Tuesday, 28 January 2014

IS 289: Week 4 (January 28, 2014)

IS 289 Community-based Archives
Guest Lecturer
University of California at Los Angeles – January 28, 2014

As a result of my role as facilitator for the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum’s Collection Advisory Board, I was asked to be a guest lecturer in Dr. Anne Gilliland’s course on community based archives at the UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. When I arrived to the sunlight filled classroom, I was pleased to find a nice group of fresh faced students listening to their instructor, taking notes, and no PowerPoint presentation in sight. I took a seat in the back and listened as Dr. Gilliland talked about strategic planning for community archives, and used examples from diverse archives around the world to illustrate her points. I found myself taking notes on the information that would help me articulate ideas at MCLM and trying to capture the details of the institutions that I hoped to visit in the near future. She talked about how the National Japanese American Museum is located on the site of the deportation of thousands of Japanese Americans to internment camps to demonstrate how the location of the archive can provide incredible resonance with the mission of the archive. She mentioned how the government archives in Cologne, Germany fell through the floor and into the metro station below because the proper floor load measurements were not considered. In terms of raising money, she shared how the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan suffered a detrimental hit to their fundraising efforts, when their campaign roll out was scheduled within days of the events of 9/11. The wide spread negative perception of Arab Americans forced them to re-visit their strategy for securing funds.  

When it was time for me to speak, I decided to forgo my written notes and let the photographs on my PowerPoint keep me on track for the presentation. I shared how Mayme’s interview with The HistoryMakers, and the IMLS funding facilitating my move to Los Angeles to work on Mayme’s collection in 2012.  I told Mayme’s story about wanting people to know that “black people had done great things”, how she spent her whole life collecting evidence of that simple fact, and how her collection arrived in an empty courthouse in Culver City, CA. I relished the opportunity to spend some time discussing how MCLM has been able to capitalize on Mayme’s history of community engagement to enlist community buy-in and meet the minimum expenses of keeping the door open. I talked about Black Talkies on Parade (film festivals), Student and Independent Filmmakers Awards, Annual Awards Programs, and Celebrity Golf Tournaments, from the late 70’s to the early 2000’s which are documented within Mayme’s Papers. I went on to talk about our current challenges, as I saw them, mainly a lack of adequate staff and the absence of strategic planning. I gave examples of the negative impact of exorbitant reliance on volunteers, and how we have to re-do tasks, when they were not done consistently over time. I mentioned our Collection Advisory Board as a strategy to help us consider multiple angles before decisions are made at the museum. I finished with a slide from Kate Thiemer’s 2009 SAA presentation on Archives 1.0 versus Archives 2.0, and how we can bring MCLM into 2.0 territory. The students asked very perceptive questions about the museum’s accessions, collaboration with other black archives, and how we manage volunteers. Overall it was a very successful presentation, and I plan to visit their class for my own edification as time permits in the near future.

As I sat through the rest of the class, I listened as Dr. Gilliland brought up complex philosophical questions about the function of community archives. One point that has stuck with me is the questioning of the implementation of description standards, and the needs of our users. She gave an example of a former student who is working as a metadata specialist at UCLA, trying to make an English finding aid accessible to a group of older group of Armenian community members. There is no doubt that the collection would be of use to those individuals, and even if she managed to have the finding aid translated into Armenian (with appropriate script), who is to say that the words we use are the words that they would use to describe the content of that collection. In my LIB 122 class, we talk about data schemas and standards (semantics) as the best way to share information among different institutions and make it accessible to their users. Dr. Gilliland encouraged us to ask community members what they would call a given item, and compare it to what an archivist would call it, in order to determine how critical the problem is for a given archive. When I consider that little test, I think that is valuable for the staff of MCLM to aspire to the standard; the proper names, material types, and subject matter of Mayme’s collection are not so far removed from the mainstream to warrant its own classification. Not that community archives are designed to be controlled by the hegemony, but I do like the idea of being versed enough in the language of the standards to be a “crosswalk” for the community archives in my sphere of influence.   

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