By Meg Hixon
On March 24, 2018, I joined 80 other attendees for “De-Centering Whiteness in the Archives,” a panel presentation at the Midwest Archives Conference in Chicago, Illinois. Five speakers discussed their efforts to amplify the voices of underrepresented populations in archival collections through collecting practices, descriptive practices, and outreach.
Heather Fox of the University of Louisville Archives & Special Collections discussed ongoing efforts to document Latinx communities at the university, in collaboration with Sarah Nuñez. Fox consistently reiterated the necessity of partnering with members of diverse communities when attempting to document or otherwise engage with them, while also recognizing the critical importance of inclusive hiring practices. Archivists must remember that there is no single experience within a particular community; individuals and communities exist among many intertwined and unique axes of identity.
Megan Mummey of the University of Kentucky Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center focused on ways in which archivists can expand collecting areas to center diverse voices. After considering what messages physical spaces and marketing efforts send to underrepresented communities, Mummey established a three-pronged approach to ensure that nonwhite populations recognize that they belong in the archives. Public spaces became more welcoming, processing funding focused on collections featuring underrepresented voices, and the library expanded its definition of “public policy” with regard to collection development practices. The collections now reach beyond traditionally white- and male-dominated personal papers, explicitly welcoming materials from advocacy organizations, activists, and politicians at local levels of government. Mummey hopes that, as people from underrepresented groups increasingly see themselves in the archives, they will see the archives as a place they belong.
Angela White of Ruth Lilly Special Collections & Archives at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) discussed her efforts to expand the library’s philanthropic studies archives to include Muslim groups after an outside request that the library collect in this area. White has found collaboration with community members to be essential in establishing relationships and building trust, and reminded the audience that certain groups may be justifiably skeptical of institutional motives. By concentrating first on building meaningful relationships and learning what the local Muslim community actually needs, White has demonstrated the library’s commitment to local groups and their records. In one case, archivists temporarily dropped other projects to expedite the curation of a digital collection for a Muslim philanthropic organization. This commitment, in turn, has led to increasing donations at IUPUI, and the philanthropic studies archives are no longer dominated as heavily by white Christian voices.
Anthony Wright de Hernandez of Special Collections at Virginia Tech shared his experiences collaborating with the university’s Cultural and Community Centers to offer events and exhibits that center the voices of underrepresented populations. Not only do these centers have connections throughout the student and local communities that can help advertise public programming, their personnel can also offer valuable suggestions and input for outreach efforts. After inheriting a grant-funded project related to Latinx history in North America, Hernandez worked with the director of El Centro, the Latinx cultural center, to successfully organize and promote a capstone event aimed at a different audience than the preceding events. Hernandez looks beyond Special Collections and also tries to engage with broader campus groups, suggesting that archival discussions can develop naturally as a consequence of archivists being involved with community organizations and that relationships are more important than materials.
Kelly Bolding from Princeton University Rare Books & Special Collections concluded by returning to the idea of processing practices as a necessary tool in diversifying archival representation. Bolding discussed her efforts to locate and remedy historically racist descriptive practices and offered numerous specific suggestions, from using XQuery to locate racist language in existing EAD records to ensuring that that iterative processing approaches build finding aid revision into workflows. This approach relies on radical empathy, with archivists constantly questioning whether language is both useful and respectful. Bolding’s specific editing practices include adding ethnic descriptors to people commonly coded as white, using Indigenous place names alongside colonizers’ names, removing language that valorizes white collection creators while minimizing and/or ignoring people of color, and noting when collections themselves came to the archive as a result of racist practices.
If, as Bolding said, “by singing the praises of white men, we justify why our collections are full of them,” we must examine and counteract the ways in which archival institutions promote white supremacy. I am grateful to each of these speakers for discussing their important work, providing suggestions that we can all incorporate into our daily work, and challenging archivists to think about what de-centering whiteness in archives means and how our actions can begin to remedy existing harmful paradigms and reimagine inclusive archival work for the future.
Meg Hixon is the Processing Archivist for the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Michigan Library. She was a member of the Program Committee for MAC 2018. Meg tweets at @MegDaLibrarian.