Year in the Life: Rachel Fellman, part 4

In this month’s Year in the Life, Rachel Fellman gets serious about oral histories.

I spend a lot of my time taking oral histories. I don’t have any background as a documentarian, but the people with firsthand knowledge of our museum’s subject steadfastly refuse to get younger, and I don’t want to make them wait for me to master Premiere Pro. As soon as I arrived at my present job, I had a camera in my hand.

I’d like to share some of my tips, which are no substitute for formal study:

  1. Commit to the idea that the perfect is the enemy of the good. There’s no point in gazing wistfully at previous archivists who’ve edited together flawless, professionally lit reels whose subjects sound like they’re on The Moth Radio Hour. Those archivists took a long time to get there, and you’ll take a long time to get there too. In the meantime, you’ve got to learn somehow. The stories won’t be worse because you shot them less beautifully.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. People really like to help with oral histories! They’re appealing projects, and you won’t need to convince anyone of their worth. Last week, a librarian on the other side of the country shot a history for me while I asked the questions via Skype. My advocacy technique: I asked. (Also, he was a better camera operator than me, and had a boom mic and a real light.)
  3. For the love of Pete, record backup audio. Your phone has a voice memo function. Use it.
  4. Carry batteries for everything. Carry spare cables if possible. Never underestimate the tendency of equipment to break. (Remember Fellman’s Law: the further you have traveled for an oral history, the more likely the equipment is to break.)
  5. A lapel mic really makes the difference between an amateur recording and a professional one.
  6. Some interviewees will want questions provided in advance; others will prefer a spontaneous interview; still others will want to submit their own list of topics. It behooves you to be accommodating. Their comfort will be the single deciding factor in whether this comes out well — other than the lapel mic — and this isn’t the time to be philosophically rigid.
  7. Don’t be afraid to let the conversation ramble. Good material will often happen serendipitously, and offhand remarks can lead to new topics you hadn’t considered. By the same token, don’t be afraid to lead in slowly, with chatty getting-to-know-you questions. If this is worth doing, it’s worth taking an extra half hour, and these questions help make people comfortable in a difficult, artificial situation.
  8. Be as interested in the interviewee as in the subject of the interview. You will learn more about the subject this way.
  9. It’s best to talk as little as possible. For the sake of getting the story out, though, you won’t want to be a stickler about this.
  10. If the interviewee offers to do a magic trick, say yes.

ARCHIVES * RECORDS 2018: Call for Session Recappers

We’re looking forward to meeting folks at the SAA Annual Meeting this August in Washington, DC! Check out the SAA’s advice for New Members, First-Timers, and Students.

In the coming weeks, we’ll be posting resources to help you enjoy the annual meeting, especially if it’s your first. Today’s post is a call for volunteers to summarize and recap sessions. Not everyone has time to watch them on video, and videos are not searchable — recaps are an important part of the record. It’s also an opportunity for you to get a publication under your belt. You can use our contact form to get in touch, or better yet, go straight to the spreadsheet and sign up there.

controlaccess: Relevant Subjects in Archives and Related Fields 2018-06-17

This is the weekly roundup of headlines in and around archives, including some library, museum, digital humanities, and information science things as well. If you see something we’ve missed, please email us!

SAA News

SAA Foundation Names Annual Meeting Travel Award Recipients

Call for Member Comment: Code of Ethics for Archivists and Core Values of Archivists

SAA Advocates for Archives with WIPO/SCCR


Archives and Archivists in the News

ServPro and archivists rescue everything salvageable from the museum archives by Louis Krauss. (This is a local article about a museum destroyed by fire in Aberdeen, WA.) I found several updates on this museum in my trawl for articles this week, but this one’s the most thorough — describing what was lost, but also the surprising amount that could be saved from the burnt-out museum’s flooded basement.

Doctor Who archivist says there is hope for the 97 lost episodes by Eleanor Bley Griffiths. The short version: some of them are in the hands of secretive private collectors. I appreciate that the archivist, Paul Vanezis, emphasizes the service these collectors have done while acknowledging fans’ frustration. After all, if preservation had been left up to the BBC, every black-and-white episode would have been destroyed in the 1970s.

Truth and reconciliation from the archives by Andru McCracken. Another good local article about a Canadian archivist, Erica Hernández-Read, who just got a grant to build better connections between archives and First Nations recordkeeping.  “[Archives] are no longer an old white boys club,” she tells the interviewer; “we are an old white girls club.”

controlaccess: Relevant Subjects in Archives and Related Fields 2018-06-10

SAA News
No official SAA news this week!

Archives and Archivists in the News
Lost and Found in a Museum’s Archive by Christopher Kemp. Generic title, interesting article: a scientist working in the Smithsonian archives takes a closer look at a century-old specimen and realizes it’s a novel, unnamed species.

How the Obsidian Collection Is Bringing Black Newspapers to Google by Adrienne Samuels Gibbs. Forward-thinking archivists are working to digitize historically black newspapers, with Google on board to host. They’ve got several impressive online exhibits up already.

controlaccess: Relevant Subjects in Archives and Related Fields 2018-06-03

SAA News

SAA Signs On to Joint NGO Letter on Proposed WIPO Treaty on Broadcasting

May Council Meeting Minutes Available Now

Participate in SAA Focus Groups for Market Research

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Year in the Life: Rachel Fellman, part 3

In this month’s Year in the Life, Rachel Fellman has another go at the inherent tensions of our field.

This month, I’ve been thinking about the mystique of archives. One of the things that drew me into this field was its rarefied feeling — the special care with climate, the strict rules about water and pens, and the unique access to papers, including the papers of the famous and powerful. But I also believe that archivists should be a little bit iconoclastic, a little bit scrappy. My love of archival ritual is tempered by my wish that I could just hand an artifact to a patron once in a while; my awe of the artists in my museum’s collections is tempered by the archives’ tendency to remind you, at the most inconvenient times, that artists are just ordinary, breathing people with unusual jobs. That’s certainly one thing we have in common.

An archivist’s position is strange. We’re librarians, so we have a mandate to make information available to the public. But we also have to be physically careful, tactful, and sensitive about how we do that. If we’re too free with the materials, we can violate copyright and medical confidentiality laws, breach donors’ trust, and even cause the destruction of information itself. I know that I never had to face those questions when I was working the reference desk in a community college library.

This tension is part of what keeps me going in the field; a foundational tension is how you know that a thing is worth doing. And it’s not as if academic librarians don’t face conflicts of loyalty, too — the student’s needs against the school’s, or the need to respect a student’s privacy versus the suspicion that the student needs more personal help. But I can’t think of another library field where the professional’s loyalty to information freedom can clash so routinely with their loyalty to people.

This is why I always go back to the archivist’s judgement, how we can never stop honing that instrument against the rough stone of real decision-making. Obviously I won’t ever get to a place where all of my calls are good, and I still need to consult colleagues all the time. Excelling in archives, though, is all about keeping an unsparing eye on what’s necessary, and viewing all other considerations with a touch of skepticism.

Final call for SNAP Leadership Nominations!

The Students and New Archives Professionals (SNAP) Section is seeking nominations for a Vice Chair/Chair-Elect, Secretary, and three At-Large positions. Student applicants are highly encouraged.

Serving in a leadership role on the Section is a wonderful way to become more involved with SNAP and SAA and get to know other archivists. Our SNAP bylaws require that to ensure adequate student representation in SNAP leadership, at least two candidates on the slate must be students at the time of the election.

In order to hold a position as an officer and/or member of the Steering Committee, you must be both a member of SAA and the SNAP Section. The term for each office is one year, beginning at the close of the SAA annual meeting in 2018 and ending at the close of the SAA annual meeting in 2019.

If you wish to nominate yourself or someone else, please complete the following form. All nominations are due by 11:59 PM CST on May 30, 2018. The nomination form can be found at:

If you are nominated by someone else, you will have an opportunity before the ballot goes live to write your own candidate statement. You will need to resubmit the form for each nomination.

Candidates may only run for ONE POSITION. If you are nominated for multiple positions, you must choose which position you’d like to run for.


The SNAP Section will conduct its annual elections via an online ballot system provided by the SAA staff. Basic ballot information (e.g., listing of offices, number of vacancies for each, names of candidates, and candidate statements) need to be submitted to the SAA staff by June 1, 2018. Online ballots will be made accessible in early July 2018 and shall remain open for two weeks. Results will be announced at the SNAP Section Meeting in Washington D.C., as well as on the SNAP listserv, SNAP blog, Twitter feed, and Facebook page.


Vice Chair/Chair-Elect (1 position: 1 year term, followed by 1 year as chair): The vice chair/chair-elect will assist the chair in the operation of the section, serve as acting chair in the absence of the chair, and participate as a member of the steering committee. The chair directs and reports the activities of the section, organizes and runs the annual meeting, leads the steering committee, and handles administrative duties, including, but not limited to submitting the section’s annual report and serving as the section’s liaison to SAA and Council. The chair, in consultation with the other members of the steering committee, may solicit and appoint section volunteers to serve as the web liaison, social media coordinator, student chapter coordinator, and/or blog coordinator and editors.

Secretary (1 position: 1 year term): The secretary will serve as the official record keeper of the section and be responsible for compiling and sharing minutes from steering committee and annual meetings.

Steering Committee Member (3 positions: 1 year term): Members of the Steering Committee will provide leadership to and share information with section members; identify and appoint ex-officio members to the steering committee; solicit input from members; organize section elections and voting; and appoint temporary and/or permanent committees as needed.