How Steven D. Booth Does History

Editor’s note: This is the nineteenth entry in a series on how historians—especially contingent historians and those employed outside of tenure-track academia—do the work of history. If you know of someone we should interview, or would like to be interviewed yourself, send an email with the subject line HOW I DO HISTORY to pitches@contingentmag.org.


Steven D. Booth (@misterbooth on Twitter) is an archivist, researcher, and member of The Blackivists. Here’s how he does history.

What’s your current position? 

In early 2020, I joined the Getty Research Institute (GRI) as the Archivist/Project Manager of the Johnson Publishing Company (JPC) Archive. A nonprofit consortium made up of the Ford Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) acquired the JPC Archive in 2019. While it is co-owned by five organizations, the GRI and NMAAHC share stewardship of the archive.

A black-and-white photo of a person sitting outdoors, under a tree and sitting on a bench in front of a wood picket fence reading Ebony Magazine, June 6, 1950. University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library. Photographer: Neal Douglass. Part of Loss/Capture, Sixty Inches From Center (Public Domain)

Can you take us through your workday or work week? Does it change often or does it depend on what you are working on?

The bulk of my work involves attending meetings and working with my colleagues at the GRI and NMAAHC to strategize and plan how the collection will be preserved, cataloged, digitized, stored, and made accessible. There are about thirty staffers from both institutions who are involved. And even though they have other workloads and priorities, everyone is equally committed and invested in providing long-term preservation, storage, and access to the collection.

The archive is a treasure trove that documents Black history and culture through JPC’s editorial, television, radio, fashion, and cosmetics history dating from 1942, when John H. and Eunice W. Johnson founded the Johnson Publishing Company, to the 21st century. The collection consists of approximately four million photographic images, nine thousand video and audio recordings, and over two terabytes of digital content. Also included are textual records such as press releases, memoranda, ephemera, memorabilia, publications, and books. The goal is to catalog and digitize the entirety of the collection for public discovery and access.

June 18, 1953 cover of Jet Magazine featuring Sarah Lou Harris. The cover is green with white text and a black-and-white portrait of Harris, who is wearing a light top and looking directly into the camera. The cover has the following words: “Jet: The Weekly Negro News Maga…,” “A Johnson Publication, 15 cents,” “The truth about shotgun marriages,” and in black text, “Glamour queen of disc jockeys.” Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. Photographer: Unknown. Part of Loss/Capture, Sixty Inches From Center (Public Domain)

Tell us about your undergraduate and graduate school experiences. What was your main area of study? 

I was drawn to archives while earning my BA in music at Morehouse College. During my senior year, a music professor suggested I pursue a graduate degree in library science because of my strong interest and research skills in music history and theory. After hearing their recommendation, I applied and was accepted into the Mellon Librarian Recruitment Program at the Atlanta University Center’s (AUC) Robert W. Woodruff Library. It was through the program I learned about different aspects of librarianship and career opportunities, and met archivists Karen Jefferson, Andrea Jackson Gavin, and Dr. Meredith Evans who encouraged me to attend Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts and become a professional archivist.

At Simmons, I had the privilege to study with and be mentored by Dr. Tywanna Whorley, the first Black archival educator in the country. Her initiative to recruit HBCU undergraduates attracted not only myself but several students from Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Coppin State University, and also other Black students from predominantly white institutions. We were also equally invested in and supported by Dr. Em Claire Knowles, the former assistant dean for student affairs.

In addition to cataloging, reference, management, and various electives, I took courses in digital preservation, records management, and archival theory, arrangement and description, access, and appraisal. I also completed two sixty-hour internships, one at the New England Conservatory of Music Spaulding Library and the other one at Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center (HGARC). So I was able to apply the theories and processes I learned in class to practical situations while gaining work experience. In fact, my internship cataloging Dr. King’s papers at Boston University turned into my first professional job, which was a grant-funded position I held my last year of grad school while earning my MS in library science.

Can you tell us about the experience cataloging the archive of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?

I worked on the project as an intern for two semesters. I got offered one of the project archivist positions after my predecessor resigned. The director of HGARC, at the time, told the project manager and Dr. Whorley, who was the other project archivist, that she was hiring me for the role because I knew the work and collection. Not to mention, I am a Morehouse man like Dr. King, and this was a collaborative project with the Morehouse King Collection at the AUC Robert W. Woodruff Library.

Most of my work involved arranging and cataloging correspondence and subject files created or used by Dr. King and other key figures and organizations from the Civil Rights Movement. I enjoyed reading the many letters and invitations sent to Dr. King from college and university presidents as well as students groups. Looking back, it seemed as if every campus wanted him to visit their school and speak. I also researched and identified organizations, individuals, and events mentioned in the collection using Dr. Clayborne Carson’s King Papers Project electronic database and printed volumes, which is how I learned more about the movement and the people involved. And I also helped research and prepare the opening exhibition where I met his sister, Dr. Christine King Farris. It was a great experience. Much of what I learned there I continue to apply in my work to this day.

Black neighbors spending time outside on a sunny day on Chicago’s West Side in 1974. On the left, two children stand together, one holding a bike. In the shadow of the home that falls outside of the frame, another child sits on the porch. To the right, two young people stand, one with their hands in the hair of the other, braiding. Cars line the street in front of them. Photo from John H. White’s series DOCUMERICA: The Environmental Protection Agency’s Program to Photographically Document Subjects of Environmental Concern, 1972 – 1977. The National Archives and Records Administration. Photo from Sixty Inches From Center collective (Public Domain).

You’re a member of The Blackivists. Can you tell us what this collective is and the work it does?

We are a collective of trained and credentialed Black archivists (@blackivists on Twitter) who are from and based in Chicago. The collective is made up of Stacie Williams, Erin Glasco, Skyla Hearn, Raquel Flores-Clemons, Tracy Drake, and myself. We all have an undeniable love for the city and Black people, history, and culture. So, we decided to come together to lend our skill sets and expertise to the communities that we are part of and live in. We are not a collecting organization and we do not do this work on behalf of our respective institutions. We provide guidance and assist individuals and groups with caring for their materials. Since 2018, we have worked and collaborated with several organizations on Chicago-focused archiving initiatives and documentation projects, including The Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party Oral History Project, Honey Pot Performance’s Chicago Black Social Change Culture Map, and The Oscar Brown, Jr. Archive Project.

Most recently, we launched Diamond in the Back, a community archiving partnership with another collective, Sixty Inches From Center. Inspired by the lyrical refrain in the 1974 R&B classic “Be Thankful for What You Got,” Diamond in the Back: Excavating Chicago’s Black Cultural and Material Heritage is a two-year project that will excavate and celebrate, not extract, the histories and living legacies of Black Chicago. With support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we will provide resources to a cohort of local residents and groups that have an interest in or are currently archiving, documenting, and preserving aspects of the Black experience in the Chicagoland area. Our goal is to nurture and cultivate a peer network of community collections and collectors across the city.

As an archivist and project manager for the JPC Archive, what are some projects you have worked on or have supervised? 

Although the collection is unprocessed and technically closed to the public, we still receive many license and image requests. Thankfully, we are able to provide access because JPC previously digitized a small number of images, which met most researcher’s needs. Since I started we’ve received requests from the media (ABC, CBS/BET), cultural institutions (Tate Liverpool, Winterthur, Wisconsin Historical Society), filmmakers, and publishers. Until the collection is fully cataloged and digitized, we are not conducting any new research or digitization for requesters.

Jacob Philadelphia touches President Barack Obama’s hair during departing staff member Carlton Philadelphia and his family’s visit to the Oval Office. Barack Obama Presidential Library. Photographer: Pete Souza. (Wikimedia Commons)

From 2009-2021, you worked at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Can you tell us some of the work you did for NARA as well as which divisions and offices you worked out of?

I joined NARA in 2009 as part of the Archivist Development Program (ADP), which was a two-year professional development initiative designed to recruit and prepare recent graduates and early-career archivists with library science degrees for an archival career with the agency. Having an interest in presidential records and wanting to live in D.C. after grad school, I interviewed and was offered a position to work for the Presidential Materials Division. At the time, the Presidential Materials Division provided archival policy guidance to NARA’s Presidential Libraries, preserved and facilitated access to classified and unclassified vice presidential collections of Al Gore and Dick Cheney, served as the NARA liaison for the White House, and coordinated the transfer of presidential and vice presidential records and artifacts from the White House to the physical and legal custody of NARA.

Access to executive branch records are governed by the Presidential Records Act (PRA) and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). So, much of my work with the Presidential Materials Division involved researching the vice presidential collections to identify records that were responsive to FOIA requests received from the public then reviewing the records. The process of review involves reading textual, electronic, or audiovisual records line-by-line, page-by-page and restricting and releasing categories of information specified in the law. One notable FOIA request I assisted with was for selected categories from the Cheney photograph collection. The body of responsive records included images taken on September 11, 2001 featuring Vice President Cheney at the White House and in the President’s Emergency Operations Center (PEOC) with senior staff members, Lynne Cheney, First Lady Laura Bush, and President George W. Bush. The release of these images garnered unexpected media attention from Politico, The Boston Globe, and CNN.

In 2016, I was one of the inaugural archivists hired for the Barack Obama Presidential Library. As part of taking this position, I was detailed to the Office of Records Management (ORM) at the White House, primarily to learn about the recordkeeping practices and systems used by ORM, the Photo Office, and the Communications Agency and to bring that knowledge back to the Library to help us search and identify records for special access and FOIA requests. By the end of 2016, one of ORM’s career staffers retired. He had been involved with presidential transitions since the Carter Administration. So, I also ended up coordinating the transfer of several thousand boxes of records from the White House to NARA. Although it was an unexpected opportunity that involved a lot of physically and mentally demanding tasks with many long days and nights, it was a memorable experience, especially the day I rode the elevator with Dr. Jill Biden.

At the Library, I established and managed the archival program for the audiovisual collection. Throughout Obama’s eight years in office, his Administration heavily utilized a vast majority of social media platforms like Flickr, Instagram, Medium, YouTube, and much more which earned him the acclaim as the “first digital President.” While many video and audio recordings, and photographs were released and made publicly available, it is only a small percentage of what was actually created. The audiovisual collection is made up of over three million born-digital images and over sixty hundred and fifty cubic feet of audio and video recordings.

In addition to doing standard archival administrative work, my work also consisted of providing access to the audiovisual collection. Individuals and groups who had an opportunity to meet President Obama or First Lady Michelle Obama often got their picture taken with them and would receive a courtesy copy from the White House Photo Office. But sometimes this did not happen. So, about sixty percent of the audiovisual requests received were from individuals asking for their “grip & grin” photos and the other forty percent were for reproductions of public domain content. For example, a representative of ABC Studios/Shondaland contacted the Library and expressed interest in obtaining footage from the 2013 inauguration ceremony to use on an episode of Scandal.

Throughout the pandemic, the Library has received many requests for the image of Jacob Philadelphia touching President Obama’s hair in the Oval Office and the one where President Obama is standing outside the daycare center looking at the young children in the window. Other audiovisual materials have been used by Dick Clark Productions, The History Channel, Netflix, CNN, ESPN, and PBS. A number of our images are also in memoirs, autobiographies, and photography books.

From your experiences, how does working in private archives differ from public archives? 

Well, there isn’t much of a difference. The skills of an archivist are transferable regardless of the type of institution or industry. At the core, we collect, organize, describe and make available collections or records of unique or historical importance. An archive can be both a physical and online space where documentary evidence lives and is cared for according to best practices and made accessible. It also refers to collections that people create with their own materials, such as photographs, letters, journals, even web pages. Even Beyoncé has an archivist and archive!

Illustration by Kiki Lechuga-Dupont for “Back Down Memory Lane: Reflections with Arlen Turner-Crawford.” Part of Loss/Capture, Sixty Inches From Center. Photo provided by Steven D. Booth.

Can you tell us about your 2020 digital editorial project, Loss/Capture? Did the pandemic affect it?

Over the past decade many of Chicago’s Black collections have become at risk of being lost. Whether it’s collections being acquired and relocated to other cities, institutional collections lacking caretaking resources and remaining inaccessible, materials being at constant risk of deterioration, or communities lacking access to the kind of information that would help them organize their own collections, Chicago is experiencing an erasure of African American history which is exacerbated by a mass exodus of Black populations from the city.

In response to the sale of the Johnson Publishing Company Archive to various nonprofit and philanthropic organizations and the closure of the Center for Black Music Research, Sixty Inches From Center published Loss/Capture. It’s a digital editorial project that explores the current state of Black collections in and beyond Chicago through multimedia articles including essays, photography, illustrations, primary sources, recorded conversations, and playlists. The project was guest edited by myself and Stacie Williams, with guidance and support from Tempestt Hazel, Noor Shawaf, and Ryan Edmund Thiel, and contributions from a range of archivists, curators, memory workers, artists, activists, and researchers who hold experience and expertise in Black collections.

We began discussing the project in October 2019 with the goal of executing our work plan in January 2020, which we did until the pandemic began. Given the uncertainty of the situation and the changing landscape of how we were working and living, we paused the project. In early summer 2020, we received a grant from the Society of American Archivists (SAA) Foundation to support our work. Although we were still adjusting to the “new normal,” this news really gave us the strength and courage to pick the project back up. But because so much had happened, we felt it was necessary to give the contributors an opportunity to also explore the pandemic, state-sanctioned violence, and racial injustice. The team came together and had what Stacie calls a “design intervention.” We discussed our original plans and adjusted them according to our individual capacity and what we could feasibly accomplish considering the circumstances of life and the state of the world. October is American Archives Month and that felt like a perfect time to release the project.

You’re a member of the Society of American Archivists (SAA). For our readers who are unfamiliar with the organization, please tell us about the Society and the work it does as well as the work/service you have done for SAA.

The Society of American Archivists (SAA) is the oldest and largest professional association in North America dedicated to the needs and interests of archivists and archives. There are more than six thousand members who are employed by governments, universities, businesses, libraries, and historical organizations nationally. Since joining in 2008, I have been an active member and held leadership roles for the Archivists and Archives of Color Section, Harold T. Pinkett Minority Student Award Selection Committee, the Awards Committee, SAA Council (which is the governing board of the organization), and most recently the Appointments Committee. And I have also participated in the SAA Mentoring Program.

George Goodwin of Howard University in Washington, D.C. and Carrye L. Gentry of Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Georgia both clerk-searchers of the Office of International Trade, Department of Commerce who are now detailed on a special research assignment at the Archives, look over the 13th Amendment signed January 31, 1865. The National Archives and Records Administration. Photographer: Jackie Martin, International News Photos.

Tell us about your book project focused on the contributions of Black archivists in SAA. How are the writing and editing processes going? 

I am currently working on a book project with Barrye Brown documenting the contributions and impact of Black archivists in the Society of American Archivists (SAA). We will use oral history interviews conducted with founding members to provide an overview of the establishment of the Archivists and Archives of Color (AAC) Section of SAA. There are currently no publications about the formation and impact of the AAC Section or the Black experience of SAA members. Also, few peer-reviewed articles and profiles about SAA groups and underrepresented members exist in archival literature. Out of the seven articles identified in The American Archivist, four illustrate the contributions of only Black male archivists in the SAA and the profession but they are written by white authors. Our book will serve as documentary evidence regarding SAA’s concerted efforts to diversify the organization starting in the early 1980s and the challenges and implications of doing so from the perspective of members who were directly involved and affected. We recently submitted our book proposal to a publisher and are waiting to receive feedback.

What is something people don’t know or appreciate about working in an archive?

There are a few things. First, archival work involves building relationships with donors whether they are alumni, student groups, unsung heroes, community members, neighborhood organizations, or notable people. Archivists understand that there is potential trauma and grief attached to materials, and it may be too difficult and challenging to grapple with in the moment. While there are no time constraints related to donations, people donate materials when they are ready and comfortable. But it takes significant time to cultivate rapport and build trust with donors.

Secondly, as much as people love and value archives, they are often the least funded or under-resourced component of an organization. It takes money and staff to organize, catalog, digitize, and provide access to collections and materials.

And lastly, archivists are usually not the subject matter experts. The expertise as it relates to the collections we work with belongs to the donors or records creators. Often, archivists learn about the people and groups referenced in the materials while working to make a collection accessible. We’re always learning on the job, which makes what we do exciting and interesting.

A collection of ephemeral materials from Chicago House music events over the years, as collected and catalogued by The Blackivists archivist collective as part of the Chicago Black Social Culture Map: Early Chicago House Edition event in spring and summer 2019. The top flyer says “BEDROCKS” 2125 W. Roscoe, Ladies Free Thursday Nights, Thursday, April 17th. Photo courtesy of Stacie Williams.

What do you find to be the most rewarding part of working at an archive?

As an archivist, what I’ve come to enjoy the most about my work is helping provide access to primary sources and resources, and other information to people from all walks of life who are in need of these materials for whatever reason – whether that’s a research paper, curatorial project, or personal use. Throughout my career, I’ve worked at a variety of libraries and archives where I have been afforded opportunities to do this on a daily basis. I consider it a privilege and honor to be able to help diverse users discover, access, and engage with materials that meet their interests and needs and are beneficial to their personal and professional development.

What advice would you share with someone wanting to work in an archive?

There are many exciting aspects of working in an archive, such as the collections and materials you get to work with, organize, and share. But the reality is that archival work can be tedious, laborious, and routine. As wonderful as the collections can be, the work is work, and it involves a great deal of physical, mental, and often emotional labor. In addition, the market is oversaturated with highly-qualified and capable archivists who are unfortunately having to compete with allied professionals for both precarious and permanent positions. There is more to doing the work other than being knowledgeable about the subject matter.

What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about what archivists do and how they work?

Honestly, I doubt that people know that archivists exist, let alone what we do. We are not librarians, and we are not historians. As I like to explain it, we are the ones that take care of the stuff that historians will use to write a book or a filmmaker will use for a documentary. As a matter of fact, I am always surprised when I connect with people who do know what an archivist is and what we do. Archivists are good at talking to other archivists. But not necessarily to the public. As a profession and community, we have to improve and amplify our visibility, and the importance of our work in society, and find interesting and engaging ways to make our work relatable to everyday people.

If money, time, and distance were not issues, what’s a dream project you’d love to tackle? 

I am currently dreaming up several research and curatorial projects related to music, digital humanities, African American history and culture, and gender and sexuality studies. But I’m going to hold off on announcing them for right now.

If you weren’t a scholar, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?

If I wasn’t an archivist, I would probably be a Broadway performer. My dream role would be to play Seymour Krelborn in Little Shop of Horrors.

Contingent Magazine believes that history is for everyone, that every way of doing history is worthwhile, and that historians deserve to be paid for their work. Our writers are adjuncts, grad students, K-12 teachers, public historians, and historians working outside of traditional educational and cultural spaces. They are all paid.