What do you do for the Southern Historical Collection?
Since joining the Southern Historical Collection in August of 2014, I have really embraced what it means to be on the curatorial side of an archive.
As the African American Collections and Outreach Archivist, the primary goal of my position is to cultivate donor relationships and facilitate the acquisition of African American materials into the collection. In the course of pursuing this objective, I collaborate with UNC library and university staff members, as well as diverse community stakeholders around the region. In addition to relationship building, my job gives me the opportunity to participate in all aspects of archival work, including appraisal, description, processing, digitization, preservation, reference and outreach.
What did you do before joining the Southern Historical Collection?
Prior to my position at SHC, I participated in an archival fellowship and worked as an archival consultant in Los Angeles, CA. The host site for the fellowship was the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum, an African American history and culture museum, in Culver City, CA. While there I trained volunteers to help me process 140 linear feet of manuscript material from the museum’s founder, Dr. Mayme A. Clayton, co-curated a hallway exhibit, Audio Assault: Sights and Sounds of the Black Power Movement in Los Angeles, 1965-1975, and coordinated a public program, Roses and Revolutions Listening Party. As a consultant, my clients ranged from art gallery owners to churches. One of my greatest achievements was establishing the Marilyn E.P. White Legacy Project to honor the 1964 Olympic medalist and Los Angeles native.
How did you get into this line of work?
In January of 2010, my last semester of library school at The University of Arizona, I took an internship at a local hospital. The hospital was getting ready for its 100th year anniversary and all of the historic documents and photos were haphazardly placed in file cabinets in the medical library. With minimal supervision and an SAA workbook on arrangement and description, I put together a finding aid for that collection, and I knew that this was what I wanted to do, albeit for something more personally fulfilling than the evolution of dialysis machines and other medical instrumentation. I took my enthusiasm to a wide assortment of volunteer, project based, grant funded, and consulting gigs before landing this wonderful position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
What do you like about your job?
I love that my position has a focus on African American history and culture. One of my first mentors in the archives told me that the best archivists are passionate about the subjects of their collections. The position of African Americans in the American South has been complex since inception and continues to be discussed today in so many contexts; I am thrilled to identify and secure the types of collections that will provide the evidence to enhance this dialogue for future generations.
What are you working on right now? What are some new and exciting projects on the horizon?
Right now I am focused on learning what it takes to be a successful team player at Wilson Library and within the Southern Historical Collection. While I have discussed projects based on my interest in social/political activism, African American art and culture, multi-ethnic representation in the archives and technologically advanced ways to share/interpret history, I have much more planning to do in order to make those ideas a reality. One legacy collecting mission that I am happy to take the lead on is the African American Family Documentation Initiative.
This program represents SHC’s commitment to collect the homegrown records of the everyday lives of African Americans in the South. We are off to a great start with families in the Raleigh area but we are always searching for more reco throughout the state. As the SHC is fully staffed and clarifying our goals, I’m looking forward to answering this question with many more details in the weeks and months ahead.
This is definitely an exciting time to be a part of the Southern Historical Collection, and I have no doubt that this team will shaking things up all around campus. I would encourage you to check out this blog often as we will be posting about the happenings in the collection and the topics that are of interest to us individually and as a unit. If I can answer any other questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
P.S. In case you were curious, my name is pronounced, SHAY-tra…might save some awkwardness in our first conversation!
One thought on “Staff Profile: Chaitra Powell, African American Collections and Outreach Archivist”
Chaitra, I love what you’re doing. As a NC native and UNC alumna, welcome (belatedly) to our great state!