This is the newest post in our There’s an Archivist for That! series, which features examples of archivists working in places you might not expect. COPA member Rachael Woody, owner of Rachael Cristine Consulting LLC, brings you an interview with Ashton Wingate, the Digital Archivist of the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund, Inc. (LDF).
Ashton Wingate currently works for the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund, Inc. (LDF), where he preserves the organization’s 80 year history in the fight for racial justice, equality and an inclusive society. To learn more about Wingate, please visit his website.
RW: Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
AW: On the professional side… I am fairly new in my position, I joined LDF in January of 2019. Previous to becoming a Digital Archivist, I was a librarian in the D.C. Public Library system leading early literacy outreach/programming. My time at the D.C. Public Library taught me a lot and I highly encourage every information professional to work in a public library for at least a little bit of time to understand the power and responsibility of our profession. I am a board member of the National Home Library Foundation and the board treasurer for the Archives Roundtable of Metropolitan New York. Personally, I spend most of my time with my fiancé and our two dogs in our cozy Brooklyn, NY apt which has become MUCH “cozier” during quarantine. I have interests in music, sports, craft beer and cult films. In the past I’ve done radio and podcasting so I’m possibly looking to start that back up if I can find time. I have a small side hustle doing graphic design and building websites for friends and family. If you’re looking to spruce up your personal/professional brand hit me up!
RW: How did you get into archives, or why archives?
AW: After I graduated from undergrad, I spent the first nine months selling cereal for Kellogg’s. Worst job ever! Nothing wrong with Frosted Flakes but I didn’t take the job as seriously as I should have and I am definitely not a salesman. After that didn’t work out, I spent the next 8 years or so in communications for a variety of non-profits and government organizations in Washington, D.C. Eventually, I hit a wall and just wanted to do something different. I saw the advertisement for the Department of Library and Information Science at Catholic University on the train and something just told me to check it out. Looking back on it now, I think access to information is just so big for me. It is probably one of the biggest civil rights issues of our time and I just wanted to be a part of that in some way. Keeping people informed and allowing everyone an equal opportunity to understand more about the world around them is key.
RW: How did you get your gig at the NAACP-LDF?
AW: Fate? I’m not really sure. I know many people can relate but it’s not easy getting a job in this field especially as a new graduate. Whether it’s the unrealistic expectations/job descriptions or the (sometimes) low pay, it’s difficult to find the right opportunity. I knew that I wanted to move to NYC so that narrowed things down, from there it was a mixture of luck and perseverance. I applied for A LOT of jobs; my heart wasn’t set on just archivist. I was on every job board, every website, contacting friends of friends… I never thought it was going to happen, especially not an opportunity like the one at LDF. I’m eternally grateful to my boss and LDF leadership for taking a chance on me and I can’t imagine working anywhere else or doing anything else with my skills and expertise.
RW: Please tell us about your work at NAACP-LDF.
AW: The way that I have come to describe our work is that we add historical context to the ongoing conversation about race and its relationship to justice, politics and society. We are tasked with preserving the 80-year history of the country’s most prestigious legal organization fighting for racial justice. From Brown vs. Board of Education to representing Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, to the current moment we’re facing as a country… it is a daunting task. We are a team of three serving an organization of almost 200 people. We answer reference questions, maintain collections of physical and digital legal and social science research resources, manage records retention and physical box storage as well as work strategically to ensure that each and every legal, policy, educational and community organizing effort is informed by the organization’s rich history. We are a unique archive but we are tackling some of the same problems as others including document management, data governance, training staff and getting buy-in on archival best practices/priorities and of course dealing with budgets and constantly presenting the value proposition for how archives fits within the organization’s mission and vision.
Right now, we’re in the midst of what we’re referring to as an “archives modernization”. With incredible support from LDF leadership and from generous donors, we’ve undergone an evaluation of our current archival structure, policies and procedures which has given us a roadmap going forward on where to invest our time and funding. We plan to update our workflows and processes, strengthen our technological infrastructure, procure new software for e-discovery and box management as well as identifying high priority physical and digital processing projects and work towards sharing our collections publicly through an online research portal containing information about LDF’s 6,000+ cases from 1940-present day. As a law firm, we have yet to open our collections up to the general public due to concerns over privileged and sensitive legal information.
RW: Please describe the collections or one of your favorite collections.
AW: The core of our collection is pleadings, research, and correspondence related to thousands of cases LDF has litigated. Our holdings also include photographs, videos, policy files, publications, fundraising materials, administrative records, and documentation of LDF’s sustained efforts in community organizing and social science research. We have over 250 boxes of physical material at the Library of Congress and over 10,000 boxes in storage between our New York and DC locations in addition to an ever-increasing amount of digital records.
RW: What are some challenges unique to the collections?
AW: One of the biggest challenges is the fact that we cannot share the information publicly with any level of ease. The majority of our collections is case material and cannot be released publicly without thorough review for privileged and sensitive information. Another challenge is just our relative youth as an archival institution. The archives at LDF was created in 2014/2015 and the majority of our collections have not been processed or digitized. It makes it difficult to fully gain an appreciation or understanding of LDF’s work and impact over the past 80 years. We are steadfast in our mission to work through the backlog of physical material and we’ve highlighted important cases and collections that we will be processing for the next three years. Because we are essentially a non-profit law firm and our retention and document management hasn’t been as strong as it is now, there is a lot of LDF material outside of the archives at other universities, repositories and still hiding in people’s basements! In the past, members of our litigation staff have been transitory, and they’ve taken their papers with them. A long-term goal for us is to track down these collections, take note of where they are and make efforts to accession them into our collections if the current steward cannot or no longer wishes to preserve them.
RW: What’s your favorite part of the job?
AW: My favorite part of the job is just knowing the importance of my work to the organization’s larger mission and the way in which we are all working together at LDF to meet this moment in time that is so important for civil rights and racial justice.
RW: What advice to you have for aspiring archivists?
- Believe in yourself! Shake the imposters syndrome as best you can.
- Advocate for what you need to do your job well.
- Join a board or professional network to continue to make connections and see different aspects of our field.
- Do whatever it takes to get the job done. Specialization is nice and important in some ways but to me there’s no difference between an archivist, a digital archivist, a librarian or a records manager… everyone on our team is doing all of that because that’s what the job calls for.
- Be visible in your organization. As a department, don’t hide in the archives, get out there and offer your services wherever there is opportunity for collaborative work. Share your successes. As an individual, just try to be seen. I always try to find some way to be helpful to leadership so they know they can depend on me. I also try to be vocal during meetings so that people know I’m there.
RW: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
It is our organization’s 80th Anniversary, keep your eyes out for the launch of our timeline covering 80 years of groundbreaking legal milestones in the fight for civil rights. It was a heavy lift for our department digging up archival information on over 100 cases as well as biographies on important figures and finding ways to relate the historic moments to the work we’re doing today. It’s something we’re proud of and it is coming soon! Check this link for more information: https://80th.naacpldf.org/
Also, I want to put in another plug for the Archives Roundtable of New York. It is an awesome organization; membership is super affordable, and we do our best to make sure we’re contributing to the archivist community in a real way. We’ve just launched a mentorship program and a skill-share and we have office hours every other Tuesday where members can call in and talk about whatever is going on professionally. We also have an open call for submissions to our quarterly publication the Metropolitan Archivist and a call for proposals for a virtual symposium that we’re holding as part of our Archives Week event this fall. More information can be found at www.nycarchivists.org.
While the LDF collections are closed, the archives does accept external inquires on a case by case basis. You can email your request to this address: firstname.lastname@example.org.