It was the best of events; it was the worst of events.
Cogito Ergo Chuckles came about because of my interest in theatre. Our Director of Special Collections had been working with an alumna from the theatre department on a donation of her personal papers. In October 2016, those papers were finally donated to us and I was tasked with processing them. I started work amid everything else I had going on. As with many of the archival processing projects here, it moved slowly because of the many, many other things I had to get done. Then, in late February 2017, I was asked to plan an event around this collection.
Melinda E. Pittman graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University in 1975. While here, she was in the theatre department acting and directing. As part of an alumni event honoring Tony Distler - The Voice of Virginia Tech - Melinda wanted to have an event on May 5 focused on the collection of her papers.
I set to work planning the event. I spoke with Melinda via phone and email multiple times to plan the event. The plan included maximizing the capabilities of the library's multipurpose room. I would have materials from the collection on display with accompanying digitized video and audio. Melinda would have time for a short presentation. I arranged for live performances of some original satirical songs from her repertoire. Refreshments would be served.
A Comedy of Errors
The first hint of a problem with the event was the date. May 5 was a requirement because Melinda was traveling from the West coast. It was also when people would be around for the alumni reunion event. Still, this event was meant to reach more than just the alumni. It was open to everyone and advertised to the public and the university community at large. The problem: May 5 was Reading Day. For those not familiar (as I wasn't before coming here): Reading Day is the final study day before exams begin. It is HUGE. It is not a day to plan an event. Still, it was prescribed.
The next hurdle: digitizing video. The collection included many VHS tapes of performances from Melinda's career. The plan was to digitize these so that a different video could be shown on each of the eight screens in the multipurpose room. At the time, we did not have the equipment to digitize VHS videos ourselves. I took a box of tapes to another office on campus that offered digitization services. They requested copyright releases for each production company represented. I let Melinda know of the problems. She agreed to get the releases (all the production companies were her own) but also sent me digital copies of some videos that she had. We also took action to acquire digitization equipment of our own. Ultimately, the video was digitized and ready for pickup one hour before the event on May 5 - much too late for me to be able to use it. I didn't even get the email that it was ready until after the event was over. Our own digitization equipment arrived a month after the event. I ended up only having the digital video Melinda had supplied for the even.
I reached out to our library event planner to request help with refreshments, etc. I was told that her services were not available that day. There were too many other things going on in support of Reading Day. After some negotiation, she agreed to do the grocery shopping for my event while doing the shopping for another event on May 3. I agreed to help her carry the groceries from her vehicle into the library. May 3 arrived and she went shopping - and completely forgot about buying things for my event. When I inquired about it on the 4th, she had no idea what I was talking about. She went to the store and got my groceries (because she truly IS awesome).
The day of the event arrived. There was a meeting in the room a few hours before my event - so I couldn't begin setup until after the meeting was done. During the meeting, people came to take tables from the room to use for other events - mistakenly believing that the only tables I needed were the refreshment tables. After some hard negotiation, I was able to keep 15 of the 18 tables I had planned on having.
Event setup began in earnest at 3:30 PM. The event was set to begin at 6:00 PM. Another archivist and one of our student workers were selecting items from the collection and placing them on tables for display. I had didactic cards saying what was on each table, so they just had to pick appropriate items they found interesting.
I was focused on getting the videos and audio up and running. Each table was to have a corresponding video playing above it. About halfway through video setup, the A/V system in the room crashed. The control boards were fried. We had been plugging individual laptops into ports designed to channel video to a corresponding television screen. Since that was no longer an option, we switched to plugging the laptops directly into the televisions which necessitated moving the laptops and completely resetting the archival materials on the tables (so we could move the laptops to different locations on the tables).
While the problems with video display were being addressed by library IT, Melinda arrived. She was going to give a presentation, so I needed to get her set up with a lavalier microphone and display capabilities for her slide deck. I also needed to get the electric piano and hand microphone set up for the live singing that would happen. We managed to cobble together the ability to run the microphones and audio through the room's speakers without the control boards. The piano, sadly, could not be connected to the room speakers.
Around 4:30, people began arriving . . . for a 6:00 event. We were NOT ready. I quickly asked my fellow archivist to get the refreshments set up so that the guests would have SOMETHING to do while we finished getting ready. She set to work. As more guests arrived, we came to discover that Melinda had sent out a note to the alumni saying the event started at 4:00 with a reception. until 6:00 followed by the main event presentation, etc. until 8:00. We also discovered that this was the FIRST event of the alumni reunion weekend and they were expecting name tags. We found some stick-on name tags and a Sharpie.
Once things started coming together (videos were up and running, archival materials were on display, refreshments were out and being consumed, name tags were available, microphones were working) we prepared for Melinda's presentation. She had requested that we record the event and we had scheduled it as an exception through the library's event capture service (it was after 5:00, so not normally supported). No one from event capture ever showed up. I sent a coworker upstairs to the circulation desk to get a camera.
With everything set, we got Melinda going on her presentation. Her laptop was connected to a screen (rather than the two screens we had planned) and her lavalier microphone was working. She had a guitar (supplied by our Agriculture Librarian) and a place to sit while presenting. My fellow archivist (amazing woman!) was filming with the handheld camera we acquired from circulation and Melinda's nieces were filming on their phones.
Melinda commanded the room . . . for 20 . . . 30 . . . 40 minutes. When we planned the event, she asked for 20 minutes to present. I had arranged for the pianist and told him he would be done by 7:00. It was approaching 7:15 when he let me know he had another engagement to get to. I interrupted Melinda and suggested we let her take a break while the "Singing Librarians" performed for her. The pianist took his place and we had three wonderful performances by some of my librarian colleagues - each singing an original work of satire by Melinda. Once the singing was done, the pianist was out the door before I could even say "Thank You".
Melinda then resumed her presentation. The camera from circulation died. The video card was corrupted. The batteries were not charged. The camera could not operate while plugged in. We captured everything on three cell phones (Melinda's two nieces had already been filming on theirs and my archivist coworker joined them).
After two hours, Melinda finished her presentation and the crowd of (mainly) alumni headed off to the downtown hot spots of 35 years ago. Melinda was effusive in her thanks and even gave me flowers.
We packed everything up and brought it back to my office. We gave away the extra refreshments to the studying students. I drove my archivist coworker home and then headed home myself (through the pouring rain - hitting every light red). I got home emotionally exhausted from the series of unfortunate events that happened behind the scenes of this event. I turned on Critical Role and let myself focus on that rather than relive my night.
With all the craziness that happened behind the scenes - from the audience arriving early, to the technical failures, to the guest of honor preparing a 2 hour presentation instead of a 20 minute presentation - the event was a success. The guests were engaged and happy. The guest of honor had a great time. Everything "on stage" was perfect even with the theatre burning down around the performance.
As much as I hate the stress involved in event planning, it was thrilling to have an event go so perfectly while every single thing went wrong.
I'm the Community Collections Archivist, Community and Cultural Centers Librarian & Resident Librarian at Virginia Tech.