Throughout the harrowing challenges of 2020, our Community-Driven Archives Team has been in conversation with our Archival Seedlings program collaborators about the shifting needs and scope of their projects. We recognized early on that due to capacity challenges posed for folks juggling their archival projects with paid work, family life, and other commitments, all while facing the many challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, Seedlings needed tools, digital resources, and support for some of the especially time-consuming aspects of their work.
Here are some ways our collaboration with Seedlings participants got creative this year to resource local history initiatives with the support of our grant funds:
We worked with William Isom, II to hire a Black in Appalachia volunteer to transcribe over two dozen video interviews with alumni and friends of Swift Memorial Institute, a former historic African-American college in Rogersville, TN, for a history project in collaboration with the Swift Museum.
We helped the Tuskegee History Center in Tuskegee, AL join the Association of African American Museums so the community museum’s director, Deborah Gray, could receive online support during the COVID-19 crisis.
We hired a local-area videographer to film interviews with eight local elders about their life histories through Phyllis Miller’s project in Grambling, Louisiana.
We connected Lisa Withers and Amber Amberson to web hosting services for their digital collections. They have each decided to start an online archive to ensure community use and access of collections outside of predominately white museums, archives, and historical societies. Lisa’s project focuses on descendant communities of former North Carolina Green Book sites, and Amber is documenting locals’ memories in the small historically Black town of Smithville, Texas.
We worked with D.L. Grant to caption video interviews on Zoom with descendants of Prudence Curry, the first director of the historically African-American George Washington Carver Branch Library in San Antonio, TX, and with Sylvia Stanback to caption her Zoom interview with a relative about their family’s chapter of Greensboro, NC Black history during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras.
We worked with Whitney Peckman and her local collaborators to share her documentary video about the former historic African-American Dunbar School in East Spencer, NC with the greater community through a viewing station in East Spencer Town Hall.
Learn more about Archival Seedlings and check out some of the tools and resources that we created for the program on our website.
For more about the Archival Seedlings program on the Southern Sources blog:
From the beginning of our grant-funded project, we at the Community-Driven Archives (CDA) Team at UNC Libraries have endeavored to envision programs that reorient traditional archival standards, workflows, and practices to be in deeper alignment with the needs and goals of historically marginalized history keepers across the South. One of our initiatives, Archival Seedlings, aims to extend the reach of our support beyond our four pilot partners, to directly resource individual projects that amplify community histories underrepresented in dominant archives, including ours at UNC-Chapel Hill.
What Is “Archival Seedlings”?
Launched in January 2020, Archival Seedlings is a 15-month program supporting the development of small community archives projects led by individual history keepers across the South. The program emphasizes process over product, and all 10 participants, known as “Seedlings,” have participated in seven months of programmed online “how-to” workshops on topics relevant to archival and history projects. Over the course of the program, CDA team members have also supported Seedlings in developing projects of their choosing.
Community Archival Work within an Institutional Archive
Though some Seedlings participants are potentially interested in becoming professional archivists, most are not. Never intended as a professional primer, our program focuses on supporting each project’s unique needs, rooted in the specific community it intends to serve. It operates from a consideration of best practices for community care and stewardship of historical records.
What makes Archival Seedlings unique?
It focuses on storytelling as well as access and preservation of historical records. Because many history keepers want to preserve as well as share histories that may not otherwise be recorded or documented, our program emphasizes the value of storytelling. We hosted workshops on research methods, exhibition development, and creating a documentary to help Seedlings imagine the shapes that their stories could take.
It is not overly concerned with deliverables; we emphasize process over product. Each Seedlings project varies greatly in terms of scale. Some Seedlings are interviewing 1 or 2 people and sharing a few meaningful photos related to their story through a blog post. Others are conducting multiple oral history interviews, aiming to kick off a new digital community-based collection. On our end, we don’t set requirements aside from asking that Seedlings share a few examples with us from their collections, participate in workshops, and stay in touch with our team.
It compensates participants for their time. Though not paid an hourly rate or salary like project staff members, each Seedlings participant received a $4,500 stipend for spending time participating in our programmed webinars, workshops, and related events, and for working on their projects. This is a small way of acknowledging the time and labor that goes into making, saving, and sharing history.
It supports projects that benefit the communities they come from. We encourage the participants to consider the long-term availability of their project to their chosen audiences. When Seedlings consider why they embarked on these projects and who needs to access them, they often decide that their materials should stay in community rather than go to an institutional archival collection. This is one way that we challenge the historically extractive nature of institutional archives.
Leading from our Values
As with all of our community archives-focused initiatives, we acknowledge that there is no one way to do this work and that, at its heart, community-based collaboration is relational and fluid. We learn to be adaptable based on each individual collaboration and what it presents in terms of needs, opportunities, constraints, and possibilities.
As with all of our programs, our values are our compass; we emphasize the importance of developing a set of guiding principles to lead the way. Below are ours:
We center the needs of a diverse set of communities by listening carefully to local leaders and supporting local history keepers. Engaged communities build more representative archives and historical narratives.
We demystify institutional archives and support history keepers to steward their own collections and interpret their own histories.
We directly support and resource the work of our partners. These groups preserve and share underrepresented stories and empower communities as curators.
We act as a home base for history keepers, sharing archival and interpretive approaches that range from easy to complex and from affordable to high budget.
For more about Archival Seedlings on the Southern Sources blog:
When it comes to protecting intellectual property that is part of your or your community’s history, it helps to understand what legal rights apply to your materials.
Community-based archives are a pathway for groups of people to exercise self-determination over the collection and interpretation of their histories. Historically marginalized communities draw on community-archival methods to preserve and share stories that are often missing from institutional archives and dominant historical narratives.
It is especially important to many of our partner history keepers through our Community-Driven Archives initiative to know what rights they and their community collaborators have over their stories and historical records. This requires an understanding of copyright and how it works.
What is copyright?
According to Anne Gilliland, Scholarly Communications Officer with UNC Libraries, copyright is your legal right to determine the permitted uses of your tangible expressions of creative work. What does that mean and what kinds of things amount to “tangible expressions of creative work”?
This is not an exhaustive list, but it does give you a sense of what kinds of things are legally under copyright:
One big takeaway is that copyright does not cover non-recorded stories and ideas.
Many of our collaborators are rightfully concerned about their control over future uses of their shared stories and materials. Many have heard about or know of an example of someone’s story making its way to Hollywood or on the radio or even featured on a city-sponsored project without the knowledge of that person or their descendants.
While acknowledging on one hand the gaps, omissions, and injustices of U.S. laws, our goal as a Community-Driven Archives Team is to help history keepers get familiar with a few best practices for making use of the legal protections that are available. We also want to help groups and institutions who work with oral histories and other people’s historical materials take the proper steps before making use of someone’s story or creative work.
Copyright Best Practices
Best Practice #1: Assume that every creative work is under copyright until you know that it is not.
Most creative works are automatically under copyright unless the copyright holder (the creator or their designated heirs) explicitly gives away their copyright or the record goes into the public domain, which usually takes about a century.
Just because you found it online does not mean that you are free to share it. Most online materials are under copyright.
Look for ways to seek permission to share or reuse the item in question. Sometimes, a simple web search will clue you in on permission requirements; other times, you may need to take the time to track down heirs and make phone calls to descendants for consent. If you are working with an institutional archive, staff members can help you track down creators for permission. If you cannot find someone to provide consent, then you can investigate fair use, which is a framework to help you assess whether you can fairly justify the use of copyrighted materials without the permission of the creator or someone authorized to provide consent.
The item may also be free to use because it is in the public domain. This applies to many items, including those created by the federal government and those that date back to the early 20th century or earlier. To learn what groups of historical and cultural materials have passed into the public domain, you can check out this chart updated each year by Cornell University.
Best Practice #2: For oral histories, interviewers should always ask their interviewees for their consent and their terms of reuse.
According to our lawyer-in-residence, Anne Gilliland, oral histories are considered a joint creation between the interviewer and the interviewee.
If you are a community archivist wanting to preserve and/or share oral histories you have collected, you should create a consent form where your interviewee gives you permission to record their story. This form should outline the allowed uses for the recorded interview. Consent forms also ask about additional restrictions, if any, that interviewees require for the sharing of their interview. If it applies, interviewees should also be informed about the institutional repository (i.e. archive, library, museum, etc.) to which their materials will be donated.
A license is a way of communicating the terms for allowed uses of creative works (such uses include: display, distribution, performance, reproduction, derivative works, and audio transmission). For example, a license can state that someone’s interview should be used only for educational and/or nonprofit purposes, or only if the original format is not altered (i.e. no derivative works can be adapted from the interview). Creative Commons licenses are popular and give creators standardized language for their terms of reuse.
Unless the form you sign says so explicitly, signing a consent form does not mean that you are giving away your copyright. Creators maintain their copyright for at least the duration of their lifetime, unless they formally agree to end their copyright. If you are being interviewed, it is important that you feel comfortable with the terms of the interview. Take the time to read through the consent form to make sure you agree with the license laid out there. Read the section above for more information about creating a license.
Best Practice #3: Be upfront about your mission and goals with your audience and your collaborators.
Why are you making your works or materials available to members of the public? Make it clear to potential audiences. For example, if you want to share your creative works with public audiences for educational purposes, that tells you something about your mission. Perhaps your mission is to inspire people in Chapel Hill, NC to take action for environmental justice through sharing nature photographs from the 1970s and 80s with web users. Write up that mission and share it on your website. If you are concerned that people might use your photographs for purposes outside the scope of your mission, make sure your license for reuse is somewhere prominent and easy to find on your site.
Best Practice #4: For sensitive materials, consider alternative ways of sharing them with selected audiences.
For digitized items (physical papers or photographs that are scanned and made into a digital file), consider creating a private space online to share them only with select members of your community. Or share them widely but upload a version of the file that is stamped with a watermark to prevent unintended uses. Signing a consent form to share your digitized materials with any history keeper or institutional partner does not mean you are giving away your copyright.
If you are worried about any unintended uses of digitized materials shared with a repository, consider asking your institutional partner to keep your materials off the internet or to share them selectively, as outlined above.
In August 1899, the determined leaders of Mooree Quarters, the Black neighborhood of Oxford, Alabama, formed a separate town: Hobson City. It would be the first incorporated Black municipality in Alabama and the second in the nation.
Over the next several decades, Hobson City developed into a magnet for Black excellence and entertainment in the South. Today, Mayor Alberta McCrory wants to share the remarkable history of Hobson City and other historic Black towns in Alabama at the Hobson City Museum.
Through a partnership with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries’ Community Driven Archives (CDA) project, Hobson City Museum hosted a workshop in March 2020 that focused on caring for museum collections. Three UNC Libraries staff members provided training to residents of Hobson City and nearby Anniston on how to clean, handle, store, and inventory plaques, textiles, trophies, and photographs that document the contributions of local leaders such as James “Pappy” Dunn. Town Hall Clerk Pauline Cunningham was the Hobson City coordinator for the workshop and also participates in another CDA archival training program called Archival Seedlings. I met with Pauline over Zoom to reflect on our collaboration in March and the future of the Hobson City Museum.
Conversation with Hobson City, Alabama Collaborator Pauline Cunningham
Q: What is the purpose of Hobson City Museum?
Pauline Cunningham: To be educational and show the history of Hobson City and who was all involved in making a change in Hobson City. We started with [James] “Pappy” Dunn because he invested so much time, money, and energy in making a change for Hobson City.
Q: Who do you see as the visitors, and what kind of information do you hope they get out of it?
PC: We want people from all over—all over the United states, all over the world—to be able to come, see, learn, and understand the struggle that Hobson City has had in the past; and maybe in due time we’ll also show the struggle that’s happening right now. Not because of COVID-19, just because of the economy.
Q: What was the museum’s goal for the workshop in March, and was it met?
PC: Not knowing anything, I feel like we learned so much. We learned how to archive, how to clean with the right agents. We learned how to do so many things. How to preserve. It was so educational. I think my downfall is going to be, the people [who] were there this year to learn, [they] might not be there when [COVID-19] is over. I plan to try to write everything down and to make what we call a SOP [Standard Operating Procedures] for the military—how to do each step. I would love to add a DVD to it with all the videos that we had when learning from the different presenters [our series of how-to webinars through the Archival Seedlings program].
Q: The workshop happened as COVID-19 cases started to spread nationally. How did COVID-19 affect the museum in March? How has it continued to affect the museum?
PC: It really went to a standstill. I’m older. I’m in that population that you don’t need to be out there unless you have to be, so it really went to a standstill; that’s the bad thing. The good news, I guess, will be once I start doing the SOP [manual], maybe somebody else can pick it up and keep doing some things; but right now, we’re at a standstill because of COVID-19.
Q: What do you think is the number one challenge going forward with skills gained through the workshop?
PC: The memory that I won’t have if I don’t write it down. And the challenge is going to be getting the right people to continue to help with the museum, even though it doesn’t seem like a large project to some people. But it’s getting that volunteerism to come out and help—to work for the City, to get the City up and running—and I believe those that decide to do it, they’ll do it from the heart. So that’s going to be my challenge: to find the right people to make it continue to go.
Q: Should those people be in the community or people outside?
PC: Both really. Reality: when you guys were down in March, everybody there except for two people were from outside [Hobson City]…including myself [Pauline is a resident of nearby Anniston, AL.].
Q: What is the number one challenge of the museum?
PC: Space…availability for the museum. The challenge is going to be to utilize the space the best way to display or to show what we want to. Part of it [is] going to be the videos of people talking about the history, and some of the pictures, and some of the stuff we’ll just scan to make the rotating [slideshow] and voice behind it—where it came from, who donated it, and why it’s important—that sort of thing. That’s the challenge—putting [in] the right mix for such a small space.
Q: What was your favorite part of the workshop?
PC: I have two: One was archiving and learning how to do it right, so you can go back and find it on your archive list and where you stored it. And two was the cleaning of the artifacts. That to me was very critical because I would have messed it up! Because I would have used some regular cleaning detergent type stuff. So that—those two—how to store and clean and archive, that was tremendous. I loved it. I loved it.
Q: What question do you wish I asked you? Is there more you’d like to say?
PC: Just that I want to make sure I’m able to put the SOP [manual] together on how to do each thing. If I die tomorrow, somebody else can pick up the ball and run with it and know how to do it right. If I can pull all that together, I would love it. It’s a win-win for the City and for the education provided to us.
Our unique approach to archival workflows is one thing that sets community-driven archives approaches apart from mainstream archival methods. Traditionally, archivists stick to access and preservation and leave interpretation and storytelling to the researchers. But what happens when we listen to what our audiences want? We find ways to help them tell meaningful stories about their communities’ history.
Our Core Audiences and Understanding What Matters to Them
Within our community-driven archives (CDA) project, audience means a lot to us. This has been true since the beginning of our grant project, and it is getting clearer as we head towards wrapping it up and sharing what we have learned.
Our project strives to support and amplify historical projects by and for communities underrepresented in institutional archives. Our priority audience is community-based archive projects: groups of people who are interested in creating an archival project documenting their own community. We also work with individual history keepers: people, like family genealogists and community organizers, wanting to document and share histories currently missing from dominant archives and narratives due to legacies of injustice.
While brainstorming for what will go on our new project website (coming soon), our team looked at all the tools and resources that we have created with our project partners since the start of the grant. We asked ourselves, what kinds of resources are most useful to our core audiences?
We noticed that one of the most common resource requests that we receive from our community collaborators is for more tools about storytelling. In response, we have created new resources on topics like “the art of storytelling” and “how to create an exhibition.”
But what do we mean by storytelling and why should archives professionals care?
Making a Case for Storytelling in Community Archives Projects
Archives have historically prioritized the access and preservation of historical records over the interpretation of history, leaving the latter to researchers. For community archives projects, we believe it must be different.
Community archives projects address gaps in the dominant historical record and complicate mainstream historical narratives. Communities want their stories told on their own terms. Through building an archive, the collecting of history supports the (re)telling of it.
In many cases, the stories uncovered through community-based collections are not otherwise known. Due to legacies of racism, settler colonialism, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression, histories by and for Black, Indigenous, people of color, women, and LGBTIQ people have been hidden or silenced. As a result, beyond building their collection, many history keepers also want to broadcast the stories they’ve researched and curated through their archive. Many history keepers want to control how their community’s stories get told, rightfully questioning outside researchers’ and institutions’ motivations.
Our collaborators and partners share their communities’ stories through a variety of methods: exhibitions, public programs, websites, social media and blog posts, documentaries, short videos, and more.
We believe that archival professionals like ourselves working with community archives projects must consider the importance of storytelling. Through community collaboration, we have the opportunity to support both the safeguarding and sharing of stories.
Ideas for Archival Institutions
Since the beginning of our community-driven archives project, our work has extended to train and resource history keepers to share stories they uncover through developing a collection.
Oral histories easily lend themselves to exhibitions and other vehicles for sharing stories with visitors. Members of our team have trained local history keepers to conduct oral histories as a path to preserving memories. From there, we have worked with our community partners to incorporate oral history clips and collections materials into physical and digital exhibitions and short documentary videos that narrate important stories. One of our pilot partners, the Appalachian Student Health Coalition, created a web-based storytelling project that draws on video interviews and data visualizations to share its members’ contributions to rural healthcare in Appalachia.
Through our Archival Seedlings program, we help our ten resident Seedlings develop an archival collection and share their historical project with chosen audiences. For some Seedlings, the websites, videos, blog posts, and exhibits they create to highlight their collection are the only places their audiences can find those histories. While some Seedlings are working with traditional institutions and repositories to preserve and share their finished projects, others are choosing to keep their collections with history keepers in their own communities and to take on project promotion and outreach themselves.
One Seedlings participant, William Isom II, is compiling a collection of video interviews with alumni from the historically Black Swift Memorial Institute in Rogersville, TN into a video that will be on view in the museum located on Swift’s historic campus. In addition, one of our pilot partners, the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project (EKAAMP) has recently launched an exhibition sharing the oral histories and archival materials it collected through community-based research. These are great examples of how a collection can be “put to work” to share stories.
Many home archivists and community-based researchers face a tough set of questions when deciding where their personal or organizational collections will live longer term. Not everyone is able to or wants to be responsible for the long-term care of archival materials, but many still wonder, “Who can I trust to be the steward of my important historical records?”
The answer is different for everyone, depending on what you are looking for in an archival steward. Stories from our Archival Seedlings program may offer insights and inform the questions you might want to ask to help guide your decision.
Since January, our Community-Driven Archives Team (CDAT) has been working with a group of ten researchers and budding archivists connected to our four community partners. We are supporting each researcher to learn new skills in working with historical resources. The skills they learn range from conducting oral histories to creating digital archives, and each researcher is developing a project of their choosing. Together, these researchers and their projects are the focus of a new initiative, the Archival Seedlings program. Participants in the program are known as “Seedlings.”
One Seedling, D.L., based in San Antonio, TX, is starting an archival collection on the life of Prudence Curry, the first director of the George Washington Carver Branch Library in San Antonio, the city’s Black library during Jim Crow. D.L. currently serves as the manager of Carver Library. Though Curry was a pathbreaking African American leader, very little has been formally documented about her life. Most of the stories about Prudence Curry live on in the memories of people in her community.
D.L. wants to make sure that Curry’s legacy will live on beyond individual memories through building an archival collection to benefit her wider community. He wants this collection to strengthen the preservation of Black history in San Antonio.
Luckily, D.L. is a member and researcher with the San Antonio African American Archive and Museum (SAAACAM), an independent community archive that has spent the past few years building up a staff and volunteer base in order to collect, preserve, and interpret San Antonio’s African American history. D.L. plans to send the beginnings of the Prudence Curry collection to SAAACAM, which he feels will be its perfect home.
But what if you don’t live somewhere with an independent community archive that is the perfect fit for your project?
Maybe you have decided that you want to preserve treasured historical materials for future generations, but also want to keep those collections in your community. How should you decide whom to reach out to?
This is a question that some Seedlings program participants have asked themselves. It is also an important question in community-driven archives work; a central tenet of our approach lies in acknowledging that, for history keepers, sending collections to an academic archive, museum, or institution like UNC is only one option among many.
Another Seedling, Sylvia, based in Greensboro, NC, is creating an archival collection centered on local African American history during the Civil Rights era sit-in movement of the 1960’s. Specifically, she is conducting oral history interviews with a group of her former classmates and teachers at Dudley High School and North Carolina A&T State University who hold these stories in their memories.
Rather than donate her oral history collection to an institution that has been historically disconnected from her community, Sylvia has decided to pursue a partnership with a local Black-led community organization. She has decided that her collection will best live on under the care of an organization that has long been working directly for the betterment of her community.
When making a decision about where to preserve your cherished historic materials, considering asking yourself:
What are my long-term preservation goals?
How do they fit with the long-term interest and capacity of this potential partner?
How long will this potential partner be able to retain the materials?
How does this potential partner’s goals, values, and attitudes fit with my own and/or those of my community?
How will community members be able to access collections materials in the future through this potential partner?
Then, consider how the answers to these questions affect your decision about where and with whom to partner. Remember, it is your and your community’s choice to decide on the best steward for your historical records.
Check out the short videos on the Resources page of our website to learn more about working with institutional and community-based archives to meet your needs.
For more about community-based archives on the Southern Sources blog:
On May 1, the University of California-Irvine Libraries hosted a unique conference on Community-Driven Archives (via Vimeo): Transforming Knowledge, Transforming Libraries. This virtual summit featured a group of professional leaders in the field. Most of them, like us with the SHC’s Community-Driven Archives Team (CDAT), work with community groups as institutional collaborators within an academic archive.
What were some of our highlights?
Archivist Nancy Godoy presented on Arizona State University’s Community-Driven Archives Mellon Grant project (2017-20), which scaled up an initiative that she had led since 2012. The ASU Library’s project has focused primarily on collaborations with Latinx, LGBTQ, and BIPOC communities to support historically underrepresented groups of people in deepening their sense of ownership over their collective histories. It collaborates with participants to help them learn how to preserve and share their stories and archives with their community.
For the SHC’s Community-Driven Archives Team, one of the core tenets of our community-driven archives model is an ethos of community control. This requires us as archives professionals and institutional collaborators to release any need for control over how our community partners choose to organize and interpret their own histories. It means thinking about what our community partners need before considering institutional pressures and community outsiders’ research interests.
Under Godoy’s leadership, ASU’s Community-Driven Archives (CDA) initiative does this. For example, the CDA project has chosen to move all community-focused events off-campus, because, otherwise, “it wasn’t welcoming for the community.” Instead, Godoy and her colleagues host these bilingual Spanish-English events at local community centers, POC-owned bookstores, and public libraries. Participants in ASU’s community archives and preservation workshops come to work on their own collections or those of fellow community members, utilizing archival tools resourced through grant funds with ASU staff support.
In Godoy’s words, her goal for this work is to create intergenerational spaces of healing for individuals, “driven by justice and a deep love for their themselves and their communities, to learn and transform archival knowledge as they dismantle the power structures that have dehumanized them.”
Shift Design Director of Equity Initiatives, Bergis Jules, presented on the Architecting Sustainable Futures gathering that he helped to organize and host in New Orleans in 2018. This gathering convened a cross-section of people working with community archives: leaders of community-based archives, archives professionals, and current and potential funders. Together, they brainstormed ideas for sustainable funding models to support communities in collecting, preserving, and sharing their own histories with support from outside institutions.
Jules presented from the report on the gathering, focusing on the report’s recommendations for university library partners of community-based archives, including us with the CDAT at UNC.
The recommendations are straightforward and give those of us working in university library archives much to consider:
Don’t be extractive, which asks universities to acknowledge the power and privilege they hold while in collaboration with community-based archives and to ensure that community partners benefit first and foremost from collaboration.
Practice equity, which requires that archives professionals honor the wisdom of community archivists and treat them as they would their peers in the field, with regard to working relationships and fair compensation.
Be transparent, which means providing clear information about goals, resources, timeline, and deliverables during joint project planning as well as grant applications and grant management.
Honor the wisdom of the community, which asks institutional partners to recognize that community history keepers may have their own ways of preserving their histories that have been working for them, and that we have much to learn through any partnership.
Similarly, Michelle Caswell, Assistant Professor of Archival Studies and Director of the Community Archives Lab at UCLA, spoke on her approach to teaching community archives as part of an MLIS program. Caswell shared an overview of her current course on community archives, which uses a justice-based archival framework that draws participants in as co-creators of “politically generative,” transformative spaces.
Caswell underscored the task facing those of us working within academic institutions in support of community archives: We have a responsibility to pass on traditional archival methods so that our students can learn existing practices and get a job, while simultaneously calling those practices into question and demanding innovation. Caswell calls this “Critical Archival Pedagogy.”
We with the CDAT are incorporating these reflections into our ongoing work to strengthen relationships with our community partners, the diversity of users of SHC collections, and MLIS students hungry to learn more about justice-based approaches to archives. We also hope that our fellow libraries and archives professionals will join us in making the time to learn more about these lessons and taking them to heart.
The Community-Driven Archives Project at UNC-Chapel Hill is supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
According to the former Oral Historian and Project Documentarian for the Community-Driven Archives Team (CDAT), Bernetiae Reed,
“There is so much that you can’t capture with a book, but [rather] with an oral history.”
From the beginning, the Community-Driven Archives Team has prioritized oral history training and the collection of oral histories as a key part of our work. Why?
For one, we know that preserving written and print records alone limits whose histories get told and shared. Passing down written family records from generation to generation is often based on access to time and resources: the ability to create the record and the space and living conditions necessary to preserve it. Second, reliance on the written word is based on a dominant cultural value (read: white, Western), rather than one shared by all families, communities, and peoples.
In addition, for historians, archivists, researchers, historic interpreters, artists, and curators, oral histories literally have a voice of their own, which can helpfully guide our storytelling. When someone shares their story through an oral tradition, we hear their interpretation of their life in their own voice and words. Public Historian Michael Frisch talks about the collection of oral history interviews in terms of “shared authority,” the idea that archivists and historians collect stories in negotiation with those willing to share them. As oral history interviewers, we learn what community members want to share with us.
Alabama-based documentary filmmaker Theo Moore reminds us that the most important part of telling a story is first listening carefully to what others who lived it are saying. Oral histories can be a guidepost for storytelling, anchoring us in community voices rather than our own narrative. For many researchers and documentarians, collecting oral history interviews is a starting point for new research, given the gaps and silences in many archives when it comes to the histories of marginalized communities.
According to Bernetiae, oral histories help lend “an accurate voice” to a story. During her time as on staff at the Wilson Special Collections Library, Bernetiae edited oral histories for use in a number of exhibits, as well as for websites and digital storytelling. In March, the CDAT said a fond farewell (for now) to our friend and colleague, who left our grant team to continue to pursue her passions as an oral historian and documentarian of the US South.
During her time with the CDAT and the Southern Historical Collection (SHC), Bernetiae collected dozens of oral histories with our project partners in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas, and Florida. She remembers a road trip with women leaders of the Appalachian Student Health Coalition (ASHC), a group of Vanderbilt University medical and nursing students and rural community leaders who self-organized in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s to deliver needed medical care to Appalachia. Bernetiae sat in the backseat and filmed their reminiscences of their days traveling through the mountains to provide care.
Listen to Bernetiae talk about why oral histories have been so important to our Community-Driven Archives project:
She remembers the spiral staircase in the home of famed Greensboro, NC Civil Rights movement lawyer J. Kenneth Lee during her and SHC Curator Biff Hollingsworth’s interview with him, one of the few recorded interviews that he agreed to before he passed in 2018. Lee represented the majority of 1,700 court cases with defendants who participated in civil disobedience as part of the sit-in movement.
Bernetiae herself has played key role in documenting Black history in the US South and beyond. She grew up in Greensboro, where her mother was the founder of the Mattye Reed African Heritage Collection, named in her honor, at North Carolina A&T State University. Starting out researching her own genealogy, Bernetiae went on to publish a book about some of her ancestors and their ties to the family of enslaver and former US President, Thomas Jefferson.
Listen to Bernetiae talk about how she got her start as an oral historian and genealogist:
Bernetiae has donated collections from her family archives as well as her research to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, and also here at the Southern Historical Collection at Wilson Special Collections Library.
This post follows up on the status of the project, Untangling the Roots: Surfacing the Lived Experience of Enslaved People in the Archives. Lydia Neuroth is a graduate student in the School of Information and Library Science and a 2018-2020 Carolina Academic Library Associate (CALA) for the Southern Historical Collection and Archival Technical Services.
In the last year of my position in the Southern Historical Collection, we built an online tutorial with three major components: the Southern Historical Collection’s origin story, links to some of the more popular items and collections about slavery, and a step by step research methodology for beginners.
In January 2019, I wrote abouta new project in the SHC designed to investigate barriers to accessing our records about slavery. Back in early 2019, we had just begun to define our audience: novice researchers, principally undergraduate students,but also community members seeking documents to research their family history. We spent our first year conducting an environmental scan to better understand how other institutions provided access through digital databases and research portals. This exercise was useful, but ultimately, it was our meetings withresearch librarians and archivists here at WilsonLibrarythathelped us to see that we needed a different type of tool, one that built confidence in users to effectively utilize these collections for their research.
When we completed the tutorial in the Summer of 2019, we made plans to solicit feedback from one of the tutorial’s target audiences, undergraduate students.We built a12-question survey using Qualtricsand during the last two weeks of October, we visited five different undergraduate classes that were listed as a part of UNC’s new learning initiative Reckoning: Race, Memory and Reimagining the Public University. We thought these students would have a particular interest in our tutorial becauselearning about legacies of racism were embedded in their curriculum. In total, we probably spoke in front of about 175 students. As incentive, we offered $40 Amazon gift cards to a random selection of students who completed our survey and agreed to a follow up in person interview.
Results from both the survey and the interview indicated a consistent level of confusionabout the nature of primary sources and how UNC Libraries, Wilson Special Collections Library, and the Southern Historical Collection come together to make them accessible. This was not surprising to us – several members of the R&IS team have shared that students struggle to make sense of primary sources. This speaks to larger issues about how our databases, collection guides, buildings, and general messaging can inhibit access in our Libraries. I hope we will continue to innovate in this area.
From Spring 2019 to Spring 2020, we shared this project at several conferences. We also developed a series of in-person supplementary workshops designed to introduce audiences to the tutorial and use the “research proofs” (research journeys utilizing sample research questions and SHC materials) to work through primary source materials as a group.
As this project evolved from a focus on our materials to a focus on our audiences, we had to grapple with how the structures that define our profession can function as walls that keep people out. Examples include the components of a finding aid (abstract, series, etc.), andtheworkflows (processing, appraisal, etc.) that archivists utilize everyday. The nature of records about slavery add another layer of historical erasure that is replicated in the archive, and we (along with others across the Libraries) felt the need to addressthis in the discussion of the Southern Historical Collection’s founding.I amproud of the way we engaged our Wilson Library peers, local genealogists,and UNC students in these critical conversations. The archives possess even more power when they are opened to broader audiences. That, for me, is the beauty of the archives: old records are interpreted with fresh eyes resulting in untold stories. I’m grateful that this project has allowed us to contribute to that tapestry.
The Stephen Beauregard Weeks Papers, 1746-1941 (collection #00762) is composed of correspondence, diaries, notebooks/logs, and other volumes related primarily to the history of southern education and religion. Documents cover a wide array of subjects, such as southern Quakers and slavery, the Methodist church in North Carolina and the South, 18th century Moravians in North Carolina, and the formation of the Southern Historical Association.
The collection’s creator, Stephen B. Weeks (1865-1918), was a white North Carolina educator and historian who at the beginning of the 20th century also worked as the superintendent of the San Carlos Boarding School for Apache Indians in Arizona. Coverage of his time and role there largely consists of correspondence between 1899 and 1907. These letters illuminate valuable biographical information about Apache students and their families, as well as provide contextual insight into the nature of other Native American boarding schools at the time.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs, an agency of the Department of the Interior, first initiated their paternalistic campaign for assimilation-through-education in the 1870s. Boarding schools operated both on and off reservations, but each generally shaped its policies and practices from Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School’s (1879-1918) model. This institution’s guiding slogan was “To civilize the Indian, get him into civilization. To keep him civilized, let him stay” (Native Heritage Project, 2012). Government agents and educators believed it to be in the best interest of Indigenous peoples to “advance” through Americanization, and from this understanding developed an oppressive educational system which forcibly removed them from their families—sometimes as young as five-years-old. These schools then sought to strip Indigenous students of their native identities and culture. A framework as such did not tolerate students’ remnant adherence to Indigenous language, religion, and/or other customs. Failure to comply was often severely punished in the form of physical and emotional abuse. Beatings, labor, confinement, as well as sexual abuse, malnutrition, and disease were common experiences among students.
Below are two photos courtesy of the Cumberland County Historical Society. They capture Carlisle’s mission to replace Indigenous culture and their precedential setting for successive boarding schools with parallel ideologies. Visit the Cumberland Historical Society’s digital collection of more than 3,000 related images for larger views.
Of particular note regarding the series of letters uncovered from the Southern Historical Society’s collection is evidence of an imposed coding system used to identify students. These tag bands, as they were called, were placeholders in the forced transition from Apache to English names. They appear throughout Stephen B. Weeks’ correspondence in various combinations of letters and numbers, such as TE 18, SB 55, and CJ 18 (see Box 17). Government agents instigated this tag band system first by dividing the Apache population into bands—each allocated with a corresponding letter—and from there assigned individuals (married men first) an identifying number.
It’s important to note that this arbitrary system not only undermined Indigenous practices, autonomy, and decision-making, but also inflicted profound emotional harm on students and other Apaches subjected to it.
Keith H. Basso (1940-2013), a notable linguistic anthropologist, focused his research on the Apache people and has many publications which discuss these findings. In his collection of essays Western Apache Language and Culture (1992), Basso frames language as “everywhere a symbolic form without parallel or peer” and posits that “the activity of speaking—of enacting and implementing language—is surely among the most-meaning filled of all” (p. xii). Language is core to one’s identity, both individually and collectively as a people. To remove and replace it with something foreign is to severely deconstruct the person.
Basso goes on to explain that central to Apache language in particular is its significance of placenames—a value transferrable to the significance of more generalized proper nouns. Apaches intimately relate to their environmental landscape, geographic locations often holding noteworthy power in the exchange of stories and resulting sociocultural understandings about the world. These placenames facilitate tribal morality and standards of social interaction. Basso elaborates, “the character of these meanings—their steadier themes, their recurrent tonalities, and, above all, their conventionalized modes of expression—will bear the stamp of a common cast of mind. Constructions of reality that reflect conceptions of reality itself, the meanings of landscapes and acts of speech are personalized manifestations of a shared perspective on the human condition” (p. 140).
From this groundwork, Basso extrapolates that Apache placenames set precedent for the weight of other proper nouns, such as individuals’ names. Outsiders’ neglect of this Apache reality is rooted in an uninformed and over-simplified “view of language in which proper names are assumed to have meaning solely in their capacity to refer […] as agents of reference” (p. 143). Apache students with tag bands and, later, English names were primed for total loss of their native heritage with the initial loss of their native names.
Powerful insight from an Apache woman, known as Mrs. Annie Peaches and who was Basso’s first Apache teacher in 1959, further conveys this tragedy. She observes that “If we lose our language, we lose our breath. Then we will die and blow away like leaves” (p. xiii-xiv).
This collection’s listings of tag band identifiers, as well as Apache students’ English names, provide exciting new pathways into genealogical research and promote discussion about the detrimental effects of deracination practices imposed on Indigenous peoples nationwide. Note that findings listed from Box 17 (see above) may not be a comprehensive account, so we invite you to look through other boxes in the series for even more information on early 20th century Apache students at the San Carlos Boarding School. You can access the Finding Aid for the Stephen Beauregard Weeks Papers, 1746-1941 through this link https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/00762/ or visit the Research Room at Wilson Special Collections Library for in-person access to its abundant correspondence.
Additionally, listed below are several links to related collections from the National Archives and Records Administration which provide avenues to supplementary research, as well as resources for more contextual information about the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ boarding schools and Kevin H. Basso’s book on the Apache language. Finally, linked at the bottom is information about a Minneapolis based nonprofit working to collect and connect digitally dispersed Native American boarding school records. Please check out their website below for more information about how to help with this initiative.
An academic article with insight into the effects of the tag band system (pages 254-255):
Cornell, S., & Gil-Swedberg, M. C. (1995). Sociohistorical Factors in Institutional Efficacy: Economic Development in Three American Indian Cases. Economic Development and Cultural Change, 43(2), 239–268. doi: 10.1086/452149
Basso, K. H. (1992). Western Apache Language and Culture: Essays in Linguistic Anthropology. Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press.