What We Don’t Have: A Transparent Approach to Discussing Diversity in Archival Collections | Peer to Peer Review

Libraries and archives nationwide have launched initiatives to diversify their collections, institute antiracist descriptive practices, and conduct outreach to marginalized communities. We knew that our collections lacked all these things, but questioned how we could authentically start this work. What can libraries and archives do when confronted with limited resources, material, and community engagement to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion in their work?

title sheet that readsThe senseless murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, coupled with the crippling impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, led to a fury of Black Lives Matter protests that made it impossible for institutions to avoid seriously reevaluating their relationship to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Libraries and archives nationwide have launched initiatives to diversify their collections, institute antiracist descriptive practices, and conduct outreach to marginalized communities. We knew that our collections lacked all these things, but questioned how we could authentically start this work. What can libraries and archives do when confronted with limited resources, material, and community engagement to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion in their work?

 

WE CAN ACT

When the time came to develop the University Archives’ fall 2020 exhibit, we knew that it needed to be relevant to the current moment, honest, and vulnerable. We also wanted to reach our students, staff, faculty, and alumni, both on and off-campus, so a traditional, physical exhibit was not feasible.

Since our collecting scope is limited to university history, our initial exhibit ideas included the histories of diversity at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), Black student groups on campus, and student protest. As we began our research we soon realized that to truly do those topics justice would require more resources than we had available. We were also concerned that we didn’t have the material in our collections to tell those stories at all. We were confronted with the challenge of developing an exhibit focusing on diversity at CMU while using an archive that can best be described as very white and male. To put that into perspective, according to a 2019 collection survey, out of the 90 collections that represent the work of individual faculty, staff, and alumni, only 22 percent document women and people of color, and only four have been processed and made available to researchers. These collections did not receive the attention they deserve and understanding the reasons why will take additional reflection on our part.

 

ARCHIVES ARE NOT NEUTRAL

It became clear that the story we needed to tell was about ourselves. Why was our archive missing so many voices?

We decided to turn one of our teaching tools into a full exhibit. When working with students, we prepare them to understand that they will be unable to find some of the information they are looking for. Rather than recommending they move on when information is missing, we challenge them to think about that gap in the collected records and why it might exist. We ask them to find meaning in absence. This exhibit is our attempt to highlight and see meaning in the holes in our collection.

Researching our absences proved to be a unique challenge. We, as archivists, have a strong sense of what is in our collections. Still, because archives help define an institution’s collective memory, absences from the archival record are also absences in the archivist’s knowledge.

We started with material we knew was missing based on past requests from students. We used these known holes as a starting point for additional research. We were fortunate to have access to extensive digital collections, since we were not allowed on campus due to the county’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order. The material in these collections—student newspapers, yearbooks, alumni magazines, and Board of Trustee minutes—allowed us to search for specific terms and periods. This process revealed several areas for further exploration. To identify other gaps in our collections, we will need to take a more systematic approach, which requires time, labor, and access to our physical collections.

As we began to write the exhibit text, we found ourselves relying too much on professional jargon. Terms like acquiring, processing, access, and archival power are commonplace in the field, but likely unfamiliar to our broader audience. Because we wanted to raise awareness about what the archives are and what they contribute to the CMU community, we knew we would need to explain our professional terminology, so that archivists and students alike could have a deeper understanding of what archivists and archives do. We particularly wanted to draw attention to archival power and the role archives play in supporting dominant narratives and how they can be shaped by power structures.

The exhibit consisted of six sections. Each featured a missing collection or group of records that we had identified, and defined an archival term. Our goal was to write concise, easy-to-understand explanations, further expanding the many nuances as to why our collections lack diversity. It was important to us that viewers understood that these absences were not just due to institutional or societal prejudices but were furthered by the limits of archival practice. There are many points in archival work—from acquisition, to processing, to reference—where collections can be neglected or hidden.

 

WHAT WE DON’T HAVE IS NOT ONLY INFORMATIVE; IT ASPIRES TO BE REPARATIVE

Text:We want to build bridges, foster communication, and care for our community. Collaborating with a designer to construct the exhibit profoundly impacts how we and our content are perceived. This isn’t a quick project. This is a vow to do more, recognize our faults, and repair them. What We Don’t Have had to hold its own and have as much power as if it were in our physical gallery.

The designer, a non-archivist, offered an additional point of view and could act as a translator between archivist and audience. We would be remiss if we didn’t articulate the importance of collaboration as central to the entire exhibit. Without an interdisciplinary team who trusted each other, this exhibit would not have been possible. Now we must extend that trust beyond our walls.

As we continue to develop internal strategies to augment and mend the holes in our collections, we still need to reach out to our communities and be transparent about the absence of diversity in the University Archives. This exhibit publicly acknowledges that archives are not neutral. We also apologize to our community for hurt or erasure the Archives caused through our collecting policies and practices.

Text:It is not enough to merely call attention to what we don’t have. We need to be action-oriented. We identified and highlighted achievable (even during a pandemic) outcomes in each “call to action” section. In the coming weeks, months, and years, we will process collections that tell the stories of diversity or lack thereof on campus. We will not shy away from telling the truth about racism in our institution, and we will work to actively document the current experiences—both positive and negative—of all groups on campus. We will be transparent. We will avoid archival jargon and make our work more understandable. We will seek out and bring in new collections. Above all, we will strive to earn the trust of our community. Our hope is that this exhibit will lead to better relationships, discussions, and possible donations of materials to help us better represent our community in the historical record.

With this exhibit, we are letting our community know that our doors are open. We want to hear their stories.

What We Don’t Have launched in October and will be available online for the foreseeable future. To date, the exhibit has generated positive recognition from our campus community, and we’ve received several suggestions for collections to target. While it is still too early to assess the impact of this exhibit, we have received positive feedback demonstrating that a transparent approach to discussing diversity in archival collections provides an opening for uncomfortable, yet needed conversations within their communities.


Julia Corrin is CMU University Archivist; Katherine Barbera is an archivist and oral historian, director of the CMU Oral History Program, and lead archivist for the Robot Archive initiative; Emily Davis is an archivist and co-organizer of Out of the Archives: Pittsburgh Revealed screening series; and Heidi Wiren Bartlett is an artist and designer in the libraries, and an instructor in the Integrative Design, Arts, and Technology network at CMU.

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.


RELATED 

ALREADY A SUBSCRIBER?

We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing

ALREADY A SUBSCRIBER?