“Who Controls the Narrative Matters”

Every year the Student Archivists at Maryland (SAM) hold an archives symposium called Americana. Each symposium focuses on a different topic, bringing together three speakers who exemplify work on that area. This year the topic was “Archival Activism and Social Justice.” SAM felt this topic was especially relevant this year and would be an interesting and important topic for Americana 2016.

How do archives and social justice intersect? Must archives even be involved in social justice? How can archives bring about social justice in an impactful and meaningful way? Three speakers at Americana 2016 tried to show how they have tried to do just that.

The first speaker was Katja Hering. Katja is the Project Archivist for the National Equal Justice Library at the Georgetown Law Library. Katja’s talk focused on the general idea of digital inequality as a whole. Katja urged archivists to think about digital equality when both creating digital content and providing access to that content. It is not enough to simply create digital content regarding diverse groups, but ensure that everyone can also access that content. Katja believes that digital archives must democratize access to materials while promoting “peace, equality, and justice, which our present society denies.”


Katja’s Presentation

To dmonstrate this, Katja referenced the South Asian American Digital Archive. SAADA as it’s commonly referred to is a non-profit that is “working to create a more inclusive society by giving voice to South Asian Americans through documenting, preserving, and sharing stories that represent their unique and diverse experiences.” This exemplifies what Katja was trying to explain in her talk and the entire symposium: archives must be more inclusive and give underrepresented groups a voice. Even if our society is not equal, archives can strive to be.

The second speaker was Diane Travis, a doctoral student at the UMD iSchool. Diane works with the newly-created Digital Curation Innovation Center at UMD. Her talk focused on how the DCIC is using computational archival science to give a voice to Japanese Americans who were interred at the Tule Lake Segregation Center during World War Two. For me, this was the most heart-wrenching speech of the night. The stories of these Japanese Americans were shocking, but unfortunately have not been shared.

Survivors ofTule Lake have only begun to talk recently, which means that these records from Tule Lake are sometimes the only way archivists and anyone interested in studying Tule Lake can piece together what happened there. The DCIC is trying to digitize the records from the National Archives so that Tule Lake survivors can have access to these records. These records might spark memories in these survivors. They can encourage a conversation about the internment of Japanese Americans in World War Two. These archival records aren’t meant to be passively observed, but actively discussed.

The third and final speaker was Denise D. Meringolo, the Director of Public History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the Creator of the Preserve the Baltimore Uprising Project. Denise’s speech was the most poignant for much of the audience, since many people who came to the event live in Baltimore and lived through the Baltimore Uprising last year. Denise’s main point was that we need to support underrepresented and minority groups in our archives and online. By supporting these groups who might not have a voice, we can become “frontline activists.”

During the Baltimore Uprising in April 2015, the protestors appeared violent in the press. The news showed only one side of the extremely complicated story. In order to ensure that all sides were shown and understood, Denise and her class created the Preserve the Baltimore Uprising project. This website allows for those who were part of the Baltimore Uprising to share their stories and pictures. This website gives a voice to those who didn’t have one.


Denise Meringolo

Denise explained that even though she didn’t have much technical experience, she and her students understood the necessity of creating a safe space for these silenced voices to finally be heard. She didn’t want to create a story for the protestors. This website lets those who were involved in the Baltimore Uprising post their pictures with their own captions and explanations. The people themselves are creating and curating the website. The archivist is only there to find people with stories to tell, create a safe space, and encourage involvement.

Overall, Americana 2016 tried to bring together different voices to show other archivists how they can help groups of people who are not normally represented in archives. Not only that, these speakers emphasized the value in including those groups when creating and promoting the archives. It is always valuable to bring together different voices. It is even better to let the voices of the people included in the archive lead the way and shape the story.


*This post was originally published on the SNAP blog for SAA.

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