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

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