A section also encourages submissions to our blog addressing any of the above topics. We reiterate Council’s stance against violence and intimidation and are wholly committed to working towards an inclusive professional organization.

Further reading

#ThatDarnList: The Saga Continues, Concerned Archivists Alliance

This most recent controversy demonstrated that there is still a serious problem in the archival profession with the mythical concept of archival ‘neutrality’ and with some archivists’ inability or unwillingness to entertain the notion that we can still be unwelcoming or even hostile to minorities in the profession.

SAA Statement on white supremacist violence in Charlottesville

ALA Statement on white supremacist violence in Charlottesville

Rare Book School statement on white supremacist violence in Charlottesville

Community Response to Charlottesville, list of actionable items added to by all, compiled by Michaela Suminski

The Problem of Perception, Feminist Killjoys

Archivists on the Issues: Podcasts as Oral Histories

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Samantha “Sam” Cross, the Assistant Archivist for CallisonRTKL.

If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email archivesissues@gmail.com. Please note that opinions expressed in Archivists on the Issues posts do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Section.

 

What I’m proposing isn’t that all podcasts are oral histories, but that podcasts should be considered another avenue of the oral history tradition. Oral histories, as a medium of historical study, have been a boon to historians, researchers, and archivists given the information they provide. Through the recounting of people who have actually lived through and experienced specific events or eras in history, we’ve been better able to flesh out the socio-economic and political nature of lives led that might have been forgotten – unintentionally or otherwise – by the written record.

In the past, however, oral histories were limited by the technology available. Having the right equipment with which to record required money and, unless you worked for a university with a large staff, transcription was a time consuming affair. On the user end, access to tapes and/or transcripts were dictated by institutional policy, which presented its own ethical problems when dealing with marginalized communities.

Technological advancements seem to be, in some cases, the great equalizer. Recording devices with good sound quality are relatively cheap, though most smart phones provide free downloadable apps for recording as well. Editing and transcription software is free to download on the internet and accessibility to audio, video, and transcripts have increased as more collections become digitized. The line between oral historian and podcast host is about as blurred as it can be. So what prevents us from accepting podcasts as a means of doing oral history? Well, I suppose we need to look at what podcasts are and how they’ve carved out their own niche in popular culture.

Podcasts, as a medium, evolved from the soundbite driven interviews of radio and television, but as the technology has improved podcasts have grown into a far more dynamic, narrative driven medium. Part of that narrative includes extensive and, in some cases, intimate interviews with celebrities or well-known public figures. These interviews then provide first-hand accounts of different eras of history and industries such as comedy, Hollywood, and politics. There are literally hundreds of podcasts available to download on iTunes, Soundcloud, Stitcher, etc, and very little stands in the way of participation. If you have a smartphone and a decent wifi signal, then a podcast you can record.

Perhaps that’s where the hesitancy lies, in the ubiquity of podcasts. There’s an overwhelming amount of data and hours of audio to sift through, but can we rely anymore on the hosts or panelists of these programs than we do on actual oral historians? With oral histories, at least there’s a purpose behind it that veils itself in attempting to add supplemental information to the current documented record. Podcasts are entertainment. They’re superfluous and disposable when compared to the weighty task of recording and transcribing the words of active agents who lived through events that shaped our society. And yet, some podcasts inadvertently accomplish the same goal even if that was never their original intent.

I’ve been a long time listener of the WTF with Marc Maron podcast. Granted, when Maron started his show, he didn’t know or anticipate what podcasts would become or where he would land with his listeners, but his transition from enraged comic to engaged interviewer was what got me thinking about the idea of podcasts as oral histories. Specifically episodes 358 and 359 when Maron talked with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, respectively. The comedic landscape as we know it began with Brooks and Reiner’s generation and the two are forever linked with the late Sid Caesar and his comedic force of nature. They are also the products of a bygone era of vaudeville and Catskill comedy. And while I understand the showmanship behind interviews for public consumption, the intimacy of a long form conversation shouldn’t be overlooked.

Have Brooks and Reiner provided similar answers to questions over their long history of giving interviews? Yes, but the context of those interviews, which theorists love to extol, are predicated on previous soundbyte driven formats. An appearance on a late night show or an interview in a magazine facilitates short, almost concise answers, which become practiced over time. But when the format expands and the limitations are loosened the results become a completely different animal. There’s also the matter of the host or interviewer’s intention. Again, it adds to the context of the piece. Maron’s goal, ultimately, is to understand the people who visit him in his garage/studio. Citing his own journey of self-awareness, his aim is to talk about what brought the interviewee to the moment of conversation. He tries to go deeper with his guests, sussing out who they are, where they come from, and the environment that shaped them. No audience, no real time constraints, just Maron and whoever’s on the other side of the mic. Historical value may not have been the primary goal, but as a byproduct it’s just as useful.

Podcasts, then, through the archival lens have tremendous potential to act as another form of supplemental material as well as a means by which our own passions might bear fruit. Kate Brenner recounts her revelation regarding the potential of podcasts as tools of oral history while listening to an analysis of an episode of Radiolab:

I was waiting outside a pizzeria for my delivery to be ready when the episode “Finding the Story When You Know Too Much” came on.  

The episode analyzed a Radiolab episode that I’d heard before, and really enjoyed because it used oral histories. Ostensibly, the point of this episode was that the producer of the piece on German POW camps in Iowa had to learn everything about the subject and then figure out how to whittle it down to a coherent podcast.

But that’s not what I heard.

I heard the story of a woman who was passionate about a subject, did all the research, and made an impeccable case as to why it should be made into a podcast. The dramatic climax of her narrative is getting rejected for the podcast, until she’s in line at security about to fly somewhere and gets a call from Radiolab. They want her to come in immediately to talk about her idea. She ditches her flight and goes to work on her episode.

Podcasts are not oral histories in the sense that hosts or production teams have a clear intention to create them. Instead, podcasts are conversations that provide just as much, if not more, supplemental information that historians and archivists alike can find value. Podcasts don’t have to carry the weight of academia nor do they require permission to be accessed. They are free (mostly) to be consumed but that doesn’t mean they are lacking in the necessary information or context needed to flesh out the historical record. If anything, the more podcasts that are made, the more potential we may have to find voices that might have been lost.

END OF YEAR STEERING SHARE: Tales from Michiana

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This end-of-the-year post is from Steering Committee member Alison Stankrauff, Archivist and Associate Librarian at Indiana University South Bend.

What is an example of an elevator pitch you have used concerning your own archives and who was the audience?

I have asked people in the greater South Bend community (known as “Michiana” as we’re so close to the state of Michigan) for materials for our Civil Rights Heritage Center (CRHC) Collections. The CRHC is a university-city partnership with its mission statement detailed as this:

The Civil Rights Heritage Center (CRHC) at Indiana University, South Bend, is committed to the advancement of civil rights and social justice research, education, and outreach, especially in the Michiana region. It fosters empirical and analytical research, sponsors student inquiry and activities and convenes faculty, visiting scholars, policy advocates and others to examine and discuss issues of importance to racial and ethnic minorities, to the poor, gays and lesbians, and to other potential beneficiaries of civil rights advances. The CRHC’s programming work focuses on civil rights education, economic justice, and voting rights.

In the area of research, the CRHC is committed to detailing and documenting the local civil rights history of Northern Indiana, and Michiana, as part of the larger national narrative of Civil Rights Activism among African-Americans, Mexican Americans, and other groups.

I have asked people at CRHC events know that I want their records. I’ve told them that their stories – the stories of the marginalized: the area’s stories of the African American, Latinx, and LGBTQ communities – won’t get told without their voices joining to the chorus.

Give an example of a controversial item or collection piece from your archive (or previous position) and how you dealt with the situation.

We hold the collections of all of our Chancellors of our campus. In our campus hierarchy the Chancellor serves as the head of our campus. Our second Chancellor, who served from 1988 to 1995, was indicted with multiple cases of sexual harassment by several women on campus, workers at several levels. The cases came to the fore in the final years of his tenure. He was, by the end of the court cases, deposed from IU South Bend. Not the way that you want your campus to get in national news! Our collection for this Chancellor hold sensitive communications surrounding the sexual harassment cases.

Through the years I’ve had people asking for the collection for research. As a public university with public collections, they are indeed open for research. That being said, when I get requests to use this collection, I have a conversation – an “interview” if you will – to further ascertain what the researcher/requestor wants to do with the content. I make sure that they have access to its materials accordingly.

What do you think archivists should be focusing on in the future? Where do you see the future of archives?

It’s difficult to choose just one thing for us archivists to focus on! One main thing to me is just how critical it is to make sure that we’re collecting content from marginalized people. Women, African Americans, Latinx, LGBTQ people – just to name a few communities – have had our stories not collected. Our histories and stories can get lost through time. So it’s critical that we sew the gaps in the cloth as we go along. Archivists can make sure that the full representation of our community – with all its “sub” communities – is collected, preserved, documented. So ultimately we can make it accessible.

I want to see more great partnerships between communities, repositories, and associated institutions happen. There are so many different ways that we can as archivists tell the full and complete and fully representative story of history.