This library is using backpacks to help communities record their histories
In a lot of ways, historians are confronting many of the same issues as journalists. Just like reporters dive into communities to cover stories, archivists will often go into a community, conduct interviews or collect materials, and then head back to their academic institutions where they’ll publish their findings.
While many journalists have tried to address the challenges of parachute reporting, a group of archivists at the University of North Carolina has been trying to do the same for their field.
“We’re trying to invert the classic archival paradigm,” said Bryan Giemza, director of UNC’s Southern Historical Collection. The collection runs a program called Archivist in a Backpack, which provides kits to communities across the South to help them record and document their histories.
This week in Solution Set we’re looking at Archivist in a Backpack. There are a ton of parallels to journalism, and I hope that newsrooms can study the archivists’ work to learn new ways to connect with the communities they cover. This issue will cover how the archivists created their backpack kits, how they’re working with communities, and how they got buy-in from the communities as well as their own institution.
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Here’s the TLDR of what you need to know:
• The Challenge: UNC’s Southern Historical Collection wanted to find a way to empower communities across the South to record their own histories.
• The Strategy: The library developed the Archivist in a Backpack program, which created a portable kit that allows community members to record oral history interviews and preserve documents.
• The Numbers: The project has already distributed 12 backpacks, each kit costs about $175.
•The Lessons: By teaching communities to record their own stories, the archive is empowering them to recognize the importance and value of their own histories.
•The Future: UNC plans to distribute more backpacks and is working with its existing partners to help them sustain their work for the longterm.
•Want to know more?: Scroll down for more on Archivist in a Backpack and links to some of the resources the program has created.
In many ways, university libraries and archives are a lot like legacy news organizations. Historically, they have seen themselves as arbiters of truth and information, collecting and curating artifacts and details.
And while archivists and journalists will go into communities to conduct research or do reporting, often times the resulting research or story ultimately doesn’t serve the community that was being covered.
At the University of North Carolina’s Southern Historical Collection, which is part of the university’s Wilson Special Collections Library, a group of archivists is working to make its collection more accessible.
The Southern Historical Collection dates its history back to 1844, and its archive contains more than 20 million items housed in more than 5,000 unique collections. The collection covers Southern history since the 18th century, and it contains diaries, letters, oral histories, and many other primary documents.
“We’re trying to invert the classic archival paradigm where you go out into communities, extract things researchers are interested in, funnel them into a building, and then maybe the community sees them again in an exhibit if they come to the archive,” Southern Historical Collection director Bryan Giemza told me.
“We really are trying to flip that and create a model where communities are actively curating their own history,” he said. “Where I see some carry over in terms of journalism, of course, is just different ways of documenting communities and empowering them to tell their own stories.”
To try and invert that paradigm, the collection last year launched Archivist in a Backpack, a program designed to help people in communities across the South record oral histories as well as collect and preserve materials such as photographs and documents.
The library literally assembled archiving kits, placed them in backpacks, and has worked with community organizations across the region to distribute and use them. It created two different types of kits: One designed to collect oral histories and the other to collect and digitize primary materials.
The oral history kits include a digital recorder, note cards with common oral history questions, notepads, plastic sleeves to preserve documents, and more. The archives kit includes a flatbed scanner and other materials needed to properly preserve historic documents. The full list of materials is available here.
Chaitra Powell, the Southern Historical Collection’s African American Collections and Outreach archivist, told me that the library knew it needed to make the kit “portable and make it accessible.”
“They’re designed for communities to have them in their hands,” she said. “It’s up to them to choose the people they want to talk to, choose how long they want to talk to them, and choose what happens to that final product. They’re not bound by the institutional practices or capacity constraints that we are as an institution.”
The team also wanted to ensure that community members felt like their stories were valued, so it included thank you notes in the kits and also made sure to treat the stories and documents with the respect they deserved.
“Those archival sleeves, they’re little more than a sheet of plastic, but when people put their items in those sleeves t’s affirming,” Giemza said. “It makes people say, ‘My history is important enough to go into a sleeve or be recorded.’ That can be transformative,”
Thus far, the Southern Historical Collection has partnered with four organizations across the South to utilize the kits and then preserve the material they collect. The four participating groups are the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum, the Appalachian Student Health Coalition, the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project, and the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance.
These four organizations had all either previously worked with the UNC team or had previously reached out for assistance from the Southern Historical Collection.
Each organization is taking its own approach to project, but the participating organizations — not the university — ultimately maintain ownership over the material they collect.
“We have four different community partners, and all of them are at different stages of aspiration and independence,” Giemza said. “Some of them would love to do a free-standing brick and mortar community archive. Others say, well we’re somewhere in between and we need institutional help. They’re all very different. They’ve all been very excited about the backpacks, and it’s interesting the way the backpacks seem salient in all the work that we do.”
In San Antonio, for example, the museum, had what it called a History Harvest, where people from the community brought heirlooms and other archival materials that could be included in the museum’s collection. People brought pictures from wedding ceremonies, a beaded wedding dress, Negro League baseball memorabilia, and more.
“This was a scanning workshop to commemorate the opening of the community archive,” Powell said. “In this particular instance they turned the backpacks into a full-on thing: There was food, entertainment, and they were selling merchandise to raise money for the museum. Local politicians came. The backpacks were the impetus for a broader community celebration.”
Archivist in a Backpack is supported by a three-year $877,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The program is now in its second year.
Each backpack archiving kit costs about $175. The full list of the included materials is available here, but the project notes that “pricing can vary dramatically based on supplier discounts or buying items in bulk.”
Thus far, Archivist in a Backpack has distributed about 12 kits to its community partners.
• Empower communities: A core goal of the Archivist in a Backpack program has been to give communities the opportunity to record their own histories and document their heritage. Giemza said the collection recognized that some communities have “at best…an uneasy relationship with an academic institution.” (The same could be said of news organizations as well.)
He shared the story of a conversation he had with a community leader in Mound Bayou, Miss. — a primarily African-American town founded by former slaves.
“They said, ‘We’ve had three academic histories written about our town, and they all have one thing in common: They’re wrong,’” Giemza recalled. “Well how can we do better and what parts of the story aren’t being told? How is the community going to be best enfranchised to have ownership of the story?”
By putting this mission at the center of its work, the library team prioritized its goals for the project and used the mission to help inform its decisions about for how it would like to design the program.
And one of the ways the archive has been able to build trust is by working with existing community organizations. These institutions helped give the library team legitimacy.
To be a good partner, archivists — and news organizations — need to make sure that the community understands that they’re acting in good faith and legitimately want to help.
“We got lots of input from communities in terms of what they seek in a partner,” Giemza said. “They talked about shared vision, sovereignty, institutional awareness of privilege. The best partners think about meaningful partnerships, no tokenism and no gatekeepers. They repeatedly said that people don’t know the value of their own stories. This is a way to hopefully address some of that.”
• Teach a man to fish: Instead of doing all the archival work itself, the team has instead of focused on developing its program around training community groups and individuals.
If the collection can get a handful of community members excited and invested in the project, they can help spread the word, build momentum, and begin setting up governance structures or other mechanisms to ensure the permanence of the archive.
The team has run training sessions with the participating organizations, and it also developed instructions and toolkits for how people can use the recorders and scanners. It’s made the resources available online so even organizations not in the official program can learn from them.
“We have this DIY spirit and we wanted to come up with a toolkit and things that people can take off the shelf and run with that don’t require a lot of training or a steep learning curve,” said said Biff Hollingsworth, the Southern Historical Collection’s collecting and public programming archivist. This backpack is sort of the embodiment of that. It’s a physical manifestation of some of our work that we can send out with simple tasks and really get started.”.
The archive also worked to tailor its trainings to each organization it worked with, ranging from virtual trainings for how to use the equipment to advice on how to secure temporary storage for archival material.
“We want to not only to give them the tools to execute work, but tools that will help them take the work to the next level,” Powell said.
By training individuals how to use the archiving tools, the Archivist in a Backpack program is helping to ensure the longevity of the program. When newsrooms think about how they can work with communities to help amplify their stories, they could take similar approaches to reporting and producing journalism.
• Get internal buy-in: Archivist in a Backpack marked a change from how university libraries typically work, and, as a result, Giemza said it took some work to convince administrators to pursue the project.
Giemza said there’s been a ton of internal communication and that the team thought strategically about how to best present it to administrators.
A key to getting the program off-the ground was selling the value proposition to administrators. In addition to it being the right thing to do, he said Archivist in a Backpack program would allow the library to expand its presence across the region and develop important relationships.
“It’s an ongoing challenge to ask institutions to accommodate both in terms of workflows and questions of ownership,” he said. “You really are talking about a paradigm shift….When I make the value proposition to administrators, I point out that this is quite simply the right thing to do. That has its own merit. But if you want to look at it in a quid-pro-quo fashion, the relationships it fosters are invaluable over time. My experience is that people repay generosity with generosity usually ten-fold.”
As journalists try to get newsroom leadership to support projects, it’s critical that they explain how the project will advance the newsroom’s overall goals.
Archive in a Backpack is planning to continue to distribute more backpacks to participating organizations. It’s also asking for feedback and plans to tweak the model in response to what it hears.
The UNC team hopes to eventually become less involved with the four pilot communities as those operations become more self-sustainable
The team is planning on implementing other aspects of the Archivist in a Backpack grant. It’s going to create a visiting fellowship so researchers can access and dig into the collected material.
But it’s also already thinking about its next steps once the initial grant is exhausted, Giemza said:
“One of the things we think about is: What’s the regional build out when this grant comes to a conclusion? In what ways can we be working to form regional consortiums that work together to provide things like storage or training resources to communities,” he said. “There’s potential for a larger build out.”
A First Nations group in Canada, a migrant organization in the U.K., and an Australian organization have all reached out to the UNC group to ask if they could receive support as well. UNC’s grant is limited to its existing partners, but the team hopes that others can take the resources that it has shared online and adapt them.
“The resources are there to be taken, to be imitated, and to be used as people see fit,” Giemza said. “What I hope is that some of the grants that are asking about these are able to find funders and can take what we have on the shelf and can move it into new places.”
Want to Know More?
• Hyperallergic wrote a terrific profile of Archivist in a Backpack earlier this year.
• Here’s a link to the Archivist in a Backpack page, which includes many of the resources I mentioned throughout this issue.
Here’s a couple related journalism examples:
• Philadelphia’s WHYY launched a program earlier this year that provides audio journalism training programs for local residents. It’s been part of an effort by the station to reach more diverse audiences. (Disclosure: The Lenfest Institute supports the program.)
• Earlier this year, I wrote about East Lansing Info, a local nonprofit in Michigan that has trained local residents to report on their city.
Anything to Add?
How’s your newsroom working with your community to cover stories? I’d love to hear some examples. Please feel free to reach out via email. I’m [email protected]. Please feel free also to sign up for our text message newsletter to reach me via text message. Text SOLUTION to (215) 544–3542 to sign up.
Thanks, and I’ll see you next Thursday!