Archives Leadership Institute – Berea, Kentucky

– by Libby Coyner, Archivist 


The Archives Leadership 2016 Cohort

It’s been nearly a month since I had the incredible opportunity to attend the Archives Leadership Institute in Berea, Kentucky, and I wanted to jot down a few thoughts about the magical week. The experience gave me lots of great stuff to bring home to my own institution, but on a personal level, I wanted to share how wonderful it was to enjoy a few days in a lovely setting, getting to learn from my colleagues across the country, and to be reminded of how very fortunate I find myself as part of this larger archives community.


The fearless leaders – organizers and mentors at ALI: Daniel Noonan, Rachel Vagts, Geof Huth. Terry Baxter, Tanya Zanish-Belcher. Beth Myers, Brenda Gunn

First off, I want to say thanks to the organizers of Archives Leadership Institute – I know that coordinating a schedule that action-packed is no small feat! On top of that, they made the week accessible to everyone thanks to a grant funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) – I was a recipient of a very generous scholarship that enabled me to attend. ALI receives at least twice as many applications as can attend, so I recognize what an honor it was to have been selected. (I believe I was the lone representation from a state archives).


Our lovely view every morning!

After several canceled flights, missed shuttles, and sleeping on the floor at the airport, I left Phoenix 6 hours late and arrived in Lexington, Kentucky. Berea is a much smaller town about an hour’s drive away, and I was treated to beautiful green rolling hills along the way. Following the Phoenix heat, it was nice to arrive to cooler weather, though I did gain new appreciation for the term “it’s a dry heat” – that humidity! Berea is a town of under 15,000 folks, and is home to Berea College. Berea is a private liberal arts school that uses a unique model of accepting only students with financial need, and offers education free of charge, but with work-trade. Many students work in artisan workshops creating traditional Appalachian crafts, and it is a central goal of the school to keep these crafts alive – broom-making, ceramics, woodworking, and weaving.


Berea College Campus

The ALI schedule was an ambitious one, with days beginning at 7:30 a.m. and lasting until 8 p.m. or later. It was packed with all kinds of fantastic workshops, including assessing our own leadership strengths, working through archives ethical case studies, learning some tricks of project management, advocating for our institutions, and helping one another polish up the practicum projects we had submitted as part of our application process. (My practicum focuses on an archivist swap, so that archivists in Arizona can travel to each other’s institutions for extended periods of time to learn new skills from colleagues).


The beginning stages of my handbroom

A highlight of the visit was a workshop on broom-making, one of the traditional Appalachian crafts taught at Berea College. We had the opportunity to visit the Broomcraft Shop, get a tour of the different types of brooms they create there, and finally, we had the chance to weave our own brooms to take home. As I mentioned, a core mission of Berea College is to keep traditional Appalachian crafts alive, and their students learn skills in broom-making, wood-working, weaving, and potting.


All smiles after lunch with bell hooks!

Of course, sometimes the highlights of a trip may be the serendipitous, unplanned aspects. For me, this was the surprise lunch we were able to have with author, activist, and identity politics thinker bell hooks, who I’ve been reading since I was a teenager. We had the opportunity to enjoy a meal with her, and travel to her center right there in Berea to discuss her life, her work, and her visions for the future. We wouldn’t have had this opportunity if it weren’t for the incomparable Rachel Vagts, Head of Special Collections at Berea College. We learned that Rachel and bell became friends because of a mutual love of popcorn and thrift stores, but their friendship has blossomed into a relationship between bell and the college, and her papers are now deposited in the Berea College Special Collections and Archives.

Rachel’s work speaks to a wonderful quality I see in many archivists – the ability to deal with the most personal details of people’s lives with a sweet professionalism – the recognition that who we are individually is what enables us to connect with the communities whose records we preserve. I’m beyond grateful to have had the chance to attend, and am so happy to call my colleagues my friends!

The Nefarious Granville Johnson

There must have been something in the water in Coconino County in 1926. Earlier this week when I was researching the Harry Miller case (see previous post), I discovered that the Miller trial happened just four cases ahead of another case we know well around here – the Granville Johnson case. We normally don’t accept three-dimensional artifacts around here, but the Johnson came in as such a fascinating collection of material that we couldn’t possibly get rid of it. In addition to the textual court records we have in our Coconino County Superior Court criminal case holdings, we also have the murder weapon (a hatchet), photographs of the victim, and images of a very fascinating bit of 1920s car culture – something called a “garage cabin.”

As the story goes, Mr. Granville Johnson married a wealthy widow from California, and decided to take her on a trip to visit his family in the Midwest. The couple stopped on May 2, 1925 to stay in the garage cabin at the Mountain Spring Ranch…you can see from the images below that the guests would literally drive their car into the building, and sleep in a bed on an elevated platform. THIS SITE describes the establishment as being along an early alignment of Route 66. (Route 66ers, any ideas?)

Collage 1

Images of the “garage cabin” near Williams. Hazel Johnson and her son. Collage by Wendi Goen, Photographs Archivist, Arizona State Archives.


A page from the Mountain Spring Ranch Register, entered as evidence in the case against Granville Johnson.


The hatchet. Photographs by Wendi Goen, Photographs Archivist, Arizona State Archives.

That evening, Mr. Johnson reported that his wife had been murdered. The Williams police arrived, and a “search was made for the instrument which caused the wounds, and a blood-stained hatchet was discovered sticking in the ground about one hundred feet from the door of the cabin.” Mr. Johnson apparently forgot that the murder weapon has his name etched in the handle! See photos above. The other aspect of the story that emerged is that Mr. Johnson had taken out multiple life insurance policies on his wife. See records from the case below for more details. Johnson4Johnson5Johnson6

We are happy to report that Granville Johnson lived out the remainder of his days at the State Prison in Florence, Arizona, until he passed away in 1950. But the story doesn’t end there! Our Photographs Archivist, Wendi Goen, shares the following:

“About five years ago, just before the Archives moved to the Rosenbaum Building, I received a reference call.  The woman on the other end of the phone told me that she was looking for information on a criminal case.  I asked her if she could give me more information.  She said ‘Well, my great-grandmother was killed by her second husband while they were traveling through Arizona.’    She and her family had no information beyond that regarding the murder. I asked a few more questions before I realized that I knew the case well.    It was a 1925  case and the perpetrator’s name was Granville W. Johnson.  He was a conman and saw a widow with a small son as an easy target.  The caller’s grandmother was a widow and owned land in Los Angeles.  Johnson saw the opportunity to pull off another con.  He wooed and courted the widow and eventually married her.  Unbeknownst to his blushing bride,  Johnson had taken out several life insurance policies on her and named himself as the beneficiary on all of them.  Shortly after their wedding, he said that he wanted to introduce his new wife and step-son to meet his family in Missouri.  They packed up the car, took money out of the bank to finance the trip and headed out for Missouri.

They reached Williams. Arizona and checked into a ‘garage motel.’  Each guest had their own ‘cabin’ in this type of motel.    Soon after they checked into the motel, other guests noticed Johnson driving back and forth in front of the motel.  Several hours later, Johnson showed up at one of the other cabins, holding his stepson and banging on the door.  When the guest staying at the cabin opened the door they discovered Johnson covered in blood claiming that robbers killed his wife and took her money.  In reality, there were no robbers.   Johnson claimed he had been in Flagstaff when his wife was murdered and offered his odometer reading as ‘proof.’   Other guests informed authorities that they had seen Johnson driving back and forth in front of the motel earlier in the day.   Johnson had killed his wife with a hatchet (that had his name on the handle) and threw it into the surrounding woods where authorities quickly discovered it.  Johnson was convicted and sent to prison.

The woman on the phone was grateful to finally hear the details of how her great-grandmother had died.  I told her that we had the case file here and that we had some evidence.  Included in the evidence was a photograph of the caller’s great-grandmother and the caller’s grandfather as a small boy.   She was silent for a few seconds and I asked her if she was okay.  I thought that perhaps I had revealed a bit too much.  She cleared her voice and said, ‘My grandfather died before I was born, I have never seen a picture of him or my great-grandmother.’  I was able to send her a copy of the photograph.”

Route 66 Revisited


Abandoned Cars, Route 66, Arizona. Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. (Click on picture to view on Library of Congress Site).

I recently had the good fortune to be invited to serve as the Arizona State Archives representative of the Route 66 Archives and Research Collaborative (ARC). This year’s annual meeting was held at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. The project, sponsored by the National Park Service and headed by Kaisa Barthuli in Santa Fe, brings together representatives from archives all along Route 66. (The website is currently a work-in-progress, but to learn more about the founding institutions, see:

I saw representatives of this group (Kaisa; Sean Evans at Northern Arizona University; and Jennifer Day, then at Oklahoma Historical Society) present at the Society of Southwest Archivists/Conference of Inter-Mountain Archivists conference in Mesa last year, and it was before a packed room. The session really brought home the impact that Route 66 continues to have on constructions of American identity. The nostalgia and myth that has grown up out of the Mother Road has extended far beyond U.S. borders, and has become a fascination for folks all over the world. On a personal note, my mom grew up along Route 66 in California. A classic Route 66 story, her family lost their business along the highway when their stretch of road was bypassed by the freeway. (Amazingly, a postcard featuring their family cafe is featured on the Illinois Digital Archives!)

In light of the pop-culture/kitschy/mainstream appeal that Route 66 has, I was really excited to think about how our collections at the State Archives might fit into the larger narrative of the Mother Road. Sometimes, government archives collections have the tendency to be a bit dry, lacking the same appeal that a fantastic manuscript or photograph collection might have. But our collections do have the potential to contextualize, corroborate, or even contest myths that evolve. Here’s one of my favorites research projects that emerged out of my trip north.


Zoo Remains, Two Guns, Arizona. Photo by Libby Coyner. March 2013.

I don’t think I can even begin to describe the mind-bogglingly bizarre stories that surround the Two Guns site that occupies a deserted stretch of Route 66 between Flagstaff and Winslow. Long story short, it involves the remains of TWO zoos, the skeleton of a KOA campground, something called the “Apache Death Caves,” a cement bridge across Canyon Diablo, old crumbling service stations, and a story about a gunfight that left one Mr. Earl Cundiff dead. The story got even stranger when rumors began to circulate that in trade publications that Russell Crowe had purchased the site for $3 million (not true). For a more detailed account, the Arizona Daily Sun has published this article. Or just Google it! You’ll find about a million different versions of the story.


Just across an old cement bridge that was part of the first inception of Route 66, the ruins of the Cundiff store are still a fun spot to climb around. Just watch your step with the little porch out front, which appears to be rotted through! Photo courtesy of Sean Evans, Northern Arizona University. March 2013

At the very least, I thought maybe our Coconino County Superior Court criminal cases might shed some light on the situation. I was delighted to learn that the case itself was very rich! Not only did we have information on the jury, the case transcripts, but we also had all of the testimony! (Pardon the quality of the testimony scan…it didn’t want to cooperate!)


But the best part was what I found next…


That’s right! We had the bullet from the case filed in with the rest of the paperwork!

But if you’re wondering why Mr. Miller never shows up in the Department of Corrections prison registers for the Florence Prison, here’s why…


on June 26, 1926…


the jury found Miller not guilty!


All in all, this was a great experience, and I’m looking forward to further collaboration with these folks! Here are a few other highlights from the trip…

Welcome to the Archives, Forestry Division Records!

This poster adorned my bedroom door growing up for as long as I can remember.

This poster adorned my bedroom door growing up for as long as I can remember.

I’ve long been interested in forest fire history. My soils scientist Dad always missed my birthday growing up because he was away at forest fires, but when he returned, he would tell me about how forest fires were part of an important natural cycle. He talked about how stumps and snags provided habitat for critters, and how the best Huckleberries grew in areas burned by forest fires. Years later, I read about forest fires in books like Stephen Pyne’s Year of the Fires and Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn. (Fun fact: Stephen Pyne teaches right here in Arizona at ASU, and has also written about the Grand Canyon and other local topics!)

With that in mind, I was really excited when we got some new forest fire records in from the Arizona State Forestry Division yesterday. (It wasn’t just me…my coworker Dennis and I were drawing straws over who gets to process the records!) The Forestry Division records document the Rodeo–Chediski Fire, the Monument Fire, and others. And I have to say, they did an amazing job of creating dream records that will be fantastic research resources.The collection is chock full of comprehensive reports (complete with images, maps, tables, etc.), photographs, maps, and many other documents. Check out a couple of examples of what we received below! We’re delighted to add this to the stable of wonderful records we have here at the State Archives.    -Libby



Society of American Archivists 2012 – San Diego

It’s rare that we get to meet our heroes in the flesh, but even rarer that we get to present with them at conferences. This year, I had the incredible honor of presenting with Nelson Mandela’s Chief Archivist, Verne Harris, who traveled all the way from Johannesburg, South Africa to be on our panel. Verne has been involved with the Nelson Mandela Foundation since 2004, and is known as one of the superstars of the archives community for his work related to archives and social justice. Our topic this year was Tattoos as Personal Archives, and despite being the last presentation of the conference, we had a big turnout and great conversation! It was also an honor to present with dear friends, Terry Baxter of the Multnomah County Archives (Portland, Oregon), and Stephanie Kays of the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Prior to our session, Stephanie and I embarrassed Verne by pulling our copies of his book out for signing. He was a good sport, and certainly had a good sense of humor!
Of course, SAA is also a great chance to learn about what is new in the field of archives, how colleagues are getting creative in gathering support for their archives, and considering new ideas for our own repositories.

The keynote speaker this year was Jon Voss, founder of HistoryPin. HistoryPin is a site designed to allow users to “pin” scanned historical photographs and documents to GoogleMaps, allowing users to find historical images by location. I’m rather partial to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s channel on HistoryPin. Click on the image below to learn more!


Another exciting project I learned about at SAA was the L.A. as Subject consortium. This is a group of archivists from all over the Los Angeles area who organize Archives Bazaars, work with the media to get their collections covered, and do a lot to promote L.A. history in general. They have stories ranging from Lost Tunnels in L.A. to the history of the Bunker Hill neighborhood. My personal favorite was probably the article on the work archivists did with video game designers to create the game, L.A. Noire. Click on the image below for more information!

WPA map of central Los Angeles. Image courtesy of the USC Digital Library. Physical document stored at the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.


A Celebration of Kitties

You may or may not have heard jokes about librarians and archivists being crazy cat ladies. Believe it or not, here at the State Archives, we have our fair share of crazy cat ladies. For instance, our cataloger really puts the “cat” in cataloger! But it turns out that some of our donors have also loved kitties.Click on any of the pictures below to learn more about these pictures on the Arizona Memory Project.

Wilson D. Ellis (PG 55) took this gem in Tombstone. And Arizona Highways appears to have had the Crazy Cat Lady on staff in the 1950s…take a look!

 And lest we get accused of ignoring underDOGumented communities….

Spa Day at the Archives…

Okay, “spa” might not be the right word for our humidification room, and the smell is more “musty paper” than “essential oils,” but the room does feel a bit like a sauna. And our documents will certainly leave feeling more relaxed!

Flattening documents is important for a couple of reasons. First, creases, folds, and rolling can put a strain on the fibers of papers, and each use of the documents that requires unrolling or unfolding can exacerbate that strain. And second: it’s practical! We need to fit our documents into standardized folders, boxes, drawers, etc…having an odd assortment of rolled and folded materials is not an efficient use of space.

Here at the State Archives, we’re lucky to have a room specifically for humidifying and relaxing tightly rolled/folded records – many of us cut our teeth on humidifying documents using the ever-popular “trash can method,” a popular approach for archivists on a budget which was detailed in this  NPS “Conserv-o-gram”

Remember kids: don’t try this at home without an archivist’s or conservator’s supervision. It’s important to do lots of research on humidifying records before beginning. Never humidify photographic prints, audio-visual materials, or electronic records.


The Case of the Well-Traveled Indexes


This is what archives karma looks like. When I worked as the Archivist at the Sharlot Hall Museum, I transferred as many public records as I could down to the State Archives. I had no idea that I would find myself working at the State Archives one year later, sorting through the odd assortment that I’d been delighted to unload on another repository. Why was I willing to transfer this stuff? Well, there are a couple of reasons.

  • Public records (such as records created by counties, cities, and state agencies) are required by statute to be transferred to the State Archives when they are no longer being used by the creating person or agency. Since the museum was not the appropriate repository, anyway, I figured the State Archives would be a good home.
  • Authenticity! (This relates back to why the museum should not have had these records in the first place). If a record is to stand up in a court of law, it needs to be certifiable, and it needs to have a documented chain of custody from one state agency to another. (Specifically, it needs to be transferred to the Archives).
  • Provenance: we like to make sure that an entire body of records stays together. It’s a basic principle in archives, and researchers really appreciate not having to drive all over the state just to find a single collection. Since the museum only had two indexes, it felt like a disservice not to have them with their corresponding books.

When I started sorting through what we had here at the State Archives, I realized that we had a full run of these indexes and corresponding books on microfilm, but not in hard copy. So where were the originals? It turns out that Yavapai County held onto these books, and when I contacted them, they were delighted to learn about the indexes. (They’ve had Volume 1 for years, but have always wondered what became of 2 and 3!)

Moral of the story: Nobody likes a hoarder. And as pretty and interesting as I find these old books, as much as I love the penmanship and the softness of the leather, I know they should be rejoined with the records around them. As archivists, our duty is to serve our records, and to serve our patrons. So the indexes will return to Yavapai County to be reunited with the rest of the Yavapai County mill sites and water rights books from the late 19th century. Goodbye, little buddies!