NCPH recap: Day Three, March 18

I’m recapping my NCPH 2016 experience.  I’ve already written about the first two days of the conference and some of the great workshops and sessions from those days.  I presented on day three and also had the chance to attend some great sessions and the inspiring public plenary.

Transformative Archival Methods: Inclusivity, Partnerships, Human Rights, & Activism

This panel was one of my favourite of the whole conference.  It included Trudy Huskamp Peterson, Human Rights Working Group; Marla Ramirez, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign; and Patrick Stawski, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. This session was frames around the idea that access to archives is an essential part of professional archival practice and that archives can be transformative within a human rights context.  A lot of what was covered in this session was very relevant to ongoing conversations in Canada around Indigenous archival material and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Trudy Huskamp Peterson‘s discussion of the International Council on Archives (ICA) Human Rights Working Group was particularly inspiring.  It also raised a lot of questions about best practices for archives, access, and marginalized communities. Archives have the ability to be play a key role in transitional justice processes but they need to be preserved in order to do so — archivists need to actively consider human rights claims when they are appraising documents. Similarly, archives need to be accessible to victims of human rights offenses and archives need to do a better job of communicating with marginalized communities about how access can be gained and facilitate connections to records.  Trudy also touched on the need for professional discussion around displaced archives and the role of archives within human rights contexts more broadly.  I was particularly struck by the irony of the fact that the ICA working group draft document on human rights is not publicly accessible, when so much of its content emphasizes access as a right.

Trudy’s presentation was followed by Patrick Stawski‘s discussion of archivists as ‘memory bandits’ who engage in a proactive redistribution of archival memory.  Stawski spoke a lot about the politics around archiving community materials and raised an important point around the language we use — we talk about acquiring collections, but in the case of communities we need to think and talk more about partnerships and address how we can support the origin of the materials.  Stawski also highlighted how archives are the beginning of relationships and archives around human rights are often connected to living communities and we need to evolve are archival practices to address changes within the communities we are serving.  This presentation also included a discussion of the transformative nature of records and how there can be a huge value in examining records that cause discomfort.  Records that document trauma can be directly linked to community healing and the redistribution of memory.

The final presenter in this session was Marla Andrea Ramirez who spoke about creating platforms for silenced voices, filling in archival silences, and the important of oral history in transforming historical narratives. Ramirez’s work focused on transgenerational oral histories to create narratives that reflect both survivor and community experiences in relation to the deportation of Mexicans in the 1930s from the United States.  She also spoke about her work with family archives and documents help by individuals that explain their history that don’t exist in official historical narratives or government archives. Ramirez’s talk emphasized the power of oral history to highlight the long term trauma that archival records do not capture and the need for establishing trust and patient relationships when doing this type of oral history project.

This was an extremely powerful panel with so many perspectives and experiences relating to archives and trauma. As Canadian archivists start to consider their own role in reconciliation, access, documenting the impact of colonialism and residential schools looking to examples outside of Canada has the potential to be extremely useful.

Finding the Embedded Archivist

I was fortunate to present on this panel organized by Jennifer Black of Misericordia University.  The other presenters included Marc Brodsky, Virginia Tech; Suzanne Catharine, University at Albany, SUNY; Jessica Garner, Misericordia University, Mary Kintz Bevevino Library; Noreen O’Connor, Kings College and myself.  This session brought together archivists, faculty, and a student and looked at the potential of embedded archival instruction and the power of moving beyond ‘show and tell’ archival instruction.

I learned a lot from my fellow presenters and gained a few new ideas for instruction exercises, such as: having students examine a rare book or other item with the question of if it should be de-accessioned; or telling students they are the head of a brand new archives facility and having them consider how they would design the space to be used by archives staff.  Both of these examples highlight important work that archivists do and get students to engage with some of the difficult questions associated with archival practice.

This session also highlighted the need for the archival community to talk more broadly about instruction strategies, techniques, and successes.  There are a lot of great archivists and faculty partnerships out there that can be used as examples but they often require substantial digging to learn about.

Using Spatial History to Challenge the Exclusive Past

This panel included discussion of the “Spatial History in the Public Square” project by Bradley Andrick and Kevin Borg of James Madison University, the “Canal Lives on the James River and Kanawha Canal” project by Gregory Hargreaves of the Hagley Museum and Library, and the “98 Acres in Albany: Documenting a Demolished Neighborhood” by David Hochfelder, University at Albany, SUNY.

There were some interesting discussion around technology used in these three different mapping projects.  The Canal Lives utilized Omeka to setup a very basic visualization of the cannal and embed underrepresented stories of those who built and worked in the canal region. The Public Square project was more complex and used digital map tools to overlay archival Sanborn maps with present day terrain and to include metadata within the maps for contextual information.  This project used completely open source software including Leaflet, GMP, and github.  They wanted to create something that would by easy for other communities to replicate using similar Sanborn maps and a bit of hacking.  I loved that aspect of the Public Square Project.  The 98 Acres in Albany project focuses on the social history of urban renewal and highlight the experiences of individuals from diverse backgrounds.  The site appears to be currently setup on a WordPress blog and is very narrative driven currently.

These were all interesting mapping projects and were connected by their desire to highlight unrepresented narratives. However, I was very concerned by the fact that all the presenters on this panel were white males and the community voices were lost in their presentations.  Despite their work seemingly revolving around silences communities those voices did not seem to have a place at the table for the project administration or overarching project decisions. In the case of the Canal Lives project there was a particularly jarring moment where the presenter indicated they were using ‘placeholder’ images to show what slave or servant individuals probably would have looked like.  I understand the desire to make projects visually appealing but using an image of a historical document or explaining why there were no photographs of a marginalized person might have been a more appropriate option.

Public Plenary

The public plenary was held at the Ebenezer AME Church a short walk from the conference hotel.  Titled “Uprising in Focus: The Image, Experience, and History of Inequality in Baltimore” amd moderated by Elizabeth Nix the plenary included photographers Devin Allen, J.M. Giordiano, director of Ingoma Foundation Paula Gregory Harris, and long time Baltimore residents Robert Birt and Devon Wilford-Said.

This event was open to the general public and focused on the history of activism and protest in Baltimore in response to racial injustice.  It focused on both the 1968 protests following the death of Martin Luther King and the 2015 protests following the death of Freddie Gray and used images as a lens for looking at the past and present racial divide in Baltimore.  The church was packed for this event and the narratives of the panelists highlighted the need to look beyond the images of protest presented on CNN and other major news sources.  Devin Allen’s talk in particular was inspiring and deeply moving.

Other Fun

This was a busy day – I also attended a membership committee meeting and participating in a Canadian public history meetup. One of my favourite parts about NCPH is getting the opportunity to connect with other public history professionals from all walks of life.  The Canadian contingent this year included a number of fellow Western alumni who it was great to see again and discuss the challenges particular to public historians in Canada.

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