Thursday, August 4, 2016

SAA day one: diversity and inclusion

Atanta skyline, as seen from the steps of the Georgia Aquarium, Atlanta, Georgia, 2 August 2016.
 As has often been the case in recent years, I'm attending the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists on my own dime. Doing so has some obvious drawbacks, but it does have one very real advantage: I don't feel obliged to limit myself to attending only those sessions that relate directly to my current job responsibilities. Instead, I seek out those sessions that align with my other archival interests or promise to illuminate how the profession is changing.

Today, I attended a plenary session and two program sessions that, in various ways, focused on the necessity of and challenges associated with creating institutions that are truly serve all of the communities that make up our pluralistic, stratified society and collections that reflect our varied, complex, and unequal history.
In an intriguing but regrettably short plenary presentation, Chris Taylor, the Minnesota Historical Society's Director of Inclusion and Community Engagement, made a number of excellent points:
  • There's a difference between "diversity" and "inclusion." The former is a noun, and the latter is an active process. If you're not actively making people feel welcomed and valued on their terms, your diversity initiatives will be little more than window dressing.
  • Inclusiveness is a business imperative. The United States is becoming less and less "white," the LGBTQ movement has made great political and social strides, and American society is changing in a variety of other ways. The dominant culture that cultural heritage institutions have customarily served is on its way to becoming a minority culture; I would argue that this culture is itself in the process of changing in both positive and negative ways. If we avoid grappling with these changes, we are condemning ourselves to irrelevance. (FWIW, I've long been of the belief that lack of inclusiveness is only one of the things that threatens to render the archives profession irrelevant. When I chose to become an electronic records archivist in 2004, I did so in large part because so many other archivists were responding to the digital revolution in record keeping with fear and avoidance. I wanted to do my part to ensure that my beloved profession wouldn't devolve into rarefied antiquarianism. We've gotten a lot better at coming to grips with the challenges of managing and preserving digital records, but we still have a long way to go.)
  • When cultural heritage institutions try to become more "diverse," their first instinct is to turn outward and develop special programs that target marginalized groups. However, we need to focus first on getting our internal affairs in order. We need both to increase the diversity of our staff and create an organizational culture that makes all of our staff feel valued and supported. Hiring diverse staff and then failing to retain them because they feel pressured to assimilate into our existing organizational cultures isn't helpful or sustainable.
  • Groups that have been marginalized will not readily flock to us, but we rarely attempt to figure out why they are reluctant to engage with us. We need to be prepared to build authentic partnerships, to recognize that marginalized communities want and need to be treated as full-fledged stakeholders, and to acknowledge that we and our institutions will likely be changed as a result of these efforts. (A couple of my lunch companions indicated that they would have appreciated some nuts-and-bolts advice about creating partnerships, and I pointed them to a presentation that my former colleague John Suter delivered during a recent Council of State Archivists webinar.)
  • It's hard for leaders to accept that they don't know what they don't know or that other people may be better at doing some things. If you're a leader, find the people in your organization who are passionate about inclusion and give them the freedom to run.
Owing to some Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Committee business that commanded some of my time this morning, I sadly missed about a third of session 106, "Collaborative Approaches to Collecting and Preserving LGBTQ Materials." However, I did get to hear about a couple of innovative, community-based LGBTQ archival initiatives that could serve as models not only for additional LGBTQ projects but for other communities seeking to ensure the documentation of papers and records documenting their own history:
  • Sam Bruner discussed the origins of the LGBTQ+ Archives Project of Louisiana, a non-profit organization that began as an oral history project that grew into a much broader initiative that is led by a combination of LGBTQ community members and professional archivists. The project focuses on educating people about the importance of preserving materials that document Louisiana LGBTQ history, maintaining a directory of archival repositories that hold LGBTQ+ materials and are interested in acquiring additional collections, and raising money to support the processing of materials donated to repositories. It is not affiliated with any one repository, and it does not accept archival collections or make decisions about where collections will be housed; although the project will provide information about repositories' collecting strengths and priorities, decisions regarding whether and where to donate collections remain firmly in the hands of the people who created them.
  • Carmel Curtis detailed the work of the XFR (pronounced "transfer") Collective, a non-profit organization of multimedia archivists who volunteer to digitize at-risk audio and video materials created by artists, activists, other individuals, and organizations. The collective, which grew out of a 2013 New Museum exhibit focusing on preservation of artworks created on obscure media, is particularly interested in preserving materials that document the LGBTQ+ and other marginalized communities and in demystifying preservation work by setting up publicly visible digitization workstations whenever it can. The collective uploads copies of the digital files that it creates to the Internet Archive.
This session also highlighted one possible solution to a problem that many archivists working in many contexts have faced: donors don't always transfer their collections before they die, and they don't always communicate their intentions to their executors or their families. Anyone seeking to collect LGBTQ materials knows of at least one instance in which a treasure trove of materials that was lost because the donor died before transferring it to a repository and the relatives who cleaned out the donor's house either didn't appreciate that it had value or threw it out in disgust. In an effort to minimize such losses, the June Mazer Lesbian Archives and the Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria give prospective donors specially marked boxes that have deeds of gift attached and instruct donors to start placing their materials in these boxes. If a donor dies before transferring the materials, the presence of the deed of gift alerts relatives that the materials have been promised to an archives. Deeds of gift won't do much to sway the resolutely bigoted, but at least some of the relatives who encounter them will honor the deceased's intentions. This is a superb idea that should be of use to all kinds of collecting repositories.

Session 207, "Why Do We Have That? Successes in Documenting the Distasteful" focused on the challenges associated with preserving and providing access to materials that strike institutional administrators and community members as gratuitously shocking, offensive, or simply unworthy of "serious" study, but in the process it brought to the fore a number of issues relating to diversity, inclusion, and construction of a comprehensive, equitable historical record:
  • Benn Joseph, formerly of Northwestern University, focused on the Michael McDowell Death Collection, an artificial collection of funeral photographs, suicide notes, letters of condolence, postmortem photographs ("mourning portraits"), spirit photographs, wanted posters, hair wreaths and other hair work, undertakers' licenses, photographs of "atrocities" and war crimes, funeral cards, and other materials assembled by the late novelist and screenwriter Michael McDowell as he was researching his doctoral dissertation on death and mourning customs. Some of these materials, most notably the postmortem photographs and the hair wreaths and other hair-based mementos, strike us as ghastly, but in their day they were prized possessions that were proudly displayed. As Joseph was speaking, it struck me that the archival commitment to inclusion must be retroactive: even though we may find past customs and practices mystifying or disturbing, we should not allow our feelings to keep us from documenting their existence or meanings.
  • Noting that sexual expression is an integral component of LGBTQ history, Joanne Black of the GLBT Historical Society highlighted some of the "explicit" materials in the society's collections and how they illuminate the nature of sexual relationships, sexual practices, and the meanings attached to sexual activity within specific LGBTQ communities. She also made what I thought is an essential point: if we're going to assemble a comprehensive historical record, we need to document the nature of and meanings attached to sexual behavior. (As Black also pointed out, the controlled vocabularies we use to describe our holdings are largely silent about sexual matters. We need to work on these omissions.)
  • Amanda Lanthorne of San Diego State University detailed how the Carl Panzram Papers, which document the life of an alleged serial killer who befriended and entered into a lengthy correspondence with a prison guard, sheds light on prison life in the 1920s, prison reform activism, and American social history generally. It has also been used to cultivate undergraduates' critical thinking skills and foster insight into the lives of individuals who grew up in abusive environments.
  • Susanna Leberman of the Huntsville-Madison County [Alabama] Public Library detailed how her institution, which is charged with meeting the needs of all of the members of a diverse community and which has exhibited local history materials that range from Ku Klux Klan signs and flyers to racy (at least by the standards of the day) postcards sent and received by area residents during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, offered a compelling explanation of the importance of documenting the Klan and other oppressive groups and institutions: if you don't document what, for example, the civil rights movement was fighting against, you rob the movement's participants of their struggles and their triumphs. I would argue that every mass organization -- even as one as repulsive as the Klan -- warrants documentation in its own right; if our aim is to assemble a comprehensive historical record, we're going to have to document a lot of really ugly things.
It would be remiss of me not to note that Joseph, Black, and Leberman placed great emphasis on the importance of presenting these collections in ways that minimized titillation and shock. When working with undergraduates, Joseph always gave them the option of not examining the "atrocities" and war crimes photos in the Mark McDowell Collection. Black noted that the GLBT Historical Society refrains from posting sexually explicit materials on its website, notifies visitors to its museum that they may see sexually explicit materials, and requires that minors who visit the museum facility be accompanied by an adult. Leberman asserted that archivists need to present materials likely to elicit outrage or horror in a thoughtful, context-rich manner that compels people to reflect upon what they're seeing instead of exploding or withdrawing: "provoke people into thinking, rather than just forcing them to remember or memorize, and it makes you [i.e., the archives] more relevant in their lives."

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