Beginning in 2017, the Community-Driven Archives (CDA) team with the University Libraries at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Southern Historical Collection developed approaches to working with historically underrepresented history keepers that center the needs and goals of our community collaborators.
Our approach has focused on building trust, developing relationships, and valuing process over product. Although some of our collaborators decided to donate their historical materials to the Wilson Special Collections Library, our Carolina libraries staff-led team coached our collaborators to make the decisions that they felt were the right fit for them and their archives. Our goal was to help our community partners make informed choices about how to best care for their collections, whether at home, through a local organization or community archive, or housed at an archival institution like ours.
After four years, our CDA team has concluded its work on this Andrew W. Mellon grant-funded initiative. As we come to the end of our journey together, our staff and graduate student research assistants took the time to reflect on and to be honest about the strengths of this work and the challenges and weaknesses of our project.
A Winning Team
First, all of us have loved being part of Carolina libraries’ Community-Driven Archives team! We emphasize that, because community-based projects are relational and determined in large part by the people doing the labor of connection and care, it really matters who is doing the work. Ours was a Black-led, multiracial, majority women and nonbinary people-staffed project team, including our staff and student workers. We learned so much together and each of us brought a unique perspective as well as personal and professional background. We emphasized clear, honest, and frequent communication, deep listening, and supporting one another in asking questions and growing as people and practitioners.
“I have learned what this type of work consists of. This is my first time ever working in a library and coming into this role, I did not know all of the different type of things that went on in the library. I was so thankful to be included on the team…so that I can continue to learn and grow professionally in this field. I am thankful for everyone on the team for being open and inclusive and I will never forget this experience. I love being a part of something, especially when it involves pouring into a community that once poured into me.”
– Charlissa “Charlie” Rice
“I’m most proud of the project’s evolution over the course of the grant. Every graduate student, staff member, and community added a critical element and we grew together. The project transformed from its original conception and became something more real, more transparent, and more inviting, which makes me feel like we have a better chance of achieving some sustainable practices.”
“This is one we don’t really talk about: I am incredibly proud of how diverse our CDAT staff team is/has been. I think we “walk the walk” in that regard. I also reflect a lot on the labor issues we’ve discussed, in terms of how much this work relied on graduate students and term-limited employees.”
Doing community-based work from within an archival institution is hard. Institutions are complex systems employing people to sustain them, and they have their own goals, objectives, and measurements of success. Sometimes those align with the goals that communities have for themselves, and sometimes they do not.
Additionally, archival institutions, including UNC-Chapel Hill’s Wilson Special Collection Library, are well-oiled machines; they rely on systems developed over the course of decades or, in the case of the Southern Historical Collection, centuries. Our team has realized that, because of its highly relational nature, community-driven work requires institutional practitioners to spend extra or unplanned amounts of time with a collaborator working through an issue. It often requires that archives professionals to be nimble in a way that our current work structures and systems don’t readily support.
A big question that continues to arise is one around the morality and ethics of grant-funded institutional community archives projects. Do marginalized communities truly benefit when grant funds support staff salaries rather than directly resourcing community-led archival projects? We continue to wrestle with this question, asking ourselves, “What role can institutional archives play in supporting a community’s control over its stories and historical records?”
Despite these challenges, obstacles, and cautions, we feel proud of the work that we accomplished and the ways that our collaborators have been able to build their archives, share their research, and grow their projects and organizations with some added resources and support.
“The EKAAMP exhibition and related gatherings and charrettes felt extremely powerful and like they had a measurable positive impact on the community partners. I’m proud of all the fieldwork we did in the mountains with the [Appalachian Student Health] Coalition; our involvement in the Black Communities Conference; how we supported the recording of oral histories for SAAACAM; History Harvests and in-person workshops; and [Archival] Seedlings!”
“I do think in the future, even if it’s not a grant collaboration (but especially if it is), everyone needs to be at the table ahead of time to design the project together before even deciding to do a project…In the future, I think it is OK to start small. Everything doesn’t need to be a big roll out or comprehensive coverage. I think it could be powerful to just focus on certain types of things or even starting close to home in the Triangle.”
One key thing we learned while developing our project is that our work gets stronger the more accessible it is. Accessibility helps everyone, whether it is someone using a screen reader, listening to a video with captions, or simply navigating a website for the first time.
If we want our tools, resources, and programs to reach broad public audiences, we learned that meaningful accessibility is not optional or a last-minute addition; it is baked into the way we do our work. We see access along with anti-racism and other forms of social justice frameworks as integral to community-driven archives.
In 2020, we focused mostly on digital accessibility, from creating alt text for images, to creating audio transcripts, to simplifying our sentences and removing jargon. We are excited to imagine how our approach to access can support the ongoing accessibility work of the University Libraries at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“I feel proud of striving and working hard to make each piece we created or curated accessible and open for everyone.”
“I learned so much through this work about access and how it is a healing, liberatory act both to ensure access for others and to experience access individually.”
One of the core values of our project has been to demystify archives. Many people don’t know the definition of an archive or its purpose. Part of what we are here to do is to connect everyday history keepers within families, organizations, businesses, and communities of all kinds to resources to help them build or refine their archive, item by item. We hope for our collaborators to see their own materials as archives or archives-in-the-making.
Another piece of the work of demystifying archives is defining the role of institutional archives like ours at Carolina libraries in relationship to communities outside of the institution. We know that we want to advance and amplify the work of historically underrepresented communities, but we have questions about how to best do that without extracting from communities or leveraging our partnerships to attain resources, acclaim, or unearned praise.
“I have learned how to define archives in a way that doesn’t see it as a closed circuit, but an open world ready for input from people who have too often been archived and forgotten. I have come to learn that any archive would be richer, kinder, and more powerful with the people it seeks to define involved in it in any way possible.”
“I’m really thinking about the definition of CDA, and what it means to each of us. To me, it is fully situated in our institutional context. Which communities have been silenced by the Southern Historical Collection? How might we start re-aligning priorities and resources to be more inclusive of those communities?”
“I have learned so much about how institutional and community archives function through my involvement in CDA. Learning about institutions through the lens of community-driven archives has taught me that just because something has always been done a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s the right way AND it’s trained me to look for the people, experiences, and events, that are underrepresented or rendered invisible by predominantly white institutions.”
-Alex Pax Cody
Beyond preserving and caring for historical materials, our project has emphasized and supported capacity-building around interpreting these materials and sharing stories. For many of our collaborators, the stories held within their archival collections haven’t been told anywhere else. After building their collection, many of the people we worked with also felt moved to share the stories contained within it with public audiences.
Our team supported our collaborators in creating exhibitions, audio pieces, documentary videos, interactive maps, and public programs as pathways to storytelling.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is history from our different partners. I’m not a historian or a Southerner, so working with these folks has been so enriching in understanding American history. It’s a privilege, too, because even though their histories are part of some popular threads (e.g., The Great Migration, historically Black towns), the specificity of these communities’ histories has been unknown to a lot of people outside the community.”
“Through our work with our collaborators, I learned so much about local histories that I would not have heard about otherwise, including some in my own backyard in North Carolina. I feel honored to be connected to the people steadfastly stewarding these stories for future generations.”
While our grant project is officially over, our relationships with our collaborators and the lessons we learned along the way remain. Check out our new Community-Driven Archives project website to explore more of our work and reflections on archival institutional support for community-based archives.
The Community-Driven Archives Project at UNC-Chapel Hill is supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
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