Archival Innovators: Bryan Giemza, Director of UNC Chapel Hill’s Southern Historical Collection (Part 2)

This is the latest post in our new series Archival Innovators, which aims to raise awareness of the individuals, institutions, and collaborations that are helping to boldly chart the future of the the archives profession and set new precedents for the role of the archivist in society.

Bryan Giemza

This is Part 2 of Lindsay Anderberg’s interview with Bryan Giemza, Director of the Southern Historical Collection (SHC) at the Wilson Special Collections Library, part of the University Libraries at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (see Part 1 here).  Part 2 continues Lindsay and Bryan’s discussion on how one archive was able to launch multiple innovative projects while challenging the notion of who creates and maintains archives.

LA: Your projects obviously require a lot of collaboration— from grant funding to partnerships both international and local. Can you talk about these partnerships both on a large scale, for example your Mellon grant funding, and about smaller, local connections that have propelled these projects forward?

BG: Funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has certainly enlarged the scope of what we can develop.  It offers the opportunity to grow our collaborations outward in expanding circles.  It enables the development of the backpacks and put us on a footing to contribute our methodology to the project in Yucatán, for example.  The Mellon Grant gives us the opportunity to pull together a Community-Driven Archives Team with multiple graduate students, library colleagues, coinvestigators in other institutions, and talented people and administrators.  Another key element to our model is working with community liaisons, who help us do the translational work of explaining archives work to communities, and explaining community needs to archives.

Train the Trainer session: Participants at the San Antonio African American Community Archives and Museum (SAAACAM) work with Dr. Karida Brown to conduct oral histories and store digital files.
Image Credit : B. Bernetiae Reed, SHC Community-Driven Archives.

At the same time, these projects are intensely local in nature.  Professor Karida Brown, one of our co-investigators and an innovator in her own right, always points out that you can’t be local enough.  When she was framing up what became the East Kentucky African American Migration Project—one of the SHC’s community partners—she started with the received tools of sociology and mailed out a survey to would-be participants. People in the community responded dutifully, but she realized that the instrument flattened everything out. It didn’t really get at their stories. It wasn’t until she really started talking to people one-on-one that she could begin.  She realized that the survey had been a false start and went back to the drawing board, which really put the project on a footing for success.

Fostering those local connections and surfacing the stories eventually led Karida to the Southern Historical Collection through word-of-mouth referrals from academic advisors. We are connected with larger partnerships and circles of like-minded colleagues who work in this area, too, from the west coast to the east, and finding strength in those numbers, as well as the lessons we learn from community partners.

LA: What is your advice to someone who wants to launch an innovative project with their archives, but might have limited funding or an organization that is not open to change?

BG: In writing about all this, the sheepish fact of the matter is that I work in an institution that is very well resourced, I have the backing of grants, and I work with very talented and creative colleagues.

So, it’s very easy for me to talk about how projects work…. And it’s hard to offer answers that aren’t too pat.  All I can say is that you can be creative and use your reputation in service of others to change things. Put your products in the public domain. Where funders are concerned, it’s important to move your ideas tangibly into practices and products, not just as proof of concept but as proof of the sort of success that others like to invest in. It’s better to come from a place of strength before need.

Backpacks in use: The SHC Community-Driven Archives Team collaborated with Public History graduate students from North Carolina Central University and community members in Princeville, NC, to conduct oral histories and to discern needful resources and cultural projects.
Image Credit : Claire Du Laney, SHC Community-Driven Archives.

Another perhaps too-easy answer is to start small or structure the strategic partnerships that extend your reach and resources. This doesn’t do a lot to disrupt power and funding disparities where larger institutions are concerned, but it gives you a way to tap into the aquifer.  When you are bringing something of value, turn the tables and set the terms.

Last bit of advice: borrow shamelessly and make sure you know what’s going on in your corner of the marketplace of ideas before setting out.  Be careful about reinventing the wheel; figure out how to borrow it from someone else. If you’re applying for a job, go ahead and float a budget and ask for startup money to achieve the vision on the front end—that’s what entrepreneurs do, and it lets you put something on the table when you ask others to participate.  Part of innovating is developing a thick skin. Expect to hear no often and remember that you only have to hear yes once.

If your organization is not open to change, as I see it, there are two options. You can take the long view and begin a change management campaign, as I mentioned earlier.  Or you can move on to an institution that is open. If it comes to that, my advice is to vote with your feet.  You owe it to yourself. If you’re interested in justice and innovation, align yourself with a place that makes it possible.

LA: Is there anything else you’d like fellow archivists to know about your projects or tips for how to launch similar projects at their institutions?

BG: This is a good moment to put in a shameless plug for the Practices in Community-Driven Archives Handbook that we’re developing as part of the Mellon grant.  It’s still a few years out on the horizon, but we are designing it to be useful to practitioners of all kinds. We’re the first to say that these are simply practices—not best practices, but the results of our experiments and learning, since every project is different—so your mileage may vary.  But maybe there’s something you can use there.

The contents of the Oral History Archivist in a Backpack include how-to guides, audio equipment and thank you cards. The Community-Driven Archives Team provides basic tools for oral history success and affirms the importance of community-curated histories.
Image Credit: Aleah Howell, Wilson Library, UNC-CH

We’re currently renovating the web presence for our community-driven projects, and we’re constantly adding our products and training materials as we go.  So if you wanted, for instance, to create a set of Backpacks for a community project, you can find all of the elements of the backpack, down to the pricing, in our online helps.

One other suggestion. Say things at meetings and have your elevator speech ready—ideas have to be reducible to terms that a child can understand quickly.  Speak them out loud.  Language is the first step toward making the ideal into the real, and if you sit in meetings and bite your tongue because you’re worried that your ideas aren’t good enough, nothing will happen.  The African proverb says it best: the open mouth gets fed.

LA: What’s next?  How will these projects continue or are you launching something new?

BG: Well, there are a lot of things. I am excited about the upcoming release of a fulldome movie that will bring our archival materials on southern history to a new format and to new audiences.

And I have a longer vision in mind for building on the potential in Archivist in a Backpack.  It’s about gradually scaling up capacity for community archives.  What if we could create archivally sound storage units—the sort of thing that municipalities throughout the region could afford to include in their planning—and harvest those pods to depositories supported by regional consortiums of libraries and archives?  Repeat the process and enhance inclusivity in each cycle? Community groups that aren’t interested in starting their own brick-and-mortar archive want to know that their materials will have a good archival home that respects the rights of their creators. As a profession, I think it’s a good thing when archivists consider how to join ranks in the scholarly dissemination of participatory methods. We can build outward from there.

These projects certainly have a momentum of their own.  Sometimes good writers turn out stories by creating characters and turning them loose to see what they will do.  Maybe we can think about projects and invention the same way.  Pick up one little piece of the challenge, start the project, and see where it wants to lead you.  We think about innovation as something you do, often through a kind of hard-nosed wrestling with a particular challenge.  But that puts “problems” first instead of people—the characters, so to speak. The reward of good work is more of it, and if you see innovation as a natural outgrowth of generosity, spontaneity, friendliness—well, maybe innovation has an animation of its own, and becomes the sure guide to better places.

Assembling the Archivist in a Backpack kits at the Southern Historical Collection

Archival Innovators: Bryan Giemza, Director of UNC Chapel Hill’s Southern Historical Collection (Part 1)

This is the inaugural post in our new series Archival Innovators!  In this new series, we aim to raise awareness of the individuals, institutions, and collaborations that are helping to boldly chart the future of the the archives profession and set new precedents for the role of the archivist in society.

Bryan Giemza

Our first Archival Innovators post brings you an interview with Bryan Giemza, Director of the Southern Historical Collection (SHC) at the Wilson Special Collections Library, part of the University Libraries at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Bryan’s bio is contained at the end of this post).  Bryan and the SHC might already be on your radar as archival innovators thanks to the publicity around Archivist in a Backpack and the Maya from the Margins project, the latter of which was awarded SAA’s 2018 Diversity Award as well as a Spotlight Award for team member Bernetiae Reed.  COPA member Lindsay Anderberg, Interdisciplinary Science & Technology Librarian and Poly Archivist at New York University, spoke with Bryan to find out how one archive was able to launch multiple innovative projects while challenging the notion of who creates and maintains archives.

This is Part 1 of Lindsay and Bryan’s interview; stay tuned for Part 2 next week!

LA: Could you start by telling us a little about Archivist in a Backpack and how it fits within the concept of participatory research?

Assembling the Archivist in a Backpack kits at the Southern Historical Collection

BG: Archivist in a Backpack distills some basic tools of archival trade into a kit that’s small enough, and accessible enough, to act as starter material for a community-driven archive project.  We know from experience that oral histories are great for jumpstarting community-driven archives projects. And we know that people love the tangibility of archives experience.  You can see that in the moment of electricity when a student opens a nineteenth-century journal for the first time.  So, the question was, how do you get people of all ages comfortable thinking about themselves as archivists in a way that’s fun and interactive and ultimately empowering?

That’s what participatory research is all about: moving away from methods of enquiry that perpetuate the idea that expertise comes from outside a community. In the world of archives, it addresses a recurrent problem, that communities have limited say in what goes into an archive, what happens to it afterwards, even in its interpretation. Archivist in a Backpack is a kind of hook, it’s a straightforward way to get people into the participatory process and to say, You can do this, too.

Assembling the Archivist in a Backpack kits at the Southern Historical Collection

Assembling the Archivist in a Backpack kits at the Southern Historical Collection

LA: What about your Maya from the Margins project? How does that draw on participatory methodology?

BG: The spirit of participatory research infused Maya from the Margins, too. A lightbulb moment came from conversations I’d had with Latinos who were at best reluctant to acknowledge their indigenous past. I knew that young North Carolinians with both Latinx and indigenous roots often feel like outsiders. Their identity is really complex, and as second-generation Americans they’re at an uneasy remove from the experiences and culture of their immigrant parents. In addition to barriers to inclusion, the historic suppression of indigenous culture and language in Latin America poses a problem if you want to transmit a living history. Colonialism is not exactly a force for making people the curators of their own histories—which is what we’re trying to do.

Khristin Landry-Montes and Douglas “Biff” Hollingsworth (Collections and Outreach Archivist, Southern Historical Collection) prepare backpacks that have been translated into Yucatec Mayan for distribution to teachers and students in Valladolid, Mexico

When I visited the State Archive of Yucatán, I viewed Mexican plantation documents that were every bit the counterpart of items held in the Southern Historical Collection, and I began to discern in the archive some common themes in history, movement and migration.  How could we bring people together around the topic of Mayan identity, and, in the participatory mode, enable them to take ownership of those histories, and claim that common ground?

The core idea was to create programming and archives-based exhibits by pairing a cohort of young Maya-identifying people in Yucatán with counterparts in North Carolina. Along with two Morganton high school teachers and two UNC-Chapel Hill undergraduate student mentors, the student participants visited the Southern Historical Collection and the State Archives of Yucatán, crisscrossed North Carolina and Yucatán, and collaboratively curated a travelling exhibition that was displayed at exchange sites.

Daniela Garrido Durán uses backpack materials to interview Khristin Landry-Montes at a teacher training workshop sponsored by National Geographic at Universidad de Oriente in Valladolid, Mexico

LA: There’s a been a lot of talk in the archives profession about diversity, inclusion, and social justice, but I think people can be unsure of how to enact these ideas within the existing structures of academic and cultural institutions.  Can you talk about how your projects aim to disrupt power disparities and to empower communities or individuals?

BG: Sure!  One thing I can say from experience is that the challenge endemic to enacting the ideals of participatory research is making sure the implementation of projects matches the soaring rhetoric.  That’s actually where a lot of the space of invention comes in. The conceptual forms have to find embodiment in institutional and operational procedures, and finally, the tangible. We find ourselves answering a thousand sub-questions: for example, what’s the appropriate workflow, and what are the rights considerations, for ingesting material from a community history harvest?  Often it’s a case of first impression.  It puts demands on the imagination of the participants, the practitioners, and the institution.

Assembling the Archivist in a Backpack kits at the Southern Historical Collection

Let me try to make this a little more real and a little less aspirational or abstract. We gathered feedback on Archivist in a Backpack from community partners by including in each a stamped card to be returned to us. One community partner reported, “We all witnessed how meaningful it was for the … participants to get those protectors, a certain kind of unexpected acknowledgement of the value of their memories.” Here again, tangibility matters; having the plastic sleeves made interviewees feel their material is cared for by someone else and not just of value to them.  Archivists can’t be everywhere at once; not everyone has the experience of seeing their materials foldered and rehoused.  There’s intrinsic power in letting the community member be the bearer of that gift.

History from below, as a school of thought in public history, needs to be matched with archives from below.  It’s an orientation toward finding what’s not in the grand narratives and making it present and accessible.  This manifests differently in diverse disciplines, but there’s a kind of interdisciplinary convergence happening, in my view.  It’s happening in sociology, anthropology, public health, and so on.  It’s not an accident that Maya from the Margins required partnerships with colleagues in anthropology, a nonprofit, archives and higher ed abroad, and institutions across campus.  Participatory research provides the common ground for the real interdisciplinary work that we hear a lot about but that’s so rarely achieved.

Delores Porter and Adreonna Simmons use backpack materials to conduct an interview in the historic black town of Princeville, NC

Certainly there’s a built-in tension in the fact that institutions innately want to control narratives. It’s revealing to speak with communities where outside institutions have walked away on their own terms, or pursued their own extractive ends.  The traditional quid-pro-quo nature of collecting ignores the fact that generosity is usually repaid handsomely and that it takes a relationship to bring a person, a story, to an archive.  There’s a long way to go with all this. We still have a hard time paying community experts, for example, and reaching carceral populations, and finding ways to fund community projects directly.

LA: What was the Southern Historical Collection (SHC) like, both in content and in practice, before you started working there four years ago?

As one element of the backpack, these oral history prompt cards pertaining to the terminology of cenotes were translated into Yucatec Mayan and Spanish

BG: The Collection’s origins give it a tremendous magnetic force, since good collections have a way of attracting more good collections. I happened to be hired under a charter for change.  The SHC had a longstanding tradition of outreach, so I wanted to think about how to shift it beyond the podium.  We operated in a fairly conventional manuscripts mode: the goal traditionally has been to get primary material behind thick archival walls.  I was interested in how we could make those walls less intimidating and how we might render them invisible in a manner of speaking.  We took the time to do some planning and to hold ourselves accountable, which put us in a position to do more than react and to set a proactive collecting agenda. My SHC colleagues Chaitra Powell and Douglas “Biff” Hollingsworth bring tremendous creativity and experience to all of these efforts.  Our team agreed that we would be inspirited by an ethic of outrageous generosity and joyful participation, and that we would not lose sight of that simple mission.

LA: Since you were hired under a “charter for change,” what was your strategy for shifting the culture of SHC and launching these innovative projects?

BG: When I joined the Southern Historical Collection, I was determined to shift toward a participatory paradigm as a way of collecting that chimed with the best part of our “Of the People” institutional history. It offered a means to perpetuate a culture of respect and reciprocity. It’s a collecting ethos that will carry into the future, because collecting, broadly, is all about people and relationships. Those relationships are the most important corrective to the selective vision of academe. One of my favorite aphorisms is, No one sees his own ears.  Participatory research methods tend to point to our blind spots.  This is healthy not just for academic institutions; it’s good for communities, and it’s fundamentally an equitable way to go about the process. The power differences between academic institutions and communities—particularly those underrepresented in archives—are beyond enormous. From a collections standpoint, it’s like, the balance of power is tipped in favor of the institution before you arrive, not to mention while you’re there, so how do you continually put yourself in the perspective of a community member?  In those conversations, how can you be aware of the silencing effect of legacies and power disparities that extend well into the past?

Everett Fly, George Frederick (SAAACAM – San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum) and Bryan Giemza. SAAACAM is one of the community partners that is deploying Archivist in a Backpack

There is also an admittedly wonkish side to the business of change management; reading a book or two on the topic or taking a course can be helpful. It sounds calculated, and it is: you can develop a campaign for change, and that’s what I set out to do with the SHC team. We thought about how we might build allies across the organization, knowing that we wouldn’t get perfect buy-in from everyone, and that’s something we would have to accept and write off.

Trying to usher in community archives as a new way of thinking about what we do posed a lot of challenges, and it’s still a work in progress.  It’s a first principle of change management that most major change initiatives don’t pan out, and the ones that do require an absolutely relentless communication campaign. That’s very hard to do when you’re building the airplane in the air and doing your best to be responsive to communities.  We’ve been persistent in delivering the message that this work is essential to our identity. Put differently, community-driven archives aren’t just what we do—they’re who we are. It’s another gift to work in a place where others are innately disposed toward trying new things in service of others—and where there’s room for failure.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our Archival Innovators interview with Bryan Giemza!

Bryan Giemza is Director of the Southern Historical Collection in Wilson Special Collections at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he has been developing practices in community-driven archives. He is author or an editor of six academic books on American literary and cultural history, including Irish Catholic Writers and the Invention of the American South and Images of Depression-Era Louisiana: The FSA Photographs of Ben Shahn, Russell Lee, and Marion Post Wolcott. As principal investigator of grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and National Endowment for the Humanities, among others, he has led a variety of public humanities projects concerning the history and culture of the U.S. South. In 2019 he joins the faculty of the Honors College at Texas Tech University as professor of humanities and literature. Among his duties: working with students in the Sowell Family Collection in Literature, Community and the Natural World.