By Melissa Pankuch
On October 3rd, SAASC was honored to have Lynn Downey in conversation to share her experiences as an archivist, historian, and author.
After an early position as an archivist for the real estate developer Mason-McDuffie, Lynn spent over 20 years as the corporate historian for Levi Strauss & Co., the iconic American institution famous for its denim jeans. During her time at the company, Downey sought out a variety of opportunities to hone her writing skills. Her position included marketing activities such as working with reporters who were researching the company. She also learned to embrace social media as a tool for sharing the heritage of Strauss & Co in short form entries such as Facebook posts and tweets. Downey traveled the country to promote the company at events and on television, including a spot on Oprah! Most importantly, Downey had strong communication with company leadership, and was able to pursue a lot of writing that she had personal interest in by illustrating its connection back to the company. This communication was certainly a factor when Downey negotiated to write the official Levi Strauss biography after her time with the company.
Downey also provided quality advice for archivists who are looking to become writers. She explained that she processes a book project much like she would process an archival collection. She first studies and reads as much as she can about the subject, and uses that information to create an organizational structure for the book. This compilation of materials can often be a tricky task. When writing the Levi Strauss biography, Downey hit a roadblock in the process because many of Strauss’ personal records were destroyed in the San Francisco 1906 fire. Therefore, she traveled to Germany and Panama to gather information from other sources to complete the organizational structure for her book.
She also stressed the importance of creating a timeline in order to see the topic develop over time. For the Strauss project, Downey’s timeline is over 100 pages long! She also stressed that aspiring writers should read and write as often as they can, citing Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life as transformative texts in her journey as a writer. Downey also recommended that authors seek to work with university presses as opposed to seeking representation from a literary agent and working with larger publications. With university presses, the author-archivist is able to maintain a level of ownership over their project that other publishers may not provide.
Her current project, Life in a Lung Resort, tells the story of her grandmother’s time in Arequipa, a tuberculosis sanitorium, in 1920’s California. The site of the sanitorium is now the home of a Girl Scout camp. Downey tracked down the institutional records that were saved by a man who kept them in his shed so they would not be thrown away. Downey obtained the records, processed them, and donated them to the Bancroft Library (finding aid can be found here.) We look forward to reading Life in a Lung Resort, set to be released in the fall of next year, and to reading more from Lynn Downey in the future!