While surveying a shelf of materials in the archives in December 2017, project archivist Dan Michelson came across a small red leather-bound almanac perched alone on a shelf. The book, published in 1793, was out of place, so Dan promptly showed it to John Myers, catalog and metadata librarian at the Schaffer Library. Flipping through the first few pages, Myers noticed a small envelope tucked inside the title page with a handwritten note on the front. It read, “Washington’s hair, L.S.S. from James A. Hamilton given him by his mother, August 10, 1871.”
Inside the envelope were strands of whitish/brown hair, gathered together with an old piece of string. Myers would later describe it as an “OMG moment!” Unable to contain his enthusiasm, Myers immediately sent me an email about his discovery.
“It was one of those mind-blowing moments that happen every once in a while in a librarian’s life,” said John Myers, a catalog and metadata librarian at the college. “I thought, that doesn’t mean George Washington, does it?” – The Associated Press, 2018
We later learned that James A. Hamilton was the son of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton and Alexander Hamilton. According to Ron Chernow’s, Washington: A Life, “As a remembrance of her husband, she [Martha Washington] asked Tobias Lear to snip locks of hair from the corpse before it was deposited in the coffin.” The locks of hair were distributed to close family and friends of Washington; the Hamiltons were close friends of George and Martha Washington.
Handwritten note on envelope with the contents – strands of George Washington’s hair – pictured beside it. Image courtesy Union College.
Inscription in Schuyler book
When Union College Librarian Frances Maloy became aware of the finding, she requested more information to include in a report to the campus. One month later, I was contacted by Phil Wajda, campus communications officer, who suggested that we write a press release about the discovery of the hair. Of course, we were delighted to share the story and jumped at the chance to highlight our collections. On February 13, 2018, we released a statement to the press and media outlets.
It would have been impossible to anticipate the ensuing media storm. Less than 24 hours after the release, the Archives and Special Collections department received a flurry of requests for interviews from national and international media outlets, including the Washington Post, CNN, ABC News, CBS Saturday Morning, USA Today, Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal. The story also appeared on the cover of the New York Times on Presidents Day. Social media channels included approximately 2,500 posts on Twitter and Facebook.
The College communications office tracked media coverage of the story as shown in the following graphics from a Media Coverage Report:
Based on our experience, here are some tips, should you as an archivist find yourself in the midst of a media storm:
Work with your communications department (if you have one) to craft a standard response. This will help you plan the two or three pieces of information that you want to convey in all your interviews.
Be concise. Your interview will be edited, so highlight short facts about your collection or employer/institution.
For video interviews (Skype/Zoom/FaceTime) have a “practice” session beforehand to ensure the connection.
Choose a “friendly” location for video interviews; avoid conference rooms or messy spaces (offices/processing rooms).
Promote! But be discreet. Media professionals are savvy, so they can spot a shameless plug. Still, this is a valuable (and free) opportunity to publicize your collection or institution.
Be prepared. Reporters work on tight deadlines, so some interviews get scheduled quickly. Keep a black blazer in your office to wear during television interviews. (This is also helpful should a donor arrive unannounced.)
Be friendly and upbeat. If you’re excited and engaged, the viewer will be excited and engaged.
Next steps During the news coverage, we were frequently asked, “What next?” and “When will the hair be on display for the public to see?” I am currently looking into preservation options that will allow the hair and the book to be stored together in a custom-made, acid-free container. This will make it possible to display the hair for the purposes of teaching and exhibition.
The Schaffer Library plans to mount an exhibition to highlight the hair discovery and other aspects of the story. Eliza Hamilton was the daughter of Philip J. Schuyler, a prominent resident of Albany, NY and Major General in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. The exhibition will feature the hair and related objects around the Schuyler family of Albany, NY. This includes an original letter written in 1795 by General Schuyler promoting the establishment of Union College in the town of Schenectady rather than Albany, NY. It’s hoped the exhibition will coincide with a fall 2019 performance of the musical “Hamilton” at Proctor’s Theater in Schenectady, NY.
India Spartz is the Head of Special Collections and Archives at Union College in Schenectady, NY. She holds an B.A. from the University of Alaska (her home state), MLIS from UC Berkeley, and M.A. in Museum Studies from the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. She’s a member of the Academy of Certified Archivists and serves on SAA’s College & University Archives Steering Committee.
CMU Stop Hate Walkout, November 15, 2016. Image courtesy of Steve Jessmore, Central Michigan University.
Activism is nothing new among the students on college campuses. As the cycle goes at colleges and universities, those activists will hopefully become degree-holding alumni. With this constant turnover, one hurdle that pops up for archivists is how to document campus activism as people leave for the next chapter in their lives. In the attempt to capture today’s activist movements, there are some benefits to be had by working with other campus activists, even decades after they left the institution. At Central Michigan University (CMU), a fruitful relationship with alumni who participated in a variety of groups and movements during the Vietnam War-era not only helped the archives round out the information about that time of activism at CMU, but has been of use to build a relationship with today’s activist students.
In 2016, some members of the robust activist community that existed in and around Central Michigan University in the late 1960s and early 1970s decided to get together in what they deemed a “No-Class Reunion.” This was perfect opportunity for the Clarke Historical Library to get involved. While the Clarke has relatively complete holdings of “official” records from that era, documents from the activist movement are far from complete. This No-Class Reunion gave the archivists a chance to speak to the publishers of the underground papers, the organizers of the marches, and those who pushed through the doors to occupy the ROTC building and deem it Freedom Hall.
Out of the 180 or so “No-Classers,” about 20 took the Clarke up on the offer to visit the archives. These alumni were impressed and excited to see the vast amount of materials already collected about their activism, and they were delighted to think of how they could contribute more to the holdings. Some of them also agreed to participate in a recorded discussion about their experiences, which would be added to the historical documents.
Before turning this relationship into a positive tool for connecting with current activist students, staff at the Clarke learned some interesting facts about the activist alumni that could be true beyond the Mount Pleasant campus. First, the No-Classers did not have much contact with the university in the traditional ways other alumni do. This could possibly be explained though their student life experiences, which did not include what are normally deemed traditional activities like Greek life, athletics, clubs, and such. Regardless, the No-Classers did not arrange the event with the Alumni Association, but they did reach out to the archives. It seems that the archives and, more likely, the chance for activists to document the history of the change-making in which they were involved, may be the best link a University has with activist students.
The second bit of information learned from the No-Class Reunion is about building trust and forming bonds between activists and an official university entity, like the archives. For the No Class-ers, the trust was built easily, most likely because their age and geographic distribution meant there were few to no negative consequences to be had for contributing to the historic record. On the one hand, time and distance make trust-building come easy. On the other, the strong bonds formed with the No-Class-ers gave the archives credibility with some current activist students. The Clarke has since been working with a few very active students to add historic context to their documentary project exploring activism at CMU.
In an effort to have as complete a record of campus activism as possible, the Clarke found that working with alumni from decades passed payed off. The benefits were not only found in adding to the historical record and helping forge bonds with today’s activists. There were also lessons learned including the fact that the opportunity to document change-making could make the archives the best point of contact activist students will have with institution as alumni. Even so, it may take time – nearly five decades for the No-Class-ers – before activist alumni are ready to share their stories and part with their records.
Bryan Whitledge is the Archivist for University Digital Records at Central Michigan University. During his time at the Clarke Historical Library, he has worked in multiple reference, access, and outreach capacities.
With the enormous explosion of podcasts following the breakout success of Serial (2014-2016), many archives and special collections are turning to audio to give the space for extended storytelling and highlighting the work of their archivists, curators, and faculty.
This is not that story.
Iterative Process Creates a Podcast: Historically Yours, the podcast from Special Collections at the University of Iowa took more than two years to create, as we tested versions of the idea, adapted them, tested them again, and adapted them. The central question guiding the process was: What do we do with manuscripts in social media spaces?
Special Collections at the University of Iowa has had a robust social media presence for more than five years. However, social media feeds inspire a certain type of interaction with content that privileges quick connection to visual material as it scrolls by in a feed leading to a heavier reliance on photography and rare books. Both are visual and have interesting aspects that can be grasped and understood quickly in a feed with minimal description. That fits the format of most social media feeds, and also the staff time required to produce content for the feeds quickly.
Presenting about The University of Iowa Special Collections’ social media outreach at the Midwest Archives Conference in 2014, I was asked an important question in the Q&A: What about manuscripts? In a quick scrolling feed, one manuscript can look like any other manuscript. I did not have an answer at the time: Manuscripts are harder. The compelling and addictive aspects of historic research are contained in the question, the quest, and the connections: The context. Context is something a rapidly scrolling social media feed does not well support. Context takes time to develop and time to deliver.
So I set out to solve that problem: What would be a format that would support just enough context and personality to really bring a historic document to life, but without being so overwhelming that it might be repeatable and sustainable?
My first answer to that question was a pilot video project called “History Out Loud” featuring a miscellaneous manuscript letter collection in Special Collections that I had always wanted to feature in some way. The MsL collection has thousands of individual letters with no collection and no context. Thinking of our fast social media posts, I determined that the equivalent of an Instagram post with a manuscript letter would be a video of a person reading the letter out loud. We piloted this video project with a test run of five short videos.
In reviewing the footage, what became clear to me was that the visuals were getting in the way. Watching a person, their posture, the set around them, and even their facial expressions were not adding to the experience of hearing the letter, but rather were taking away from it – distracting from it. It was easier to pay attention to the letter as audio alone. The content was telling us that it wanted to be a podcast.
Then came Serial in October of 2014. A podcast entered into American popular culture to such an extent that it garnered a parody sketch on Saturday Night Live in December of that year.
Refinement: With the recent explosion of interest in podcasts, I started expanding my own listening beyond the few radio-based formats I had traditionally consumed. In particular, recent humanities podcasts have been inventing new storytelling formats. Armed with knowledge, the concept grew and changed. Instead of one reader, inspired by The New Yorker Fiction Podcast, I added a guest to read the letter and took on the role of host. Dear Hank and John provided a format for adding theme music, a quote about letter writing, and a tagline. The project grew from, “Let’s read a historic letter” to being inspired by the question: “What can we learn from just one letter?” It changed from promoting a letter, a single historic document, to being an exploration about letter writing past and present, and the spark of inspiration that makes historic research so compelling, with our staff and guests’ full personalities and passions included. With that shift in focus, the name “History Out Loud” no longer captured its essence and we switched to “Historically Yours.”
With the format set, we were poised to record and discover all the problems and challenges recording in the library.
What you need to know about file storage: The mass familiarity of sites like YouTube for video makes it seem like it should be possible when making a podcast to simply choose a site, upload files and go. However, unlike YouTube, podcast distribution sites like iTunes do not store files but only make them available via RSS feed from hosting site. The actual files need to be stored somewhere, and most of the file hosting options are not free, or have enticing free options that in the end only allow enough storage and bandwidth for a few episodes to be stored at a time. Archive.org can be used for free (and provides a tutorial). However, paying for a service gives you access to analytics. Historically Yours is hosted on Podbean.com and Podbean also offers step by step explanations of what resolution and formats your image and sound files should be to properly connect with iTunes, which was very helpful. Other options include Soundcloud and Libsyn. Soundcloud and Libsyn both have an entry-level tier with analytics for $7/month. However, Podbean.com had a tier for just $32/year while still including analytics, so I chose Podbean.
It is important to think of these sites like a storage locker. As Dana Gerber-Margie pointed out in her talk at the Midwest Archives Conference in 2017, the files can be deleted and lost the moment you fail to pay. The site does not and will not back up your files so archiving your work needs to happen at your institution.
None of the hosting sites are able to generate an invoice, so working with your institution to find a solution for paying might be a place where the process can stall.
Equipment & Editing: It took us six months of trying every piece of equipment in every closet and adjusting to come up with the right combination of equipment and location to get good sound and move on with the project.
Quiet place to record (HVAC hum will also be audible)
Microphone (Will need omnidirectional microphone if recording with one mic and two people)
Computer for editing
Program for editing (Audacity or Audition)
In the end, our sound solution was to treat the podcast like an oral history. The Zoom H4N recorder we use for recording oral histories (~$150) doubles as a podcast recorder. We tested many USB microphone solutions and even cell phone microphones, but the Zoom was the best at picking up two voices. We are able to set it in between us, hit record, and go. Other set ups required us to find an omni-directional microphone in order for it to be pointing at two people in two directions. We are not audio engineers! It was tricky to get the sound right. The Zoom solved our audio issues.
For editing, we use Audacity, which is free to download. There are great tutorials online, which are needed because the buttons are not clear. I picked it up from tutorials and was editing in 15 minutes, but it did require a tutorial to explain what the minimally marked buttons meant. At first the episodes took an hour to edit, but they get faster each time.
Get a designer: There is an important and obvious step that I missed along the way: You will need a thumbnail and a header image for your podcast. The thumbnail is very important in inspiring people to listen to your podcast, so do not skimp on this step. I started a Twitter, Facebook, and blog for the podcast as well so the thumbnail and header image had to be resized and reformatted for each site. This took a good deal of time and should be factored into the schedule. I did not have access to a designer so our team worked with Canva, the online graphic design software, to create the thumbnail and headers.
Sharing the RSS feed:
Once you have your perfect first episode and design and you have paid for a hosting site, and put it together, there is another step before fully launching your podcast. Once our Podbean site was set, I submitted the feed to iTunes and it took us two days before our RSS feed was approved. If you have announced a specific date that your podcast will launch, this could slow down the process. You may need to upload your files to your hosting site, submit the feed to iTunes, wait for approval, and then fully roll out the advertising for your podcast when it has been approved by the various podcast sites.
Results/What We’ve Learned: So far Historically Yours has five published episodes and is averaging 100 downloads per episode. The highest number of downloads always comes on the first day. That first day download number has increased with each episode, so the podcast is growing a healthy base community.
In each episode of Historically Yours, we call on our community to help us out with the research. From the very first episode we had a listener inspired to do a bit of historic research about the letter and we received a listener response (via email) about the results of their searching, identifying more information about the theater fire described in the letter. For the next episode, I will read user feedback letters on the air and we expect the user connection and response letters to increase as soon as they are read on the air.
The podcast gives a chance to feature our staff and graduate student as real idiosyncratic passionate people who love research, and seems to be inspiring responses from like-minded passionate history nerds. It seems the perfect method to reduce fear of the institution or the professionals by connecting with and inspiring new users.
The steps to make a podcast are not all that difficult, but like any creative work the end result is improved by testing, critiquing, and changing. If you have the space to invest in the concept in bursts without a tight timeline you can troubleshoot the process along the way, learn from those who have gone before, and create a really meaningful way to connect with our users.
Finding a quiet place to record was our biggest challenge. Have your recording location identified (and tested) before proceeding far. Between HVAC banging, construction, door slams, and interruptions, many locations may not be feasible.
Give your podcast a home on your blog as well. We post a transcription of the letter we are reading each episode to our blog along with an image of the letter.
Our followers asked for the RSS feed to be added to: iTunes, Pocket Casts, and Stitcher, as well as its home on Podbean.
It might be good to upload three episodes at once to start with, especially for a short podcast – having several episodes to binge at once can build a fan.
If you are using a single microphone and one person’s voice is deeper or quieter, put the microphone closer to them.
Get multiple memory cards and a card reader.
People trying out the podcast will listen to the first episode. Over time, episode one will have the most downloads and will be the most important. It’s your commercial. Do your best to get episode one right.
Historically Yours: Historically Yours is asking the question: What can you learn from just one letter?
Host: Colleen Theisen Guests: Staff, graduate students, faculty, and friends. Theme music: Will Riordan Editing: Colleen Theisen and Farah Boules
As we say on the podcast – DON’T FORGET TO WRITE!
Colleen Theisen is the Outreach & Engagement Librarian for Special Collections & University Archives at the University of Iowa Libraries, where she coordinates social media, including a Tumblr named “New and Notable” by Tumblr in 2013, the YouTube channel, “Staxpeditions,” and the podcast “Historically Yours.” She started her career as a high school art teacher and completed her Master of Science in Information in 2011 at the University of Michigan School of Information. In 2015 she was named a Library Journal Mover & Shaker. She’s on Twitter @libralthinking.
This past year, Z. Smith Reynolds (ZSR) Library at Wake Forest University (WFU) wanted to provide a special opportunity to engage students interested in writing outside of the classroom and offer them the opportunity to become published authors. The inspiration for Writers Camp @ ZSR came after a group of ZSR librarians heard Jane McGonigal present “Find the Future: The Game” during the American Library Association’s 2014 Annual Conference.
During the Summer of 2015, The Writers Camp @ ZSR committee was formed and the Writing Center was brought in to help plan, market, and lead the event scheduled for Friday, January 29th, 2016. Members included ZSR’s Instruction and Outreach, the Wake Forest Writing Center, Personal and Career Development, the WFU Press, and Special Collections & Archives. The group decided the starting point for each student’s writing odyssey would be an artifact from the University Archives.
The event commenced at 3 pm with a reception in the Special Collections Research Room. With some help from the Demon Deacon himself, the writers made a personal connection to their assigned artifacts which would inspire their works. Taken from throughout Wake Forest history, the variety of artifacts from the University Archives were sure to cultivate genres of written work from poetry to short stories, and more. Author and professor, Jenny Puckett, provided a brief lesson on “going down the rabbit hole”, the phrase she used to describe the oftentimes never-ending adventure into finding the history and context of an artifact. Returning to the Library at 7:00 pm, the group of talented Wake Forest University students who had applied and were selected to participate, arrived ready to spend the entire night in the Library (which was closed to the campus as part of its regular hours). They were ready to challenge their creative abilities and participate in a writing event unlike any other.
At 7:30 pm the students returned to the library atrium to kick-off the evening. After a few encouraging words from the Director of the Writing Center, the writers scurried off into the depths of ZSR, from the darkest basement corner to the serene 6th floor catwalk overlooking the atrium. A midnight pizza delivery provided a nice break for several writers, and many student writers appreciated the endless pots of coffee and late night snacks that were set up in the atrium (known as ‘Writers Camp Command Central’ during the event). An incredible group of tutors from the Writing Center offered assistance and advice into the wee hours of the morning.
Twelve hours and eight pots of coffee later, thirty-three works were submitted and after editing, were published in ebook and print formats, with several special editions designated for Special Collections.
This unique event was a lot of work—obtaining grant support from the university, marketing, reviewing applications, selecting artifacts, staying up all night, editing the student work—but it was definitely worth it. Our students are now published authors, and participated in a one-of-a-kind event. Special thanks are due to our Outreach Librarian Hu Womack for overseeing all the details!
Tanya Zanish-Belcher currently serves as Director, Special Collections and University Archivist for Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She received her B.A. (1983) in History from Ohio Wesleyan University and an M.A. (1990) in Historical and Archival Administration from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. She is Past President of the Midwest Archives Conference and a past member of the Council for the Society of American Archivists (2012-2015). She was named an SAA Fellow in 2011, in 2016 was elected SAA Vice President/President Elect, and will serve as SAA’s 73rd President in 2017-2018.