Resident reflects: An awakening with regional archivists

Ebony McDonald is LSU Libraries’ first Diversity Resident within the framework of the ACRL Diversity Alliance. McDonald’s work will be divided among several departments at LSU Libraries in rotations during her residency, and she will share her reflections in a series of blog posts. This is the first post.

“Our responsibility is to hold up a mirror for mankind.”- Michelle Light, Director of Special Collections Directorate at the Library of Congress

In May, I attended the 2019 Conference of Inter-Mountain Archivists (CIMA) & Society of Southwest Archivists (SSA) Joint Annual Meeting in Tucson, Arizona. It is a regional meeting of archives and special collection professionals primarily from Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah. Although the major national conference for the archival profession is that held annually by the Society of American Archivists (SAA), I hoped by attending this smaller meeting for my first archives-related professional development event that I could more easily connect to the people and the information in each session.  I had not expected what I actually ended up experiencing.

The timing of this meeting came on the heels of my completion of the first rotation in Special Collections (SC) and start in the second in Digital Programs and Services (DPS) as part of my participation in LSU Libraries’ inaugural Diversity Residency Program. Both of these departments are located in Hill Memorial Library, separate from Middleton Library, the main library at LSU. It became ever apparent upon the first day of attendance that this meeting would conceptually bridge the two departments for me, both of which I had some bare-bones notion of through my graduate studies and internships.

I went to library school originally with the intent to work in archives and records management because it seemed most fitting for a person with a history degree. After some coursework, I opted instead to continue with a focus on diversity in libraries and earned a Diversity Advocate Certificate. I never considered there to be opportunities to work on diversity in archives. At this meeting, I was soon introduced to a host of diversity issues that permeate archival work through its theme of “Crossing Borders, Blazing Trails.”

A surprise sermon

Michelle Light, the new Director of Special Collections Directorate at the Library of Congress, opened up the meeting in her Plenary Address by highlighting the borders and boundaries of archival practice that enable western hegemony and a self-serving agenda that gives prominence to stories of the powerful. She detailed her process for confronting her own white fragility and gave three examples of when her lack of self-awareness about her own cultural lens as a white American was a hindrance when dealing with donors from marginalized communities.

For instance, in an effort to win over a potential donor of color, a white curator from a predominately white institution (PWI) might say “We can take care of your materials better than (insert smaller institution that may have more cultural relevancy to the donor).” While this statement appears innocuous (and in some respects may be true), it is important to remember the historical context in which it is being made: a white person is suggesting that an institution initially designed to exclude people that look like the donor would be a better steward of their materials than an institution founded to include members of the donor’s community (generally in response to their exclusion from a PWI). The concept of this aspect of white paternalism is not lost on indigenous groups in the Americas and aborigines in Australia who have had their cultural heritage and languages essentially lost to history due to white religious institutions that assumed that they knew how to care better for their descendants. As Light pointed out, this promotion of “superior care” by mainstream institutions is extremely concerning in multicultural donor relations.

She advised placing more emphasis on human connections with donors rather than emphasizing comparative deficiencies. She implored all in the room to build their skills in cultural competency and to recognize that race and ethnicity matter when conducting multicultural outreach because of the impact they have on the power dynamics of donor relations. Finally, she spoke directly to white attendees, urging them to build self-awareness of white fragility and cultural competency but without adding another source of emotional labor to their colleagues of color by requiring assistance from them. She closed by reminding everyone that the importance of archives is for the work to keep society accountable.

Receiving the Gospel

After hearing her address, I sat in my seat completely surprised but also appreciative. I had not expected such a meeting to open with an acute message petitioning for more personal humility in a profession that I was still coming to know but had perceived in some ways as elitist and exclusive. During the Q&A, my hand immediately shot up before my consciousness became aware of it. I identified as a new Diversity Resident at a flagship PWI in the Deep South and applauded that this speaker gave words to a looming question that I could not shake at the beginning of my SC rotation: does this work actually serve people like me? The point of this residency is to discover a professional path for myself as an academic librarian but if I cannot connect to the work that I am doing, then will this work ultimately be suited for me?

In spite of the generous support that I have received from the SC team and LSU Libraries faculty and staff in general (all of which I see as a “kindness conspiracy”), I found myself disconnected from the initial tasks of my first rotation and rather internally conflicted about whether the work was meaningful to me.  Sure, there also was the emotional discomfort that comes with learning a new job, institution, and city that impacted my initial ability to consciously buy into the work (way more than I anticipated). Yet, while I had been able to appreciate all of the new skills that I have acquired in archival processing, conservation, archival program curation, and original cataloging, there was still an undeniable internal resistance to seeing a future for myself as an archivist or in SC in general.

I could not express these thoughts and feelings in words when they first crept up but Light’s address did. The majority of stories that are preserved and made available by large PWI institutions such as LSU are generally not stories that I can relate to and thus I could not see myself in the service that I would be providing. I had no idea that relating to my work on that level was even important to me as a professional (which in some way meant that the residency program was fulfilling its intended purpose). The haunting feeling that I had been experiencing was not a worrisome lack of gratitude to the institution that has thus far been extremely wonderful to be a part of, but rather a normal reaction by a person of color from a hard-earned middle-class background (my mother is the most enterprising person I know) to a profession with significant issues relating to diversity on a macro scale due to our country’s historical heritage of racism, sexism, and classism. It was a relief to hear this gospel from one of the leading authorities in the profession.

To be clear: I am not someone who foams out of the mouth for a chance to stamp an “-ism” on something and giddily stomp around it in my self-righteous superiority. I do not live in my ascribed labels and will identify myself by my name before I ever mention my race, gender, or sexual preference (which, of course, is because I possess some privileges in some of those areas). So, the fact that I connected so deeply to what Light was saying meant that her words felt less like a social justice warrior’s virtue signaling and more like a hard truth that needed to be acknowledged (and by someone of her status nonetheless). In fact, she opened her talk acknowledging the hard-won battle that she fought to get the SAA Council to adopt the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials. She is a woman who not only spoke truth to power but practiced those truths to change power. I definitely felt a change in me from her talk.

Beyond the Gospel

Every hour after that was equally as interesting and fulfilling because I was introduced to the ways in which archival professionals from a plethora of backgrounds are addressing issues of diversity in archives through their community archives and special digitization projects. Of special note was the Director of the Ernest J. Gaines Center at the University of Louisiana Lafayette Cheylon Wood’s work to re-envision Mount Zion River Lake Cemetery in Oscar, Louisiana, a historical cemetery that contains over five generations of free and enslaved black people, as an archive. Every October on the Saturday before All Saints’ Day there is a day of beautification hosted by Dr. Ernest J. Gaines, a noted author who writes of black Louisiana communities. There was also Ana Krahmer’s, coordinator for the digital newspaper Pprogram at the University of North Texas Libraries, work to preserve historical Spanish-language newspapers in small and even forgotten Texas towns. Her work contributes to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) National Digital Newspaper Program, which has previously funded the Digitizing Louisiana Newspapers Project (DLNP).

Day One also contained a repository tour where I learned of the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, which collects items related to the history of photography. They showed me their unique storage methods for large print materials, their digitization and conservation labs, and how decisions are made about how and what to display in their public gallery.

I also volunteered to help at the registration desk for two days, which lead to me meeting Dr. Edward Benoit, Associate Professor at LSU’s School of Information and Library Science. We chatted about potential community archive projects that could be of interest to LSU Libraries Special Collections as well as the mouth joy that gyoza brings. As a result of my hand-raising during the Q&A portion of the Plenary Address, others sought me out to discuss my comments and the Diversity Residency Program in general. Every day of my attendance was filled with new information and insightful conversations from an array of black, brown, yellow, and white professionals whose profession I had been questioning prior to my attendance at their meeting.

Believer or apostate

What most astounded me at the 2019 CIMA & SSA Joint Annual Meeting, and has throughout my time in both rotations so far at the Libraries, is the passionate expertise with which archives and SC professionals operate. At the meeting, each person spoke emotionally about their work and professional interests. In my SC rotation, I was often in awe of the seemingly infinite knowledge of various librarians who taught me how to date photographs based on the photography studio and clothing of the subjects, build storage boxes for artifacts, conduct biographical research using electronic and print resources, and select appropriate subject headings. This knowledge also extended to a recognition of gaps in the collections that primarily speak to the white hegemony of American history, and ongoing plans to at least shrink those gaps, of which I am sure seducing the Diversity Resident into an SC rotation was a part.

I suppose the lingering question as I continue to reflect on this meeting and my experience at LSU Libraries thus far is: can I actually see a professional future for myself in archives or SC? Well, yes.

As Light pointed out, it is not on one group to make a change for the expansion of this profession to be more inclusive but also on others who wish to see themselves represented to continue to be involved and recruit others in order to advocate for various stories to be told. This sentiment, that change is an equal effort, can be applied to any systemic “-ism” that society is attempting to overcome. Complaining about a problem is significantly less effective than actually becoming a part of the solution.

I am the only faculty librarian of color in Hill Memorial Library, although there are a few student workers and a graduate assistant. Based on my graduate school research, there are other large institutions that also have faculty or staff members who are the only ones of their various ascribed groups in their departments as well. While it feels like a huge weight to, in some sense, carry a torch as a representative of a non-dominant group when considering participation in a profession, it also could be an immense honor to see the impact one’s presence has made on change.

I still cannot say for sure after this residency what path I will pursue in academic libraries but job titles such as “Special Collections Librarian” or, perhaps even, “Head of Public Services” are now on my list.

Ebony McDonald processed the following collections during her rotation in Special Collections: 

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