New toolkit from University Libraries helps communities tell their stories

June 8, 2021

Girl looking at the new Community Driven Archives website on a laptop

Communities working to preserve their own histories—and the libraries and archives seeking to support them—have new tools in the form of a free web resource from the University Libraries at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Charting New Courses in Community-Driven Archives represents the learnings and products of a four-year $877,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. A gift of $50,000 from the Kenan Charitable Trust also supported the work.

Between 2017 and 2021, the Southern Historical Collection at the Wilson Special Collections Library partnered with organizations and individuals across the American South interested in preserving their past. The project emphasized historically marginalized communities because their stories and materials are often missing from institutional archives such as the SHC.

Community-driven archives “are an acknowledgement that knowledge exists in lots of different places and forms,” said Chaitra Powell, African American collections and outreach archivist and the project director for the grant. “As archivists, we need to be more inclusive in how we build collections” and in who decides what to preserve, where and how, she said.

“Community-driven archives shifts the focus from acquiring materials to using our archival expertise in service of local objectives and goals,” said María R. Estorino, associate University librarian for special collections and director of the Wilson Special Collections Library. “It represents both a collaborative and participatory approach to preservation and a deep commitment to our public mission.”

The new site brings together dozens of guides, tip sheets and instructional videos that the project team created over the course of the grant. UNC-Chapel Hill and community archivists also contributed reflections through blog posts and profiles.

One part of the site details the program’s signature Archivist in a Backpack program, which delivered starter kits of archival supplies to first time history-keepers. “The backpack was really popular,” said Powell. “I like it as a symbol because it lets people know that this work is achievable. It doesn’t have to be overly complicated.”

As part of the grant, the SHC’s community-driven archives team conducted in-depth work with four pilot partners:

The team also consulted with other groups and mentored 10 individuals through a 15-month program called Archival Seedlings.

Powell said that the project evolved over time. Initially, the project team envisioned helping people be as independent as possible. “But as the project went on,” she said, “it felt like the relationships were really critical and had to extend beyond the grant.[…] This work is very hands-on.”

Thanks to that close collaboration, Powell said that the program allowed knowledge to go “in both ways. As much as we were talking about best practices for arrangement and description and preservation, we were also learning about how communities maintain their collections and the stories that they told and the reasons that they kept materials. I think all of that makes me a better archivist even within Wilson Library.”

Learn more about Charting New Courses in Community-Driven Archives in a Q&A with project director Chaitra Powell.

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