Interview with an Archivist: City of Dallas

Bonnie and Andrew interview John Slate
Bonnie and Andrew Glass interviewing John Slate – Feb. 2021

Each April, we like to celebrate Records and Information Management (RIM) Month. To kick it off this year, we are featuring an interview with John H. Slate, City Archivist for Dallas, Texas. As he is an Austin native and an active participant in the conference circles that we also attend, we felt a kind of professional kinship with Mr. Slate. A few of my colleagues here at TSLAC sat down (on Zoom) and talked about some of our favorite topics.

TSLAC: It seems like there is a cohesive relationship between the city’s records management program and the archives. We hope to interview the city’s RMO someday, but can you tell us from your perspective what are the fruits of the labor of two very dedicated records and archives professionals? How does your work benefit Dallas citizens?

JS: The city’s records management program and the archives have an unusually good rapport and we are physically officed together. The previous RMO (who I reported to and worked with for nearly 20 years) and the current one – Peter Kurilecz – “get” archives and understand that our work is mutually beneficial.

When authorizations for disposal are forwarded to Archives, we have the luxury of review and can transfer materials that we deem permanently valuable without any sort of complications. It is the most smooth, organic acquisition process I’ve ever seen. In turn, in the daily work of the Archives, we try to alert [the] Records Management [department] to records management needs in departments that may not realize they need help. Plus, we tattle on departments that may appear to be flaunting local, state, and federal recordkeeping regulations.

Both records management and archives benefit Dallas citizens by protecting public assets and promoting transparency in government, two things I am sure most people will agree is sorely lacking in American society.

TSLAC: Asking for our rural city and county friends with smaller budgets and less-experienced staff who are diving into imaging their collection, do you have any general guidance on how to best prioritize which of the common types of permanent records series to digitize first?

JS: For mass digitization projects, prioritize based on observed use and projected use. If it’s frequently requested, move it up on your priority list. But also be realistic and take on collections you know you can complete. No one wants an open ended or incomplete digitization project. Don’t waste valuable resources and services on collections that are low use or limited research value. Otherwise, piecemeal requests for digitization can still get records into the (virtual) hands of the users who need them.

TSLAC: How does the city plan to protect historically valuable records – such as photographic slides within the JFK Collection – as technology evolves and the original physical records could begin to deteriorate?

JS: Color transparencies are segmented from 35mm film. The good news is that 35mm positive film like Ektachrome and Kodachrome is remarkably durable physically, and depending on the chemistry by decade, can remain vibrant. Mid-1960s-mid 70s slide film is more vulnerable because of the cheaper chemicals used in color processes, leading to the ‘pink’ fading from decomposing dyes. In other decades, the chemistry’s better and I’m happy to say our single Lee Harvey Oswald image is in great shape. All our color photography lives in climate-controlled storage, about 65F and 50% Rh.

TSLAC: You’ve been able to get such great institutional buy-in with your projects and ideas, so we wonder how long it took for you to feel like that was the case.

JS: We have always had the benefit of being a part of the City Secretary’s office, serving at the pleasure of the fifteen Dallas City Council members, so I’m one or two steps removed from council and what that affords those of us in the archives is that we’re able to approach people on higher levels and it’s refreshing to be able to have frank discussions with people – that would include not only council members but department heads, assistant directors, people who are in charge of decision making and major programming management for the city. It’s as simple as cultivating relationships and saying, “Hey you know we would really like to document this program, such as Covid relief programs that are now in full swing in in the City of Dallas. We’re asking people in key departments – including our emergency management and the city council – if they will hang on to materials that we can include in a Covid-related collection. We probably won’t catch everything, and of course the reality of working with Covid is that everyone who is involved in relief efforts are beyond busy, neck deep in it, so we may get more things later on but at least we have been able to get the ear of people.

TSLAC: How do you get people who aren’t in our field, just the average citizen, to think and care about the fact that we’re perpetually creating permanent and potentially historically significant records in the course of regular business?

JS: I believe that archivists and records management professionals have a responsibility to preach the gospel of why archives and records are important, so I would say outreach is paramount. It’s a really important tool because it combats those stereotypes of archivists, librarians, and records management people as being wallflowers who don’t really want to see anybody so that’s why they hide out in in a library stack or archives vault or something, but it couldn’t be further from the truth because I love talking about the materials in the archives.

What’s beautiful about doing public speaking is when you actually have a physical audience out there you can literally see light bulbs go on in people’s heads, like they have an “Aha!” moment when they suddenly linked either their current life or something historically important to them that completely ties back to the archives and so once you see people make that connection then then you kind of feel like “I did a good thing” you know. It’s important for people understand that archives and records are intertwined with human society because it’s the records that document who you are and what you do.


TSLAC: We really enjoyed talking with Mr. Slate, and this isn’t the first time our agency has collaborated with him! Please check out his illustrated lecture titled “JFK at 50” in connection with the 2013 exhibit “Texas Investigates: the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy and Wounding of Governor John B. Connally,” available on the TSLAC website: https://www.tsl.texas.gov/lobbyexhibits/jfk

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3 thoughts on “Interview with an Archivist: City of Dallas

  1. “We hope to interview the city’s RMO someday”
    feel free to reach out to me at anytime

    peterk

  2. this was very informative. Records make our life simple. There are many times we are able to resolve an issue quickly because we have the records to show us the steps of how we resolved the issue the first time and we can usually add additional steps to make it possible to keep up with change.

  3. Peter, we will definitely follow up in the coming months and appreciate that you are open to it!

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