Q&A with archivist Chaitra Powell about community-driven archives

June 8, 2021

By Judy Panitch

The Southern Historical Collection at the Wilson Special Collections Library has concluded a four-year exploration of community-driven archives by releasing the website Charting New Courses in Community-Driven Archives. An $877,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supported the work with community partners, along with a gift of $50,000 from the Kenan Charitable Trust. Chaitra Powell, African American collections and outreach archivist and project director for the grant, talks more about the impact and challenges of this work.

Chaitra Powell

Chaitra Powell, African American collections and outreach archivist, stands in the stacks of the Wilson Special Collections Library, June 21, 2017.

How would you define community-driven archives, especially now, after four years of doing this work with the grant?

I think that community-driven archives are an acknowledgement that knowledge exists in lots of different places and lots of different forms, and that repositories like ours need to be more inclusive in how we build collections. We shouldn’t just imagine ourselves as giant vacuums for everything but think instead about how things can stay in communities. For example, we can digitize and return. “Community-driven” is kind of like a big bucket for all the different ways that we can engage around historical preservation and collective memory.

In other words, not just swooping it all up and bringing it back here to Chapel Hill?

Right, it’s not sustainable, and it’s not the most inclusive way to work. I like to think of it as just one tool in the toolkit, because there are lots of communities that would love to have their materials here. I like that we’re able to offer that.

In fact, a lot of the communities that we work with do have materials here. We’re still doing our normal work. We talk about it a lot as a continuum, that it’s not just swapping one way of doing things for another.

Why is this work important? Why does it matter?

Well, in a really pragmatic way, the Library has finite resources. If we are moving in different ways, it puts less of a burden on our staff to deal with collections when we’re running out of space and resources. So that’s one thing.

Another thing I talk about is the importance of seeing yourself in the record and the idea that just because we’re ready to see more diverse voices doesn’t mean that those people feel comfortable or welcome in our spaces. The traditional curatorial model of using our size and prestige to convince donors that materials belong here, won’t always work with marginalized communities. So, what can we do to meet people where they are to preserve and share their resources?

I also think it’s important to work this way to better understand the collections that we do have. There are a lot of missing pieces that communities have in their possession but trying to force them to play by our rules to get these missing pieces feels bad and wrong. We’re trying to open ourselves up and interrogate our own processes to understand why those things aren’t here or why they’re better served in other places.  One outcome is that we want to work collaboratively to share stories across diverse custodial arrangements.

I think a big part of the community-driven work is trying to see knowledge 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.

What were some of those things that you learned or that helped you think in new ways about your work?

A lot of it was kind of applicable to life in general. It’s good to learn in surprising places. But a couple things that have really stuck with me are things people have said. So, working in Navassa [North Carolina] with the mayor—he has an incredible vision for community archives and trying to bring more North Carolina stories into the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, because so much of it is based in South Carolina. He used this phrase “been-here’s and come-here’s” that I find myself using a lot.

“Been-here’s” are the folks that have lived in that community forever and know the stories. They ARE the community archive. The “come here’s” are the people like us and journalists and everyone that’s interested in those stories. So, we’re just trying to acknowledge whenever we’re working: Who is this for? Is this for the “come-here’s” or the “been-here’s”? That’s a framework we used on our website and a framework that we use a lot when we’re talking about audiences for our work.

And then one of our Seedlings—he was working in Tennessee with this historically Black college that closed down, trying to identify alums and do oral histories. He talked about one woman who was responsible for maintaining the legacy of this college. He was like, “she bottom-lined the project.”

And I was like, “Is that grammatically correct? I don’t know what bottom line means in this context.” But he started explaining it and I was, like, “Oh my gosh, every project needs a bottom-liner.” It’s different than a delegator or project manager. It’s someone who’s got their eyes on everything. When the rubber meets the road, this is the person that’s going to be there. I was like, yeah, we need bottom-liners all over the place.

Could we talk about how you approached working with partners? Maybe recognizing yourself as a “come-here” working with “been-here’s,” what kinds of things guided your work?

Well, our official guiding principles are on the site, so definitely refer to those. But there was also an evolution from the beginning to the end. In the beginning, the team used community archives as a lens. How could we help people be as independent as possible with their collections?

But as the project went on, it felt like the relationships were really critical and had to extend beyond the grant. Independence still mattered, but more as an acknowledgement of our capacity to manage work beyond the grant and less as a measure of success. No amount of training we could give would stop people from calling and wanting to connect. So, over the course of the grant I just kind of opened myself up to that and accepted that, and I think it made the partnerships stronger and better.

In the same way that we work with traditional donors where their collections are here, and that means that they will always have a relationship with the Library, I think the communities that we work with, whether their materials are here or not, now have this experience that connects them to the Library in the long term.

This work is very hands-on, it’s very relational. Building rapport with people is critical. Without that, you can’t do this work.

It’s also related to our own history. What are the legacies of the Southern Historical Collection and the stories that we’ve left out? And how has that informed the kinds of communities that we work with on our grant?

What do you hope the website will achieve?

All along, we had talked about where these resources, this toolkit, will live. We had gotten so much interest when the archivist in a backpack came out. It was really popular. It’s funny because it’s just a backpack with a scanner, but it gets people’s attention. I like it as a symbol because it lets people know that this work is achievable. It doesn’t have to be overly complicated.

But what will you do with it? What tools do you need? That kind of leads to the theme of the website—of travel and exploration, charting new courses in community archives.

More than anything, it’s a toolkit. If you want to know what we did and how we did it, you can search around and learn about charettes, oral history, scanning, consent forms, how to sustain collections. We did a lot of tagging. So, you can search for templates or tools—just grab it and use it.

But we also hope it’s a kind of time capsule for the project. We have nice features on all our pilot partners and the Seedlings and some of the other communities that we were able to engage with. We have a lot of reflections in there with the voices of all the grant team members over the years, thinking about, “We did this thing and how did it go? What did we learn?”

And what happens next?

I think the challenge for us is how to make it not just additive, but to think about this as transformative. Now that the grant is gone, we don’t want to just look at the SHC and try to identify more communities to work with in exactly the same way. That would be too much for our team.

What if we could give all of our colleagues a baseline knowledge of community-driven archives? How can our experiences inform the way we respond to communities that approach the Library about this work?  Could the website be a resource to point them to?

I know there have been discussions about new grants or perhaps another Seedlings program. But once again, you need so many people to kind of scaffold that work. It’s hard to imagine just jumping into it full again. I think we’re going to let it cool for a little bit and see how this website functions in the world.

I think we are getting a reputation as an institution that cares about diverse communities. So, let’s take that into consideration and maybe something will form more organically based on our existing resources that we could try to implement.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

I think it’s really exciting the way the strings kind of came together in terms of the University Libraries’ Reckoning Initiative and the community-driven archives project.

It allows us to inquire about why our archives look the way they look, in terms of the Southern Historical Collection. How can this community engagement help us see the contrast? What are they doing that we’re not doing? How can those voices be put in conversation with our collection?

We can’t change our history or our collections, but how can we put ourselves in the broader conversation about collective memory and try to be more inclusive and accessible?

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