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.

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

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.