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 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.



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.

ICYMI: Archives Association of Ontario Annual Meeting 2017

Our ICYMI series provide summaries of presentations, publications, webinars, and other educational opportunities that are of interest to I&A members. 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 The following is from Sara Janes, University Archivist for Lakehead University, Ontario.

The 2017 conference of the Archives Association of Ontario was held on the University of Toronto Campus, April 26-28. The theme, “Come Together: Meaningful Collaboration in a Connected World,” felt relevant to the participants as we discussed ways to work with each other and with the public to better support archives and communities across the province.

Focus on decolonization and Indigenous issues

Decolonization and indigenous issues were a significant theme, particularly as archives are beginning to respond to the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and are engaging with Canada 150 celebrations. In one plenary session, Michael Etherington, of the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, spoke about those calls to action, and the frequent disconnect between colonial institutions and Indigenous people and communities; in the other, Raymond Frogner, Director of Archives at University of Manitoba’s National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, spoke about the impact of Indigenous thinkers such as George Hunt on archival theory and practices.

Responses to the TRC, engaging with Canada’s colonial past and present, and social justice issues were well represented throughout the conference, and these themes were often tied in with discussions around acquisition, archival management, and digital outreach, as well as working groups formed within various organizations.

Focus on collaboration and partnerships

Other presentations highlighted collaboration and cooperation between institutions. Papers touched on: collaboration for acquisition and collection development, appraisal of government records, sharing resources for digital preservation, teaching courses using archival material, online outreach and collaborative exhibits, and the work of student and young professional organizations. Overall, the program was excellent, and attendees found it difficult to choose between sessions.

Talks were also held on the past, present, and future of the Archives Association of Ontario, giving members a chance to learn more about how this organization has been shaped over the years and its plans for the future. In particular, this included a report on the first year of the Provincial Acquisition Strategy, and feedback on how to continue building cooperation between archival institutions in the province.

Other highlights

The formal side of the conference was supported by a variety of other opportunities for socializing, networking, and learning. Four archives tours were held: to the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto, the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library and University of Toronto Archives, and the John M. Kelly Library Conservation Studio. The opening reception was held at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, and attendees had many opportunities to catch up with each other during breaks and at pub nights.

The Banquet, held at Hart House, celebrated 20 years of the Archives and Records Management program at the University of Toronto iSchool. The Awards Lunch was held at at the Faculty Club, and honoured Suzanne Dubeau, Nick Ruest, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the Hastings County Historical Society.

Many of the conference presentations have been posted online, and a Storify is also available.


Sara Janes is University Archivist for Lakehead University. She has an MLIS from McGill University, and has worked in archives and records management for ten years, with a focus on digital records issues, outreach, and education.


End of Year Steering Share: Rachel Mandell—Looking Forward and Reflecting Back

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This end-of-the-year post is from I&A Vice Chair/Chair-Elect Rachel Mandell, Metadata Librarian at the University of Southern California Digital Library.

This year has been an exciting whirlwind for me—from starting a new job as a permanent library faculty member to deciding to continue with the Issues and Advocacy Section as the incoming Chair, I have taken on more responsibility, learned a lot more about what it means to be a professional archivist/ librarian, and have just started to figure out how to juggle it all.

As we wind down in our current positions with the Issues and Advocacy Section and look forward to our official section meeting in Portland, I want to take this opportunity to thank Hope Dunbar, our outgoing Chair, who has been a great leader throughout this past year.  I also want to thank the rest of the amazing Steering Committee for your enthusiasm and dedication to the section and the cause! I will need to ask for your continued support next year—I hope I can live up to the legacy that Hope is leaving behind.  

As I prepare myself to step into my new role as Chair, I want to use this post to reflect on what we accomplished this year and what I hope to continue working towards next year. This list is by no means comprehensive—these are just some of the achievements that stick out for me personally.

  1. Our nomination for SAA’s J. Franklin Jameson award was selectedThe Steering Committee nominated The Environmental Data & Governance Initiative & The Technoscience Research Unit, University of Toronto, and it was selected!  We are so proud!
  2. Updated the Issues and Advocacy ToolkitOne of our amazing Steering Committee members, Laurel Bowen, spearheaded the toolkit update this year.  She added significant content from the history and historic preservations professions, which provide substantive ideas on how to think about the value and impact of archives, to craft value statements about archives, and how to lobby or energize the support of decision-makers to relevant content on other websites.
  3. Social media updates: Daria Labinsky, another one of our esteemed Steering Committee members, was our social media rock star—she was on top of promoting all of our blog posts and getting important information out to our members through our Facebook page and Twitter feed.
  4. Maintained an Active I&A Blog: A HUGE shootout to Steering Committee member Stephanie Bennett—who coordinated and posted blog posts. We were able to maintain an active blog this year across our four series: Archivists on the Issues, In Case You Missed It (ICYMI), Research Posts, and Steering Shares.
  5. Research teams: This year we had Legislators Research and General News Monitoring Research Teams. These are logistically difficult to coordinate, but our teams and team leaders did a great job this year keeping up on the issues that affect our profession. You can check out some of the teams’ findings in our Research Posts category in our blog.
  6. Coordinated a great panel for our section meeting at SAA this year: This year, we’ll have a panel discussing experiences with controversial archival collections as well as their best practices for access and display. Promises to be an interesting discussion! Come check it out—Friday, July 28th from 11:15-12:30p during SAA in Portland. 
  7. Monthly meetings/Bi-annual joint calls: Every month, Hope leads a Steering Committee meeting as well as two joint calls with our collaborators: the Regional Archival Associations Consortium (RAAC) Advocacy Subcommittee, the Committee on Public Policy, and the Committee on Public Awareness.  It’s exciting to see where our groups’ interests align and we can develop collaborative initiatives. 

Looking towards next year, which officially starts after the SAA Annual Meeting in Portland, I hope to get started on the following:

  • Library Design Share PortalPossible pilot project for I&A, and collaborators, modeled after the Library Design Share Portal, where we could create templates that could be used for advocating for the library.
  • An Issues and Advocacy Intern: We have decided to join SAA in a call for interns. We hope to offer our intern some great experience of working with our toolkit, perhaps overseeing legislative or general research teams or coordinating some of our outreach efforts. I actually started with I&A as an intern, so it’s very exciting for me to guide our intern.
  • Continue with the momentum of our blog: I really hope to keep up with our blog presence!!  Can’t let the momentum run out now!

I am really looking forward to serving as Chair next year. I want to do a good job and be a good leader.  I hope that the rest of the steering committee holds me to that! Thanks for a great year everyone! Go Team!

Archivist on the Issues: The Best of Both Worlds, Combining physical & digital primary source education

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Adriana Flores, Assistant Archivist for Acquisitions at Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center.

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 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.


If you have been keeping up on current trends in the archival profession, then you have heard about teaching with primary sources. The topic has had a distinct presence at the past few annual meetings, particularly the Reference, Access, and Outreach section’s full-day unconference, “Teaching With Primary Sources,” happening for the third time in Portland. However, another trend has also sparked my interest: creating education programs that utilize digitized archival materials. These programs offer access to primary sources in a whole new way and force archival educators to re-imagine the ways we’ve taught archival intelligence in the past. Clearly, teaching with primary sources is a vast subject with many approaches.

As an early professional, I am torn over how best to bring materials to college students. Should students be brought into the reading room to handle our rare and exciting materials themselves or should our items be scanned so students can access them from the comfort of their laptop? Or should students be exposed to both? To explore this issue further, I reviewed current literature on primary source education that highlight projects involving both physical and digital primary sources.

First, a quick overview of teaching with primary sources. Many archivists are not professionally trained educators so new publications, webinars, and other tools are vital to the transition from custodian to educator. Professors often enjoy incorporating primary sources into their classes because it gives their students an opportunity to engage with their lessons in a new and exciting way. In Teaching With Primary Sources, authors Elizabeth Yakel and Doris Malkmus write:

Textbooks and lectures present information in an authoritative voice, striving for clarity and concision, but research shows that students learn best when they experience cognitive dissonance and must struggle to make sense of new information by integrating it into an existing framework or building one around. (p. 35)

When engaged with primary sources, students are forced to think beyond the pre-packaged information often found in textbooks or articles. This method of teaching presents numerous opportunities for archival repositories to become more involved in course curriculum on campus.

When teaching with primary sources, the first approach that archivists can employ is straight-forward: bring students into archives. By allowing students to see archival materials first-hand, to touch them, to even smell them, understanding of the item can completely change. Physical materials often spark an interest in history by making an event or idea seem more tangible. Additionally, by being in an archival repository, students are able to learn more about how archives work and how to do research, also known as archival intelligence. As described in “AI: Archival Intelligence and User Expertise”:

Archival intelligence is a researcher’s knowledge of archival principles, practices, and institutions, such as the reasons underlying archival rules and procedures, how to develop search strategies to explore research questions, and an understanding of the relationship between primary sources and their surrogates. (p. 52)

By bringing college students into the archival repository and showing them primary sources, the archivist is able to impart archival intelligence, which will hopefully impact their future research skills. Overall, working with physical archival materials can make a lasting impact on students, which is both exciting and rewarding for archival educators.

Another approach to teaching with primary sources involves digital surrogates, which can be used to create online collections or exhibits, and expose a wider audience to archival materials. These platforms oftentimes make students feel more comfortable with the process of using primary sources; students can access documents from the comfort of their laptops without the limitations of reading room hours. Additionally, these methods can be great for distance or online-only students who are unable to visit campus. Digital projects will only become more prominent in our profession and it is worth investing the time to learn how to implement them.

It seems that the best way to expose students to primary sources is through a combination of physical and digital methods. By doing so, instructors are able to broaden their students’ research skill-sets and foster comfort and confidence with both in-person and online research. Yakel and Malkmus write:

While online sources are increasingly being used as substitutes for physical documents, both educators and archivists have also used online and physical records in a complementary sense. Instructors may introduce documents online to familiarize students with the sources and then bring students into the archives to focus on some of the material aspects of the items. Likewise, archivists may begin by introducing students to the actual records and then have them finish assignments using online collections…In the end, the important thing for both primary source and archival literacy is that students understand the advantages and disadvantages of using only actual, only online, or both types of primary sources. (p. 44)

By using primary sources in multiple formats, students are able to gain complementary research skills that will help them throughout their college career and beyond.

Lastly, working with both physical and digitized primary source materials presents one more exciting opportunity: digital humanities projects. At Nebraska University, archivists worked with faculty to create a series of classes that explored the relationship between physical and digital primary sources. Their goal for their students was to “…personally work with collections and learn more about the benefits of archival research through use of the materials in potentially compelling interpretative projects, and the online world would be able to discover our collections digitally” (Brink et al, p. 163). Digital humanities projects hold a great deal of potential for what primary source education can look like in the future; these projects are creative, collaborative, and constantly evolving. If you are struggling for a way to connect with humanities professors on campus, this is a great place to start.

Teaching with primary sources cannot be ignored by college and university archivists. Both physical and digital sources have their benefits and disadvantages while teaching, but I believe an education program is strongest when they are combined. If you are interested in learning more, I highly recommend SAA’s Teaching With Primary Sources, ACRL’s Past or Portal: Enhancing Undergraduate Learning through Special Collections and Archives, as well as attending RAO’s unconference. Any success stories, ideas, or reading suggestions? Please leave your comments below!


Adriana Flores is the Assistant Archivist for Acquisitions at Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center. She graduated in 2016 with her MLIS from Simmons College, with a concentration in Archives Management. Currently, Adriana is also a contributor for SNAP’s “Year in the Life” blog series.


Sources Cited

Brink, Peterson, and Mary Ellen Ducey, Andrew Jewell, and Douglas Seefeldt.”Teaching Digital History through the University Archives: The Case of Nebraska U: A Collaborative History.” In Past or Portal?: Enhancing undergraduate learning through special collections and archives, by Eleanor Mitchell, Peggy Seiden, and Suzy Taraba, 163-68. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2012.

Yakel, Elizabeth, and Deborah Torres. “AI: Archival Intelligence and User Expertise.” The American Archivist 66, no. 1 (2003): 51-78. Accessed April 20, 2017. doi:10.17723/aarc.66.1.q022h85pn51n5800.

Yakel, Elizabeth, and Doris Malkmus. “Contextualizing Archival Literacy.” In Teaching with Primary Sources, by Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe and Christopher J. Prom, 5-68. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2016.



Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This end-of-the-year post is from I&A Steering Committee member Daria Labinsky, Archivist at the National Archives at St. Louis.

Want to get your message heard by a member of Congress? Here’s some advice from an intern in the trenches. Let’s call her Intern X. She spends hours every week in the Washington, D.C., office of a U.S. senator, fielding the calls and mail of the American people. While honing her ability to deal with difficult customers, Intern X is also picking up pointers on what works and doesn’t work when you’re trying to influence a legislator.

Note that this is what it’s like in this office; other Congressional offices may not operate in exactly the same way.

What’s the most important thing to know? “Make sure you only contact your Congress person,” she says. “I don’t need to hear anything about (for example) Elizabeth Warren. I can’t do anything about Elizabeth Warren.” And when you call a member of Congress who doesn’t represent you, you’re making it harder for someone whom they do represent to get through on the phone.  

What’s the best way to get your Congresswoman or man’s attention? Set up an appointment to meet her or him in person. Intern X’s senator hosts regular events for constituents in D.C. when the Senate is in session. There’s a section on legislators’ websites where you can schedule appointments in D.C. or in your state.

 “Town Halls are not as useful as private meetings in a conference room with 10 people,” says Intern X. “Even if you can’t meet with a senator, you might be able to meet with one of their aides. Town Halls are more for just asking questions.”

Next best? “If it’s time sensitive, then call or fill out a comment form on our website,” she says.

More about phone calls. “Don’t call assuming you’re going to talk to a United States senator.” They’re seldom in their offices, and the offices get thousands of calls each week.

Voicemail is OK. Try not to get frustrated if your call goes to voicemail. “Understand that they answer to a lot of people, and if you’re getting voicemail, that probably means they’re getting a lot of calls,” Intern X says. Rest assured that those voicemails are indeed being listened to—even on days when a thousand calls come in. “Don’t assume because you’re getting voicemail, you’re being avoided.”

“The maximum number of phone lines we can have ringing is six or seven,” she says. The interns and staff listen to and document all the messages, including the hundred or so that come in overnight.  

You need to provide some kind of identifying information–even if it’s just your ZIP Code. Intern X sometimes speaks to people who refuse to provide any identifying information. “I can’t record your comment if I don’t have a ZIP Code, because I can’t verify you’re from our state,” she says.

What about snail mail? If you want to discuss an issue that’s not time sensitive, then sending a comment by mail can be better than calling. “We can take as much mail as we get but only have so many people who can answer the phones,” she says. “And if you want your mail to make an impact, have a return address.”

What about faxing? “Faxes are useless. We get so many faxes. If you just want to comment or give an opinion, then don’t fax. We get too many, and it’s too easy for them to fall through the cracks.”

Don’t send form letters. They usually get shredded without reading. “Some offices have software that can recognize form letters,” making them easier to dispose of, she says. “Some of them are subtle, like, I read one that I didn’t know was a form letter until I read the same thing over three or four times.”

The petition-type email letters that many organizations email out—the ones where you add your name and contact information, and maybe personalize them, are OK, as long as they’re from a constituent.

Some postcards are OK. “Like, if it says, ‘Dear (Senator), I’m writing because I’m concerned about (some issue) and this is why (I feel this way)’—that’s OK.”

Don’t be mean. “Being nice on the phone never hurts,” she says. “I don’t know if it helps but there’s no downside.” She often gets calls from people thanking the senator for a specific vote, or even thanking the intern for answering the phone.   

And lastly,

No cash. “Don’t mail money to the Congressional offices, because we can’t legally take it.” (Like archivists have a lot of extra cash lying around. … )

Research Post: Archiving Accounts of War Crimes–Preserving History, Protecting Victims

I&A Research Teams are groups of dedicated volunteers who monitor breaking news and delve into ongoing topics affecting archives and the archival profession. Under the leadership of the I&A Steering Committee, the Research Teams compile their findings into Research Posts. Each post offers a summary and coverage of an issue. This comes from the General News Media Research Team, which monitors the news for issues affecting archivists and archives.

 Please be aware that the sources cited have not been vetted and do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Section.


The Syrian and Iraqi civil wars spotlight two archival problems faced by countries experiencing or recovering from war. The first problem centers on the protection of a country’s archives and cultural landmarks. The Islamic State has looted, smuggled, and destroyed ancient monuments, artifacts, and manuscripts in Syria, most infamously in Palmyra.[1] The Islamic State has also destroyed pre-Islamic and Islamic manuscripts in Mosul, Iraq, which Mosul citizens, not surprisingly, view as an attack on their heritage.[2] The second problem centers on capturing and preserving materials that document war crimes, such as videos, photographs, court transcripts, surveillance files, and a variety of other materials that prove torture, extrajudicial punishments, and repression have occurred. Individuals often face serious risks acquiring and preserving such materials due to the destruction caused by war, along with the aggressors’ desire to escape justice. Sound and Image, a group operating in Syria and Turkey, maintains records of the Islamic State’s crimes (the Islamic State has targeted and killed some of its members).[3] Hadi al Khatib and Jeff Deutch, who live in Berlin, created the Syrian Archive, which focuses on video footage of war crimes in Syria, regardless of the perpetrators’ affiliation. Syrian Archive members catalog the videos and assign metadata.[4]

Countries recovering from war benefit from archivists’ preserving both historical materials and contemporary documentary evidence. Historical manuscripts, photographs, and other records express the cultural heritage of ethnic groups and nation states, which can serve as a source of unity. Evidence of war crimes aids the pursuit of justice, restitution, and healing. The United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner succinctly stated the latter point in the recent Rule-of-Law Tools for Post-Conflict States: Archives:

When a period characterized by widespread or systematic human rights violations comes to an end, those who suffered under the previous regime or during a conflict will particularly seek to fulfil their rights to the truth, justice and reparation, as well as demand institutional reforms to prevent the recurrence of violations. To meet these demands States use a variety of approaches: investigations and prosecutions, truth-seeking activities, reparation initiatives, and institutional reforms to reduce the possibility that repression or conflict will recur. Every one of these processes relies on archives.[5]

Archivists operate under enormous strain, however, when attempting to preserve materials in countries with ruined infrastructure, political instability, and few financial resources. An archives’ existence is often at stake under these circumstances. Still, the United Nations argues that sensitive records ought to stay in the countries of origin and that only copies should be deposited in archives located in other secure countries.[6] The National Archives of Finland, for example, recently accepted “digital copies of documents that have become endangered due to the Syrian Civil War.” The archives had previously accepted documents concerning the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon.[7] The Nile River Museum in Egypt also houses artifacts collected for a future museum of South Sudan, which declared its independence in 2011. The country is attempting to build a national archive, museum, and theater to preserve the cultural heritage of the new country’s 10.5 million citizens. While artifacts are in Egypt for safekeeping, archival documents still remain in Juba, the capital city, amidst a new civil war. Many of the archivists there fled to refugee camps when the conflict began, but staff member Becu Thomas stayed in the capital. Thomas thought that his country never learned from its past. He now works diligently to arrange and digitize South Sudan’s historical documents.[8]

France provides another example of the relationship between archives and countries recovering from war. The French government declassified over 200,000 records in December 2015 that document the Vichy government’s collaboration with the Nazis. The records may shed light on arrests and executions previously shrouded in secrecy, allowing researchers, family members, and others to come to terms with a difficult past. The French government, however, decided not to declassify documents relating to the country’s occupation of Algeria.[9] Algerians fought a bloody war for independence from France between 1954 and 1962. Materials relating both to war crimes and torture that occurred during the war, as well as cultural materials from pre-colonial Algeria, remain in French archives. Abdelmadjid Chicki, who serves as the director of Algeria’s national archive center, argues that records produced on Algerian soil belong to Algeria. Members of the French national archives argue that France owns materials that French citizens collected. France has offered to share copies of the Algerian materials with Algeria[10], a reversal of the previously mentioned position that the United Nations holds. Algerians have resorted to buying Ottoman-era documents at French auctions in order to develop an extensive collection of historical materials from their country.[11]

While France refuses to return records to Algeria, French archivists are attempting to develop a complete archival record that incorporates materials from former colonies. The French National Archives started Le Grande Collecte, a project to acquire and preserve materials from West Africans who lived under French rule or who migrated to France.[12] The French government also strongly supports a UNESCO fund to restore ancient sites and archives in places like Syria and also to find “safe havens” for endangered items. Some nations are worried about losing control of their cultural heritage.[13]

Archivists must balance the sometimes competing goals of protecting records and respecting the rights of record creators, owners, and subjects. Moving and storing records around the globe may aid preservation but not access for those who need them most. When these records are associated with crimes and torture, there may be other motives besides preservation behind the relocation of materials. A repository outside London, for instance, houses records that document the torture of people in 37 former British colonies, including Kenya, who fought for independence. The records’ existence remained a guarded secret from the rest of the world until recently, even as victims of violence sought justice for years.[14] Such records must be preserved and made accessible so that restitution and accountability can occur, and so that countries recovering from war can move forward.


 List of Further Readings

The I&A Steering Committee would like to thank the General News Media Research Team, and in particular Audrey Lengel and Sean McConnell, for writing this post. The General News Media Team is: Courtney Dean; Lori Dedeyan; Audrey Lengel; Sean McConnell; and Daria Labinsky, team leader. If you are aware of an issue that might benefit from a Research Post, please get in touch with us:

Sources Cited

[1] “Alarmed at destruction in Palmyra, Security Council reiterates need to stamp out hatred espoused by ISIL,” UN News Centre, January 20, 2017. Accessed April 17, 2017.

[2] “Rubble, Ash Left in Mosul Museum Retaken from IS,” Voice of America, March 8, 2017. Accessed April 18, 2017.

[3] “Syria: Witnesses for the Prosecution,” Al Jazeera, November 19, 2016. Accessed April 18, 2017.

[4] “Syrian Archive catalogues war atrocities online,” Deutsche Welle, December 29, 2016. Accessed April 18, 2017.

[5] United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, Rule-of-Law for Post-Conflict States: Archives (New York and Geneva, United Nations, 2015), 1.

[6] Ibid., 10, 40.

[7] “Endangered Syrian documents taken into safekeeping at the National Archives of Finland,” Ministry of Education and Culture, February 12, 2016. Accessed April 18, 2017.

[8]Strochlic, Nina. “Can Archivists Save the World’s Newest Nation?” National Geographic. November 3, 2016. Accessed April 22, 2017.

[9] Danny Lewis, “France is Making Thousands of Vichy-Era Documents Public,”, December 29, 2015. Accessed April 19, 2017.

[10] Christian Lowe, “Algeria, France tussle over archives 50 years after split,” Reuters, July 4, 2012. Accessed April 19, 2017.

[11] Abdul Razak bin Abdullah, “Algeria obtains Ottoman-era documents at French auction,” Anadolu Agency, March 4, 2017. Accessed April 19, 2017.

[12] Alison Hurd, “France adds African perspective to colonial period archives,” Radio France Internationale, November 21, 2016. Accessed April 21, 2017.

[13] Erin Blakemore, “New Fund Pledges to Protect Cultural Heritage from War and Terror,”, March 21, 2017. Accessed April 21, 2017.

[14] Marc Perry, “Uncovering the brutal truth about the British empire,” The Guardian, August 18, 2016. Accessed April 21, 2017.

ICYMI: Personal Digital Archiving, 2017

Our ICYMI series provide summaries of presentations, publications, webinars, and other educational opportunities that are of interest to I&A members. 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 The following is from Chelsea Gunn, a doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Computing and Information.

At the end of March, I traveled to Palo Alto to attend Personal Digital Archiving (PDA), hosted this year by Stanford University Libraries. This was my second time attending PDA (my first being last year, held at the University of Michigan) and my first time presenting at the conference. Over the course of two full days of presentations and one half-day of hands-on workshops and museum tours, professional archivists and dedicated amateurs alike approached personal digital archives from a range of perspectives, some familiar, and others entirely new to me. From a logistical standpoint, the single-track symposium format removes concerns about choosing one session over another, and well-placed breaks throughout the day allow pauses for reflection and conversation. In a day of densely-packed panels, pacing is particularly important, and moments for pause were especially appreciated.

As someone who specifically studies personal digital archives, attending PDA when possible has become something of a no-brainer for me. However, the range of ways in which presenters interpreted personal digital archives make this a conference that I think information professionals focused on other areas would also find relevant, both to their work and their own acts of personal record creation and preservation. The first day’s keynote speaker, Gary Wolf, raised questions about the long-term preservation of quantified self data, while the second keynote, delivered by Kim Christen, explored the personal archives of indigenous groups using the Mukurtu platform. Questions of sustainability, ownership, and access were common threads throughout each of these seemingly different talks, and these questions set the tone for many of the presentations that followed each day.

A number of this year’s presentations explored different approaches archivists have taken to working with and learning from donors and communities of practice; for example, accepting the born-digital materials of a composer, documenting the careers of dancers, or working with individual collectors of video games to inform archival best practices. Others (including my own) identified some of the challenges and opportunities related to preserving quantified self or lifelogging data, and how such data may fit in with the rest of our personal digital archives. Others still investigated the archival functions of specific formats, such as screenshots or animated GIFs from GeoCities websites.

I was particularly excited to hear from staff from the Salman Rushdie digital archive at Emory University on their experience moving from a high-profile discrete project to a comprehensive born-digital archives program. I had not previously been familiar with Jennifer Douglas’s work on intimate archives and online communities centered around grief, but was deeply moved by her presentation. A panel on PDA and social justice, grounded in the work of Copwatch and citizen documentation gave me a great deal to think about, and felt truly timely, as did a presentation on collecting documentation of student activism on college campuses.

The presentations closed with a retrospective panel, featuring Cathy Marshall, Mike Ashenfelder, Howard Besser, Clifford Lynch, and Jeff Ubois. Their discussion touched on the history of PDA and the buckets that presentations could generally be placed in – including outreach and activism, documentation strategies, community history, lifelogging, digital humanities, and storytelling. They noted that for many attendees, personal archives are not necessarily their professional responsibilities, but instead often a passion project. They concluded with a conversation about how PDA can be more accessible and inclusive in the future, and it occurred to me that that commitment to inclusivity is one of the aspects of PDA that I have most appreciated so far in my acquaintance with this conference.

At the risk of over-editorializing, or relying on cliché, the personal is absolutely political, and for many, it may feel more so now than ever. I appreciated the experience of being in an environment in which a breadth of perspectives related to the acts of creating or preserving personal records could be discussed. As individuals, we can engage with records (or own or others’) in diverse and deeply personal ways. The PDA conference and community provides a supportive space in which those myriad ways can be investigated alongside one another. While I don’t yet know the details of next year’s conference, it’s one that I encourage archivists (and others) to keep an eye out for and attend, if possible.

For a deeper dive into conference content, I highly recommend looking through the session descriptions and author bios on the conference schedule, as well as reading through the #PDA2017 hashtag on Twitter.


END OF YEAR STEERING SHARE: Tales of an Engaged Archivist

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This year-end post is from I&A Steering Committee member Laurel Bowen, University Archivist at Georgia State University.

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

As a university archivist, one of my most important constituencies is the university’s administration.  In soliciting records and selling our services, we let administrative staff know that:

The Archives can enhance your effectiveness by helping you find and use records that address your most pressing needs.  We work hard to respond in a timely and thorough way to your priorities.  Sometimes the results may surprise you.

Here is an example of one request.  The President’s Office wanted Board of Regents support to obtain state funding to build a new classroom building.

Kell Hall, Georgia State University, courtesy of Georgia State University Archives, Atlanta

The Archives quickly provided information about the large classroom building the university wanted to replace:

  • We acquired it in 1946.
  • It was built as a parking garage (ramps are still there).
  • It was originally “renovated” for classroom use using World War II surplus.
  • In addition to its primary use as a parking garage, it also housed a grill, a cotton warehouse, and a sawmill.

Certainly not an adequate environment for 21st century teaching and learning! The Board of Regents, which oversees more than thirty public educational institutions, made the university’s request its top facilities priority that year, and the state provided the funding.

What controversial item or collection have you had to deal with in your career?

In a previous position, I was responsible for the papers of a number of state and national political leaders.  Managing the collections of incumbents was challenging because, during every election cycle, opponents would try to gain access to those papers.  The innovative subterfuges they employed always made us cautious when political papers arrived.

One day a number of bankers boxes were delivered.  Markings indicated their use as evidence in legal proceedings.  These were the papers of a well-known state official.  In addition to the expected speeches and correspondence were a variety of financial records relating to his businesses, income tax returns, campaign finances, state vendor contracts, and race track investments.  Boxes of photos included friendly images of the official with his personal secretary.  Additional boxes concerned the settlement of his estate–names of some prominent people appeared there.

What was this?  Apparently, after the man’s unexpected death midway through his second term, a large amount of cash was discovered in the hotel room he routinely occupied in town.  A substantial liquor cache was also found.  (Remnants of neither remained in the collection—we checked carefully.)  On further inquiry, we heard the official was popular, folksy, and powerful:  people often came up to greet him, shaking his hand and simultaneously depositing little tokens of appreciation in his pocket.  He stored his growing collection in various sized containers in his hotel room closet.

How did we handle the situation?  After years of investigation by the Internal Revenue Service and the subsequent litigation, we decided anything controversial had already been well aired.  The collection opened for research without any restrictions.  (N.B.  The IRS recovered $1.5 million.)

What should archivists focus on in the future?

Change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.

Archivists should be active in the civic arena, advising and even advocating on issues that have a records-related component.  Are elected officials creating and maintaining records documenting their decisions as they act on our behalf?  Do they provide timely access to those records when requested?  Are police body cameras  public records?  Are lives endangered by unwieldy records-keeping systems and laws limiting effective access to records?

Archivists who interact only with other archivists are preaching to the choir.  We need to be stepping out and engaging fully with neighbors and fellow citizens on issues that matter to us.  David Gracy’s “archives and society” initiative encouraged us to define the value of archives and archivists to society.  Rand Jimerson convinced us of the power of archives, enabling us to be bold in using familiar tools to effect meaningful change.  Kathleen Roe urges us to become expert at telling the stories that demonstrate how archives changed lives.

Archivists need to not only tell the stories, but create stories in our own communities.  We have the skills.  When is the last time your neighbors or a public official wanted to know, after seeing you in action, “What kind of profession are you in?”

Research Post: The Evolving Landscape of Collecting Protest Material, Part 2

I&A Research Teams are groups of dedicated volunteers who monitor breaking news and delve into ongoing topics affecting archives and the archival profession. Under the leadership of the I&A Steering Committee, the Research Teams compile their findings into Research Posts. Each post offers a summary and coverage of an issue. This post, part two of a two-part series, comes from the General News Media Research Team, which monitors the news for issues affecting archivists and archives.

Please be aware that the sources cited have not been vetted and do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Section.


In the first part of this two-part series, we discussed digital, social media, and other online materials that can be collected to form archives. Forming bodies of these digital artifacts carries legal consequences and privacy issues for the folks whose information is collected, but such work also has issues around narrative and interpretation. Below are two lists: one is a list of projects and tools that use social media and online materials in documenting history, and the other is a bibliography where the work as well as its related issues are discussed.

Projects and tools

  • A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland. Digital repository that “collects, preserves, and shares the stories, memories, and accounts of police violence as experienced or observed by Cleveland citizens.” Partnership between Cleveland residents and professional archivists.
  • Baltimore Uprising 2015 Archive Project. Digital repository “that seeks to preserve and make accessible original content that was captured and created by individual community members, grassroots organizations, and witnesses to the protests that followed the death of Freddie Gray on April 19, 2015.” This is a collaborative project of Maryland Historical Society, university faculty, museums and community orgs.
  • DocNow. “Tool and a community developed around supporting the ethical collection, use, and preservation of social media content.”
  • Documenting Ferguson. Project of Washington University St. Louis. “Freely available resource that seeks to preserve and make accessible the digital media captured and created by community members following the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014.”
  • Trump Protest Archive. “Self funded digital repository, collecting [photographs of] items of material culture from protest events relating to the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump and the early part of his administration.”

List of further readings

This post is courtesy of the General News Media Research Team, and in particular Courtney Dean and Lori Dedeyan. The General News Media Team is: Courtney Dean, Lori Dedeyan, Audrey Lengel, Sean McConnell, and Daria Labinsky, team leader.

If you are aware of an issue that might benefit from a Research Post, please get in touch with us: