Archival Innovators: Bridgett Kathryn Pride, the Reference Librarian of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division and Art and Artifacts Division within the New York Public Library.

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.

Bridgett Kathryn Pride, the Reference Librarian of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division and Art and Artifacts Division within the New York Public Library.

In this installation of Archival Innovators, SAA Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) member Rachael Woody interviews Bridgett Kathryn Pride, Reference Librarian of the Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division and the Art and Artifacts Division of the Schomburg Center for Research inBlack Culture, one of four research libraries within the New York Public Library system.

Bridgett is a part of the inaugural class of fellows Rare Book School for Cultural Heritage, focusing on Black collections and zine making. Bridgett received her MLIS, and a MA in History from Simmons University in 2018. She was a part of the Diversity, Equity, Race, Accessibility, and Identity in LIS (DERAIL) forum, and served as the 2018 project manager. Bridgett was awarded the 2018 Kenneth Shaffer Outstanding Student Award for student leadership. She studies American women and their intersectional identities with gender, race, and class in the 19th and 20th centuries.

RW: How did you get into archives, or why archives?

BKP: Actually Rachael, you inspired me quite a bit. I am not sure that I would have taken the path into library science, and then archives without your suggestion when I was in undergrad. Once you recommend I look into the field, everything just sort of fell into place. While I was earning my BA in Literature I was working in the university library and bookstore and loved it. I remember being really interested in learning about book preservation, especially from an “arts and crafts” perspective. I was romanced by the idea that rare books, and historical documents needed specific kinds of care to last in perpetuity, and had to know more.

After finishing my Literature degree I took some time off, then went back to school to earn a BA in History, my other love. Once I finished there, I went straight into library school for a double masters in LIS/Archives, and History. I was thankful to find a program at Simmons University that provided a pathway to complete both degrees together. It was in studying history that I realized people sharing my identity were hard to come by. I had to work extra hard to learn about queer Black women, and decided that the only way to make sure this problem is addressed is by doing the work myself. I began focusing my historical study in grad school on Black women artists and activists.

RW: How did you get your gig at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture?

BKP: The same way as anyone else! I applied when I found the job posting. I knew that this was my dream job! I get to help researchers navigate collections created by Black folks, and I get to work with art and other historical artifacts. I remember being brought to tears during the end of my interview when Tammi Lawson, the curator of the Art and Artifacts Division said her favorite part of working at the Schomburg was that you get to celebrate being Black every day. In our field, that is dominated by white supremacy, hearing that was like being given breath after being on the brink of drowning. 

RW: Please describe the work you do there.

BKP: As the reference librarian, I meet with researchers to discuss their projects, teach instruction sessions for visiting groups and classes, build research guides on specific topics, and manage the public services workflow for my divisions; including scheduling research appointments and monitoring the reading room.

RW: Please describe the collections or one of your favorite collections.

BKP: Our collections are created by and about people of African descent. The collection was first imagined by Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a Puerto Rican born Black man who was told by one of his teachers that Black people did not have their own history, and did not create anything worthy of study. He then spent his life collecting “Vindicating Evidences” of the intelligence, creativity, and genius of Black people around the globe. 

I have SO MANY favorite collections, from the Black Panther Party Harlem Branch Files, to the Storme Delarverie Papers, to two short letters written by Nella Larsen discussing the “small get together”  she would throw before the Cullen-DuBois wedding (that ultimately none of her guests would attend). One thing that I love about our collections is how much they feed into one another. For example, we have both Lorraine Hansberry and Langston Hughes’ papers. Each collection includes a folder of correspondence that was written to the other. You can almost read them side-by-side to see their beautiful friendship. One of my favorite items is a play bill that Langston sent Lorraine from when he went to see A Raisin in the Sun, the title of which is from Langston’s poem “Harlem”. On the cover, he wrote that he saw the play and watched the entire audience “cry all around” him because it was so beautiful.

RW: You were selected as a Rare Books School Mellon Cultural Heritage Fellow. Can you tell us more about that, the process you went through to become a fellow, and the work you’ll be doing as a fellow?

BKP: I am a part of the inaugural class of 15 fellows who work in multicultural collections in the US. I found out about the fellowship because the curator of the Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division Is a Rare Book School instructor. She had sent out the announcement that this fellowship had just been funded and if we were interested, we should apply. Because of my interest in Black zines, and how they have been used by the community to spread information, I was eager to apply. There was an application with several essays about why I was applying and how I intend to share what I learn in our field, then a few interviews. The object of the fellowship is for us to develop skills for documenting and interpreting visual and textural materials in special collections and archives, to raise awareness within professional communities about the significance of inclusive, multicultural collections, build connection with diverse communities and public through strategic programing, outreach and advocacy, and advance our careers by establishing new pathways and skills for personal growth. Since the Corona Virus hit, all of our in person classes, conferences, and meetings have been postponed, however we have been meeting monthly for guest speakers, and to discuss articles. Rare Book School has also been hosting other open events that many of the fellows have attended. 

Bridget Kathryn Pride pictured holding a pamphlet she created, entitled Reading & Creating Zines.

RW: You recently created Exploring Black LGBTQ Studies in the Schomburg Center’s Archive, a libguide. Can you please describe your work on this project? Where did the idea to create the libguide come from? What inspired it?

BKP: One of my main jobs as a reference librarian is to teach people how to navigate the collections at the Schomburg. One popular theme I address in both instruction sessions and research consultations is how to identify collections created by queer Black folks. Because I am a part of this community, I was more than thrilled to build a guide to help researchers access these collections. The year I started at the Schomburg Center, NYPL was celebrating Stone Wall 50, the 50th anniversary of the StoneWall Riots. They had received some grant money to process collections by and about queer folks, and made a big push to provide access to LGBT+ collection materials. However, I found that it was hard to locate Black people in these collections. Furthermore, it was really hard to locate Black women. My goal then became to highlight the collections at the Schomburg Center to address the violence done by excluding Black voices.

RW: What barriers or challenges did/do you face?

BKP: At first I thought I was wrong! I kept thinking that there was no way that they would have forgotten to include Black people. I kept thinking, maybe I just am bad at searching. But then realized that I was not the problem, the folks making the decisions on what archival materials to collect didn’t think outside of their own identities. Then, I also discovered that while there were collections that specifically discussed LGBT+ or queer studies, there were lots of collections at the Schomburg Center that were created by queer folks that could not be located using search terms dealing with queerness. For example, you will not find James Baldwin’s papers when searching “Black Gay Authors”, only “Black Authors.” I discovered that even at the Schomburg, parts of people’s identities had been erased.

I was also disappointed to learn about the general lack of collecting that focused on all members of the LGBTQ+ community. Specifically, trans folks are not represented, asexual folks, are missing, and so many others are not represented. Over all, while previous work to document LGBTQ+ stories were focused largely on cis gay White men, the Schomburg also appears to have a bias for cis gay Black men.

RW: What worked? What didn’t work? Were there any surprises in the process of developing your work, or lessons learned that you can share with us?

BKP: I struggled with how to explain the issue that some well known queer folks would not be findable using the guide. (See James Bladwin example). After many revisions, I settled on just being explicit about what the “Queer Studies” subject heading meant, rather than explaining what it excluded. The other part I was surprised by was that non-Schomburg NYPL folks had lots of thoughts and feeling about using the word “queer”, which I heavily identify with. At the end of the day, I ended up changing the guide title, removing the word “queer” in most instances, and focusing on the fact that no mater if the word is queer, or LGBT+, this guide focusing on Black queer folks was now Out in the world.

RW: Where would you like to see the work continue?

BKP: I would like to see a review of our subject headings used on collections that have not been identified as “Queer studies”. Labeling someone as a “Gay Black Author” is important and valuable for a lot of our researchers.

RW: What tips do you have for budding innovators?

BKP: Find what you are passionate about and go from there! Our field is in a transition period. We need to be thinking outside of the box to share our collections in creative ways so that people can continue to see their value. Right now I am doing that with research guides and zines. I am sure there are many other ways to engage with users based on other interests.

A group of children from Beginning with Children Charter School in New York City pose at the Schomburg Center. These children worked with Bridgett to create a zine discussing the book One Crazy Summer and what they learned about the Black Panther Party during Bridgett’s class.

These are sample zine pages from a two volume series created by the students from Beginning with Children Charter School. You can view, download, and print zine volumes 1 & 2 here and here. These are designed to be printed double-sided, flip along the short edge.

RW: In your own words, how would you describe the importance of archival records?

BKP: Archives show us the important journeys of people living their lives. Through archives we see a snapshot of time and place in the materials that were kept. It is a unique experience for every person based upon what they valued. Archival records are as diverse as the people in the world. It is our job to make sure that we are allowing these stories to be available for future generations, and that this diversity is captured.

RW: What is your favorite part of the job?

BKP: I love teaching! I recently started leading zine workshops at the Schomburg to connect young users with the concept of the archive. It brings my heart so much joy to see the faces of Black and Brown learners see themselves reflected in history, not as enslaved people, but as innovators, creators, and activists. That is priceless!

RW: What’s next for you?

BKP: Lots of things! I am about to publish a new research guide on the history of Black protest as it is documented at the Schomburg. [The guide was published on September 21, 2020–after this interview–and is linked here.] I am working with my team on reopening plans, and learning the best ways to teach instruction sessions online. I am working on a few blog posts for NYPL, so I can start completing my own research again, and I am hoping to collaborate with my colleagues on a few other new projects. The wish list of projects and programs is never ending. I need more hours in the week to do everything I am interested in.

RW: How can people connect with you to learn more about your work?

BKP: Folks can find me on Linkedin, Instagram, and Twitter!

Do you know an Archival Innovator who should be featured on ArchivesAWARE?  Send us your suggestions at!

Archival Innovators: Miyamoto Loretta Jensen, “The Polynesian Genealogist,” and Pacific Islands Records and Oral Genealogies Analyst of FamilySearch.

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.

In this installation of Archival Innovators, SAA Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) member Rachael Woody of Rachael Cristine Consulting LLC interviews Miyamoto Loretta Jensen, “The Polynesian Genealogist,” and Pacific Inslands Records and Oral Genealogies Analyst of FamilySearch. Jensen is a professional genealogist specializing in Polynesian and Oceania genealogy. She works as a Pacific Islands Records and Oral Genealogies Analyst at FamilySearch. Her ancestry includes Samoan, Tongan, Hawaiian, Japanese, German, French, and English.

Miyamoto Loretta Jensen, also known as “The Polynesian Genealogist”.

RW: Please describe the work you do as the Polynesian Genealogist.

MLJ: My work as the Polynesian Genealogist consists of connecting individuals and families to their Oceania ancestors. My social media platform is used to share Oceania history, culture, and research methodology. I do this work because I enjoy teaching and assisting people in finding their ancestors. Along with social media, I do contract research work for clients.

RW: Where did the idea to be involved in Polynesian genealogy come from? What inspired it?

MLJ: I knew that I wanted to get involved with Polynesian genealogy when I tried to research my own family. With my rich Polynesian heritage, there was a lot of frustration and confusion as I tried to find my ancestors. I had no professional Polynesian genealogist in the field to turn to for help. Realizing this, I knew that this was my opportunity to really make a difference for my people. I am inspired everyday as I receive DMs from people all over the world saying that what I do has given them hope in their genealogy journeys. My son is also a major part of my inspiration because I want him to have a strong sense of his identity. What better way to achieve this than by knowing his family history?

RW: How does your work with oceanic records differ (or not?) from records found in the US, Western Europe, etc.? What are some challenges unique to the collections?

MLJ: The two most notable differences between Eurocentric and Oceania research are the cultural approaches to genealogy and the historical method of record keeping. Genealogies served as functions in Oceania societies. One’s ancestry determined the following:

  • Territorial organization
  • Land ownership
  • Inheritance
  • Marriage regulation
  • Social control
  • Political representation
  • Feud support
  • Ritual Observance

This is why genealogies were, and still are, viewed as sacred. They are heavily guarded and protected from anyone who may want to take advantage of ancestral lines for personal gain.

In Eurocentric cultures, facts and stories were mainly kept on paper. Oceania practiced and preserved their culture, heritage, and histories through the spoken word. Because of this, oral genealogies were passed down generation after generation until the arrival of foreigners to their homelands. This is when paper was introduced. Overtime, paper replaced oral traditions because of colonization. Now, oral genealogies are either completely lost or are generally not practiced as much in Oceania today.

RW: How does your work with Polynesian genealogy intersect with your work on ancestral trauma?

MLJ: My work has everything to do with ancestral trauma. Oceanians today are living and experiencing the effects of generational trauma. The very introduction of foreigners to Oceania brought forth diseases which destroyed much of the indigenous populations across the Pacific. Some peoples were completely eradicated because of it. Other cultures were forced to end their cultural practices; some were kidnapped and put into slavery in a foreign land; kingdoms were illegally overthrown; and now, the descendants of the trauma survivors are living with and feeling the heartache and pain experienced by their ancestors. This trauma, if left unchecked and unhealed, is passed down generation after generation. Family history is the means of identifying, addressing, and healing ours and our ancestors’ trauma.

RW: Can you tell us more about your work with ancestral trauma as a genealogist?

MLJ: I come across all kinds of families in my research. Some have many children, others don’t. Some have famous family members; others have common folk. No matter the background, I find traumatic experiences in every family. For me, it can be emotionally taxing to see and constantly be exposed to the horrific experiences of an ancestor – be it my own ancestors or another’s. Practicing my own self-care gives me strength to bare and endure my own emotional response to ancestral trauma. Ultimately, I feel like this work has transformed me into a better wife, mother, sister, daughter, and friend.

RW: What barriers or challenges did/do you face?

MLJ: I think my biggest challenge is being a pioneer in this work. I only know of one other professional genealogist that is specialized in Hawaiian genealogy. I am working towards being a genealogy professional in every Oceania culture. I often feel lonely in my pursuits, but I know that I am never truly alone. I have so many people – both living and dead – coaching, cheering, and encouraging me on!

RW: What worked? What didn’t work? Were there any surprises in the process of developing your work, or lessons learned that you can share with us?

MLJ: What has brought me great success in this work is my understanding of Oceania culture. For example, I recently learned how my Oceania ancestors reckoned with time and space. Out here in the West, we believe that the future is in front and the past is behind. This was the opposite for my ancestors – the past is in front of us and the future is behind. Because the past has already happened, we can see it clearly and therefore, it must be in front of us. This is the past. If we cannot see something, then it must be behind us. This is the future. As we navigate through our lives, our ancestors are in front of us to prepare us for what we cannot see – the future. In the present, we are the embodiment of all of our ancestors in a living, breathing body. My ancestors had their hearts turned to their ancestors since the day the were born. This mentality changed the way I viewed myself and my own family. It also allowed me the ability to see how my ancestors saw the circle of life. I now know they are there guiding me every single day and it is my job to study their histories and to learn their lessons in preparation for my future life.

RW: In your own words, how would you describe the importance of archival records?

MLJ: Archival records either oral or written are shreds of evidence that we existed. It is our job to leave bits and pieces of us behind so that our posterity can hear us as we guide them through our pasts to prepare them for their futures.

Miya as an intern at the Hawaii State Archives. Summer 2017.

RW: What is your favorite part of the job?

MLJ: I love the “high” I get when I find records, stories, facts, and when I break through brick walls. It is extremely satisfying. I could chase this gratification all day and all night!

More than my personal gain, I love being able to connect the dots in family trees for those who could not do it for themselves. I feel honored and privileged to be given the trust and responsibility find families.

RW: What tips do you have for budding innovators?

MLJ: I would say to any budding innovators, find your niche and RUN WITH IT! It doesn’t matter if there are others who have done what you want to do or if there is no one (like me) who has done what you want to do. Just do it! You can do it! If you are willing to pay the price, YOU CAN DO IT.

I am 1000% dedicated to this work. I eat, think, breathe, sleep, dream, walk the walk, and talk the talk when it comes to Polynesian and Oceania genealogy. It is all I do and want to do. I am constantly reading and researching credible sources, consistently networking with other professionals, pursuing more and more education, writing articles, teaching classes once a week on my Instagram Lives on various Polynesian genealogy topics, investing in myself by attending classes, conferences, workshops, etc. You name it! I am putting in the work to learn more and do better 24/7.

RW: What’s next for you?

MLJ: My next thing step is to become a certified genealogist. That’s in the works. I am almost ready to submit my portfolio for review!

In the next two years, I plan on attending law school. I did not expect to be doing this at all, but after many promptings, I feel that this is the next best thing to do.

I want to also learn more about genetic genealogy. I recently binge watched Cece Moore’s show “The Genetic Detective” and it has inspired me to want to do what she does! I want to gain experience in unknown parentage and genetic genealogy research like Cece, but for all Oceanian people. And the terrible stories of many murdered and missing indigenous women in the United States has strengthened my resolve to not just learn, but become a master at genetic genealogy. I want to help those women and their families.

RW: How can people connect with you to learn more about your work?

MLJ: Y’all can find me at the following places:

When Miya isn’t researching, she is wishing she could be back home in Hawaii surfing the waves with her family!

Do you know an Archival Innovator who should be featured on ArchivesAWARE?  Send us your suggestions at!

Archival Innovators: Dr. Meral Ekincioglu

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.

1. Dr Meral Ekincioglu

Dr Meral Ekincioglu (courtesy of Dr Meral Ekincioglu).

In this installation of Archival Innovators, SAA Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) member Rachel Seale interviews Dr. Meral Ekincioglu on her research project and its findings in regards to diversity and underrepresented architecture communities in archives at pioneering schools of architecture in the United States.

Please describe your innovative project.

As a scholar with Ph.D. degree in postwar architecture history and a member of Society of American Archivists (2019-2020), my current research project aims to investigate diversity and inclusion in current historical documentation practice at archives and collections established by pioneering schools of architecture in the country. As participants of my research project (archivists, curators and librarians in architecture) have indicated in their written responses, they don’t know such research study information so far. With the rising tension on  women, politics of gender and other identity-based issues happening in schools of architecture in recent times, such as “Convergence” organized by Harvard University-Graduate School of Design-Women in Design Group where I was one of the panelists,1 my purpose with this research project is to stimulate a critical awareness of current strategies, policies and methods of historical documentation practice in architecture education with an emphasis on diversity and inclusion, and to establish a dialogue between the field of archive and architecture to make progress together on this subject.

With this research problem and concern, I contacted leading schools of architecture whose graduate programs were ranked the top ten (2018-2019) according to survey conducted by Design Intelligence 2 and published by Architectural Record. 3 In particular, my focal point has been “schools of architecture” because education is the core of all other dimensions of architecture, such as academic career, teaching, the construction of (critical) architecture history-historiography, professional (design) practice, etc. Architecture record archivist at the Yale University-School of Architecture; special collection archivist at the Harvard University-Graduate School of Design; librarian at the Princeton University- School of Architecture; 4 curator at the architecture and design collections at the MIT Museum; architecture, urban planning, and visual resources librarian at University of Michigan; art, architecture & engineering library; head of special collections at University of Rice; and library manager at the Kappe Library-SCI-Arch have kindly participated to my research project. In addition, the director at Archives & Records at the American Institute of Architects (AIA), in Washington D.C., has shared how the AIA has advocated for some research and archiving to document women in architecture and underrepresented groups of architects to increase diversity in the profession, and the AIA’s organizational records within this context.

Where did you get your idea and what inspired you?

The starting point of my scholarly and architectural concern about lack of diversity and inclusion in historical documentation of multicultural United States architecture has been my advanced academic research project on immigrant, foreign-born women architects and politics of gender that I conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for two years. Secondly, following sentences (2016) by Professor Kenneth Frampton, architecture historian and critics at Columbia University have given a very significant impetus for my current research project: “….in trying to expand modern architectural critical history, the big issue is, what you include, and what you exclude…” 5 Thirdly, statements by Elizabeth Chu Richter (FAIA 2015 AIA President) has another motivation for me: “….There is plenty of anecdotal information that suggests there has been progress in building a more diverse and inclusive profession. Yet, the information is just that- anecdotal…..We need data, not anecdote…” 6 As the American Institute of Architecture-Diversity in the Profession of Architecture, Executive Summary (2016) also underlines, there is more work to be done to support and promote equity, diversity and inclusion in architecture, 7 and diverse and inclusive historical documentation in architecture is not an exception with this critical context.8 Finally, my architectural and personal roots come from Istanbul located in-between West and East cultures with its multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious history; and I worked as publishing coordinator and journalist in architecture. In other words, it is a natural desire for me to promote diversity in my expertise field due to my own roots, and effective communication among people, disciplines, fields and cultures has been always one of the important missions for me throughout my career in architecture.

What worked? What didn’t work? Were you surprised by the outcome or any part of your experience? 

First of all, I would like to say that most of archivists, librarians and curators with whom I have contacted for this research project responded to me in a positive and supportive way. I think that they are deeply aware of critical issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion in today’s multicultural U.S. architecture. When I had the opportunity to meet some of them at their programs, they were very open to establishing communication, to know my own scholarly research experience on immigrant women architects & politics of gender, to discuss recent critical issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion in architecture. Their supportive approach and openness in communication have been very motivating for me to continue this research.

2. Jessica Quagliaroli -Meral Ekincioglu-Yale University

Dr. Meral Ekincioglu and Jessica Quagliaroli, Architecture Record Archivist at Yale University, School of Architecture (courtesy of Dr. Meral Ekincioglu).

In terms of surprising facts and outcomes of this research experience, the systematic documenting and collecting of historical documents at the schools of architecture who have participated to my research project did not seem to have a long history, according to participants’ written responses: The end of the 1960s – 1970s seem to be a threshold to establish their architectural archive programs or collections. More surprisingly, one of the architectural archives programs at a leading school of architecture began around 2000.  If we remember, the historical background of the early architecture programs at major universities as first courses taught goes back in the country to the 1800s, and one of its characteristics is the role of immigrants from various cultures in its progress. With this historical background and characteristics, architecture education has been undergoing several challenging transformations in the early 21st century, like globalization. 9 Within this picture, the most well-known collections (including models, photographs, and architectural drawings, etc.) now in existence began to be developed since the 18th century in order to support teaching of architecture in the country as Alfred Willis points out in his essay. 10

In this respect, there seems to be a highly critical big gap in diverse and inclusive historical documentation practice at leading schools of architecture in the country, such as historical materials on pioneering profiles of foreign-born, underrepresented, minority students and professional -design- practitioners in their own history. Secondly, in spite of this critical picture, most of participants could not share a mission statement in effect to uncover, support and promote diversity in the content of archives and collections at their schools of architecture. Thirdly, although the architectural world has been using digital tools and apps extensively, and digital archives and collections enable everyone to search historical information and materials easier and faster, most of participants pointed out that their programs don’t have a digital archival project; one of them has a digitization project “underway”; one of them has “piloted” digital initiatives by scanning significant amounts of materials from their collections, etc.

Needless to say, increased access to historical materials for everyone has a remarkable potential to support and promote new findings and scholarly discussions on diversity, equity and inclusion in (multicultural US) architecture, its (critical) history and historiography. Among participants, the SCI-Arch library has a noteworthy project: Digitization SCI-Arch videotapes of public lectures which were approaching the end of their 40-year lifespan. Finally, we have been witnessing the appointments of women deans and head of departments in the US architecture in recent times, such as at MIT (J. Meejin Yoon as the head of the department of architecture, 2014-2018); Columbia (Amale Andraos as the dean of Columbia GSAPP, 2014-present); Yale (Deborah Berke as the dean of school of architecture, 2016-present); Princeton (Mónica Ponce de León as the dean of school of architecture, 2016-present); and Cornell (J. Meejin Yoon as the dean of Cornell University College of Architecture, Art and Planning, 2019-present).  They have remarkable contributions to architecture in various ways. On the other hand, in terms of my research problem, one of the crucial questions is what those successful women’s academic leaders have brought to support and promote more diverse, inclusive and equal historical documentation practice at their programs and institutions in architecture so far; and what is their near future vision for this endeavor?

What’s next? Either for this project or a new development?

For this project, I plan to contact and to ask the same research questions to the next ten archival programs and collections at schools of architecture according to the same survey; and it would be great to bring together relevant archivists and architects to discuss together how to take steps for new developments on this subject. I completely agree with a participant’s comment: “there is a certain degree of inter-disciplinarity that needs to understood.” Needless to say, development in more diverse and inclusive collective memory in architecture might have a very positive impact on from pedagogical agenda to hiring practices, more diverse and inclusive workforce and leadership profiles for economic productivity in the field, more inclusive built environment and architectural spaces for everyone in the society regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, etc. For this, I think that we (research community and practitioners in historical documentation in architecture) should collaborate with each other in a more effective way.

4. With Rafael Reif the MIT President

Dr. Ekincioglu with Professor Reif, the MIT President, after their conversation about her advanced academic research project on immigrant women architects, diversity and inclusion in –the US- architecture and historical documentation in the field (courtesy of Dr. Meral Ekincioglu).

What barriers or challenges did you face?

If I could reach out to some archivists and organizations relevant to my research topic, it would be great to comprehend this issue and to discuss what we can do together. 11 Open communication channels among various people and organizations, effective and long-term dialogue are very important to better understand the current problems, challenges and struggles for diverse, equal and inclusive architecture, and what can be done for historical documentation practice in light of these issues. In addition, according to the e-mail by Cornell University (on February 5, 2019), they did not have an archivist or a curator specifically attached to architectural and visual documents; so it was another challenge to find out their methods, strategy, policy etc. on diverse historical documentation for their own history. Finally, I could not find information if there is any recent data, survey etc. on the diversity in archivists and curators’ profile in architecture collections in the US.

How did you use archives /this project as a catalyst for getting different groups to talk to each other (cross-generational, cross-cultural, etc.)?

As a catalyst in-between archives and (critical) architecture history, in the coming months, I am very glad that my conference abstract has been accepted by “Midwest Archivists Conference (MAC) 2020 Annual Meeting” and hope to establish a productive bridge between two fields. In addition, two organizations have kindly invited me to present my project and discuss its findings with my concerns on diversity and inclusion. (Under current health issues, we have decided to re-schedule those presentations ). In addition, I have also contacted Boston Society of Architects, New England Society of Architecture Historians and the Archivist Round Table of Metropolitan New York Inc. to share my research studies on this topic. With those connections, I would like to bring into focus some questions and issues in-between two fields and professions; such as how can we raise awareness of each other’s work and research studies by considering recent critical discussions on diversity, equity and inclusion in (the US) architecture; what can we can do together (archivists and architects) to stimulate new architectural research on diversity, equity and inclusion, and for diversification of the archival records in architecture; what are long-held traditional practices, methods and policies in historical documentation of (multicultural US) architecture and how we can break down these traditions for more inclusive, diverse practice in this field; what are the changing role and responsibilities of archival programs and  their practitioners as a response to rising influence of globalization, migration and gender-based political arguments in today’s (US) architecture; what are the expectations by archivists from scholars, professors, students and practitioners in architecture for more effective collaboration to support diverse and inclusive historical documentation.

What was your institution/archives like before you started developing this project?  Does your institution have a history of supporting innovation in archives?

During my research studies at MIT, I have also created and developed a collection on pioneering Turkish women architects from the first (1930s-1960s) and second generations (1960s-present) for the Archnet that is  partnership between the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) and the Aga Khan Documentation Center, MIT Libraries. (AKDC@MIT). This collection also includes a few significant (immigrant) Turkish and Turkish-American women architects with their contributions to postwar American and Turkish architecture. Archnet is is an open access on architecture, urbanism, environmental and landscape design, visual culture, and conservation issues as related to Muslim and Muslim-majority societies, their past and present. I think that there was a big gap in their sources on leading women profiles and documentation practice from those architecture cultures and geographic locations. As one of the significant feminist cases from modern, secular and Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, women architects in modern and contemporary Turkish architecture have been a timely step to get attention to diversity in women architects (It is in-progress to upload the entire collection and its editing). In addition, following my appointment with the curator at the MIT Museum (Architecture and Design Collections) for my current research project (April 2019), I am so glad to learn that it was organized “Women of MIT Wikipedia Hackathon as a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Department of Architecture” on August 6, 2019. 12 When I began my advanced academic research project on immigrant women architects in postwar US at MIT in 2014, one of my essential concerns was the lack of historical documentation on (diverse) women architects, and today, I am happy to witness such efforts at the Institute related to the history of its architecture program, one of the oldest one in its field.

3. Dr. Meral Ekincioglu presentation at the 71st Society of Architecture Historians International Conference April 2018

Academic presentation by Dr. Meral Ekincioglu based on her archival research on  pionnering Turkish and TurkishAmerican women architects in postwar US at the 71st Society of Architectural Historians, International Conference, St. Paul, MN, 2018 (courtesy of Dr. Meral Ekincioglu).

Thank you for this opportunity to reach out to your readers in archive and relevant fields to raise an awareness of diverse and inclusive architectural memory in today’s US.

Trained as an architect, Dr. Ekincioglu is a scholar in postwar architecture history and the subjects of her current academic study are politics of gender, multiculturalism, diversity and inclusion in her expertise field. Following her Ph.D. degree in Architecture, she conducted her advanced academic research project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-History, Theory and Criticism of Architecture Program for two years.  Her scholarly endeavor brings into focus a critical insight into the politics of gender in institutional policies, academia, the profession, education, history and history-writing, and examines cross-cultural relations and transnational (design) practice in postwar architecture.

In her expertise field, she presented her research projects at the MIT-HTC Program, the International Women in Architecture Symposium at Virginia Tech., the MIT-Women’s and Gender Studies Program, the Women’s Studies Speaker Series at the CUNY-Graduate Center, Harvard University, the 71st Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) – Annual International Conference where she was awarded by a SAH fellowship. In addition, she was a panelist at “A Convergence at the Confluence of Power, Identity and Design” organized by the Women in Design Group at the Harvard University, Graduate School of Design, at “A Square and Half – The Colors, A Tribute by Ivaana Muse” at the MIT Museum, a speaker 51st NeMLA, Northeast Modern Language Association, Annual Convention at Boston University (Convention title: Shaping and Sharing Identities: Spaces, Places, Languages and Cultures), at WikiConference North America on reliability / credibility information at MIT, and “Media in Transition 5 and 6”, two international conferences organized by the MIT-Comparative Media Studies.

Her recent conference abstract, “Tracing Diversity in Historical Documentation of Architecture Education in the US” has been accepted by Midwest Archives Conference, 2020 Annual Meeting. Dr. Ekincioglu is also an author and a contributor of two international publication projects on women architects (forthcoming 2021).

Prior to MIT, she was a research fellow at the Harvard University, Aga Khan History of Art and Architecture, Ph.D. Program, and  research scholar at the Columbia University, Graduate School of Planning and Preservation, Ph.D. Program for her Ph.D. dissertation research. She created and developed the collection, “Women in Modern and Contemporary Territories of Turkish Architecture” at MIT to contribute to documentation of diverse women architects profiles, conducted short documentary film projects on immigrant and underrepresented figures in architecture, and has a certificate by Consortium for Graduate Studies, Gender, Culture, Women & Sexuality (GCWS) at MIT. Dr. Ekincioglu was a member of Society of American Archivists (2019-2020).

Notes and references:

  1. See,, last accessed on 1.20.2020.
  2. See for its survey,, last access on 1.18.2020; for research methodology of this survey, see,, the last accessed on 1.9.2020.
  3. See for its publication, Gilmore, D., 2018, Top Architecture Schools of 2019, Architectural Record, September 4;; the last accessed on 12.10.2019.
  4. Based on their e-mail on February 22, 2019, the Princeton University, School of Architecture was without an archivist at that time.
  5. See for Kenneth Frampton conversation at the Harvard University, GSD, ChinaGSD Distinguished Lecture: Professor Kenneth Frampton, “Chinese Architecture”,, (1:01:06), 10.29.2019.
  6. See for its reference, Diversity in the Profession of Architecture Executive Summary 2016, the American Institute of Architects,, p. 2, accessed on 10.15.2019.
  7. See, Equity, Diversity, And Inclusion Commission Executive Summary January 25, 2017,, accessed on 10.15.2019.
  8. At that point, I would like to underline a recent data project related to architecture history: The Society of Architectural Historians has just launched the SAH Data Project to collect information on the status of architectural history in higher education in the US. As it is indicated on their official link, their surveys aim to determine where and in what ways the field of architectural history is expanding, receding, holding steady, and to consider the structural or cultural factors behind such trends. See, “Society of Architectural Historians Launches Surveys for Study of Architectural History in Higher Education” by SAH News | Feb 21, 2020,, last accessed on 3.15.2020.
  9. For a well-detailed and in-depth discussion on the history of architecture education in the US, see Ockman, J. (ed.), Williams, R. (research editor), 2012, Architecture School: Three Centuries of Educating Architects in North America, published on the Centennial Anniversary of the Association of Collegiate School of Architecture, 1912-2012, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
  10. See, Willis, A., 1996, “The Place of Archives in the Universe of Architectural Documentation”, The American Archivist, Vol. 59, No. 2, Spring, pp. 192-196; its link:, last accessed on 1.20.2020.
  11. Such as the current curator of Drawings and Archives at Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library at Columbia University, the New England Archivists (NEA) and AIA New York’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
  12. See cwJeSc0_AkiJYKzswYsZUw#.XgvjvUdKiM,;, (In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Department of Architecture), last accessed on 1.15.2020.

Do you know an Archival Innovator who should be featured on ArchivesAWARE?  Send us your suggestions at!

Archival Innovators: Helen Selsdon, Archivist, American Foundation for the Blind

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.

Helen Selsdon. Photo courtesy of the American Foundation for the Blind.

In this installation of Archival Innovators, we bring you an interview with Helen Selsdon, Archivist at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), highlighting her work coordinating a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded project to digitize the AFB’s Helen Keller Archive and make the digital collection fully accessible to blind, deaf, hearing impaired, deafblind, sighted, and hearing audiences alike.  This groundbreaking project serves as a model for providing truly inclusive access to digitized collections.

AA: Where did you get your idea and what inspired you?

HS: The American Foundation for the Blind’s Helen Keller Archive is the world’s largest repository of materials relating to Keller’s life and work as a deafblind author and activist who dedicated much of her life to advocating for people with disabilities.  Keller served as an early leader of AFB, beginning in 1924 and continuing to work for the organization for over 40 years, and she has been the main inspiration for our project to digitize the Archive and make it fully accessible online to blind, deaf, hearing impaired, deafblind, sighted and hearing audiences alike.  The project has enabled us to bring Keller’s archive to the very audiences whom she tirelessly served throughout her life. Please visit:!

As for the original idea for the project itself, I certainly cannot claim credit for that!  The idea was a truly collaborative one developed throughout AFB over the course of several years, and is indeed a natural outgrowth of our mission to promote accessibility, equality, and opportunity for people who are blind or visually impaired.  As the project coordinator, I am simply grateful to be a part of this project and to help make Keller’s extraordinary archive universally accessible online.

AA: What kind of institutional, administrative, or financial support did you have for the project? How did you go about securing that support?

HS: First and foremost, this project would not have been possible without the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which has provided principal funding for the project through a series of four grant awards. In March 2015, AFB received a Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant for Phase I of the project; two additional, smaller grants were awarded for Phase One of the project which ended in December 2017. In March 2018, an additional Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant was awarded for Phase II of the project which is projected to end in October 2020. Success is contagious! As the result of securing the NEH funds, other private funders, most notably American Express, have also joined this project to support it financially.

As I mentioned previously, AFB is also completely behind the project and has provided substantial institutional support and resources to see it through.  AFB’s administration understands how highly unusual it is for such an organization to have the opportunity to steward such an invaluable and historically significant collection as the Helen Keller Archive, and they see firsthand how Helen Keller continues to serve as a powerfully inspirational figure for the rising generation of disability advocates.  They are committed to ensuring global online access to the collection for the many audiences – from scholarly researchers to children – who contact us every day wanting to learn more about Helen Keller.

AA: What barriers or challenges did you face?

HS: The technical customization required to ensure full accessibility to the digital collection for the blind, deaf, hearing impaired and deafblind was, and continues to be, a challenge.  A great deal of the NEH funding has gone towards the development of customization tools that can take a standard finding aid hierarchy, which provides the structure for the digital collection, and configure the underlying code in such a way that enables access for people using assistive technologies.  Fortunately, we were able to engage a wonderful group of programmers from Veridian, a management software design company, to develop those tools for us.  It was definitely a learning process, even for the coding experts!  But it is my hope that more experts like Veridian learn how to enable access to digital collections for assistive technologies, this in turn will result in accessibility becoming a standard component of archival digitization projects.

Another challenge concerned optical character recognition (OCR) of digitized handwritten documents in the Helen Keller Archive. While standard OCR software can make written documents text-searchable, this utility is largely restricted to type-written documents.  The standard tools are much less effective when it comes to handwritten documents.  This challenge required us to come up with a solution, which we did! As the result of posting an advert requesting volunteer transcribers on we now have an amazing team of volunteers from around the country who work remotely to transcribe handwritten documents that can then be read by OCR. All these transcribers are trained by Toya Dubin, the president of Hudson Archival, the company entrusted with digitizing the collection. The first phase of this transcription work started in March of 2018, and the first public launch of the project was in June 2018.

AA: Do you have collaborators? If so, how did you find them?

HS: It’s no exaggeration to say that the entire project is one immense collaboration.  At the last count, we had 22 people from all different walks of life and expertise working on this project.

Choose your collaborators well! It’s a key step in making sure your project goes smoothly and is a success.  I reached out to the archival community using listservs to find recommendations for a digitization vendor, and I came upon Hudson Archival. I now consider Toya Dubin at Hudson Archival as my “partner-in-crime” on the project. She and her team are as invested in the work as we are. And of course, we work very closely with our software team Veridian, and our army of transcribers. I can’t stress enough how collaboration has been the be-all and end-all of this project!

AA: Have you received media attention for your project? If so, how did you make that happen?

HS: Fortunately, yes!  To promote the project, AFB’s public relations manager contacted Felicia Morton at Morton PR, who helped attract the interest of several media outlets, and we’ve received substantial media coverage of the project as a result.  One of my favorite moments from this entire project was when media outlets showed up at a celebration event we held for visually impaired fifth graders at the New York Institute for Special Education whom we had previously taught to navigate the Helen Keller Archive site using assistive technologies.

AA: Is there anything about the project you would do differently?

HS: To be honest, in the big picture, the entire project has gone exceedingly well, and overall I’m happy to say that I would run the project in much the same way again – with one major exception – metadata! If there’s something important we learned it’s that metadata takes a very long time to create – and certainly far longer than we anticipated. My advice to others is to schedule more time for this aspect of your digitization project and increase your budget accordingly.

AA: Do you have any tips for budding archival innovators?

HS: My first piece of advice, for those who are seeking external funding for their projects through an agency like the NEH, would be to never give up on pursuing grant awards!  I know how difficult it is; we went through ten years of unsuccessful proposals to the NEH before finally receiving our first grant for the project.  I’m convinced that we never would have secured funding if it wasn’t for NEH Program Officer Joel Wurl, who graciously and patiently worked with us to continually improve our proposal and encouraged us to keep applying.  Once we finally received funding, Joel continued to work with us every step of the way, and thanks to his help we were able to secure additional grants to help sustain the project.  None of this would have happened without Joel’s help.

My second piece of advice involves the technical process. Customization of the digital site was an important and complicated task. AFB does not have the staff nor time to undertake this aspect of the project on its own. AFB’s amazing technical team worked hand-in-glove with Veridian to get the job done. Securing the assistance of an outside software company proved essential and I advise others with limited staff and resources to do the same. Everybody wins!

Some other tips I would offer based on my experience are:

  • Don’t panic – know that you’ll need to take things one step at a time and problem-solve as you go. Everything takes a lot of time, usually longer than you think it will.
  • Be inclusive; bring in people who do not think like you.
  • Do a lot of usability testing with diverse user groups who bring different ways of thinking. We’ve had a wonderful group of users– people who are sighted, blind, low vision, deafblind, and who have paraplegia – from various backgrounds, including  scholars and academics, testing and providing feedback on our site throughout the project, and their input has been invaluable.
  • Never, never be afraid to ask for help. If you don’t ask for help, you’ll never get your project off the ground!

Helen Selsdon has served as the archivist for the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) since 2002. She manages the Helen Keller Archive, the Talking Book Archive, the AFB Archive, and the M. C. Migel Rare Book collection. She serves as a grant writer and spokesperson for AFB’s historical collections.

Most recently she was the project director for a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded initiative to digitize and make accessible a large portion of the Helen Keller Archive. Selsdon coordinated the work, including AFB’s efforts to pioneer an online digital archive that can be a model of accessibility for other repositories: the Helen Keller Archive. On the heels of completing this project in December 2017, AFB was awarded a second grant to digitize the press clippings and scrapbooks in Helen Keller’s Archive.

Prior to her work at AFB, Selsdon worked as an archival consultant and created archival collections for organizations as diverse as Pfizer pharmaceutical company, the Chapin School for Girls, and a private family collection in Manhattan. Selsdon first became interested in archival work in 1988 when she worked as an assistant to the archivist at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in London, England.

Selsdon holds a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts, Painting, from Camberwell School of Art, London, U.K., and a master’s degree in Medieval History and certificate in Archival Management from New York University.

Do you know an Archival Innovator who should be featured on ArchivesAWARE?  Send us your suggestions at!

Archival Innovators: Valerie A. Metzler, Independent Archivist/Historian

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.

Valerie Metzler

In this installation of Archival Innovators, SAA Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) member Sami Norling interviews Valerie A. Metzler, independent Archivist/Historian. On hearing from Valerie that she believes herself to be the first full-time private practice archivist in the U.S., we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn more about her career, and to feature Valerie as an Archival Innovator!

SN: Valerie, could you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your path into the archives profession?

VM: I was halfway through college as a psychology major when I realized that, while the subject was interesting, I thought I might not like it as a career. I looked at what courses I liked best—English and History—and chose the latter and thought I might work in a museum. This was 1974 and I barely knew the word “archives.” But, when an internship at the State Archives of Pennsylvania became available my senior year, I hopped the train three days a week and worked there as a 3-credit course. I loved it!

My first job in the field was as an archives technician at the U. S. Army Military History Institute (MHI, now USAHEC, the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center). In this role, I worked with personal papers and oral history interviews of members of the Army and their families from Revolutionary War to the present. Because MHI was a public repository, I helped researchers from around the world. During this time, I maintained memberships in the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC) and SAA. After taking courses in paper and photo conservation, I then became the in-house conservator at MHI.

After seven years at MHI I sought to expand my expertise and went to MARAC and SAA conferences to make connections for jobs. The position I ended up in certainly fit the bill in providing new experiences to expand my knowledge of the field—it was a brand new archives with a well equipped in-house conservation lab, and a business archives. I wanted something different—and I got it!

After starting my new job, I missed the interaction with the public more than I realized I would, and I missed working with personal papers. The good news was that by living in Chicago, I had the benefit of joining the Chicago Area Archivists and the Chicago Area Conservation Group and by doing so, networked with professionals far more than were present back home in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

SN: Was there a specific project, event, or other development in your career or the archives profession that inspired you to strike out on your own as an independent archivist? What were the steps that you took early on to establish your independent practice?

VM: It was the networking in the Chicago area that led me to start my own business. I kept hearing about families, historical societies, and businesses large and small who wanted to preserve their history. And, while there were several employed archivists who moonlighted as consultants, they could never devote the time and hands-on assistance that these projects needed and still keep their day jobs. I decided to enter into full-time private practice as a freelance archivist, not just a consultant. I did do consulting work, but the majority of my work was (and remains) the hands-on establishment of archives and training of staff to maintain the archives after I have gone.

Early on, I realized that to remain completely independent, I should never devote full time to one project, i.e. instead of being a contract archivist always chasing the next gig, I took on any jobs that came my way and staggered my days or even hours among my various clients. That has remained my operating procedure these 34 years in private practice. Neither did I limit my work to just archives. Since 1985, I have also conducted oral history interviews and edited them and have done a variety of historical research for clients, including genealogy. I also teach in lecture and workshop settings.

One significant early step in establishing myself as an independent archivist was to find a name for my business. I never liked the “Metzler Associates” model, especially when you knew it was only one person! And, I wanted a name that clearly stated what the business was rather than some contrived invention. I figured that most folks were unfamiliar with the specifics of what an archivist does, so I had better not confuse them with a cutesy name. So, I followed the “Valere Metzler, Attorney-at-Law” model and came up with Valerie Metzler, Archivist/Historian (VMAH).

SN: Having worked as an independent archivist since 1985, you must have had the opportunity to contribute to some pretty interesting projects, and worked with a variety of archival materials and collections. What have been some of your favorite projects?

VM: My favorite projects are those which include all three aspects of my work. A good example of that is when a family business asks me to establish their archives, conduct oral histories with founders, and research their family history. Without naming the 500 clients of VMAH over these years, my favorites are those which take me into subject area new to me. Also, I love to travel, so the ones that take me far afield–especially to other countries–are definitely on the top of my list.

SN: The Committee on Public Awareness was formed in 2014 to assist SAA Council and SAA members in promoting the value of archives and archivists to a variety of communities and the broader public–something that the field as a whole has struggled with for some time. As an independent archivist, have you ever struggled in communicating this value to potential clients or project partners?

VM: I would have to say that I have not struggled much in communicating the value, since I can only think of two potential clients who contacted me in 34 years who did not move on to hire me.  Sadly, to my knowledge, those two never did get an archives started.

SN: Do you have any tips, or have you developed an elevator speech to communicate the value of your skills as a professional archivist?

VM: I have not perfected an elevator speech but always give the person who asks what I do (followed by the inevitable variations of, “What??”) all of my attention and answer to the questions they pose.  Also, this point is not exactly about my skills, personally, but I always urge folks to consider public repositories over keeping historically valuable items in their own homes where they may be lost to fire or the whims of future generations.

SN: Is there anything else that you’d like archivists and archival students to know, or tips that you’d like to share about building a career as an independent archivist?

VM: Join all of the professional member associations that you can afford and attend their conferences—and volunteer for positions within those organizations.

Do you know an Archival Innovator who should be featured on ArchivesAWARE?  Send us your suggestions at!

Archival Innovators: Doug Boyd, Director of the University of Kentucky’s Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

This is second entry 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.

Doug Boyd, Ph.D.

In this post, COPA member Vince Lee brings you an interview with Doug Boyd, Ph.D., Director of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries.  Dr. Boyd is a recognized leader regarding oral history, archives, and digital technologies. He recently managed the Oral History in the Digital Age, which was funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.  Boyd currently leads the team that envisioned, designed, and is implementing the open-source Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS) system, which synchronizes text with audio and video online.  He holds a PhD in folklore and ethnomusicology from Indiana University and previously served as the manger of the Digital Program for the University of Alabama Libraries, Director of the Kentucky Oral History Commission, and Senior Archivist for the oral history and folklife collections at the Kentucky Historical Society. He authors the blog Digital Omnium: Oral History, Archives and Digital Technologies, is the co-editor of the book Oral History and Digital Humanities published by Palgrave MacMillan in 2014, and Boyd is the author of the book Crawfish Bottom: Recovering a Lost Kentucky Community published in August 2011 by the University Press of Kentucky.

VL: Please describe your innovative project.

DB: In 2008 I designed a web application called OHMS (Oral History Metadata Synchronizer) to enhance access to online oral history by connecting a text search of a transcript or an index to the corresponding moment in the audio or video.  OHMS is a 2-part system that includes the OHMS web application and the OHMS viewer.  The web application is where you do the work of synchronizing a transcript or indexing your interview.  When indexing an interview you create linkable segments that include a range of metadata fields that include the following fields: segment title, description, partial transcript, keywords, subjects, GPS coordinates, as well as hyperlinks which can be used to link the user to related web resources, or link the user to photographs.

The second part of OHMS is the OHMS Viewer.  The viewer was designed to interact with a local CMS and can be incorporated in free systems such as Omeka or WordPress just as simply as it is integrated into more complex systems such as CONTENTdm, Islandora, or Blacklight. OHMS was designed to provide an affordable option for enhancing access to online oral history and it has transformed our workflow at the Nunn Center.  Prior to launching OHMS, the Nunn Center was averaging 300-500 interviews that were being accessed each year.  Today, Nunn Center interviews are being accessed online an average of 10,000-12,000 times per month.  In 2011 the Nunn Center received a national leadership grant from IMLS to make OHMS open source and free.  In 2014, OHMS was released to the public, and at this time, there are over 500 individual and institutional OHMS accounts in over 35 different countries.

VL: Where did you get your idea and what inspired you?

DB: Prior to working at the University of Kentucky I managed the digital program at the University of Alabama.  During this time I thought a great deal about web usability and design, as well as the user experience working with digital library/archives platforms at the time, especially with regard to archived oral histories.  Prior to my experience at the University of Alabama, I was the Senior Archivist for the oral history collection at the Kentucky Historical Society and had grown frustrated with the discovery and usability challenges posed by archived oral history (and all time based media).  Most oral history interviews are not transcribed, which creates a great deal of challenges for both the archivist and the user.  The result was that the rich interviews in our oral history collections were mostly going undiscovered and ignored.  I began thinking about possibilities.  The digital program at the University of Kentucky had experimented with time-coded access to online oral history, but this required manual markup of a transcript.  OHMS grew out of my obsession with enhancing access to archived oral histories, but also to create empowering opportunities for more sustainable workflows in the archive.

VL: What worked? What didn’t work? Were you surprised by the outcome or any part of your experience?

DB: Developing OHMS was definitely an iterative process.  Keep in mind, we originally designed OHMS to work only with the Kentucky Digital Library, our primary access point at that time.  Also, initially OHMS only worked for synchronizing transcripts.  One of my favorite innovations of OHMS was when we designed the indexing feature.  Indexing really has been transformative for us, and now for so many individuals and institutions.  It provides an option for enhancing access to untextualized oral histories when transcription was not a financial or practical reality.  Last year the Nunn Center put over 900 indexed interviews online.  If we had transcribed all of those interviews, it would have cost the center over $250,000, which of course we would not be able to afford.  We would have only been able to provide online access to about 75-100 interviews that year.  One of the overarching goals for OHMS from the beginning was to create more sustainable workflows that were both effective and efficient, and that has clearly worked very well.

What did not work? The original plan was to have the OHMS Viewer be a plugin for 3-4 popular content management systems.  Once we really sat down at the table to talk about this it became abundantly clear that we would never be able to maintain and grow that approach after the grant ran out.  While this meant that the OHMS viewer was not as integrated as it could have been with a select few content management systems, it meant that there were fewer dependencies, making the OHMS Viewer portable enough to interact easily with any system.

VL: What would you do differently?

DB: Automating account setup far earlier in the development journey.  It was not until this last development cycle that we automated the account setup process.  Manual setup of each account was fine in the very beginning when there were few OHMS accounts beyond our internal use at UK.  It was such an honor to interact with so many wonderful oral history projects around the world.  However, there came a point where I was manually setting up 10-20 accounts each week.  Automating account setup had been on the development roadmap for several years, however, it kept falling down as a priority.  I would always ask questions such as “do we make OHMS bilingual, or do we make things easier on me.”  The last year or so automation became essential as so many account requests were coming in. While this does make things easier on me, it really is an important step toward sustainability.

VL: What tips do you have for budding innovators?

DB: It sounds cliché but do not be afraid to experiment.  The original version of OHMS was created and launched for $10,000 using internal funds (not a grant).  While $10,000 is an incredibly large amount of money, for a digital project, this is extremely affordable.  We found an creative programmer, drew up many designs on napkins and moved forward with development.  Also, think about sustaining your innovation early in the process.  While we did receive an IMLS National Leadership Grant, we had already created and implemented OHMS several years prior to getting the grant.  All of our development since the 2011 grant has been internally funded.  You can do magical things with a grant, what you cannot always do is sustain the work once the grant has run out.  I am pretty proud that we have designed OHMS to be sustainable whether there is a grant in play or not.

VL:  Did you get media attention? How did that happen?

DB: We have received wonderful attention.  In a way, this attention was not driven by OHMS, but by the enhanced discoverability of the oral history material being delivered via the OHMS Viewer.  Often the media is first drawn to the contents of the interviews, and then they have the “a-ha” moment where they realize how amazing the interface is.  Additionally, I have lectured a great deal about OHMS, which has raised general awareness of the tool within the oral history and archives community.  I have spoken about OHMS throughout the United States, in Australia, China, the UK, and several countries in Europe.  When I go on the radio, or when I narrate our podcast The Wisdom Project, I will give OHMS a brief mention.  I will say something to the effect “You can listen to these interviews in their entirety using our magical search system called “OHMS,” a system we developed at the Nunn Center.” While this sounds self-promotional, it is intending to raise general awareness and plant seeds.  While media attention is important, it is vitally important to raise general awareness of OHMS among the audience that OHMS is serving, so I get as excited about a mention on a student blog, or in The Signal (a blog published by the Library of Congress) than I do about articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education or a mention on NPR.

Boyd working with a colleague on an oral history interview in OHMS.

VL:  Do you have a collaborator? If so, how did you find them?

DB: Definitely.  Internally, our team at the Nunn Center and University of Kentucky Libraries have been critically important.  Eric Weig, Mary Molinaro, Kopana Terry, Danielle Gabbard, and Michael Slone have all played essential roles in making OHMS a practical reality.  When you are at an academic institution working on a project like OHMS development, the Deans of University of Kentucky Libraries (Terry Birdwhistell and Deirdre Scaggs) continue to be essential collaborators.  Jack Schmidt was the original programmer who we contracted to write the original code.  Externally, each programmer who has worked on OHMS has been an essential collaborator, especially Shawn De Cesari who worked for the company we contracted to rewrite the code during the IMLS grant.  Recently, we have worked closely with AVPreserve on the development of OHMS and this collaboration has proven incredible with regard to helping me shape the vision and development direction of OHMS.   In each case, programmers who have worked on OHMS have been so much more than just work-for-hire programmers, each one bought in to the mission and vision of OHMS and have always delivered far more creatively than they were being paid for.

The other collaborators who are critical to mention are those early adopters of OHMS who continue to give amazing feedback about development and usability priorities.  Institutions like the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies at the University of Georgia and the Brooklyn Historical Society were critical early on in the process.  These institutions took a chance on OHMS early on and gave profoundly important feedback early on.  More recently, working with organizations like Oral History in the Liberal Arts, the students and faculty at West Chester University, as well as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have been important on the development of OHMS as a pedagogical tool (more on that later) as well as shaping my work in adding the bilingual aspects of OHMS.

Finding collaborators is about recognizing the opportunities and proactively empowering those collaborators to feel part of the process, part of the team. Now, our collaborators are broadening out to other institutions, such as Indiana University, who have begun to collaborate on the development of OHMS and help take the system to the next level.  Indiana University recently contracted AVPreserve to add Avalon capability to OHMS, which has been transformational on many levels.  I am very excited about seeing what comes next with regard to collaborators on development.

VL: Did you have institutional, administrative, or financial support for your project? How did you go about securing that support?

DB: As mentioned above, I initially funded development using some Nunn Center endowment funds that had accumulated over a few years prior to me coming to the University of Kentucky.  The Deans and Associate Deans at the University of Kentucky have always been open to experimentation and they all gave me the space to move something like OHMS from the idea phase into actuality.  Having their trust was essential to securing the initial internal funding.  Externally, we did receive an IMLS National Leadership Grant in 2011.  This was a critical development as it provided the support needed to rewrite the entire code and rethink OHMS as a system that people outside of the University of Kentucky could use.

VL: What’s next?  Either for this project or a new development?

DB: I have received a Fulbright Research Grant to spend 6 months in Australia to work with the National Library of Australia.  The NLA created a system similar to OHMS.  The Fulbright grant is a way for us to collaborate in a substantive way on how we can work together to elevate both systems and explore international standards for enhancing access to online oral history. We are moving in to the next active development stage where some exciting things are happening.  Most importantly, when I return from Australia, the top priority is to establish an institutional consortium that will help guide and sustain OHMS development moving forward.

VL: What barriers or challenges did you face?

DB: Of course, the major barriers are always funding and available resources.  Again, I am proud that we have been able to sustain the work of OHMS long after the IMLS grant was complete, but major paradigm-shifting development will need more grants. Upon completion of the grant there were some aspects of OHMS hosting and minor development that fell to programmers at the University of Kentucky Libraries.  We have very talented IT staff, but OHMS hosting and development had to be absorbed and balanced with many competing (and sometimes conflicting) priorities.  We have since moved hosting and development to AVPreserve, which has been an incredible experience.  We have expedited development and OHMS is no longer a conflicting/competing priority for the UK Libraries IT staff.  This really was a great move on so many levels.

Of course, OHMS is no longer something that only serves the Nunn Center.  Since there are OHMS accounts in over 35 different countries, I need to think about OHMS accounts and users on an international scale when making even small development decisions.  Last year some of our international partners reported that the OHMS Viewer was not effectively searching characters utilizing diacritics.  As a result, we had to shift some priorities around.  While this is neither a barrier nor a challenge, it is an exciting shift in focus for me to have to think so broadly about our development roadmap.

VL: Were you able to leverage help from students, interns, or grad students for technological or experiential aspects of the project?

DB: Absolutely.  We have a full team of student indexers at the Nunn Center who have provided incredibly valuable feedback on OHMS development, as well as on the resources and tutorials that we have created on using OHMS.

VL: Are there plans for implementing this project in curricula or as a resource to faculty/students?

DB: Absolutely. First, the Nunn Center’s collections are now accessed on a massive scale.  As designed, OHMS has enhanced discovery and usability, and as a result, faculty and students are using oral histories in the classroom on a much larger scale.  However, there has been an unexpected shift in how OHMS is being used in the classroom.  Even before OHMS had been released publicly to other institutions, I started using the back-end of OHMS in the classroom.  Specifically, students were assigned indexing projects in my graduate and undergraduate classes.  After the first semester, I very quickly realized that OHMS could be utilized as a powerful pedagogical tool.  Since then, we have collaborated with several professors at the University of Kentucky, as well as at Universities around the country who are designing entire courses around using OHMS to work with oral history in the classroom in powerful and effective ways.  The Going North and Philly Immigration projects at West Chester University, the Jewish Kentucky project here at the University of Kentucky are some higher profile examples, but smaller scale classroom initiatives are popping up around the country allowing the archives to engage faculty and students in new ways. Additionally there have been several recent journal articles in the Oral History Review focusing on OHMS as a pedagogical tool, as well as the article “Connecting the Classroom and the Archive: Oral History, Pedagogy, and Goin’ North” featured in Oral History in the Digital Age.

VL: How did you use this project as a catalyst for getting different groups to talk to each other (cross-generational, cross-cultural, etc.)?

DB: OHMS has transformed access to our oral history collection at the Nunn Center.  In 2008 we had 300-500 interviews being accessed annually.  Now the number averages 10,000-12,000 each month. This level of access has perpetuated a renewed interest in oral history at my institution.  The Nunn Center is currently maintaining over 50 interviewing initiatives at any given moment, which has connected us to new communities around Kentucky, as well as working with communities and individuals on a national and an international scale.  We used to work only with projects on the state-level, however, now we have projects all over the United States, as well as in Haiti, India, Pakistan, as well as a current interviewing project in Ecuador.  This volume of oral history is, by definition, catalyzing connection.  Much of this success is due to the success of OHMS and our commitment to enhancing access to our archived oral history interviews.

VL: What was your institution like before you joined? Does your institution have a history of supporting innovation in archives?

DB: The Special Collections Research Center in the University of Kentucky Libraries has had a history of experimentation and early adoption.  One of the things that drew me to the University of Kentucky in 2008 was the fact that I knew I could work very closely with the digital program.  So I came in to a context that was supportive and curious.

VL: What was your strategy for shifting the culture of your institution to be open to your innovative projects?

DB: Honestly, I did not have to do much beyond earning the trust and confidence of leadership.  I was able to recognize a problem—major discovery and usability challenges to accessing oral history—and articulate a potential solution.  I am a big believer in creating a “proof of concept” which is what we had when we built the initial version of OHMS.  Once leadership saw OHMS in action, there was very little convincing that was needed at that point.

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.

Ball State University Drawings + Document Archive: The Movie


Today we bring you an interview with Carol Street, Archivist for Architectural Records at Ball State University, and the outreach innovator behind
Drawings + Documents Archive: The [LEGO] Movie

Question: What was your inspiration for this video?

Carol Street: As always, inspiration came from a number of places. My 9 year old granddaughter, Anna, is probably my greatest inspiration when it comes to many things, but especially LEGO. Thanks to her, I’ve amassed a not insignificant collection of LEGO bricks and figures, and even created a LEGO model of the Drawings + Documents Archive. But the actual lightbulb moment came when I saw the wonderful stop-motion LEGO movie by the Library of Social Sciences at the University of Copenhagen. The video was the brainchild of the library director Christian Lauersen, who wanted a brief video to introduce students to the resources available at his library. He wrote a fantastic blog post on the making of the video and his reasons behind it, all of which I agreed with. There was that moment after the video ended where I thought—hey! we can do that, too!


Screenshot of the Ball State University Drawings + Documents Archive video on YouTube.


Q: For the archivists out there who may be intimidated by the time, resources, and level of creativity required to produce an outreach video like this, could you give some insights into the production process for this video?

CS: There is a significant amount of time involved in making even a short video like this. As the only staff member in the archive, I would never have time to do this myself. Luckily, this year I have a very creative graduate assistant, Raluca Filimon, who embraced the project even though she had never made an animated movie before. Although it may seem daunting at first, the movie is really just a culmination of a lot of small projects. We began the process by breaking it down into those smaller projects—such as write a script, create scenes, borrow equipment, learn how to film LEGO figures, select music, record the narration—that ultimately resulted in the finished film. Because it was a fairly long process, we made sure to celebrate the major milestones along the way. Those moments of celebration built momentum for the next phase of the project.

I’ve been very fortunate to have some great graduate assistants from the College of Architecture and Planning.  They’re not only incredibly creative, but also good at project management and research. Raluca did a fantastic job bringing my ideas for the film to life. I had specific goals that needed to be reached, but allowed plenty of space for Raluca and other students to inject their own creativity. All of the graduate assistants who work in the archive added to the film in different ways. There were a lot of “what if….” moments where we would ask things like “what if the astronaut showed up at the end with the disco ball?” Sometimes those ideas were shot down, but others—like the fantastic disco finale—made the final cut. In the end, the process was very much a team effort that brought the students together.


Q: What other forms of outreach do you utilize for the Drawings + Documents Archive, now or in the past? How does the video diverge from and/or compliment those efforts?

CS: We utilize all of the typical forms of outreach, such as exhibits, instructional sessions, a newsletter, and a blog. Our audience is well-versed in design and very creative, so we try to also approach outreach in creative and interesting ways. Last fall my graduate assistants came up with a fantastic promotional campaign that is still filling up the cases outside the archives. The campaign is called “Be inspired” and shows photographs of students and faculty holding up something in the archive that inspires them. The person in the photo writes on the poster what inspires them. Right now our new architectural history professor is holding up a drawing by Piranesi and she wrote that she’s inspired by “historical context”. It’s a fresh, patron-driven way to showcase the amazing collections we have in the archive.


The Drawings + Documents Archive video features the Indiana Architecture X 3D collection.

We’ve also branched out into 3-D printed modeling of buildings and building details that are represented in the collection. The project is called Indiana Architecture X 3D and it has probably been our most effective form of outreach in terms of student reach. The models appeal to younger students who have yet to learn how to model and equally attract older students who are suitably impressed by the level of detail we can create. They all enjoy checking the 3-D printed model with the actual drawing to see if we were accurate in our modeling skills. Even faculty, who can be just as challenging as students to reach, specifically ask us to show them to visitors, potential students, and their classes. The project also allows us to now give something back to our donors who generously support the work of the archive. At the holidays we sent donors small, 3-D printed ornaments based on the collection, which were a big hit and garnered a lot of interest, good will, and even further financial support.


Q: What impact/results are you hoping to see from this video?

CS: I’m hoping that our students enjoy the film and remember the archive when it’s time to conduct research. We often throw far too much information at students during our instructional sessions because we feel it’s our one chance to tell them all about the archive and we want to tell them everything. Students couldn’t absorb all that information at once even if they wanted to. The more instructional sessions I give, the more I realize the time is best served by essentially building bridges for students to cross when they actually need us. I strive to make the archives a friendly, non-intimidating place where they can feel comfortable asking for help when their assignments or interests lead them here. And what’s friendlier and less intimidating than LEGO?

I’d also like everyone to equate archives with fun, not dust.