by Victoria Eastes
The session “From the Margins to the Center: Foregrounding Underrepresented Communities and Revitalizing Mainstream Collections,” at the 2020 SAA/CoSA annual conference tackled the different ways archivists may work with donors and collections to ensure issues of diversity, inclusion, and openness of ideas remain at the forefront. Topics discussed ranged from how to create an exhibit around a pivotal moment in history, how to build relationships with cultural groups, alumni, and volunteers to achieve meaningful goals, and the celebration of one woman’s achievements and the work to restore her to history.
Craig Simpson, Director of Special Collections and Archives at San Jose State University, served as chair of the session and provided introductions. His presentation, “The Exhibition as Acquisition: A Different Approach to Archival Selection,” looked at the creation and execution of the San Jose State exhibition “The Power of Protest.” The exhibit commemorated the 50th anniversary of the iconic protest of Tommy Smith and John Carlos during the medal ceremony for the men’s 200-meter race at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. While on the podium, both Smith and Carlos raised their fists to give the Black Power salute in protest of racial injustice.
A key part of the exhibition coming together was Dr. Harry Edwards, at the time of the protest a San Jose student and co-founder of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. This group sought to address injustices to the black community and called for the boycott by black athletes of the 1968 Olympic Games. The university archives already held a collection of Dr. Edwards’ personal papers and memorabilia from his time as a student. In putting together the exhibit, the decision was made to not just focus on the Olympic protest, but rather to engage with what Simpson referred to as the “hypocritical idea that athletes should just play sports and not be involved in politics,” and illustrate through new materials provided by Dr. Edwards how sports have always been political and politicized.
One of the key concepts that stood out for me during Simpson’s presentation was the importance to Dr. Edwards that the items and artifacts he provided be seen, not hidden away for discovery by visitors in the various cases and drawers set aside for that purpose. As Simpson pointed out, there was a great deal of back and forth between the donor’s desire for visibility and the archivist’s desire to let patrons discover and learn for themselves.
Next Kristin Leaman, Bicentennial Archivist at Indiana University (IU) Archives, presented “The Whole Story: Amplifying Marginalized Voices in Oral History Archives.” What began as a project to gather and record the oral histories of students and alumni of the Bloomington campus, the Bicentennial Oral History Project at IU is an active and ongoing project consisting of over 1,500 oral histories. Leaman recalled how when she took over as director of the project in 2017, her group conducted an assessment of the histories recorded to that point and found that the majority were of white alumni, with few histories of people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community, and even fewer of faculty and staff.
To broaden the reach and diversity of the project, she and her staff began to visit with various university cultural and alumni groups to discuss how they could reach out to underrepresented communities. What they discovered was that people wanted to tell their stories, but did not know how and, more importantly, did not know about the bicentennial project. The solution was to increase the project’s visibility through write-ups in the newsletters of various groups, attendance at in-person events, the creation of an online presence (a key factor particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic), and the recruitment of volunteers to conduct and record the interviews. I appreciated her advice on oral histories, that everyone has a reason for telling or not telling their stories, and that those reasons must be respected. Her enthusiasm for the project and candid discussion of what worked and what did not was refreshing, particularly when it came to emphasizing that the collection be open and publicly accessible and the various ways they have worked to ensure that that remains true.
Sarah Woods, Curator of Historic Properties and Archives for the El Pomar Foundation, gave the final presentation titled “Spencer Penrose’s Wife Julie…’ Updating the Julie Penrose Series.” Of the three presentations, I found this the most practical in terms of how to revisit existing collections to ensure that marginalized individuals are highlighted and (in keeping with a theme of the previous two sessions) seen.
Julie and Spencer Penrose founded the El Pomar Foundation in 1937 to promote and encourage the well-being of the people of Colorado through funding and grant opportunities. Although Julie Penrose was a philanthropist and entrepreneur in her own right, the majority of research on the Penrose family (including books, articles, exhibits, etc.) focused on the papers and accomplishments of Spencer Penrose. A survey of the collections revealed that two collections of Julie’s papers existed, but were “hidden” from researchers. A previous organizer had included a series of “Mrs. Spencer Penrose Correspondence” within a much larger collection titled “The Spencer Penrose Papers, 1892-1939,” effectively hiding them from view. A second, unprocessed collection of papers and documents created by Julie Penrose following her husband’s death was found sitting unused in a filing cabinet and various boxes.
How Woods approached the re-examination of Julie Penrose is how I would have approached the project and so I was happy to see that it had worked. Rather than separating the series of correspondence from her husband’s collection, she revised the finding aid to include Julie Penrose as a creator and updated the contents to reflect the existence of the correspondence and their significance to the couple’s story. As part of a planned celebration of Julie Penrose’s 150th birthday, Woods arranged the unprocessed collection and created a new and detailed finding aid linked to the existing Spencer Papers.
Regarding all three presentations, I most appreciated the practical advice for how to go about handling similar projects. The enthusiasm of each of the presenters for their topics not only demonstrated the near-and-dear nature of their projects, but made their advice more relatable and inspiring.
Excited about this session? You can still view a recording here.
Victoria Eastes, MA, MLS, is the University Archivist at Texas A&M University-Central Texas. In addition to the archives, she works with the Graduate School as the Thesis Office liaison, teaches a course on archives with the College of Arts and Sciences, and serves as reference librarian and subject liaison for history and political science.