Community-based, in a Digital Space

In January 2020, Archival Seedlings emerged as the final initiative of the Community-Driven Archives (CDA) Grant. We connected with ten individual history keepers across the South, partnering with them to provide support for their historical projects and archival collections. This included support with digital tools, project planning, and other archival skills. By doing this work, we sought to create a broad network connecting a cohort of local history-keepers to archives professionals, institutions, non-profit leaders and, most of all, to one another.

While our grant has a finite ending, the work of our community partners does not. As an institution, we are curious about what programs and content have been most helpful to independent archives and history keepers. One such program, the Archival Seedlings initiative has provided a unique opportunity for archives professionals and individual history keepers to learn from one another in an effort to think about and create sustainable frameworks for archives.

Prior to 2020, our grant team’s initiatives set a huge precedent for travel. Our team visited many of our pilot partners several times a year, and some partners came to visit us here at UNC. Therefore, we planned for Archival Seedlings to uphold grant tradition and invited Seedlings to gather for a workshop covering all things archives set for July 2020 at the Wilson Special Collections Library.

This workshop would be a time where CDA staff and Seedlings would finally work alongside and get to know one another face-to-face.  Seedlings are based in Tennessee, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, and North Carolina. Based on our physical distance, 80 percent of the program was already designed to take place via phone calls, Zoom webinars, and email. As a result, we had considered the July workshop at UNC a much-anticipated reward for everyone’s patience after navigating six months of long-distance communication and technological learning curves.

But by the end of March of this year, our grant team knew that we had to move the in-person Archival Seedlings event online due to safety needs presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. The change of medium from in-person to digital presented an unexpected opportunity to stretch our expectations of technology and start rethinking how we can use it to create embodied and relational experiences online.

How did we do this?

We asked several of our library colleagues to lead web-based workshops on topics of exhibits, digitization, ethics, and research methods. Facilitators planned their workshops as online sessions in a combination of prerecorded videos and live sessions via Zoom. For example, in place of a two-hour in-person workshop, Wilson Special Collections Library Exhibit Coordinator Rachel Reynolds recorded two short videos about the storytelling and design elements of exhibits and then held a Live Q&A session with Seedlings to answer questions and address specific elements of their projects. Sessions such as this enabled Seedlings to encounter online content at their own pace. They created a participatory space, albeit a digital one, for Seedlings to share their projects and experiences with one another along with CDA and Wilson Library staff.

Pivoting from in-person to online: The nuts and bolts

As we reconfigured our workshop due to the social distancing requirements of the COVID-19 crisis, we decided to take advantage of the flexibility of technology to create a hybrid (i.e. both synchronous and asynchronous) event. In order to get a snapshot of Seedlings’ online preferences and availability, we sent out a survey that asked for their preferred days of the week, time of day, and “Zoom tolerance” to help us determine the ideal session length. Responses were all over the map except for a unanimous preference to keep Zoom sessions between 45 minutes to 1 hour long.

Our shift to an online program necessitated hybrid content sessions and longer stretches of time for Seedlings to encounter and digest curated digital content. Out of this need, we designed a simple WordPress website that acted as a home base for all logistical information and content for our online event. The site launched one full week before the event. It was updated with the live session recordings afterwards, so Seedlings could access the content as their schedule allowed. While in-person events allow participants to connect through activities and interactions within a physical, immersive space, digital events do not share the same quality. Instead of attempting to recreate an in-person event on a digital platform, it was important to remain flexible and provide multiple opportunities to participate over an extended period of time.

However, there were a few ways our team sought to deliver some physical elements of the conference to the Seedlings at home. In June, Sonoe Nakasone, our grant’s Community Archivist and Chaitra Powell, our Project Director, mailed all ten Seedlings participants Archivist-in-a-Backpack kits, so they could put content from the workshop sessions into practice in real time. These kits include tools like a portable scanner and acid-free archival materials, along with oral history recording tools like a Zoom audio recorder.

Throughout the Community-Driven Archives grant, the staff has sought to thoughtfully reflect on our partners’ feedback on our practices and content. At the end of the July digital workshop, our method for gathering feedback was mostly the same as it would have been in person—by having conversations. Using the breakout room function on Zoom, staff facilitated conversations with three-to-four Seedling participants to debrief and discuss their experience as well as share feedback on the content. Many Seedlings reflected on their familiarity with the content prior to the program, but cited that their participation in the program helped them to fill gaps in their skills, such as planning an oral history, and to better understand archival systems and concepts like copyright and digitization. Most importantly, these debrief conversations created time and space for group members to share how COVID-19 changed or didn’t change their archival projects, and on the new skills they had to learn in order to carry out their work.

Takeaways

For a  project that seeks to ground itself in place and community, it was challenging to organize a digital event that helps people build connections to strangers through a shared online experience. Since none of the Seedlings have met each other in person, we, as CDA staff, have used our  knowledge of each of their projects to encourage Seedlings to make connections with one another.

Prior to the pandemic, many Seedlings planned to conduct oral history interviews with elders in their communities but have had to change projects or recording methods to accommodate safety recommendations. Their struggles and triumphs while navigating these changes became an often-discussed topic amongst Seedlings and staff throughout the workshop.

By creating a hybrid method for conveying content and facilitating discussion we were able to accomplish our two main goals:

  • To support Seedlings with skills and information to help them carry out their projects
  • To facilitate meaningful discussions that built connections among participants

Additionally, Seedlings provided us with constructive feedback that will help us improve our archival practice and better understand the needs of independent archives and individual history keepers. We hope that our digital content, experiences, and collaborative partnership model will inform UNC Libraries and other institutions into the future.

Since this July workshop, it is now clear that the pandemic will not dissipate in time for us to gather in-person as staff and Seedlings participants during the duration of our grant-funded project. And while Seedlings have encountered many obstacles to their projects, to say nothing of the immense challenges of this year, each has remained persistent in their archival work. Most have seen their project plans, especially those involving oral histories, change dramatically, and have taken on new skills such as recording interviews on Zoom or using camcorders or audio recorders mic’d from a six-foot distance, in order to continue. Others have focused on digital accessibility, transcribing and captioning existing interviews for the public.

For many Seedlings, their participation in this initiative is the just the beginning of more extensive projects to document the history of their communities. In celebration of our partnership over the last year, the CDA grant team will unveil a digital exhibition facilitated by UNC Libraries that will highlight each Seedling’s archival or historical project, coming soon.

For more about the Archival Seedlings initiative on the Southern Sources blog:

Archival Seedlings: Resourcing Local Collaborators Across the American South

All Hands on Deck at Hobson City’s Museum: Interview with Pauline Cunningham

The Community-Driven Archives Project at UNC-Chapel Hill is supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Follow us on Twitter: @SoHistColl_1930 #CommunityDrivenArchives #CDAT #SHC

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