Rough Seas Ahead

Plenary discusses diversity and collaboration

June 24, 2016

From left: Athena Jackson, Paul Ortiz, Michelle Caswell, and Mark Puente
The June 22 plenary panel at "Open the Doors to a More Diverse and Collaborative Future." From left: Athena Jackson, Paul Ortiz, Michelle Caswell, and Mark Puente.

The 2016 Rare Books and Manuscripts Section conference kicked off June 22 in Coral Gables, Florida, with a plenary titled “Open the Door to a More Diverse and Collaborative Future,” sponsored by University of Florida.

Delivering short talks were Mark Puente, director of diversity and leadership programs at Association of Research Libraries; Paul Ortiz, director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program and associate professor of history at the University of Florida; and Michelle Caswell, assistant professor of archival studies in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA. The panel was moderated by Athena Jackson, the Dorothy Foehr Huck chair and head of the Eberly Family Special Collections Library at Penn State University Libraries.

Ortiz set the tone for the plenary by first acknowledging the June 12 Orlando massacre and the need for solidarity during this time. He went on to point out the many civil rights activists and movements that began in Florida and have led to positive change, highlighting figures such as Zora Neale Hurston, A. Phil Randolph, and Laura Dixie. From there, Ortiz delved into the importance of collecting oral histories to document these and other movements in order to preserve them for future generations and to ignite change.

Citing his work on the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, Ortiz stressed that working in diversity can be rough. “Take your Dramamine in advance; the sea is kind of choppy,” he joked. For Ortiz, including students in the work is essential, especially first generation college students. He said, “Our students are driving our research projects.” In addition to working with students, Ortiz emphasized the importance of continual interaction and collaboration with communities. “We try to do public programming and be responsive to what communities would like us to do.” Collaborative efforts are part of survival as a university-based oral history center. “We need more allies … becoming more diverse is no longer an option; it’s something we have to do.”

In her talk, “Why Representation in Our Collections Matter,” Caswell discussed the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) and the importance of creating inclusive archives and repositories. SAADA is a custodial archive. It borrows materials, digitizes them, and describes them using language that the community uses to describe itself. SAADA is part of the community-based archive movement, which means it is an independent, grassroots collection in which those who have been left out of the mainstream archives document their own histories.

Caswell warned the group to be conscious of symbolic annihilation, defined by scholar Gaye Tuchman as “the ways in which members of marginalized groups are absent, grossly under-represented, maligned, or trivialized by mainstream media.” In her work on SAADA, Caswell found that after interviewing 17 community archives founders, staff, and volunteers at 12 sites in Southern California this academic year, each felt it was happening to them—though no one used the term “symbolic annihilation.” And, they were working to counter it. “Seeing yourself represented changes how you interact with the world,” she said.

In order to facilitate representational belonging, Caswell promotes building collections that “counter symbolic annihilation and foster representational belonging.” “We all share the responsibility for fair, accurate, and meaningful representation. You can be any kind of library to take issues of representation seriously.”

Puente wrapped up the session. To begin, he considered three victims of the Orlando massacre and speculated on the intersection of events at Pulse nightclub with our work as librarians, archivists, museum specialists, etc. He asked, “Through what lens will that story be expressed? Who is going to tell their story? And how will it be told?” Puente went on to emphasize the power that we have in our positions to be more inclusive and more aware.

“There’s real power in what we do in libraries, archives, museums, and galleries, and it’s our responsibility to be deliberate in bringing authentic stories of pain and mundane to public.” Puente stressed the need to work harder to cultivate climates where difference is highly respected. He also pointed out the need to diversify our org charts. “This conversation is long overdue for libraries and archives and one that the millennials in this room are not afraid to talk about and tweet about and whatever-gram about.”

He warned the group that millennials would abandon the profession if they felt they weren’t being represented and suggested that libraries and archives ask themselves, “Will our goal in facilitating this change be active or passive?” To conclude, Puente extended an invitation to the community: “For too long this important work has rested on the shoulders of the oppressed and marginalized. This simply can no longer be the case. We need allies and advocates and fighters. We need all of you to empower yourselves with a vocabulary. We may never come to that illusive middle ground, but we must learn how to work in tandem and have open conversations in order to progress.”


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