“Seek that person with things you want to know or that person with memories you want to capture…Start with those family stories that you have grown up hearing, connect with community members who have recollections that need to be preserved, and then go on from there.”
—Bernetiae Reed, Project Documentarian and Oral Historian, Community Driven Archives Team, Southern Historical Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill
Want to start your own personal or community archive, but don’t know where to begin? Below are guides and other resources to help get you started.
Do you have documents or photographs in your house that you would like to keep for your children or grandchildren, or materials that have been passed down to you? Are you the default archivist for records related to your family? Do you document your community or town by collecting historical materials or oral histories?
As a home archivist, you play an important role in caring for historical materials and keeping them for future generations.
Think about the documents stored on your computer: milestones relating to your career, photographs of your kids, a long email from a beloved family member. Many people have items on their computers, on hard drives, or in emails that hold important personal meaning and tell significant stories about their lives.
These materials can include items created in digital form (sometimes called “born digital”) or scanned photographs, documents, videos, and audio recordings. Digital materials are fragile and require special care so that they can be used in the future.
Personal Archiving, Preserving Your Digital Memories from the Library of Congress
Working with Archival Repositories
If you have deep knowledge or have built a collection of materials about a town, community, historical event, or social movement, you may be looking for ways to preserve and share this information.
Partnering with an archive, museum, library, or similar organization may help you achieve your goals.
One of the most lasting things you can do is contribute your own historical materials to an archive, special collections library, historical society, or museum. Your collection contributes to a more inclusive historical record. A repository can provide long-term preservation of your materials, while also allowing current and future researchers to learn from them. Even more importantly, the work you have done can enrich your community.
When people come together to preserve and share their history, the result is a community-based archive or memory project.
You may operate your community memory project independently, or you may wish to partner with a local cultural heritage organization that can help you collect, store, and display materials. You may even consider setting up an independent museum, history center, or archive.
Conducting Oral Histories
How many times have you heard someone say, “I wish I had made a recording of my grandmother while she was still living, to hear her voice and hear her describe our ancestry?”
Oral history interviews and genealogy projects are a wonderful way to document family stories and create bonds around your shared history.
Ready to get started? The webinar “Conducting Oral History Interviews” introduces researchers to best practices for oral history interviews.
These Archivist in a Backpack question cards feature suggested topics and prompts to guide you through conducting an oral history interview.
Download the printable PDF. You can print multiple question cards on one piece of paper and cut them apart to use them for your next interview.
Oral History Resources from the Southern Oral History Program, UNC Center for the Study of the American South
A wealth of scholarly research and writing as well as community-led projects informs our work. Read more about community-driven archiving and how it intersects with activism through this selection of resources.
Caswell, Michelle, Marika Cifor, and Mario H. Ramirez. (2016). To Suddenly Discover Yourself Existing: Uncovering the Impact of Community Archives. The American Archivist, 79(1), 56-81.
Uses interviews to report on the development of the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA): “Together, these responses suggest the ways in which one community archive counters the symbolic annihilation of the community it serves and instead produces feelings of what the authors term “representational belonging.’”
Caswell, Michelle, Alda Allina Migoni, Noah Geraci, and Marika Cifor. (2016). To Be Able to Imagine Otherwise: Community Archives and the Importance of Representation. Archives and Records, 38(1), 1-22.
Semi-structured interviews with 17 community archives founders, volunteers, and staff at 12 sites in Southern California: “Reflects the ways in which [marginalized] communities experience both the profoundly negative affective consequences of absence and misrepresentation in mainstream media and archives (“symbolic annihilation”) and the positive effect of complex and autonomous forms of representation in community-driven archives (“representational belonging”).”
Flinn, Andrew. (2011). Archival Activism: Independent and Community-led Archives, Radical Public History and the Heritage Professions. InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 7(2), 1–20.
UK-focused research on archival activism, public history-making, and seeking diverse historical collections.
Newman, Joanna. (2011). Sustaining Community Archives. Comma, 2011(1), 89–101.
Examines sustainability of community archives in New Zealand. “Case study analysis and literature review revealed that eleven factors are essential to maintaining community archives over the long term.”
Collins Shortall, Lisa. (2016). A Permanent House for Local Archives: A Case Study of a Community’s Archives in County Offaly. Archives and Records, 37(2), 143-156.
“Analysis of communities that do not have ready access to local records and the local authority archive sector in Ireland; perspectives of various stakeholders in County Offaly using data gathered from interviews and questionnaires. The study concludes that in the absence of local authority archives services, community archives will emerge to collect and preserve the documentary heritage of their regions.”
Zavala, Jimmy, Alda Allina Migoni, Michelle Caswell, Noah Geraci, and Marika Cifor. (2017). A Process Where We’re All at the Table: Community Archives Challenging Dominant Modes of Archival Practice. Archives and Manuscripts, 45(3), 202–215.
“In what ways do community archives and their staff challenge traditional archival modes of practice? Do community archives work within or against dominant frameworks for institutional sustainability? Do community archives challenge or replicate dominant custody practices?”
Jules, Bergis, “Confronting Our Failure of Care Around the Legacies of Marginalized People in the Archives.” Medium, 2016.
“Today I want to have an honest conversation about the silences and erasures in our archives, the implications of those silences and erasures, and how we can start to push back against them, to create a more inclusive community of practitioners working toward a more representative record of our history.”
Jules, Bergis, “Let the People Lead: Supporting Sustainability vs. Dependency Models for Funding Community-Based Archives.” Medium, 2017.
“If grant funders, cultural heritage advocates, government agencies, or community groups are to more effectively support community-based archives with funding models intentionally designed toward sustainability and around local values and needs, it will be vital to first understand how these spaces exist now.”
Projects We Like
María Estorino, CDAT Principal Investigator and Associate University Librarian for Special Collections, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
“I like how simple and accessible these two Instagram-based projects—Nuevayorkinos and Veteranas and Rucas—are: people submit photos and stories and, by doing so, build an archive. Using a proprietary platform like that has its drawbacks, but I am interested in the ways that social media is used to connect diasporic communities and construct both personal and collective archives and memories. I also like that it’s translatable. Any community, however defined, can build an archive following similar methods. They also sometimes create and strengthen networks that might not have another way to persist.”
Kimber Heinz, CDAT Outreach Coordinator
“I recently came across this amazing project led by Chicago’s Newberry Library as part of a city-wide partnership—Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots. It was a year-long, multi-site series of history-driven public programs about the 1919 racist terror campaign and the impact it has had on Chicago through the present-day. It inspires me as an example of leveraging the power of history to gather people to reflect as a larger community on the roots of current-day challenges and injustices. It won the 2020 Outstanding Public History Project award from the National Council on Public History.
I’ve also become a fan of the Invisible Histories Project, which documents the history of LGBTQ communities in the U.S. Southeast. I love participatory history projects informed and led by queer and trans* Southerners. The Lesbian Herstory Archives includes Southern stories, too.”
Biff Hollingsworth, CDAT Co-Investigator and Collecting and Outreach Archivist, Southern Historical Collection
“The UNC Southern Oral History Program and Latino Migration Project’s growing New Roots/ Nuevas Raíces collection inspires me as an example of a creative institutional collaboration with diasporic Latinx communities to contribute to an inclusive, nuanced history of the South.
Likewise, the Buford Highway Oral History Project in Georgia through the nonprofit organization WeLoveBuHi organizes Atlanta-area immigrant communities who are part of the Buford Highway corridor to share their stories, support local businesses, and participate in mutual aid.”
Sonoe Nakasone, CDAT Community Archivist
“Documenting the Now creates and maintains open source tools to support social media archiving. The tools were developed through a community of archivists, technologists, and activists, and are specifically geared towards supporting communities and activists in preserving their history through social media. Projects like this and Documenting Ferguson illustrate how institutions can support communities in being represented in history.
The History Project documents the lives and experiences of the LGBTQ community in New England, particularly Boston. As a community archive, this project relies on community members to donate staff time, expertise, funds, and collections. According to their website, The History Project has existed since the 1980’s in some shape or form, serving as an amazing example of longevity in a community archive operating independently of historically and predominately hetero and gender-normative institutions.”
Alex Paz Cody, CDAT Research Assistant
“My favorite public history initiative is the Community Curation Program facilitated by the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Smithsonian.
This program works with communities throughout the country to preserve their history and culture. Using museum quality digital resources, they assist communities with digitizing their memories and making them accessible across distances and generations.”
Chaitra Powell, CDAT Project Director and African American Collections and Outreach Archivist, Southern Historical Collection
“The post-custodial archives at UT-Austin are a great inspiration for me. The program is audacious in the way that it considers the university’s connection to diasporic and global communities. They have paved the the way for other grant funded community/university partnerships that have followed, including ours.
Also, Mapping the Stacks is a seminal project in Chicago and formed the basis for the Black Metropolis Research Center at the University of Chicago. I like the sensibility, focus, and scope of the project: four unique institutions with complementary collections revealed for broader audiences. The University of Chicago was able to frame the project without forcing the organizations to change into formal archives, demonstrating that important archives can be viable outside of institutional settings.”