Dispatches from DERAIL!

This post is about the recent Diversity, Equity, Race, Access, and Identity in LIS (DERAIL) Forum held at Simmons College, in Boston, MA on March 4-5, 2017. Both authors (and HLS contributing writers) share their experiences from working on this student-run conference.

Ayoola White (DERAIL Archivist and Graphic Design):

When I began my MLS program at Simmons College, I started as an online student. I started this way because I wanted to save up money to be able to move from my family home to Boston. While taking classes remotely, I didn’t tend to interact with fellow students in a meaningful way. The next semester, as I prepared to transition from taking online classes from out of state to taking in-person classes on campus, one of my biggest worries was that it would be difficult to find community at Simmons College. Little did I know, upon my arrival to campus, I would almost immediately get roped into a group of motivated, social justice-minded fellow students. Imagine my luck! 

This group was the planning committee for the second annual DERAIL forum. DERAIL (which stands for Diversity, Equity, Race, Access, and Identity in LIS) is a student-led, student-centered event. That is to say, only current LIS students and alums who have graduated within one year could attend the forum in person, whereas anyone could view it virtually. This year, it took the form of a full-day conference of prepared presentations, one of which being provided by yours truly, followed by a shorter unconference the next day. Furthermore, we had the pleasure of hearing presentations from students at the Simmons SLIS West campus in South Hadley, Massachusetts, a student from Kent State University, and three students from the University of Alberta in Canada. From what I am told, this is tremendous growth from last year’s forum.

I cannot exaggerate the sense of affirmation I felt at witnessing and participating in such a tight-knit collaborative effort. Everyone was so conscientious about making sure agenda items turned into actionable steps at each meeting. The group successfully secured funding, ran social media pages, attracted volunteers, sifted through presenters, ordered swag, and handled a ton of miscellaneous nuts and bolts. Even though things got a bit stressful as the forum date grew closer, we all supported each other to get everything done, aided by a glass (or two) of wine on the night before.

Not only that, but the presentation topics were deeply engaging. My favorite was about practicing radical empathy in the archives. The speaker, Simmons student Molly Brown discussed how there is a genuine human connection to be had when interacting with patrons, coworkers, donors, and even with the documents themselves. This sentiment contradicts the idea of archives as isolated or isolating dungeons. What’s more, it is one sentiment of many throughout the forum that reminded me of why I got into archives in the first place.

In general, the presentation topics from DERAIL are not necessarily covered in coursework, at least not in my experience so far. This fact, as well as a Tweet from virtual observer of the conference @itzaproxy, reminds me of how crucial students’ knowledge creation is.

Consequently, as the the archivist for this year’s DERAIL planning committee, I am interested in gathering oral histories about the creation of DERAIL. Since this was only the second iteration of the event, a lot of people who planned the original forum are still students here, and if they are not, they are fairly easy to reach. In my mind, this effort will be important in preserving DERAIL’s student-centered nature and in facilitating the overall continuity of the forum going forward.

What are some student-led endeavors happening on your campuses?


Des Alaniz (DERAIL Co-Chair):

I had the great fortune of working on DERAIL during it’s launch in 2016 as well as the second annual Forum in 2017. I wrote briefly in my inaugural post as an HLS contributor on how my work on DERAIL introduced me to a community of like-minded students and practitioners on and off campus. Building on the success of last year’s Forum, the 2017 planning crew decided to expand the scope of the Forum to include a second day of UnConference activities. As one of three members from the 2016 crew to re-join for planning DERAIL 2017, we had the ease and challenge of having a model to build this year’s efforts on.

Fired up heading into Fall 2016, I was excited by the new energy and range of folks both new and continuing in the program who believed in the vision of creating student-centered community at DERAIL 2017. Having established the success of last year’s conference, particularly with the Simmons administration, we found a tremendous amount of support not only from the student community at Simmons but also the administration within SLIS. These campus supporters facilitated our ability to extend DERAIL to two days to include an UnConference component to allow folks to debrief and follow up on the topics presented at the more formal Forum.

Overall, the biggest change between this year and last year was the swell of enthusiasm and energy from students at Simmons and other institutions. DERAIL 2017 saw presentations about race and class in children’s literature, the role of mental health in libraries and archives from both user and practitioner perspectives, and the role of archives and archivists in indigenous rights and reparations movements. We were also able to livestream the event, allowing for a wider range of folks to participate virtually in the Forum.

One of the ongoing goals of DERAIL is to develop a tool-kit for folks who are interested in planning a similar event on their on campus. What questions do you have about this kind of planning? Can you think of departments and point people at your institution who can support this work?

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