Sparking Interest in Archives and History

Ignite sessions at NCAAL

August 14, 2017

Chicago Public Library Reference Librarian Lawanda Miller (left) and Archivist Tracy Drake at the National Conference of African American Librarians in Atlanta August 12.
Chicago Public Library Reference Librarian Lawanda Miller (left) and Archivist Tracy Drake at the National Conference of African American Librarians in Atlanta August 12.

Just as the name implies, the “ignite sessions”—20- to 30-minute presentations on new practices in librarianship—at the National Conference of African American Librarians fired up their audiences and left them wanting to learn more.

Katrina Spencer, literatures and cultures librarian at Middlebury College in Vermont, spoke on the topic of silences and erasures in black history in her presentation, “How to Get Youth to Sign Up for Blackness: Black History Month and Beyond.” She began by saying, “It’s going to be biased; it’s going to be personal,” then related three pivotal moments in her path to noticing the gaps in her formal education: learning of her father’s upbringing in Costa Rica, which helped her realize she’d never learned about the black diaspora; editing a paper as a graduate student, which introduced her to Négritude, a literary and philosophical movement created by African and Caribbean intellectuals in Paris in the 1930s; and starting at Middlebury on February 1, the first day of Black History Month, which brought her attention to how blackness is approached in primarily white spaces.

Armed with this knowledge, Spencer developed a set of guidelines for updating how we teach black history, and in true librarian fashion, she began with the question, “What will we put on display?” Some suggestions she offered involved identifying living heroes, highlighting joyful moments in history, and encouraging specificity in naming regions and people groups, such as saying Igbo instead of African. Spencer concluded by urging her audience to “continue to learn about blackness beyond school and our degrees.” Another ignite session provided some examples of how to do just that.

Archivist Tracy Drake and Reference Librarian Lawanda Miller, both from the Woodson regional branch of Chicago Public Library, set out to revamp their student intern program while also introducing students to the archival profession. They created the Teen Archival Immersion Program, an eight-week course where high school students engage with archives from the perspective of a patron and an archivist and create a podcast on a topic of interest to them. Students were given a tour of the archives and an introduction to the collection, and they were taught about the care and management of the space (keeping the temperature low, using finding aids, etc.). Drake and Miller then collaborated with staff in the YouMedia department to train the students on audio production and the use of laptops, microphones, and editing software.

The inaugural duo of teens chose to research Captain Walter Dyett, a black musician, band director, and music educator who wouldn’t typically be studied in schools but who greatly influenced the jazz scene in Chicago. According to Drake, “If we’re going to diversify the field, we need to start here,” by introducing high school students from underrepresented populations to the archives in a way that is meaningful, culturally relevant, and integrates technology into the work.

In her presentation, Spencer encouraged attendees to think more critically about the materials on display in libraries. Drake and Miller added another layer, encouraging librarians to think more critically about the people who are on display in the library, the faces one sees when walking in to ask a question. By being more deliberately inclusive of diverse perspectives, libraries can spark change and become more welcoming to all.