Archives, the academy, and the community

This article includes input from Carissa Hansen, Des Alaniz, and Samantha Abrams, three LIS-archives students interested in non-traditional archives settings and ways archivists can help make archives work more community-oriented. Here they share some of their experiences and ways of thinking about archival work outside the academy.

Carissa Hansen is a student in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s LIS program and the Community Manager at Hack Library School. She works at Hennepin County Library Special Collections in Minneapolis, MN and before that she worked for the University of Minnesota Archives.

Des Alaniz is a dual-degree student in LIS and History at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts, and a contributing writer at Hack LIbrary School. She also works at Simmons’ Beatley library as the To the Front Zine collection intern and is active with campus student groups, including serving as co-chair of the student-run DERAIL Forum. Her interests include LGBTQ movement history and archives.

Samantha Abrams is finishing her degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and works at StoryCorps. Before StoryCorps, Samantha worked at the Madison Public Library — in Madison, Wisconsin — where she developed the Library’s Personal Archiving Lab.

What’s one thing budding archivists should know about working in a non-academic or non-traditional archive setting?

Carissa: In the public library archive where I work, we have connections to a large number of community members and they are so important to the work we do. They help us make connections with new people, they donate material to us and help us fill gaps in our collections, they provide feedback to us on our digital collections, they tell people about our programs, and so much more. Our library system is very much grounded in public programming and engagement, and this applies to everything we do in our department. The takeaway here is that you need to learn to leverage what your setting affords you – whatever the setting may be! In our case, it’s these really great community connections, the opportunity to utilize the patronage of dozens of branch libraries, and the already established perception that we are an open place meant to be used by everyone. These don’t just benefit our programming and outreach – they also allow us to do better appraisal, description, and digital collections work.

Des: One thing about working in non-traditional archival spaces that became evident to me very quickly was that a lot of the things we learn in our classes have to be adapted to deal with non-traditional materials. I work in the zine library at my college library, and due to the nature of zines as independently published materials, they tend to defy the logics embedded in archival description and library cataloging practices. My experiences working with the zines have also forced me to re-think what properly “archival” collections look like, and developing new ways to describe them. I completely agree with Carissa that it is key to leverage what your environment provides, and also to think creatively about how best to showcase your collections to connect with users.

Samantha: Learn to advocate for yourself — and your work. Over the past three years, I’ve done archival work for a historical society, a university, a fast-food Joint, a public library, and a non-profit. And every supervisor I’ve ever had thinks differently about the field. And in those non-traditional settings, you’ll need to do a bit of legwork. At your non-traditional organization — perhaps one at which you’re the first (or only) archivist — why does what you do matter? How does it benefit — and support and enhance — the organization? And why should the organization — the one for which you now work — support what you do in terms of labor, money, and time? At these more traditional institutions — historical societies, museums, and so on — archival work is understood. At, say, a local burger joint, it’s not. Learn how to illuminate what it is that you do, and learn to emphasize why it matters.

Why do you think it is important for archives work to happen in non-traditional, non-academic archives settings?

Des: First of all, archives work has been happening outside of formal “archives” for a long time. With the increased availability of platforms like Omeka, it is easier for folks to develop community based archival projects like The People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland, The Baltimore Uprising Archive, and the LGBTQ History Digital Collaboratory, to name just a few examples. I think it is also important to note that these projects are not very present in most LIS academic programs, and many folks who are earning degrees in archives right now are not really being exposed to this work in the academy. Archival curriculum is a topic for another day, but it is important to acknowledge what these decentralized projects can contribute to archival practices in the 21st century.

Carissa: I know a lot of people who would not feel comfortable or welcome walking into an archive at a university or historical society. Obviously, that doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in archives or don’t have a need to use these collections. It means that the barriers (social, economic, language, etc.) are there and they’re real. That’s why it’s important that we take archives work out of the archive and do whatever we can to make community archives projects successful.

Samantha: Des is right: this non-traditional, non-academic work isn’t new. And I’ll echo what’s been written above: our profession, at its core, depends on our ability to reach out. To make ourselves useful to the everyday citizen. To meet their needs; to support their work; to protect their privacy. Especially now. And a lot of that work already occurs — and will continue to occur — outside the walls of our familiar repositories.

The archives community talks a lot about “community engagement” and “outreach.” What is the difference between the work happening around community and personal archiving and these other things?

Carissa: Community and personal archiving involve actively empowering people to gain skills that archivists use in their work. They also involve creating opportunities for people to share their stories and interact with history in ways that are most meaningful to them. With personal archiving, a person can learn how to better preserve their family history. For most people, the outcome of this work is going to constitute a much richer source for family history research than most local history archives could provide. Outreach and community engagement, to me, do not necessarily imply the same level of collaboration/storytelling/learning between archivists and community members. Outreach in archives is often “Hey, look at this cool collection that we put online!” or “Check out our new exhibit about a collection we just processed!” or “Come take our class on these resources we have!” Those things are totally important and useful, but we’ve got to go further.

Des: I agree with Carissa that archivists need to go farther in not only promoting our collections but also in advocating for our profession and our skills. Archivists are important in documenting the present not because we are anointed to do so and are “experts” but because we have managed to gain access to the training that provides us with the skills and tools to do the work. We have much to gain by being more reflective and critical of our own practices and how our “business as usual” can be exclusionary to the very groups we seek to help. Community archiving is not about archivists simply reaching out to communities and offering an institutional space for collections; communities have to be centered in how we conceive of archives and that requires de-centering the archivist as THE authority in how to do this work.

Samantha: It varies — doesn’t it? If our makerspaces and our personal archiving labs and our innovation stations exist solely in our wealthiest, or our whitest, or our least-accessible communities, is this form of community engagement any better than the appointment-only, limited-hours, access-upon-approval reference desk? Outreach — and we all know this — is so often self-serving, undertaken to do anything but better an actual community. Personal archiving, right now, is hip, and by all means, get your library involved. But if you help a patron scan two-hundred photos, set them up with a free DropBox account, and then send them on their way without once discussing digital security and privacy, you’ve done half of your job. Also — what Des writes is absolutely correct, and it echoes what a friend of mine said recently: that if the outreach we do in our restricted and privileged spaces is half-baked (even for those who can and do access these services), then what’s being denied to those who cannot make it into the library with their photos to scan — or to those who don’t have the digital literacy to understand Microsoft Office, let alone DropBox? To believe that we’ve somehow mastered outreach with the launch of these new services and labs is — at best — disingenuous.

Do you have any tips for preparing to do archives work with community members?

Des: It’s crucial to be transparent and solicit user feedback when designing archival projects, from accession to description, access, and exhibition. This sounds like basic stuff, but it requires a lot of prep work and intentionality to be able to develop a project that is responsive to community needs and that community members feel a part of. This also requires a level of personal investment and involvement in the work – it is after all the personal trust and relationships that will propel embed archival projects in larger community spaces and priorities. One thing that I have found in my various projects is that many communities (activist or otherwise) engage in documentation practices that may not be “archival” in the ways we as LIS students think of, but are relevant to the communities engaged in them. Archivists have much to learn, for example, from the ways in which gay, lesbian, and queer archives have developed local vocabularies to describe materials in their collections when LCSH falls short.

Carissa: Last year HCL Special Collections worked on a crowdsourcing project to identify individuals in an important set of photographs that were donated to us. My coworkers held events where people could come and look at the photographs and ID them. We ended up making a number of new community connections as a result of doing the events – and that wasn’t something that was expected. Similarly, when we hosted our first personal archiving workshop last year, I was pleasantly surprised by the type and variety of questions about digital preservation that we received. It prompted me to do some more research about this topic! So, my tip is to expect the unexpected. And with community work, you may not be able to measure all aspects of the work in quantifiable figures, so learning to communicate the outcomes in other ways is important.

Samantha: Listen to the community you serve; meet them — and serve them — where they stand. Here’s a story: when Madison’s Personal Archiving Lab first launched, I developed a set of classes that would utilize parts of the Lab in some way. I called the first class ‘Digital Preservation 101’ and booked one of the library’s largest conference rooms. And nobody came. In retrospect, the class — and its concepts: Lots of Copies, Keep Stuff Safe! and second hard drives! and glacier storage! and checksums! — made sense to me, but it wasn’t user friendly. When I taught the course again, I called it something different — ‘Digital Preservation 101: Caring for Your Virtual Shoebox’ — and started at the beginning. Checksums were out; file types were in. And people came! So, listen. And reflect. And revise.

Readings and Resources

Alana Kumbier, Ephemeral Material,2014
Jeannette Bastian & Ben Alexander, Community archives: The shaping of memory, 2009
Bergis Jules, “Confronting Our Failure of Care Around the Legacies of Marginalized People in the Archives
Jarrett Drake, “Liberatory Archives: Towards Belonging and Believing
“Activists’ Guide to Archiving Video,” WITNESS
Library of Congress’s information on Personal Archiving
“Personal Digital Archiving Day Kit,” Library of Congress
Social Justice in Archives LibGuide
DC Public Library Memory Lab
Documenting the Now


Featured image by Ian Sane, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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