Steering Shares: A Piece of Professional Literature that Impacted Me

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of committee member Genna Duplisea, archivist and special collections librarian at Salve Regina University.

On a class message board during library school, I once remarked that Howard Zinn’s “Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest” (https://minds.wisconsin.edu/handle/1793/44118) was a “mic drop.” I felt his call to action across the decades. Working full-time while taking two summer classes had accelerated the pace of my life and my studies past thoughtfulness, but reading Zinn’s concise connection between archives, power, and justice reminded me why I had chosen to train as an archivist. This piece made clear the importance of “the relation between professing one’s craft and professing one’s humanity” (14). Returning to this speech almost eight years after I first read it, in one of the greatest times of societal, political, and public health upheaval I have experienced, I was stunned by how apropos his words continue to be.

Zinn’s essay, published in The Midwestern Archivist in 1977, draws on an address he gave at the 1970 SAA Annual Meeting called “The Activist Archivist” (https://americanarchivist.org/doi/pdf/10.17723/aarc.34.1.23527290p7mx1w33) He argues that insistence of neutrality as a value of professionalism causes a separation between work and belief and an assumption that the work of archivists is not inherently political (17). Archivists have made progress in embracing the understanding that archives are not neutral, though it is not a universally-held tenet. The maintenance of neutrality “leaves very little time or energy to worry about whether the [information] machine is designed for war or peace, for social need or individual profits, to help us or to poison us” (16).

In recent years, we have seen attempts to erase archival information in support of crimes against humanity and environmental degradation. The routine destruction of ICE records or the removal of Web information on climate change left over from a previous administration could be standard archival practices. However, if we keep our values separate from our assessment of these practices, our will will tend “to maintain the existing social order by perpetuating its values, by legitimizing its priorities, by justifying its wars, perpetuating its prejudices, contributing to its xenophobia, and apologizing for its class order” (18). Such controversies are not quibbles about efficient procedures; they are moves of powerful apparatuses with bearing on people’s lives.

During this pandemic, we all must pause; as Arundhati Roy writes in her recent essay, “The pandemic is a portal,” (https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca)  this rupture forces “humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew.”  We have an opportunity to ask whether the work of archivists resists or endorses harmful narratives, such as American exceptionalism, disease as a third-world problem, immigrants as dangerous, poverty as a just product of meritocracy, or science as suspect. We do not have to look for egregious prejudice to see the impact of archival information and practices on people’s lives.

Zinn remarks that problems in the United States are not problems of excess, but of normalcy; how prescient was his observation that “our economic problem is not a depression but the normal functioning of the economy, dominated by corporate power and profit” (19). We see the coronavirus rip apart people’s lives and livelihoods, and lay bare societal problems and structural inequalities. How do we make sure that we document these phenomena equitably, inclusively, and with careful attention to our own influence?

I take Zinn’s words as an argument not to return to “normal” after the pandemic, and Roy argues that nothing would be worse. The disruption of operations is an opportunity to decide how we want to remake our work. Zinn notes several biases in archives — the wealthy and powerful over the marginalized, the domination of the written word, past over present, preservation over documentation, among others — that are still challenges today. How do we want to contend with these biases in the future? To what, and to whom, do we want to give our attention? Archivists have roles to play in guiding for more equitable and activist documentation and access to information. Each of us will have to decide what that means, and I encourage everyone to take this strange time to meditate on how we can further humanize our work.

Steering Shares: Advice your current professional self would tell to your young professional self regarding a particular issue

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of committee member Sheridan Leigh Sayles, technical services archivist at Seton Hall University.

My archival career started at an intersection between the library world and the museum world. As an undergraduate with experience and passion in both, I settled on archiving as a way to be able to be more hands-on with historic materials while having closer to the job security of a librarian. Right?

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So I dove in; I racked up a number of part time jobs in libraries, museums, in archives. I had almost a full resume of experiences before even starting graduate school, and graduated after adding a GA, part-time job, and two more internships on that list. And I was one of the fortunate ones who found a job only 3 months after graduating.

Now as an early-to-mid career archivist (when exactly do we become mid-career again? This is what happens when I let the imposter syndrome in), I thank my early 20s self every day for getting in that extra internship and doing that little extra reading. And while I currently serve on I&A to try and reduce the hoops I had to jump through for future archivists, I still want to tell my younger self this:

  1. You never know where you’re going to end up, so embrace the ride.
    • If you had told me that my first job would be as an archivist for a political collection? I might have laughed at you. If you told me that one thing that got me that interview was a 40 hour volunteer position weeding government documents, I might have laughed even harder. And now that I’ve completed that term position and met a number of fantastic colleagues through it, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity that I couldn’t have imagined—and am growing a professional identity from it. I’m also happy that my wide range of internships leading up to that position gave me plenty of insight going into that position. Which leads to point 2…
  2. All experience is good experience – but only if you learn from it.
    • Probably my biggest heartbreak as an emerging professional was getting too optimistic about a job prospect too soon. Twice I took and continued with internships with the possibility of a job at the end of it and both times they fell through. So while we can’t control budget cuts or federal-ese, I have learned to manage my expectations and be transparent. Now when I take on interns, I outline what I hope for them to learn on the job, share advice when I can, and be open while still being encouraging. I also usually tell them…
  3. You only need one job, so don’t let rejections discourage you.
    • I think I applied to about 80-100 jobs when I got out of graduate school, and I stayed up more nights than I wish to count crying over anxiety of whether or not it would be worth it. The perfect job may come right out of grad school, it may come after 6 or more months, or after years of mediocre jobs strung together. So plan for the worst, hope for the best, and trust yourself.

Now good luck out there!

Steering Shares: Professional Hindsight 20/20

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of the chair of the I&A steering committee, Joanna Black, the archivist for Colby Library, Sierra Club national headquarters.

The following is based on the prompt, “Advice your current professional self would tell to your young professional self regarding a particular issue.” In this case, the issue is beginning a career in the archival profession.

Flashback: It’s 2010. The financial crisis is two years deep. I’ve just graduated with an MLIS. My year and a half student gig at the university library is drawing to a close. I have no job lined up after graduation. I have very little life experience but hold firm to the “go with the flow” attitude typical of individuals in their 20s. I assume, after graduation, it will be easy to snag an archives job. I am very wrong.

If I had known then what I know now (knowledge that was gained from years of ups and downs in the archival field), I may have had an easier time finding my archival path. None the less, growing as an archivist required some missteps along the way. If I could travel back in time to 2010, I’d tell myself the following:

  1. Ask for help. It is easy to be arrogant after accomplishing something like a master’s program. Tons of new skills and concepts are acquired, and falling into the illusion that you are now an expert is a common mistake. But a graduate program, like most educational resources, is merely a starting off point. It is also important to take stock of the relationships you’ve built through your education, especially those people who are willing to help you in the early stages of your career. Accepting that you don’t know everything is a sign of maturity, and asking for help shows strength. When you begin applying for jobs (and are inevitably rejected for jobs), ask more experienced and professionally wiser colleagues to review your resume and cover letters for feedback. Set up informal informational interviews at archival institutions and ask individuals who work there what form their professional path took. If you are volunteering or interning somewhere, ask your supervisor questions (at an appropriate time) about the workflows and tools you use. All this will add to your own wisdom over time, which you will happily pass along to others down the road.
  2. Trust your instincts. Admit it, sometimes you feel insecure. Sometimes, there is that little voice inside your head that tells you you’ll never understand descriptive cataloging or figure out XML. But there is a reason you pursued archival work over any other type of profession. All people have insecurities around their careers, but one should not fall victim to these common doubts. Remember, you passed your courses, you completed your training, you got your degree – you know more about archival work than your insecurities lead on. So while you’re putting yourself out there pursuing your chosen profession, have the courage to speak up and make your positions heard. So much archival work is about decision making (usually decisions with no definitive answers). Your well-informed instincts will play a big role in guiding your work, and although it is nice to have straight yes or no answers, archival work is about judgement. Trust your judgement – it got you this far – and when you are really stuck, refer to tip #1 (Ask for Help).
  3. Cherish professional opportunities. There will be plenty of opportunities and experiences that come your way during your career, from attending professional conferences to volunteering at small local institutions. You may even work a few jobs that have nothing to do with your chosen career path. Each opportunity offers a chance for personal and professional growth. When you attend a conference, you have the invaluable opportunity to see what colleagues at different stages of their careers are working on. When you answer a call for volunteers, you show your willingness to contribute something positive to the archival profession while building trusting relationships along the way. When you take that retail job because you can only find part-time archival work, you are building up customer services skills that will serve you immensely when doing reference work later on in your career. Every professional experience on your path to long-term archival work will serve you in some way. While it is important to have goals, do not become fixated on exactly how those goals should be achieved. Let your experiences illuminate the best path forward and never waste an opportunity.

But above all else – rules or no rules – work hard and trust yourself. Believe me, you’ll get to where you want to go.

With a firm handshake,

You / Me from the future

Steering Share: Meet Sara DeCaro

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of committee member Sara DeCaro, the university archivist at Baker University Library. 

 

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I was lucky enough receive the Mary Louise Meder Internship in the State Archives division of the Kansas Historical Society when I was working on my MLS. It was a great introduction to archives, and it was paid! I wrote finding aids for two collections of personal papers and did some work with Kansas Memory, the KSHS’ digital image website. I enjoyed every minute of it, too. It reaffirmed my decision to pursue a career in archives.

 

 

2) What do you hope to gain by being on the I&A Steering Committee?

I initially became a part of I&A because I had never served on a committee in any of the professional organizations I belong to, and I&A seemed to match my interests. This is my second year on the steering committee, and I already feel like I’ve gained a lot. Having the opportunity to work on our temporary labor survey was meaningful to me personally, as someone who has held temporary positions in the past, and although analyzing all that data was a bit challenging, I learned a great deal. One of my Steering Shares from last year also led to participation in a panel discussion at the Annual Meeting in July, which was also a very worthwhile experience.

 

 

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

Low wages in the archives profession is a very important issue, in my opinion, and one that I’ve been able to explore as a result of my involvement in this committee. That was the focus of the panel discussion I mentioned before. It’s a widespread problem in the archives world, for a number of reasons. I knew that after reading the responses to our survey, but listening to the other panelists and hearing their stories made the scope of the problem very clear. I like being able to contribute to a solution, even if it is in a small way.

 

 

4) What can we find you doing outside of the archival profession?

I’ve recently started volunteering with Kansas City Pet Project, my local animal shelter. I wasn’t ready for a new pet when my cat passed away, but I missed cats and wanted to be around them. Shelter environments can be stressful for cats, so I’m glad I can give them a little comfort.

Steering Share: Meet Courtney Dean

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of the past-chair of the I&A committee, Courtney Dean, the head of the Center for Primary Research and Training in UCLA Library Special Collections.

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1) What was your first experience working with archives?

As an undergrad I wrote a paper on the history of May Day in Boston using mircrofilm copies of old newspapers, but that’s as close I got to anything remotely archival for a long time. When I was thinking about grad school I came across the Queer Zine Archive Project (QZAP) and the Riot Grrrl collection at Fales and was disabused of the notion that archives are stuffy and elite. Then I found out “archivist” was an actual job and was completely sold. My grad school internships were at the Wende Museum of the Cold War, Pacifica Radio Archives, and LACMA. I worked with artifacts and artworks; ¼ inch audiotapes; and institutional records. While in grad school I also worked in the Center for Primary Research and Training in UCLA Library Special Collections, a program I now head. There I had the opportunity to work on collections from the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives as part of their partnership with UCLA Library.  

2) What do you hope to gain by being on the I&A Steering Committee?

This is my third(!) and last year on the Steering Committee and I hope to contribute to both the continuity and sustainability of the section and its ongoing work. So much volunteer work is thankless and burnout-prone, but I’ve always appreciated how I&A’s charge is broad enough for folks to pursue issues of importance to them. The enthusiasm of my fellow steering committee members is infectious, and I look forward to pushing forward conversations around issues facing the profession. 

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

Fair and ethical archival labor has been something I’ve been passionate about for a long time- everything from paid internships to temp labor to salary transparency and barriers to entry in the profession. Aside from I&A, I participate in the Digital Library Federation’s (DLF) Labor Working group, co-chair the Society of California Archivists (SCA) Labor Issues Task Force, and am on the organizing and issues committees for the librarian unit of my union. Right now a lot of this work involves data collection, which can hopefully be leveraged to better advocate for change. Like others have mentioned, I’ve also started thinking more and more about the environmental impact of the profession- flying to conferences, digital storage, etc. 

4) What can we find you doing outside of the archival profession?

Way too much of my free time has been devoted to archives adjacent activities, but I’m trying to get better with boundaries and work life balance. I play guitar in a punk band called Red Rot, just joined a rad book club, and am obsessed with my cat, Walrus. (My other feline bff Potato just passed away last week which was really hard.) I’m also currently watching Deadwood for the first time.

 

Steering Share: Meet Genna Duplisea

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of committee member Genna Duplisea, archivist and special collections librarian at Salve Regina University.

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1) What was your first experience working with archives?

After working in the library stacks my first year of college, I transferred my work-study to the Special Collections and Archives department because when I often walked by its glass doors and beautiful sculptural gates, I thought it looked interesting. For the rest of my time at Bowdoin, I was an assistant there, learning how to handle and organize everything from architectural plans to brittle folded nineteenth-century correspondence to newspaper clippings to masses of trophies. The collection was robust and the department busy, so I got to see the variety of research primary sources could provide. My supervisors encouraged enthusiasm about the collection and the environment allowed me to take joy in my work. One year for my grandfather’s birthday I found for him the alumnus file for a doctor from our family lore – he had delivered one of my ancestors on a kitchen table!

2) What do you hope to gain by being on the I&A Steering Committee?

Much of my reasoning for pursuing a career in archives is my desire to contribute positively to human rights and the environment. It can be difficult and overwhelming at work to stay grounded in the ever-changing landscape of concerns and ideas linking archives to social justice. Attending to the role of archives in combating prejudice and harm means advocating for our labor, too. Serving on the I&A Steering Committee will, I hope, help me do the things I entered this profession to do, by connecting me more closely to the work addressing social and environmental justice issues and placing me in a position to support or join in archival activism.


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

I see climate change as underpinning every problem and political issue because it affects every community. Archivists have a role in helping communities preserve and protect their heritage as the climate becomes more unpredictable, and we also have lot to do in addressing our profession’s carbon footprint. How do we perform memory work for changing and disappearing communities without further contributing to the source of that change? As part of Archivists Responding to Climate Change (ProjectARCC), I recently collaborated with other archivists on hosting Climate Teach-ins and hope to contribute to the growing body of writing on archives and climate change in the coming year.


4) What can we find you doing outside of the archival profession?

Reading, writing, and basic fiber crafting are also among my hobbies, which almost goes without saying in this profession. It cracks me up to around the room of archivists and seeing a bunch of people knitting during a presentation, which I have been known to do. Additionally, I’m not very sporty, but I love going for walks. There is a land trust in my community that maintains beautiful walking trails. I’m trying to learn more about the plants and birds I see and develop a stronger knowledge of the natural world. My houseplants are also doing all right

Steering Share: Meet Steering Committee Member Holly Croft

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of committee member Holly Croft, the digital archivist at Georgia College. 

 

1) What was your first experience working with archives?

Archiving is a second career for me, and I quit the first without a clear plan with what I wanted to do next. I started volunteering on an indexing project for a nonprofit where I would attach metadata to digital versions of their collection materials. It was extremely calming in a time where I felt that many things were up in the air, and I would spend hours working on the indexes.

Because it was a volunteer position, I didn’t catch on immediately that the indexing project was part of a larger career field, but I eventually researched it and learned the avenues through which one becomes an archivist. The following fall, I applied to graduate school, and I have never looked back!

2) What do you hope to gain by being on the I&A Steering Committee?

I am so delighted to be a part of the I&A Steering Committee, and I am looking forward to working with the rest of the committee to assist archivists who need support in a variety of ways. As Joanna mentioned in her Steering Share, this is a small community, so it only makes sense that we’re stronger together.

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

Recently, this committee has taken a look at labor practices particularly surrounding temporary positions and the precarity they create for those who end up taking them. This is, unfortunately, an ongoing concern.

I also am increasingly uneasy with additional labor dumped on archivists, particularly under the guise of “other duties as assigned” and “doing less with more.” This is a topic that hits labor markets well beyond archives, but I’ll bet the majority of archivists have a story about these phrases biting them in some way at their jobs.

These are only two of a myriad of topics affecting archivists today, and I am looking forward to being able to assist where possible.

4) What can we find you doing outside of the archival profession?

I have become the crazy cat lady people warn you about becoming in library school! Two months ago, I had two cats. I took in a stray that looked a little rotund at the beginning of October, and mid-October, I suddenly had six cats.

Just kidding – I could tell there were kittens coming when I took in the third. So, I’m spending a lot of time socializing these little ones and getting them ready for their forever homes.

Additionally, I love cooking and preserving food, gardening, and reading.

Steering Share: Meet Committee Member Sheridan Leigh Sayles

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of committee member Sheridan Leigh Sayles, technical services archivist at Seton Hall University.

1) What was your first experience working with archives

SpringShare profile picI grew up in a town rooted in history—Richmond, VA—and always had a love and fascination with old things. When I went to undergrad, I started working in the Library and that inspired me to look into all aspects of heritage work. I enrolled in the Museum Studies minor and learned about exhibit design, preservation, and got the opportunity to intersperse practical work with my studies. I fell in love with the practice of handling the objects—I remember one day getting to see the preservation housing for an outfit worn by President James Monroe in Paris, and I knew I’d found the right career!

2) What do you hope to gain by being on the I&A Steering Committee?

This is my first year on the Steering Committee, so I am still learning about what the committee does and how we affect SAA policy and all that good stuff, but I feel like we are in a good position to connect archivists with resources that can help them in their careers and with their interests. Through our blog and other resources, we can connect archivists at all stages of their careers with material to help them do their jobs better, or advocate for themselves and the practices they’d like to uphold. And I’m thrilled to be working with the I&A veterans and learning from them on how to affect change.

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

I’m really invested in archival labor and supporting early career professionals! I’m currently working with colleagues at University of Delaware and NYU on a research project into the status of term-limited (project) archivists and I’m hoping that our data can help define the scope of project positions. I think a big part of this question starts with ethical internships and making sure that the work they are doing will ultimately translate into success on the job market. Beyond that, I’ve been following the research on archivists and climate change and seeing recommendations on that.
4) What can we find you doing outside of the archival profession?

I was a competitive figure skater in a past life, so you can often find me in an ice rink jumping, spinning, and all that good stuff, or coaching youngsters. It’s so rewarding taking my students to their first competitions, not only to see how much they’ve grown as skaters, but also to show them how hard work can pay off.

Steering Sharing: Meet I&A Committee Member Samantha Brown

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of committee member Samantha Brown, Assistant Archivist at the New-York Historical Society.

1) What was your first experience working with archives?

IMG_20180510_195725578_2My first experience working in an archive was in graduate school. During my second semester, I had taken a processing class where you split your time between the classroom and a field site. While at the field site, I had a friendly relationship with the archivists and assisted them with a project. A few months after the class ended, out of the blue, I received an email from the supervisory archivist at the field site asking if I was interested in a job. Being a grad student, and constantly in need of money, I excitedly jumped at the chance to gain more experience in my chosen profession while also gaining a bit of money to help pay my mounting bills. 

The job itself gave me a wide range of experiences. The focus of the job was on processing but I also gained experience providing reference services in a university setting and digitizing a wide range of documents. Getting to work in a professional setting during grad school was incredibly help. I was able to learn what the job was like on a day to day basis and learn about what parts of the profession fit me and my skills best. 

2) What do you hope to gain by being on the I&A Steering Committee?

During my first year on the committee, I feel like I was just trying to get a hold on what the expectations for me were. While I had previously served on the committee as an intern, being a full committee member is a different experience and comes with a new set of rules. Now that I’m in my second year, I want to work on building connections between archivists. Many of us seem to be struggling with our jobs for one reason or another and it would be great if we could find a way to support each other, to help others out during times of strife. 

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

As a profession, I feel like there are many issues that were facing. One problem that I was confronted with recently is legitimizing our profession to people that don’t use our services. Of course historians, social scientists, and genealogists will see the value of archives and archivists but how do you get scientists or engineers to care about what your doing. Historical records aren’t things they need to deal with on a daily basis and, because of this, many people in those fields see our work as something unimportant.If we want to continue our work and receive the funding that we so desperately need then we need to find a way to reach people who don’t use archives and teach them about the inherent value of historical records. We can’t spend all of our time educating people, of course, but if people keep thinking of history as an unknowable and unreachable thing then they won’t value what we can provide them.

4) What can we find you doing outside of the archival profession?

Outside of work, I’m a bit of a nerd. I enjoy playing Dungeons Dragons, reading scifi and fantasy novels, and playing video games. Nothing beats getting together with a group of friends and fighting off a dragon. 

Steering Share: Meet I&A’s New Chair Joanna Black

JoJoBlackSteering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of the chair of the I&A steering committee, Joanna Black, the archivist for Colby Library, Sierra Club national headquarters.

My name is Joanna Black, and I am the 2019-2020 chair of SAA’s Issues & Advocacy section. What an honor it is to be part of such an impactful and meaningful section, and it’s an equal honor to be working alongside very talented professionals in the section’s Steering Committee.

This is the first Steering Share blog post of the season, so please let me take a moment with the rest of my colleagues to tell you a little bit more about myself.

1) What was your first experience working with archives?

My first experience working with archives was in 2008 as an undergraduate student at San Francisco State University. I was looking for an internship and came across a listing for an “Archives Intern” at the University’s Poetry Center and American Poetry Archives. I didn’t know anything about archives, but it sounded mysterious enough for me to take a chance. Upon working with my first “archival object” – a 60 year old recording of an on-campus poetry reading from Allen Ginsberg – I knew immediately that there was something special about working with archival materials. I was hooked, and off to an MLIS program I went!

2) What do you hope to gain by being on the I&A Steering Committee?

Actively participating in the I&A Steering Committee is such a privilege, and I hope to learn from my colleagues and fellow section members more about the issues that are most impactful to our profession. Additionally, I hope to learn some of the creative ways in which those issues are being tackled both inside and outside of SAA. Being part of a small profession places extra importance on building strong professional communities, and I aim to build this with fellow section members as well as with SAA members more broadly. By the end of my tenure as chair, I hope to know many more SAA members on a first name basis and learn more about their experiences working in the archives profession.

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

Advocating for the importance of the archival profession is a really important issue to me. Our jobs are made so much more difficult when, on top of our impossible workloads, we are tasked with advocating for our positions – even within our own organizations! Each of us entered the archival profession because the work means something significant to us, and communicating that passion to others is an important way to strengthen public awareness around the significance of our work. As much as I like being a secret superhero of cultural heritage, broader awareness of the archives profession would help ensure job and funding stability, public engagement with cultural and historical resources, and a possible societal shift in how we think about our past, present, and future heritage.

4) What can we find you doing outside of the archival profession?

When I’m not thinking about memory, metadata, or manuscripts, I enjoy the simpler things in domestic life: writing, reading, gardening, listening to music, playing with my two cats, and taking walks through the gorgeous California redwoods surrounding my home in Oakland, California. I also really love sleeping.