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Behind the Scenes with Metro Archives

October 9, 2021
View of Archives workroom

October is Archives Month, and the staff at Metro Archives are thrilled to have a month when we can "toot our own horn" and talk about the work we do and why we do it. I could list the many reasons why archival work is important, but the most pivotal one is so that we don't lose our own history, and furthermore, keep it alive to learn from and act accordingly.

American Archives month

As Shakespeare once famously wrote..."what's past is prologue", and that's essentially what we live by on a daily basis. 

On a personal level too, I love this idea of spreading awareness of archival work because I get the most questioning looks sometimes when I tell people where I work. So I usually just end up saying "I work with a lot of old Nashville stuff." That usually gets an "ohhhh, okay."  

So, this blog post is meant to introduce our staff to you, as well as highlight a few of our favorite gems from our collections. 

"What is it you say you do here, exactly?"

I'll start with explaining who we are and what types of records we hold:

Formally...

"The mission of the Metro Archives is to collect and preserve the permanent value of the historical records of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County."

Informally...

We make a lot of jokes, and work with a lot of old Nashville stuff! See, that answer does apply.

But seriously though, so that statement means we're essentially the last stop for records belonging to Metro government departments (for the most part, most Metro departments). When each department no longer needs them, they come to us so we can process (a fancy word for organizing and indexing them), clean, and then house those records for their new purpose - research. 

Staff working in State Archives lab
Staff working in the Tennessee State Library and Archives preservation lab.

If you want to get technical with records' management speak, the terms "retention schedule" and "retention period" are important to these agencies and the life of the records. But you get the idea.  

Make sense? Let me provide some other examples of records we hold...

  • Marriage Records for Davidson County
  • Court Records for County, Circuit, Chancery, and Criminal (and case files)
  • Probated Wills, from 1783-1963
  • All sorts of maps, dating from around 1888-1950's
  • Millions of photos (mostly of the mid-20th century on, but there are a few older ones from family collections)

If you're curious about what else we hold, you can always check out our website or read Ed's blog post about us. Or simply ask "do you have this?" If we don't know off the top of our head, we're happy to dig around! 

Keep calm and ask an archivist

Meet the Staff

Archives meme

Now that you know what we do, here's who we are, individually. I asked my boss and coworkers a set of questions, and these are the ones answered by Ken...

  1. Talk a little about yourself as it pertains to your current job, what you studied in school and how you ended up in your current position.
  2. What do you like most about your job? 
  3. What’s your favorite collection/item that we have? 
  4. What’s your favorite photo/video we have? 
  5. What’s something you would like people (unfamiliar with Archives’ work) to know about what we do, that you think they’d be surprised/thrilled/intrigued about? 

We'll start with the head of our department, Ken Fieth

Just a little bit of info about Ken: he's a military history buff that can answer just about any question pertaining to Nashville history (or any history really). Outside of work, you can find him either at his farm or riding around in his tank (yes, you read that right). 

Bulldog at the TN State Fair
One of Ken's favorite images from our collection - a bulldog enjoying his ride at the TN State Fair. 

1. A little about his background pertaining to his work...

"I received my masters [in Historic Preservation] in 1980. At that time, a history master’s meant either working in fast food or putting a contract hit on someone working in a job I wanted. Having little money for that, I applied to all the usual places in the history field. Eventually, I was offered a job with the TSLA in their Archival processing division. On the very same day, a company offered me the job I had applied for with them - [I] wrote them a letter and turned it down. They responded with a nice counter-offer. In retrospect, I could have been Mr. Fieth in gasoline distribution instead of the Metro Archivist. Fortunately for me, I chose wisely. It’s been such an interesting, rewarding and fascinating career."

2. What you like most about your job...

"I get to work with history every day. Reading of the adventures, mishaps, crime, humor, courage, devotion and all the rest about people summed up in the records that create the past. I see firsthand the emotional attachment many people have to the past. Seeing someone overcome with emotion to see the only example of their grandmother's handwriting is a powerful moment. The Archives is collected memory. It’s a record of decisions that were made in the past and lives lived, if we learn and know about the aspects of those before us, what they did in the past and why, it informs us today. Yes, we are steeped in the past, but we also look towards the future." 

3. Favorite collection or item from our collections...

"Hard to say, but one is an 1867 pass issued by Governor William Brownlow to allow a man to carry a firearm upon his person in Nashville. The 1860 county court case file of Dr. Bugg who was winning the gunfight until the barrel fell off his revolver. My favorite collection is really hard, there are so many, but one of the top ten is Chancery Court. The amount of information is astounding."

4. Favorite photo or video we have...

"The James Kilgore Collection video of Ft. Oglethorpe in 1941; mounted officers are playing polo while new recruits walk leisurely to the mess hall. Being a WW2 history buff, it’s interesting to know how much America would change in just four years. 

5. Something you'd like for people to know about our work...

"Often the way people are taught history is so incredibly boring. They perceive archives as a dull, lifeless room with dusty old books that no one ever sees. Holding todays smartphone, one has the sum total of human knowledge in their pocket. We know that. We offer the opportunity to see the past in a totally different way."

Next we have Archives Librarian, Kelley Sirko...

Some details about Kelley...like Ken, she's another great resource for Nashville history-related questions, or just about anything in our collections since she's processed several of our largest collections, such as the Nashville Public Library Collection, most of the mayoral papers, and most recently - the Board of Education Collection. 

In her spare time, she enjoys honing her culinary skills (particularly in the making of various pasta dishes), playing with her goofy cat, Fergus, traveling, and reading mass amounts of historical fiction.  

Photo of a cat from the Hicks-Green Glass Plate negative collection
Photo of a cat from the Hicks-Green Glass Plate Negative Collection. 

And here are her answers...

1. A little about her background pertaining to her work...

She received her bachelor's degree in English from Ohio Wesleyan University, her M.A. in English from the College of Charleston, her M.L.I.S. from the University of South Carolina, and her C.A. from the Academy of Certified Archivists. She manages the Metro Archives' website, supervises interns, and specializes in archival processing, conservation, and exhibit planning. Her research interests include genealogy, law, immigration, and antebellum African American history.

2. What you like most about your job...

"I love the 'detective work' that goes into a lot of what we do here at Archives. When a patron has a question or is doing research, it feels like a mystery that needs to be solved, and I love helping our patrons put the puzzle pieces together and solve those mysteries."

3. Favorite collection or item from our collections...

"One of my favorite items is an issue of the newspaper, Nashville Good News Weekly, which ironically has a large photograph of the Hindenburg disaster on the front page. Not exactly “good” news. I also have a huge soft spot for our old will books. When you think about how much you can learn about somebody by what they leave behind (and what they do with it), those will books are a treasure trove of information for so many different reasons."

Cover of January 1st, 1942 Nashville Good News Weekly
Cover of January 1st, 1942 Nashville Good News Weekly; not the one with the Hindenburg.
Will of Adelicia Acklen
Will of Adelicia Acklen, pg. 17.

4. Other details about our work to share...

"Working here has taught me that history is complex. There are endless aspects of our city’s history that you can research here, and endless ways in which you can use our collections. I’m always interested to learn about what our patrons need, and how we can help." 
 

Now for our Audiovisual Archivist, Kelli Hix...

Outside of being a very talented Audiovisual Archivist that's been working diligently for the last several years on digitizing our collection of analog and digital audiovisual media, you can find Kelli learning 3D animation and designing tiny homes for fun, though all she's managed to make so far is a life-sized donut with frosting :) 

Emma Thompson and her horse, Snowflake
Emma Thompson and her horse, Snowflake. Unknown collection.

Her answers...

1.  A little about her background pertaining to her work...

She is a graduate of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, and has worked on preservation and assessment projects with organizations including the Smithsonian Institution, The National Geographic Society, and the Community Archiving Workshop.

2. What you like most about your job....

"When we hear back from someone who has been positively affected by our preservation work. We always know it's a good preservation job if someone writes us words that are this kind:

'I have not heard my grandfather’s voice for thirty years. It meant the world to me to hear that recording. My thanks to the Archives.'

- Coleman Harwell Wells, hearing his grandfather’s oral history recording for the first time, digitized by Metro Archives' Audiovisual Heritage Center project in 2020"

3. Favorite collection or item from our collections...

"I don't have a favorite collection item, but our film, Nashville '86 is a delightful snapshot of how Nashville has changed, but stayed the same. And it's very fun to watch! Absolutely a community favorite..."

And lastly, for me...Archives Associate, Sarah Arntz

Not sure what else I can say about myself that can't be figured out through my blog posts or my bio below, but here it is anyway. I LOVE my job because we have Nashville's past at our fingertips everyday, and you could discover something new from our collections no matter how long you work here.

Outside of nerding out on our collections, I genuinely enjoy any minute not spent doing dishes…that may include baking new sweets (yes I know, that dirties dishes), counting down the days until Christmas, spending as much time outdoors as possible, and bingeing any good suspense or documentary series.

From the Dale Ernsberger Collection, a bear at the zoo in Memphis in 1961
From the Dale Ernsberger Collection, a bear at the Memphis Zoo, 1961.

Now for my answers to the same questions...

1. A little about my background pertaining to my work...

I graduated from Butler University with a bachelor's degree in Journalism and History. I received my M.A. in Museum Studies from the University of Oklahoma. I received my C.A. from the Academy of Certified Archivists. I've been working for the library for 10 years now (in Archives since 2016), but my love for museum work came from interning for the Smithsonian Associates while in college. My areas of interest pertaining to Archives are genealogy, history pertaining to Civil Rights, local and cultural history, and photography.  

2. What I like most about my job...

I have to echo what Kelley said and say that I love the mystery and hunt that comes with researching our records. Whether it be for a patron request, blog post, or just randomly finding something in the stacks - there is a nerdy excitement that comes with digging around in our primary sources to find an answer. It provides you with a different perspective living in this city and seeing it constantly change, to also have the knowledge of what the city once was. 

3. Favorite collection or item from our collections...

I really enjoy our photograph and negative collections, with the Banner negatives and the McClanahan-Weakley Collection being my favorites (just barely though, we have so many good collections).

I like these in particular because of there individuality from the rest; the Banner negatives provide different places and events in Nashville's past that we don't often see; so if you're looking for something completely off the wall - you go there. The McClanahan-Weakley Collection is different because it was one of the first collections I processed, and the images are primarily from around the turn of the century, and not just of Nashville. This family traveled A LOT, and because early 1900's is rare for us - these are truly a gem!

View of Broad St at Union Station, circa 1940's.
From the Banner Collection, view of Broad St. at Union Station, circa 1940's.
View of 5th Ave in Nashville, circa 1912
From the McClanahan-Weakley Collection, view of 5th Ave N between Church and Union. Circa 1912.

4Something you'd like for people to know about our work...

Ken and Kelley said it best about what makes our work unique, but I'll also add that understanding the importance of archival records can also be applied to your own records. Because our constantly-changing and evolving world can sometimes shine a new light on an event or object, our materials can gain a new importance on any given day. So with that being said, think before you throw out things kept around your house. No, I'm not suggesting to start hoarding everything, but just taking a second glance at that magazine or newspaper, random piece of mail, concert ticket, marriage license (yes, I mean it) or even your yearbook! The smallest or strangest objects sometimes will gain a lot of value as time passes.  

And with that, I'll leave you with some photos of when Metro Archives was established in January, 1986, with Virginia Lyle serving as our first Metro Archivist. The location was at our first site on Elm Hill Pike, at the old Mount Zeno School building. The building there now serves as our storage facility. 

Metro Archives building on Elm Hill Pike, 1-05-1986
Old Metro Archives building on Elm Hill Pike, January 5th, 1986.
Inside Metro Archives building on Elm Hill Pike, 1-05-1986
Front entrance of the old Metro Archives building on Elm Hill Pike, January 5th, 1986.

'Til next time, 

Sarah

Mayor West waves to the camera while riding on the See Cruiser, over the Victory Memorial Bridge, circa 1956
Mayor West and others wave to the camera while riding on the first official trip over Victory Memorial Bridge, circa 1956.

 

lucille ball

Sarah

Sarah is an Archives Assistant with Metro Archives. Her interests and areas of expertise are history, reading books (of any kind), music, travel, Harry Potter, and bingeing a good comedy series. When not in Archives, she is either nose-deep in a book or planning her next trip. Learn more about the fascinating materials found at Metro Archives through their website.