Sunday, August 17, 2014

SAA 2014: integrating history

 One of the advantages of paying my own way to SAA is that I don't have any reservations about attending at least one session that interests me but doesn't have anything to do with my work responsibilities. Yesterday morning, I passed up two interesting-seeming electronic records sessions and sat in on session 309, "Integrating History: A Search-and-Recovery Effort in Alabama Archives." I'm glad I did: of all the sessions I attended this year, this one was my favorite. (N.B.: I was really ill on Friday, so what follows might be a bit hazy.)

Two of the archivists who participated in this session are employed by repositories that have traditionally reflected the experiences of white Alabamians, and two work at historically black universities. All of them spoke with passion and nuance about the challenges of comprehensively documenting their communities and institutions, and in the process discussed a host of things familiar to archivists working in a variety of settings:
  • The ugly way in which an ever-growing processing backlog reduces institutional visibility and makes it ever harder to obtain the resources needed to tackle the backlog.
  • How differences in power and perspective fuel tensions between small, resource-starved archives and large, well-funded collecting repositories.
  • The importance of and hard work involved in winning the trust of donors, particularly those whose experiences have in the past been under-documented.
  • How efforts to document previously under-represented groups may force one to confront the unsavory past of one's own community, one's own uneasy relationship with that past, and anger and fear in those who have a vested interest in maintaining certain archival and broader societal silences. 
  • The importance of intimately knowing one's own collections and working collaboratively with repositories that hold related materials. 
Rebekah Davis (Limestone County Archives) discussed the importance of collecting materials that not only documented the history of the county's black community (e.g., programs distributed at community members' funerals) but also what that community had to live with (e.g., color photographic prints of a Ku Klux Klan rally that took place in the 1970s). Quoting fellow presenter Susannah Leverman, she emphasized that even though she and her colleagues at times felt deeply uncomfortable about accessioning and furnishing access to some of the materials in the latter category, "to pretend things didn't happen is to take away the victory of those who overcame it." Davis also stressed the importance of making sure that older white volunteers who expressed distaste when they encountered collections documenting the county's African-Americans understood that they could privately believe whatever they wished but needed to understand that bigoted statements reflected poorly upon the archives and to keep their opinions to themselves while working there.

Susannah Leverman (Huntsville-Madison County Public Library) highlighted her institution's efforts to build relationships with her community's African-American inhabitants. Although the library has collected materials documenting African-American art and education, segregated city directories, church histories, portraits, information about black-owned businesses, and other aspects of African-American life, Leverman was convinced that the documentary record was incomplete. She began going to black churches and civic meetings, hosted a traveling exhibit relating to Lincoln, created a public history exhibit commemorating 50 years of school integration and a related sub-exhibit concerning the Ku Klux Klan, developed a phenomenally popular exhibit relating to African-American sports history, and tries to ensure that other exhibits accurately reflect the community's diversity. The library also hosts talks focusing on Huntsville's black business district and other topics and posts recordings of them to YouTube. She described her approach thusly: "we need to provoke people into thinking instead of forcing them to remember or memorize." It seems to have paid off: the library has recently acquired collections documenting civil rights activism and a substantial collection of African-American sheet music.

Veronica Henderson (Alabama A&M University), who is relatively new in her position, discussed her efforts to tackle a decades-long processing backlog, create finding aids, sharpen collecting efforts, and sort out some custodial issues. The Alabama state legislature established the State Black Archives and Research Center in 1989 and charged it with acquiring, preserving, and providing access to materials documenting the state's African-American history. Henderson determined that the collection included some materials that didn't relate specifically to the history of black Alabamians, and she has sought to refocus the collecting scope. She's also trying to smooth relations with alumni of a defunct black high school who are questioning why the university archives has some of their memorabilia; the university doesn't have a deed of gift, but it did have a longstanding and close relationship with the school's administrators. Fortunately, at least some of the alumni are satisfied with digital reproductions.

Dana R. Chandler (Tuskegee University) also discussed his university's efforts to tackle a large processing backlog and to identify and recover items that have gone missing. He also recounted his repository's efforts to right an old wrong: in 1943, the Library of Congress (LC) took possession, with the university's consent, of a body of materials that it called the Booker T. Washington Collection but which were actually the early organizational records of Tuskegee University. Chandler found that the agreement that enabled LC to take custody of these records specified that the university would receive a microfilm copy of them. However, LC filmed the records only after Chandler pushed it to do so and maintained afterward that it retained the copyright. and I've held them to this; LC had to spend approximately $69,000 to microfilm the records. LC tried to maintain that it held the copyright, but Chandler's position is that these "papers" are in fact the records of a public university.

Chandler then profiled two phenomenal collections that came to light when Tuskegee addressed its processing backlog:
  • Records of the Southern Courier, 1965-1968. The Southern Courier was a civil rights newspaper run by Harvard Crimson volunteers. It was unprocessed for years, and Chandler and his colleagues discovered that it contained detailed accounts of the dangers and difficulties that staff faced, including mad dogs, beatings, and death threats. They also found evidence of young black and white people working together toward a common goal -- a story not commonly associated with Alabama. 
  • George Washington Carver Notebooks. Scholarly biographies of Carver published to date conclude that he did not make any significant scientific discoveries. However, Tuskegee has six notebooks containing Carver's scientific notes, drawings, and observations, and Carver's work must be reassessed in light of these manuscripts. 
I was particularly heartened to learn that the longstanding informal collaboration between the presenters and other Alabama archivists seeking to ensure that the state's documentary record is equitable and balanced may give rise to a multi-institution Web portal centered on archival materials documenting the lives of black Alabamians. Alabama archivists have a long track record of working together and accomplishing amazing things with modest resources, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if this proposed portal is a rousing success.

Image: anemone buds peek out from behind a bench on the grounds of Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC, 16 August 2014. Anemones symbolize, among other things, anticipation.

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