I am one semester into my Master of Library Science program and while my area of major interest (currently health librarianship!) has shifted and morphed over the past five months, there has been one area that has never grabbed my attention – archives. For someone with a bachelor’s degree in history and a deep love of the past, this might seem a little odd, but there isn’t much in that domain of information science that has really grabbed me. That is, at least, until I was introduced to Marion Stokes.
Marion’s story is multifaceted and complex. When I first read about her, I had a reaction that I am sure is common, “Why?” Indeed, Marion’s life quest – to archive the history of television in the late 20th century in real time – seems quixotic at first glance. But underneath all those initial layers, I believe, there is a phenomenal story. One not just about Marion, but about how our collective memories are shaped, saved, and shared.
For over 30 years, Marion sought to ensure that the medium that had invaded almost every American living room was properly being recorded and saved for posterity. Her life became the project, and the project her life. Marion has been called an “activist archivist” and I cannot think of a more apt descriptor. Furthermore, I think by considering that moniker, we need to contemplate what it might mean to be an activist in our field. How are we ensuring that marginalized voices – like Marion’s, who was a woman and a person of color – have resonance in our work space and our educational spaces? What are we willing to lay on the line in the name of justice and equity? Library and information science preaches diversity – indeed it is one of the ALA’s core tenets – but how is it being lived out in our practice?
I’ve mentioned the idea of how our collective memories are shaped, saved, and shared. As information science professionals, we need to remember that our work is powerful and much of that power derives from that idea. As we shape collections, weed works, assist patrons, design programs, and select appropriate technological resources, we are, in a very real way, determining which information is worthy of being saved and shared. By the same token, we are determining what is left out. Marion, I believe, understood that power better than most and it is something we cannot afford to forget, especially in the times in which we find ourselves.
In a documentary about Marion and her project, the film’s director states that Marion “was interested in access to information, documenting media, making sure people had the information they needed to make good decisions.” And isn’t that, in many ways, what we, as the next generation of library and information science professionals, are trying to ensure as well? Indeed, that is what is one of the most incredible things about Marion Stokes – she was one of us, a librarian, interested in the world around her and determined to make a difference. She did it as an “activist archivist” – how will you do it?
Nick Dean is a first-year master’s student in the School of Library and Information Management (SLIM) at Emporia State University. Nick currently works as an academic advisor at a medical school in Kansas City.