Panel: The Stories Institutions Tell*
Sponsored by White Fox Rare Books and Antiques
“Take due notice of us for the future”: Archives and cultural representation at Williams College
In the Fall of 2015, the Log, a Williams College campus gathering space, reopened after renovations. With the opening came renewed attention to a mural prominently featured on its walls. The mural depicts founder of the college Colonel Ephraim Williams and Mohawk leader Theyanoguin on the day they were killed in a 1755 battle of the French and Indian War – a day that is closely tied to the founding of the college almost four decades later. The campus community examined and criticized the mural for its depiction of Theyanoguin and his relationship to Colonel Williams. The local conversation was not an isolated incident in a year that saw campus communities across the nation grappling with their histories and representation of minority groups in public art, memorials, or in naming of campus buildings. As Williams confronts its colonial legacy, the College Archives has become a locus from which to interrogate the depiction of Native people on campus, and the notable erasure of Native presence from contemporary Williamstown. We ask, how can special collections staff support campus efforts to tell the stories of controversial historic representations on campus? How can we assert ourselves as allies of student groups while acknowledging our colonial legacy and serving as stewards of college history? This talk presents our actions and activities that promote a campus culture of open and respectful inquiry regarding the history of Williams College and its relationship to local Native Americans.
Speaker: Lisa Conathan – Head of Special Collections, Williams College Libraries
The Archivist and Institutional Narratives: Author, Translator, and Muse
When it comes time for institutions to recount their histories, they can be commemorative, adulatory, or revelatory. These narratives illustrate the multiple uses of history and memory in American institutional culture as well as the complex forces at work in the broader dynamics of tradition, folklore, truth, authority and collective memory in society. University histories, as public history, embody the dynamics that emerge from the tension between official culture and vernacular cultural expressions; they demonstrate how we navigate the gloaming between memory and history. At the center of this historical work stands the archivist, a key figure with many roles: editor, writer, curator, researcher, translator, and champion.
Archivists of higher education are active participants in the work of both traditional scholarship and collaborative approaches to historical analysis and shape the narratives of their institutions. I will examine how archivists participate (from a unique vantage point) in institutional storytelling by highlighting three paths of inquiry and knowledge representation inspired by the Rutgers University 250th Anniversary: 1) official commemorative “products” including a comprehensive illustrated book; 2) academic research that reveals the compelling voices of ignored or forgotten members of the university community exemplified by Scarlet and Black: Rutgers and Slavery, a collaborative work created by history faculty, graduate and undergraduate students and university archivists; 3) non-textual narratives by archivists as curators, represented by the exhibition, “Rutgers Through the Centuries: 250 Years of Treasures from the Archives.”
This paper will discuss specific challenges of commemorative history from the archivists’ point of view including the political dimensions of institutional narratives; research, writing, and editing by committee; synthesizing diverse perspectives; and what the archivist does “in the shadows” as custodians of the historical record and what we would write if it was all up to us.
Speaker: Erika Gorder – Associate University Archivist, Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries
We cannot be represented, we can represent ourselves
Abstract: Stories of impact and transformation are central to the special collections narrative. We use stories as tools to concretize the value of our work, and collections themselves tell the stories of the creators and communities they document. Yet, the real challenge for the future of special collections lies not in the stories we tell, but in our ability and willingness to bring to light the stories we don’t tell. Many institutions have explicitly prioritized diversifying collections to more accurately reflect the varied experiences that make up our cultural heritage; some have investigated post-custodial models of collecting and forming partnerships with community archives to accomplish this. These initiatives are mostly experimental, however, and are not incorporated into our work programmatically. While we champion diversity and inclusivity as a profession, our practices have not caught up to our intentions. Our work is still largely grounded in methodologies that are not always welcoming to underrepresented communities and that may not be applicable to unconventional archives. In fact, our basic conception of what constitutes primary sources warrants criticism; until we are willing to undertake this critique, diversity and inclusivity inevitably amounts to assimilation. In this paper I will discuss the stories that are missing from the special collections narrative, and examine how our current strategies for collecting, description, and access exclude voices and histories that do not conform to traditional notions of special collections. I will consider how we can reimagine our professional practices in order to begin building platforms for the stories we have yet to hear.
Speaker: Jillian Cuellar – Co-head of Collection Management, University of California, Los Angeles
*This session will be recorded.