Princeton University Library hosts remote archival program for HBCU students and looks critically at issues of race and representation in the archives
In 2018, Princeton University Library partnered with five historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to launch the first-ever Archives Research and Collaborative History (ARCH) program, which brought HBCU students to the Princeton campus for a week and introduced them to the archival field. This year, the program welcomed 11 undergraduate students and one graduate student/professional virtually from July 20 to Aug. 14, focusing more closely on a critical lens of the archives in light of the recent public health and racial crises.
“When we started planning in this virtual moment, we automatically knew we would lose the tangible, physical aspect of the program that was so integral in 2018,” said Valencia Johnson, project archivist for student life and ARCH program director. “We tried to focus more on principles and ethos that students can take away.”
Led by Johnson and public services project archivist Amanda Ferrara, the program used Zoom and Canvas to delve deeper into archival work and the intersection of critical archival studies, or the application of critical theory to examine how archives perpetuate systems of oppression.
In 2018, students learned about the importance of diversity in archival collections and the connections between historical narratives and social justice issues. In 2020, while the program covers the same core pillars, Johnson and Ferrara used contemporary events, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, to show students how institutions archive protests and activism, as well as how the archivist role shapes the narratives surrounding collections by and about people of color.
Examining the archives through a critical lens
For Janiya Douglas, a rising junior at Spelman College, and Etana Laing, a rising junior at Lincoln University, this focus ultimately drew them to the program.
An art history major with a minor in curatorial studies, Douglas emphasized the importance of who owns and shapes Black history. “If there [aren’t] any other experiences [in the archival profession] outside of the white heteronormative experience, think about who’s shaping and creating the history that you know,” she said.
According to the American Library Association, nearly 90 percent of library staff are white, and that statistic is similar for the archival profession as well. Although archival work was previously understood as neutral or objective, many archivists today grapple with the impact of implicit biases present in collections and their descriptions.
Laing, a double major in Pan-Africana studies and history, views archives as a collective memory of history. But “the myth of objectivity is real,” she said, “and we subscribe to it.
“What I’ve been learning a lot about [in the program] is hegemony and how hegemony is in all we do,” she added. “When I was doing the readings for the archives and engaging in conversation, I was just thinking about how hegemony shows up in archives.”
She believes one way to combat these issues is in finding aids by acknowledging a collection creator’s bias or perspective. “This is what I’ve really been thinking about, being very explicit and saying, ‘We can’t erase history, nor should we.’ Understanding how hegemony shows up and naming it to dismantle it.”
More representation in the field lies at the heart of preserving collections that more fairly, accurately, and respectfully describe and conserve the history of communities of color.
Dr. Jontyle Robinson, Legacy Museum curator at Tuskegee University and a program partner, sees this as the program’s strength. “The ARCH program’s invitation and insistence, in 2018, that archives are not neutral and for our wonderful HBCU students and mentors to come to Princeton and to immerse themselves in African American history, Princeton’s African American history, and the importance of this history, nonpaternalistically, and its intersection with Princeton’s evolution are remarkable indeed.”
Creating a network of young Black archivists
For students, another valuable aspect of the program is the network created among the group of young, Black up-and-coming archivists and/or curators. This network is part of the program’s purpose to highlight the importance of the profession to young, Black students and encourage them to pursue the field.
Additionally, as Black women working in the Princeton University Archives, Johnson and Ferrara spoke to students openly and honestly about their personal experiences. Ferrara explained that archivists of color often feel lonely not just in their daily work but also in their pursuit to diversify the collections and make them more equitable. Both she and Johnson wanted students to know that they are not alone in this work.
“Despite the statistics of our profession and their meager numbers, we are here,” she said.
One of Douglas’s and Laing’s most significant takeaways from the program was the importance of Black people understanding, shaping, and preserving their own history. In their future work, Douglas hopes to center Black experiences through history, and Laing hopes to influence research and academia through archives.
“The willingness of students to participate [in this program] over the summer during a global pandemic, butting into when they have to return to school in some capacity, that’s a testament to how much they care,” Johnson said, “in that there are Black students and Black young people who are interested in archives, what that means, and how that translates into preserving our culture, our history, and our heritage.”
Written by Stephanie Ramírez, Communications Specialist and Staff Writer
Media contact: Barbara Valenza, Communications Director