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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.