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.

Advocacy and Outreach at the Annual Meeting

Gearing up for the SAA Annual Meeting next week in DC? If you’re looking for opportunities to raise awareness about and advocate for archives, or to learn about innovative outreach initiatives to spark your own outreach efforts, then the annual meeting is definitely the place to be. For the second year, SAA’s Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) has put together a custom schedule to highlight the wide variety of sessions, meetings, and events that feature outreach- and advocacy-related content. View the schedule here, and be sure to add some of these offerings to your custom schedule! Some highlights include…

Carpe Media! Communications and Media Training for Archivists
This limited-enrollment, full-day workshop during ARCHIVES*RECORDS 2018 is tailored to archivists and record managers with a goal of instilling in participants the confidence to be better communicators. Workshop leader Jason Steinhauer, who is well-grounded in the unique elements of the archival profession, provides attendees with tips and tools to bolster public outreach; stimulate public interest in archives, history, and the humanities; and implement strategies to reach STEM-driven media and audiences by applying the principles of the emerging field of history communication to your own work. Though enrollment for this workshop is closed, you can look forward to hearing from SAA, COPA, and workshop attendees about the results of the workshop–including a recap post to be published on ArchivesAWARE!

Archives on the Hill Event
Archivists take on Capitol Hill in this advocacy event that begins with orientation and training in the morning and culminates in Hill visits that pair experienced advocates with those who want to learn. Speak up in support of federal funding for archives! For more information on this event, read this post by the Committee on Public Policy (COPP) Chair, Dennis Riley, on the Off the Record blog.

Information Tables
COPA will be joining other SAA appointed groups and related archival organizations at the informational tables on the Mezzanine Level of the conference hotel. Stop by the COPA table to learn about a variety of outreach-related initiatives including the ArchivesAWARE blog, #AskAnArchivst Day (OCTOBER 3, 2018), Federal Funding Impact Stories, and plans for a SAA Speakers’ Bureau, among others.

A Finding Aid to My Soul…
COPA presents “A Finding Aid To My Soul,” an open-mic storytelling session celebrating the diversity and commonality of the archivist experience. Storytellers will have five minutes to share true stories about their unique, moving, serendipitous, mysterious, special, and often humorous encounters in the archives (no props, please). Sign up in advance or during the conference for a chance to share your story, or simply sit back and enjoy the tales of your colleagues in what promises to be an engaging and entertaining event. There will even be a few special guests. A panel of judges selected from the audience will determine the top storytellers and prizes will be awarded. For more information about this new and unique annual meeting event, read last week’s ArchivesAWARE blog post by COPA Chair, Chris Burns.

Know of other outreach- and advocacy-related sessions, events, and general happenings taking place next week that didn’t make our schedule? Tell us in the comments below, or let us know which of these and other annual meeting events you are most looking forward to!

An Interview with Jason Steinhauer, Public Historian and Creator of History Communication

Public communication has perhaps never been more important for the archives profession as it is today.  That’s why we wanted to talk with Jason Steinhauer, public historian, director of the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at Villanova University, and creator of the field of history communication.  In this interview with ArchivesAWARE!, Steinhauer discusses his entry into the historical profession as a curator and archivist, his work as a public historian and the creator of history communication, and how archivists can apply the principles of history communication to their own work.  Steinhauer will also be leading the “Carpe Media! Communications and Media Training for Archivists” workshop on August 14 at ARCHIVES*RECORDS 2018.

ArchivesAWARE: Can you tell us about your background working as a museum curator and archivist?

Jason Steinhauer. Photo by Amanda Reynolds.

Steinhauer: I always enjoyed museums; as a child I created exhibits in my parents’ basement. In college, I interned at two museums and fell in love with the work. So, following graduation, I was very fortunate to land a position with the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, working as an exhibitions assistant on an exhibit about American Jewish soldiers in WWII. That exhibit went on to win the AAM Grand Prize for Excellence in Exhibitions and spring-boarded me into becoming a curator.

I also always had a passion for historical records. I inherited that from my parents, who love to sleuth around in archives and used book stores for clues about the past. After working closely with objects as a curator, I decided to get my archivists’ certificate, to learn how to work closely and properly with archival records. The training and experience in archives and museums prepared me for the next phases of my career.

ArchivesAWARE: You’ve since gone on to work as a public historian, first at the Library of Congress and now as the inaugural director of the Albert Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at Villanova University.  What motivated you to transition out of curatorial/archival work and onto the “front lines” of the history profession?

Steinhauer: As a curator and archivist, I was always a public historian; I just didn’t know it. It was after I joined the Library of Congress Veterans History Project that I learned about public history through the National Council on Public History. NCPH really resonated with me. It was a community grappling with the same questions I had been grappling with since starting my career: How do you make historical scholarship accessible to diverse public audiences? How do you include those audiences in the process of historical inquiry? And how do we use physical spaces, records, and objects to tell stories about the past? I have always been fascinated by those questions, and my work at the Library of Congress and now as the first director of the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest offered me the opportunity to wrestle with them in a variety of settings: with Members of Congress and elected officials, with diplomats, foreign governments, business communities, funders, scholars, and students. As the environments in which we operate grow more complex, the challenges become greater and the task more urgent.

ArchivesAWARE: You’re also the creator of the field of history communication.  What is history communication, and where did the idea come from?

Steinhauer: In 2014, I worked at The John W. Kluge Center inside the Library of Congress. At the time I was friendly with several “science communicators,” and became intrigued by science communication. The sciences have made huge investments in ensuring scientists are trained to communicate scientific research to various audiences through a variety of media formats, not solely for disseminating scholarship but also for the purpose of informing public debates and shaping policy. It seemed to me that the history profession could do the same. I began asking if Masters and PhD programs had made such investments in communications, and found that few had. So I proposed the creation of history communication and set out with colleagues to develop coursework that would wrestle with how history gets communicated across contemporary media spaces—Web, social, video, VR—and identify the skillset necessary to do that work effectively. Four years later we have history communication courses being offered and trainings being conducted nationwide.

ArchivesAWARE: How do you think archivists can apply the ideas behind history communication to their work?  What would you say are some of the biggest challenges facing archivists in this regard?

Steinhauer: I hazard to guess that some of the challenges are cultural and institutional. Institutions and organizations tend to be conservative in keeping up with technological change and taking risks. But history communication work involves risk-taking and innovation, and that’s where training becomes critical. Archives programs can help by preparing archivists to do this work in a systematic way, so that when new archivists are hired, they have the tools and skillset to contribute right away.

ArchivesAWARE: Breaking into history communication would likely require many archivists to develop new competencies on top of their traditional archival training.  Do you have any thoughts on how archivists could best acquire the training necessary to undertake this innovative form of public outreach?

Steinhauer: Our Intro to History Communication syllabus is a great place to start. The syllabus was developed by more than 35 people in two working groups held in 2016. It lays the foundations for communicating history in this current environment. It covers historical thinking, media literacy, different media formats, even the business aspects of history. Second, I think connecting with others, either on Twitter at #histcomm or through our LinkedIn group, would be beneficial. Third, attending workshops such as the one being sponsored at this year’s SAA annual meeting. And, finally, nothing beats learning by doing. I would love to see history communication assignments integrated into archives programs nationwide, so that archivists graduate with the skillset needed for this crucial work.

ArchivesAWARE: Is there anything else you’d like to share regarding your work as an archivist and public historian, and the role of history communication in the cultural heritage professions?

Steinhauer: Communication is an essential part of what we do as historians, archivists, and records managers. We must continue to find strategic and creative ways to communicate, adapting to new audiences and new media formats as they emerge. This has been a recurring theme at NCPH, AASLH, SHAFR, AHA and other conferences the past few years, so I think the profession is awakened to this reality. I’m excited for the future and for the role that the Lepage Center can play.

The Great Society Congress: A Collaborative Approach to Digital Exhibits and Outreach

Staff members at the Wise Library pose for photographs in front of books January 4th, 2018. Photo Brian Persinger Wyatt Jay

This post was authored by guest contributors Danielle Emerling, Assistant Curator, Congressional and Political Papers Archivist, West Virginia University Libraries, and Jay Wyatt, Director of Programs and Research, Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education.

 

Introduction

VRA

Congressional records are held in repositories around the country. Here, records from three repositories document the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 1. Petition for Cloture Motion, May, 21, 1965, “Cloture Petition” folder, Unanimous Consent to Resignations, Box 3, Secretary of the Senate, 89th Congress, Records the U.S. Senate, RG 46, National Archives. 2. Photograph of the Voting Rights Act signing, The Claude Pepper Papers, Florida State University Libraries. 3. Correspondence between the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Carl Albert, with enclosure, Carl Albert Congressional Papers, Legislative Series, Box 89, Folder 87, Carl Albert Center Congressional Archives, University of Oklahoma.

The archives that document the United States Congress reside in repositories throughout the country. How to bring them together in a meaningful and thematic way is a question congressional archivists and historians often ponder. About four years ago we started planning a project that would do just that – use materials from several archives to explore the numerous pieces of legislation that make up the “Great Society” and discover the Congress that passed them.

The digital exhibit, “The Great Society Congress,” is a collaborative project of the Association of Centers for the Study of Congress (ACSC). The ACSC is an association of organizations that promotes the study of the United States Congress. Many ACSC member organizations maintain archival collections of current and former members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The online exhibit features more than 400 items from 18 member institutions. While our energy initially was focused on creating the exhibit, the exhibit has turned into a great vehicle for new partnerships and outreach.

How We Did the Project

Exhibit

One section of the exhibit focuses on the key legislation passed by the 89th Congress.

Telling the story of Congress is difficult. It’s a large, complex institution with more than 500 members who bring different interests, points of view, and ways of working to a body that needs to make policy for the entire country. Our approach was to focus on the key legislation, the leadership and procedures that shaped this particular Congress, and some of the larger events unfolding at the time, such as the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement.

With so many different components, we chose to develop the exhibit over the course of two years, releasing pieces of it to coincide with different legislative anniversaries. This made the project more manageable for our all-volunteer exhibit task force.

We were unsure at first how many ACSC member institutions would contribute to the project because participation largely depended on what members were able to find in their collections. We were pleasantly surprised by the response, though.  By the time we completed the site build, we had incorporated over 400 primary source documents from almost 20 different ACSC member organizations.

We also received a wider variety of materials focusing on a broader array of topics than we initially anticipated, and so both the size and scope of the exhibit expanded as the project proceeded.  For example, the W.R. Poage Legislative Library at Baylor University and the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas submitted materials documenting a Food for Peace delegation trip to India led by then-Congressman Dole and Congressman W.R. “Bob” Poage.  The highlight of this submission was the discovery that silent film footage of the trip held at the Poage Legislative Library matched up with audio held at the Dole Institute, and archivists Debbie Davendonis (Poage) and Sarah D’Antonio Gard (Dole) were able to reconstruct this rare source. The submission encouraged us to consider the additional work that Congress does, and as a result we developed “The Political Environment” section of the exhibit, which eventually grew to include features on civil rights and the war in Vietnam.

We brought all of these materials together in an Omeka exhibit, hosted by the University of Delaware Library. With the assistance of the Web Services and Digital Humanities Librarian, we were able to create a special template for the site that blends contemporary design and easy navigability.

NARA Lesson Plan

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The ACSC exhibit task force partnered with the Center for Legislative Archives at NARA to create the “Congress, the Great Society in the 1960s, and today” lesson plan.

After creating the site’s content, we received some anecdotal evidence that college faculty were using the site for instruction, but we hoped that educators teaching at various levels would use the site in the classroom. We also knew educators have a tremendous workload and would likely want something ready-made and flexible to use.

So, we partnered with the Center for Legislative Archives (CLA) at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to create a lesson plan. The CLA is the part of NARA that preserves and makes available the official records of Congress, and as a longtime ACSC member, it had already contributed a great deal of expertise and documents to the exhibit. The CLA has extensive experience developing educational resources, including lesson plans, e-books, and mobile apps, for K-12 educators.   Charles Flanagan, Outreach Supervisor at the CLA, guided us through the lesson plan creation and showed us how to structure a lesson so students build on their knowledge from one day to the next.

The resulting lesson plan, “Congress, the Great Society in the 1960s, and today,” asks students in grades 9-12 to summarize President Lyndon Johnson’s vision for a “Great Society,” place the vision in historical context, and detail the ways in which Congress responded.

Our partnership with the CLA has been invaluable.  Charlie and the CLA’s educational specialists use the “Great Society” lesson plan in many of the outreach activities they conduct with teachers across the country each year, and that has helped make people more aware of the exhibit and encouraged greater interaction with the materials. It has, in many ways, helped keep the exhibit relevant, as we’ve moved on from the 50th anniversary of the Great Society.

National History Day Article

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Our article, “Congress Constructs the Great Society Through Conflict and Compromise,” appeared in the 2018 National History Day theme book.

In addition to instruction, we wanted to entice students to use the site for their research. One of the members of the exhibit team had worked with National History Day (NHD) in the past, and we contacted NHD about writing an article for the 2018 theme book. Each year, the NHD theme book consists of articles relating to the year’s theme, and it is unveiled at the national competition. They print approximately 12,000-15,000 copies, but most people access it online. The theme book usually receives approximately 300,000 page views.

Our article, “Congress Constructs the Great Society Through Conflict and Compromise,” provides an overview of the exhibit. By pulling out specific documents, photographs, and audio files available in the exhibit, we sought to highlight the numerous ways students could connect Congress’ role in passing legislation with the theme of “Conflict and Compromise.” Following the theme book’s publication in fall 2017, we saw a significant increase in traffic to the exhibit website.   Approximately 7,000 new users have tallied near 18,000 page views on the exhibit over the past eight months.  This represents more than a quarter of the 26,000 users who have visited the exhibit since its launch in April 2015. Like the lesson plan, the outreach that we’ve done to promote the exhibit via the NHD theme book has paid major dividends.

Lessons Learned and the Future of the Exhibit

Through collaboration among member institutions to build the site and partnerships to develop instruction and student research resources, “The Great Society Congress” digital exhibit successfully highlighted congressional archives for new audiences. If we did the exhibit over again, we would consider applying for a grant, particularly so we could help member institutions with costs associated with researching topics, digitizing materials, and creating metadata. Although we will not be adding content to the exhibit, we’ll continue to look for outreach opportunities (like this blog!) to help get more people interested in the exhibit.  We believe it will continue to be relevant for instructors teaching the history of the 1960s at various levels and a fantastic resource for anyone interested in learning more about the Great Society.

Escape the Room… With Archives!

Solve the puzzles and celebrate your victory! Stay locked in and seethe (you were this close)!

If you’ve ever tried your luck at an escape room, you know the thrill of working to make sense of clues that will let you unlock the door and make your escape. But the one thing that might have made your escape experience even better? Archives! What if you could bring this special thrill to your archives’ patrons,  while introducing them to your collections and resources?  How would you go about it?

Laura Weakly

Laura Weakly, Metadata and Encoding Specialist at the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, combined archives and escape rooms by organizing an event for students in Fall 2017 using clues rooted in Nebraska history. In the following interview with COPA member Caryn Radick, Digital Archivist at Rutgers University Libraries, Weakly discusses how the event was organized and offers tips for would-be room designers.

CR: Why did you decide to do an escape room?

LW: The escape room was part of a campus wide welcome event for new and returning students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for Fall semester 2017. The room was located in C. Y. Thompson Library on UNL’s East Campus. The idea was to draw students into the library and familiarize them with library resources in a fun way. The escape room was the brainchild of librarians Jennifer Thoegersen and Erica DeFrain. In 2015, Jenny and her husband Rasmus Thoegersen, who was then director of libraries in Nebraska City, had created an escape room as a children’s event at the Morton-James Public Library.

CR: Who was involved and how did it work?

LW: Besides Erica and Jenny, the project team consisted of 10 employees of the UNL Libraries who created games and set up the room. The team split into groups to create a storyline, come up with the puzzles, develop graphics, and devise the rules for gameplay. Thirteen others tested the room once it was set up to ensure that the puzzles were set up properly, explained well, and solvable. After testing, some of the games were modified to make them easier and to give more detailed instructions before the students began playing. The game consisted of three puzzles which had to be solved in the allotted 20 minute time period. The answers to the puzzles led to a code that then needed to be entered into a “Time Machine” — a skinned Raspberry Pi computer.

nebnewspapers

CR: How did you choose which stories you wanted to feature?

Newspaper column featuring cattle brands

LW: The storyline we created was a time machine that would take the players back in the history of the campus to events that did or could have occurred on the campus. Players would then need to use library resources strategically placed in the room to help them solve the puzzles and return to the present time. UNL’s East Campus is home to the International Quilt Study Center and so one puzzle focused on using print resources to solve a quilt-based riddle. Another puzzle centered on the Larsen Tractor Test Museum and photographs of historic tractors found in our Image and Multimedia Collections. The puzzle that my group created was focused on historic Nebraska newspapers digitized as part of the National Digital Newspaper Program and found on Chronicling America and Nebraska Newspapers. I remembered from when we were performing collation that one of the papers, the Valentine Democrat, featured pages and pages of cattle brands. Our puzzle then centered on a supposed  escape of cattle on East Campus, which is home to the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. We planted some “Fake News” about the escape in an edition of our campus newspaper The Daily Nebraskan. Players then had to read the story,  find the relevant brands in the Valentine Democrat, and then find the brands on tiny plastic toy cows. The toy cows had the brand on one side and a number on the other. The numbers were the answer to the puzzle.

Toy cows help solve the puzzle

CR: What was the response (how many students and what were their reactions)? Also, what was the fastest time the mystery was solved in?

LW: Ten teams of 3-6 students played the room. Six teams successfully escaped. The fastest time, recorded by the only team with just 3 players, escaped in the time of 11:33. Even the teams that didn’t escape said that is was really fun and that they enjoyed playing it.

CR:  What advice would you give to others thinking about setting up an escape room? Will you do another one?

LW: Having a good storyline and creating puzzles that go along with the story make a really great escape room. Testing and leaving enough time between groups to reset the room are also important. But mostly the room was about giving students an opportunity to go to the library just to have fun. We have already been talking about another escape room or rooms for the upcoming academic year, including possibly one in our new Learning Commons.

Sound and Vision: And We’re Live in 5…4…3…2…1

BurnsPortrait

This post was authored by COPA Chair Chris Burns, Manuscripts Curator and University Archivist at the University of Vermont.

This is the second in a series of posts about the use of video as an archival awareness tool. Feel free to contact the editors of this blog at archivesaware@archivists.org if you have a video or topic you would like to see covered, or if you would like to contribute to this series.

In 2016, we kicked off a new series designed to focus on the use of video in archival awareness and outreach efforts. The inaugural post, Sound and Vision: Using Video to Tell the Tales of Archives and Archivists, featured a handful of videos that had been produced by repositories and some general best practice tips. To be perfectly honest, there were not a lot of examples to choose from at that point in time. The use of video by archives was simply not widespread.

However, the use of video has grown significantly since then, driven in large part by livestreaming services, particularly Facebook Live. This type of video production has a lower barrier of entry, ties in easily to existing social media channels, and consequently is becoming an important outreach tool for archives and special collections. Facebook has made a concerted effort to promote and support Facebook Live, so while there are other tools for live streaming content to your audience, Facebook Live has become the major player, in no small part because of the large potential audience that already exists on Facebook.

What is Facebook Live?

Jennifer Koerber, writing in Library Journal, gives a good overview of Facebook Live and its use in libraries. At its most basic, Koerber notes, it is “video streamed over Facebook and archived there afterwards.” Facebook Live events are live videos as opposed to an edited video. They tend to be improvised, and are often filmed on devices as simple as a phone or tablet. The technical barriers for producing and distributing this type of content are quite low, but as with a more traditional edited video, quality can vary significantly. Paying attention to sound quality and lighting, as well as using a tripod and the best available camera and microphone setup can greatly improve the quality of your video and the experience for your audience. Koerber cites two helpful articles with tips for recording video on smartphones.

Facebook Live events are just that, live events, and need to be promoted to ensure you have an audience. Promotion should target your Facebook audience, but not exclusively. Promoting these events through other channels (blog, email, Instagram, etc.) not only draws people to the event, but also lets them know you have a Facebook account that they might want to follow. Because the events take place on a social media platform, they also have the potential to be interactive. People watching can share their enthusiasm by liking, commenting, and sharing the video. The live component allows you to interact with an online audience in interesting ways, such as soliciting questions from online viewers during the stream. Koerber notes how having a staff member monitor the comments during the livestream allows that individual to respond in real-time and add additional information like links to catalog records or digitized versions of the objects being discussed.

How are Special Collections and Archives using Facebook Live?

One way to use this medium is to provide an introduction to your holdings. The video below, from the National Agriculture Library, features an introduction to their seed catalogs (my favorite is the manuscript catalog from the 1830’s featured about 10 minutes in). The 37 minute video features staff members taking turns discussing items in their collection and has been viewed over 4,500 times in the 2 months since it was posted.

Another way institutions have been using Facebook Live to share their collections is by connecting them to another event, either at their institution or externally. In October 2016, the Dibner Library at the Smithsonian used a Facebook Live event featuring their anatomy books to tie into Halloween and Page Frights. The comments section shows how Dibner staff interacted with viewers throughout the video, taking full advantage of the live aspect of the event.

 

The Houghton Library at Harvard University held a Facebook Live event in March 2017 in celebration of their 75th anniversary. During the 48 minute live stream, two Houghton staff members gave a tour of the library, showed off items from the collection, and took questions from viewers. A key aspect of this livestream is that it took place on the main Harvard University account, which allowed the Houghton to reach a much larger potential audience. As a result, the video has been viewed over 67,000 times, and has had 1,900 reactions, 239 shares, and 415 comments. Not all archives will have access to an audience as large as the Harvard community, but it is a good reminder of how partnering with a larger social media account can really boost the signal of your outreach efforts.

The University of Chicago Special Collections Research Center has taken the approach of inviting researchers to talk about items from their collections. In the video below, Dr. Mindy Schwartz talks about an 1887 surgical kit that she uses to teach medical students about the history of medicine. This approach shows viewers not only the cool stuff in the archives, but also how a researcher or instructor uses them.

In a similar way, the US National Archives held a Facebook Live that featured Janet Macreery talking about how she used a range of archival sources to write her novel, A Little Wicked. Archives and special collections libraries have held events like this for many years, but livestreaming them allows institutions to reach beyond audiences who are willing and able to attend these events in person.

 

The Getty Research Institute held a Facebook Live event in March 2017 to talk about how they put together an online exhibition, The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra. The live stream shows some of the material used in the exhibit, but is also a fascinating, behind-the-scenes look at how they put this exhibit together.

An example of an institution doing exciting things with video, on Facebook Live and elsewhere, is the University of Iowa Special Collections. Led by Outreach and Engagement Librarian Colleen Theisen, their video work is aimed at engaging with as broad a community as possible. An excellent overview of their efforts can be found in this article by Scott Smith on the Big Ten Network website. You can view their videos, including their archived live streams, on their YouTube site.

In addition to the live streams they have conducted, such as their annual livestream on Shakespeare’s birthday, their YouTube channel features a few ongoing video series they have created that are both fun and informative. Their Staxpeditions series usually focuses on exploring Library of Congress call numbers, but my favorite installment is Staxpedititions 6: Exploring Mystery Boxes : Manuscripts Edition!

The work being done in the examples above is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what archives and special collections libraries are doing or could be doing with video. If you are doing interesting work in this area and want to be featured in this series, don’t hesitate to contact us at at archivesaware@archivists.org.