Visions for a Community-Driven Archive

Throughout our grant-funded Community-Driven Archives project, our team worked in collaboration with our partners based on a guiding set of values that emphasized community benefit, reflexivity, service, and accessibility. Now that we’ve concluded the work on our grant, we are identifying ways that our short-term efforts can have a longer-term impact on the University Libraries at UNC-Chapel Hill.

What might we take with us into the next chapter? What is our vision for community-driven archives when practiced at scale at an archival institution?

Free from the pressure and limitations of grant deliverables, our team started the process of imagining what our home institution might look and feel like through a community-driven archival lens. Below is a synthesis of some of our team’s conversations.

What might signal a Community-Driven Archives approach to library visitors and researchers?

When a member of the public visits the library’s website or walks in the door of the library, they see announcements about upcoming events that pertain to some of their interests. They see an event invitation to a free community archives scan day at a local community center in partnership with the library. They see an upcoming Archives 101 training and skill-share hosted by an organization they are already familiar with, one connected to their neighborhood, identity, or hobbies—another community-library partnership. They see an announcement that a local community organization received a substantial grant to start a community archive with the support and ongoing partnership of the library. In addition to the library’s website and buildings, they see these announcements and flyers at various community spaces and public places they frequent, as well as through member groups’ web-based communications and social media.

What do these approaches have in common?

  • They do not take place at an institutional library setting, but rather at community centers and spaces that our collaborators already frequent and feel comfortable visiting. A public library can feel more comfortable and accessible, for example, than an academic institutional library.
  • They are all based on partnership with organized groups of people and and/or existing community organizations, rather than relying on one individual as the “go-between” or trying to recruit community members to attend an event based on a one-time interaction.
  • They are based on a model in which the library is resourcing communities, with a focus on historically marginalized and underrepresented communities, through funding opportunities and staff support, rather than funding flowing first to the library and then to communities through library-branded programs.

When using the archives, what evidence might users see of a Community-Driven Archives framework?

When community researchers come into the library they are welcomed and asked if they need any specific help with their research project. They see staff working at the library in positions of leadership who look like them. If they are new library users, they are given a welcome sheet with information that might be helpful both to new archives users as well as to new researchers at the University Libraries at UNC-Chapel Hill. This information is also clearly available and accessible on the library’s website, as well as through a printable PDF distributed to partner organizations. The welcome sheet covers topics like:

  • What are the easiest ways to get to the archive?
  • How will the library accommodate my access needs?
  • How do I search the archive for what I’m looking to find? Who can help me?
  • How do I request materials to look through while I’m at the archive?
  • Why do I need to leave my belongings in a locker and stay in the reading room when I’m looking through archival materials?
  • If I find something that I’m interested in, what are the best ways to keep track of it?
  • How can I make a copy of items I find here?
  • What are the best ways I can share what I find here with other people?

When searching finding aids, libguides, subject guides and other indexes of collections materials, users are able to search using terms for themselves and their communities that they use rather than outdated or, much worse, offensive terms. Searchable guides that do not meet these parameters might be labeled with content warnings and an acknowledgment from the institution that language found in the relevant guide is inappropriate and has been flagged for remediation. Users are encouraged to bring offensive or harmful language that they uncover through their research along with other access needs to the attention of the libraries’ staff through an anonymous online form and/or paper survey.

On the Carolina libraries’ website and through its communications with its users, the library shares recommendations of community-based digital and physical collections connected to historically underrepresented communities, peoples, groups, and events. It should make these recommendations of community archives projects alongside its own acknowledgement of the internal work that must happen institutionally to redress long-standing gaps and silences in its archives, towards repairing historic erasures.

What are the common threads of this archives experience?

  • It centers an accessible archives experience for a broad base of people.
  • It is attentive to the hiring practices of the library and emphasizes staff diversity across race, gender identity, sexuality, and ability.
  • It owns up to past harms perpetrated by and through archival institutions and clearly communicates the steps being taken towards repair and redress.
  • It invites users to share any access needs that will support a fruitful archival experience.

What could library outreach activities look like as part of a Community-Driven Archives experience?

A staff member at a local LGBTIQ center receives a call from a staff member at the library. The library staff person explains that the library has been contacting local groups and organizations to ask them about their work and to learn more about the groups and organizations in their area/region. They explain the resources that the library offers to community groups wanting to document their histories and/or preserve and share their historical materials. Those resources can also be found in a guide for potential community partners available online or as a physical brochure.

The staffer from the center shares the center’s history and what goes on there day-to-day. The library staff person asks if they might be interested in setting up a meeting to talk more about how the library might be able to support the center to share its history with its members and chosen audiences, and they take the next step to set up an in-person or Zoom meeting.

What are the important features of this interaction?

  • The caller places the focus on the organization or community group and its history rather than on the services, goals, or interests of the institution. The library staff person wants to get to know groups in the broader community and to serve them — and makes that clear.
  • The library does not make promises of support it will not be able to provide and clarifies what it is able to offer through a written list of available services in support of community partners. This list is made available to all potential partners and is kept up-to-date on the library’s website.
  • Rather than try to secure immediate interest, the caller makes it clear that they want to spend time on building a relationship with this potential partner over time through physical or virtual face-to-face meetings.

How might our communication about our work shift under a Community-Driven Archives framework?

Library collaborations are branded in a way that cross-promotes our collaborators’ work and organizations. Collaborative projects are not branded with institutional colors, and staff members take steps to avoid colors, fonts, images, and related design choices that signal an academic and/or institutional audience to the exclusion of community audiences. When launching, announcing, or celebrating our collaborative achievements, our institution amplifies the work of our collaborators and directs our audiences to learn more about it. Our institution only takes credit for its share of the work and honors and champions the people, groups, and organizations who made contributions.

When we create communications content, we pay attention to voice, reflecting critically and reflexively on the institutional voice we use when reporting on our community collaborations. We look for ways to respectfully weave in the voices of our collaborators, especially when representing their work or stories. When our collaborators entrust us as stewards of their materials, stories, or collections, we make it a priority to promote those items, so as to reach our collaborators’ priority audiences in addition to our own.

What are the common threads of this approach?

  • It requires institutional staff to be reflexive when representing collaborative work, taking into consideration the power of the institution and the benefits, responsibilities, challenges, and problems that come with it. Sometimes it means using the weight of the institution to direct people and resources in support of communities. Sometimes it means amplifying community voices rather than our own.
  • It redirects the focus of our communications about our work to serve the goals of our community partners. It pays attention to our partners’ needs rather than those of our institution, donors, or funders. This shift in how we represent our work is communicated upfront to institutional and fundraising stakeholders.
  • It makes design choices that signal a shift in our communications towards community benefit.

Reflecting on our Community-Driven Archives Project, 2017-2021

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

a multiracial, majority Black group of four people seated at a table smiling and looking through documents
Members of the CDA team (Chaitra Powell, Charlie Rice, Alex Paz Cody, and Sonoe Nakasone) meet at the Wilson Special Collections Library, December 2019. Courtesy CDAT

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.”
-Chaitra Powell

“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.”
-Biff Hollingsworth

Community Collaboration

A majority Black group of women and femme-presenting people around a table working on labtops and looking at museum artifacts
CDA team members Kimber Heinz and Sonoe Nakasone with volunteers with the Hobson City Museum for the Study of African American History and Culture in Hobson City, Alabama. Courtesy CDAT

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!”
-Biff Hollingsworth

“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.”
-Sonoe Nakasone

Accessibility

A black and white image of a school overlaid with the name, "Dunbar High School"
A still image from community collaborator Whitney Peckman’s documentary collaboration with the Town of East Spencer, NC. The CDA team, together with Peckman, ensured that her video was closed captioned to make it accessible. Courtesy Whitney Peckman

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.”
-Lidia Morris

“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.”
-Kimber Heinz

Defining Archives

Three people seated behind a table who are part of a panel presentation. Chaitra Powell, who is holding the mic, looks at Biff Hollingsworth and Claire Du Laney. All are smiling. Behind them projected on a large screen are their names and email addresses.
CDA team members Chaitra Powell, Biff Hollingsworth, and Claire Du Laney present at the NC Preservation Consortium conference, 2018. Courtesy CDAT

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.”
-Lidia Morris

“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?”
-Chaitra Powell

“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

Storytelling

Bernetiae leans over a group of seated African American women to assist them during a training
CDA team member Bernetiae Reed leads an oral history training in San Antonio, TX, November 2017. Courtesy CDAT

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.”
-Sonoe Nakasone

“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.”
-Kimber Heinz

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.

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

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

Archival Seedlings: Putting Our Values into Practice, the 2020 Edition

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:

Archival Seedlings: Resourcing Local Collaborators Across the American South

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

Archival Seedlings: Resourcing Local Collaborators Across the American South

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:

Archival Seedlings: Putting Our Values into Practice, the 2020 Edition

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

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Next Stop: The Great State of Alabama

The documentation of African American “spaces and places” has been identified as a goal of the Southern Historical Collection, and to that end we have successfully partnered with the Historically Black Towns and Settlements Alliance (HBTSA). We are working with the leaders and community members of various towns to help them leverage their impressive histories to generate cultural tourism and a sense of pride among their citizens. The SHC curatorial team has made visits to these towns to examine archival materials for research and historic value, as well as making recommendations about preservation and potential community documentation initiatives.

Façade of New Hope Baptist Church, Hobson City, Alabama
Façade of New Hope Baptist Church, Hobson City, Alabama

In the second week of December 2014, I had the pleasure of visiting both Hobson City and Tuskegee, Alabama.

Hobson City, Alabama was founded in August 1899 by a group of African Americans when they were politically excluded from the neighboring town of Oxford, Alabama. This made Hobson City the first all Black municipality in Alabama. Through changes in society, industry, and the economy; the town has maintained itself for 115 years. My hosts shared with me the incredible significance of the Calhoun County Training School, the five local churches, and Holloways (a club that was a stop on the illustrious chitlin circuit). One of the highlights of the trip was the delicious barbeque ribs and coleslaw from Brad’s BBQ!

(l-r) Carthell Green, Mayor Alberta McCrory, and Barnard Snow, looking at artifacts in Hobson City
(l-r) Carthell Green, Mayor Alberta McCrory, and Barnard Snow, looking at artifacts in Hobson City
Artwork near the mayor's office in the municipal complex, Tuskegee, Alabama
Artwork near the mayor’s office in the Municipal Complex, Tuskegee, Alabama

I thought that I knew a lot about Tuskegee; starting with the University, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, the Tuskegee Airmen, and the Syphilis Experiment. While all of these elements are commemorated in museums and archives, there is a history of a community in Tuskegee that is not very well known. In the 1923, a Veteran’s hospital, staffed by Black doctors and nurses, was established to care for Black soldiers who fought in World War 1. Dyann Robinson, formerly of the Dance Theater of Harlem is the artistic director of the Tuskegee Repertory Theater. Deborah Grey is the director of the Tuskegee Civil and Human Rights and Multicultural Center which tells the story of Tuskegee from the original indigenous inhabitants to the election of its first Black mayor, Mr. Johnny Ford, in 1972.

Chaitra and Mayor Johnny Ford stand in the middle of the Tuskegee History Committee and various city officials, Tuskegee, Alabama
Chaitra and Mayor Johnny Ford stand in the middle of the Tuskegee History Committee and various city officials, Tuskegee, Alabama

Both visits were incredibly informative and signal the beginning of a long series of partnerships between the Southern Historical Collection and diverse communities throughout the American South.

 

Research Repositories and Local Historical Organizations: Working Together with Complementary Purposes

I think research repositories and local historical organizations can work to each other’s benefit much more than they traditionally have done, and that a little thinking upfront about differing missions and needs is important if this is to happen.

Local organizations often use their excellent contacts in the community to collect documentation that has research value. Repositories have the facilities and know-how to preserve that documentation and make it available to community members and others over the long future.

Here are what I think are important considerations:

For research repositories:

  • Recognize that the primary purpose of local historical organizations is to help build and deepen community by giving local citizens a sense of their past.
  • Be ready to stretch usual procedures to do what is possible to make documentation acquired from the local organizations easily accessible to them and their communities.

For local organizations:

  • Recognize that the main purpose of repositories is to preserve materials that will be useful for research.
  • Be ready to stretch to obtain the agreements and permissions from donors and informants that will make placement in repositories possible.

Two collections in the SHC resulting from collaborations like this are the Caswell County Historical Association Records (http://www.lib.unc.edu/mss/inv/c/Caswell_County_Historical_Association.html) and the Penn School Records (http://www.lib.unc.edu/mss/inv/p/Penn_School.html).

I’d be interested in others’ thoughts about this.