IP: Most of our interviews have been from universities. Coming from the public sector, are there any unique challenges with your type of institution, or does it provide more opportunities and freedom?
MC: Without knowing a lot about how other places operate, I’d say we have a lot more freedom, because our mission is different -- our mission is to capture the community's history and present it back to the community. With something like this, we’re able to tune into who’s out there and bring them in, and then find ways to do programming and exhibiting.
LA: It’s a public history project, basically, and it’s our entire mandate to engage with the public, and get them excited about local history. So we can do things, like put on concerts… The things that make the community more aware of [what] we’re doing are a lot easier for us. I will say that we are not a university library, we have a lot less infrastructure… We have a much smaller archive/special collection staff and knowledge base because we are a public library, and that’s just a very small part of what we do.
MC: I think from a “selling the project to the community” point-of-view, especially this kind of project and this kind of community, people involved in the punk scene would be really hesitant to send their collections to somewhere where they felt like it was locked away and inaccessible. Whereas, giving it to a public library means it’s very accessible to anyone who wants to use it, and will keep it active in the public eye through programming and exhibits. I think that’s appealing to someone who has kind of a populist mindset about what this whole scene means, and putting it in what they would see as a really restrictive place at a private university doesn’t have the same appeal as having it in a public place. There are some who might feel there is a prestige to donate it to a university, but in this community, that’s not how it is -- prestige is not really a priority.
LA: I think that’s not the case with a lot of our other collections and collecting areas, but with the punk archive, it seems to work in our favor.
IP: Can you describe what kinds of materials you collect?
MC: We’ve gotten in numerous donations, large and small, consisting of flyers, sets of zines, photograph collections, some video, a lot of records… We’ve also purchased some records, just because last year, there was a little extra money at the end of the year, so we went record shopping. We’re kind of building this music library but also these collections of ephemera. We’ve also gotten a few organizations’ collections… Radio CPR was a pirate radio station in DC, and they gave us their records. A big collection -- that hasn’t actually been delivered yet -- will double or triple everything we have... Mark Andersen started Positive Force, an organization that just celebrated its 30th anniversary… Its main goal is social justice activism around various issues through the local music scene.
LA: It’s Positive Force’s records, which on its own is huge… He was also on the scene for 30 years, and a huge fan and collector, so it's [also] his collection of posters and flyers and stuff. And then he also wrote this book called Dance of Days, which is the definitive history of DC punk, so it’s also all of his research and interviews. It’s a basement full of stuff.
MC: Positive Force had a group house, and a lot of other groups came through there. Riot Grrl started there, and there’s a whole cabinet full of Riot Grrl stuff. They later moved out to Washington, but at the very beginning, Bikini Kill and Bratmobile were all in DC and I think influenced by this politicized music scene that they took other places. So what he has is just stuff that people left in that house… We don’t know what we’re going to find.
LA: The one thing we don’t have a lot of is music recordings. The video collection is live performances, and that’s a pretty amazing collection. Otherwise, there’s a lot of paper, a lot of ephemera, a lot of published material recordings -- like released records -- but not a lot of master tapes or demos. The Radio CPR [collection] is a huge box of minidiscs, which came with a minidisc player, but it’s mostly published music. We also have a homemade transmitter that they made in a shoebox.
MC: It’s been a little slow-going. I reached out to record labels because we’re building a website that will present some of this content and draw people into all the content, and part of that was, we wanted streaming music on the site. So I had been talking to record labels about getting permission to stream some music, and I have had some that had given us some stuff -- like Katy Otto from Exotic Fever Records. She sent a couple small boxes of CDs and records and flyers and posters. But that’s different than saying, “Hey Katy Otto, how about your business records? How about all of your demo tapes and all that stuff?” That kind of conversation I have not had.
LA: I thought you had that conversation with a couple of places, but there were ownership issues that they weren’t clear on...?
MC: Skip Groff said, “I don’t own any rights to anything, you’d have to talk to each artist,” for Limp Records.
LA: Even in talking to these labels about rights just for streaming, these were such small labels, there weren’t even contracts -- the legalities of this stuff are really complicated. Even if they said they were happy to give us whatever they can, it would be very unclear what they could give us.
MC: With Dischord, it’s a little different, because it’s still fully operational. It’s a much more complicated question, because there’s records of the business, and then Ian [MacKaye]’s own collections related to the bands he’s been in, and then there’s stuff people have left in that house…
LA: And he’s sort of the godfather so people have just given him their stuff...
MC: But he’s also someone who thinks really hard about archiving and preserving his records and his stuff and keeping it separate from what’s personal and band and label.. He’s someone who’s got a natural archivist’s mind, so he’s not someone who needs [archiving advice], there’s no danger there. A lot of when I reach out to [labels] is more like, “Hey, that record just came out, let me get one for the archive!” or “Oh, your poster, we need that…”
LA: It’s not about the master stuff, it’s about the releases.
MC: That’s pretty different from knowing what they have in terms of operational files and how they’re handling all of their different stages of recordings. And I haven’t even touched on that stuff, but it could be a real cool program to bring [label] owners to a program to talk about what they should be thinking about “Here’s how to keep everything…”
LA: And how to make people care about these things. How do you make it matter? With artists, it’s a little easier, but even there, when people are young, they’re like, “What survives survives.” Trying to make it worth the work takes work.
MC: Katy Otto of Exotic Fever Records -- she donated a bunch of stuff, so she [would have] a page on the website that describes the collection she gave, describes her, describes her record label, and what it’s known for. She’s given a smattering of stuff, but I think it gives people a real visual example that by keeping your stuff, you’re making a mark that’s permanent in this whole big story, and it’s up to you to decide to make sure you’re keeping it and taking caring of it.
LA: We’ve talked a lot about the fact that we can only tell the story that our stuff tells. Therefore, there are going to be gaps. Then our message is basically, “You see a gap? Fill it.” If that thing that you cared about is not here, you need to get it to us somehow.
MC: And don’t just send a scan. Scans don’t count -- usually.
IP: What challenges have you faced with processing physical items?
LA: Things come in with certain amounts of organization, or there are certain collections that just because of what they are, we can’t put them in chronological order because the dates are more evident, whereas others are just a pile of flyers and we have no idea. So it’s hard to figure out ways the collections will talk to each other, in terms of putting them in some kind of physical order and keeping them physically separate.
MC: Most of the people donating are still around and in the community and very willing to help with sorting. We had a volunteer group sorting the CPR collection, and we invited one of the founders to come and talk to them about the organization and what was what…
LA: How concerned we needed to be about legalities…
MC: Yeah, because we had questions about people's actual names on stuff when they were doing something illegal by broadcasting illegally. That helped identify what was what, and sorting it in a way that made more sense. So there’s challenges, but nothing major.
IP: What kinds of digital items have you received, and how have you handled them?
LA: The main born-digital is photography, but the video collection we received digitized. All the Beta tapes were digitized for Dave Grohl’s HBO TV show about musical scenes, and he digitized this guy’s entire collection for a DC episode. He got the master copies back and then gave them to us, so now we have nicely digitized Beta tape. At this point, we’re not at this point digitizing from recordings -- we’re not creating a library of digital music from the physical collections we have.
MC: We may, selectively, for things that are not available. Older stuff.
LA: Basically, people could come to a reading room, and listen to stuff from the music library. But that’s not something we’re doing right now.
IP: What advice would you give to record labels and artists to preserve their stuff?
LA: I think a lot of times, my mind is really boggled by the legalities of it. So as much as they can document of that… As much as we may want stuff, and as much as they might want to give it to us, if we don’t even know who owns it, that’s a total wall.
MC: Maybe put yourself in your shoes 10 or 20 years from now -- like, what would be really important to you to have still be around to capture or represent-- would it be everything, or would it be certain things? What will it take for the stuff you know you really need to keep to last that long and to be intact and useable?
LA: To speak to the labels, it doesn't have to be perfect. I think that’s often what stands in people's ways -- “I don’t know what to do, so I’m just going to do nothing.” You just have to do the best you can to make things organized and backed up.
Michele’s Twitter handle for the DC Punk Archive is @dcpunkarchive. Lauren’s Twitter handle is @algeebraten. You can visit the website of the Archive here. Stay tuned for Part Two of our D.C. scene coverage, in which we talk to one of the most famous bastions of D.C. punk!