A Campus Divided

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Visitors engage with the A Campus Divided exhibit. Image courtesy University of Minnesota Libraries.

By Kate Dietrick

In August 2017 an exhibit titled A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anti-Communists, Racism, and Antisemitism at the University of Minnesota, 1930-1942 opened in Elmer L. Andersen Library, the home of Archives and Special Collections at the University of Minnesota. The exhibit was a culmination of years of original research pulling from archival materials to tell the story of racism and surveillance of students on campus during the interwar years.

My involvement, as Archivist for the Upper Midwest Jewish Archives, dates back to 2013 when I befriended Professor (now Emeritus) Riv-Ellen Prell, who was then-director of the Center for Jewish Studies. In conversation she asked what, if anything, we had in the Upper Midwest Jewish Archives that related specifically to antisemitism at the University of Minnesota. I told her we didn’t have much – I had anecdotal stories from conversations with Jewish community members, but no concrete evidence of antisemitic policy by university administration. Nevertheless, I encouraged her to research the topic in the archives and should she find ample resources, we could mount an exhibit in Andersen Library. This type of exhibit would be somewhat new for us – most of our exhibits showcase engaging and eye-catching items from the collection, not original research by our patrons.

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Signage directs visitors to the exhibit. Image courtesy University of Minnesota Libraries.

The topic grew as Professor Prell brought on Sarah Atwood, a PhD candidate in American Studies, and through two years of research they uncovered documentation in the archives of targeted university administration policies and actions against black, Jewish, and progressive students on campus. On my end as archivist, I helped facilitate research and coordinated with our exhibit designer Darren Terpstra to get the exhibit edited, designed, mounted, and publicized. From August to December of 2017, twenty-four panels were hung across two floors of the library.

Attention for the A Campus Divided was beyond anything we had experienced before, as thousands of people flocked to Andersen Library to view the exhibit. Not only did news coverage appear in nearly every local paper, but the opening event and talk was held to a sold out attendance. One portion of the exhibit invited people to share their thoughts and reflections with Post-it note comments. By the time the exhibit ended, 565 Post-it note comments were left by community members who wanted to share their feelings, both positive and negative.

Post-it notes containing comments left by community members line the walls. Image courtesy University of Minnesota Libraries.

As voices surged to respond to what had been uncovered, University President Eric Kaler issued an official statement that addressed the exhibit and called for the creation of the President’s and Provost’s Advisory Committee on University History. The committee led to the formation of a Task Force on Building Names and Institutional History, which recently published a 126-page report on their findings. In it, the task force recommended that the Board of Regents change the name of four buildings on campus in light of their findings.  On April 26th, the Regents voted 10-1 against renaming despite vocal protests from both faculty and students.

The journey from small exhibit in the library to heated Board of Regents debates was, frankly, somewhat naively unforeseen on our end. If you are planning to take on such work in your college or university archives, here are some of my takeaway suggestions:

Set up an advisory group
From the offset, curator Riv-Ellen Prell knew to set up an advisory group for the exhibit. The advisory group, pulled from campus and community, were kept apprised of the ongoing research and offered suggestions and leadership as it became clear that the impact of the exhibit was far more expansive than expected. Use this type of group not only for support but also guidance on new avenues of research or clarity. Research is stronger with peer advisors.

Document document document
Like any strong project, keep meticulous records of your research. If the exhibit is controversial, people will question its findings. Keep track of the collection, box, and folder of not only every single item that is showcased in the exhibit, but also of the primary source documents that can be used to back up every single assertion in the exhibit. Do all of this work before the exhibit opens and collate that information in a concise document with clean, standardized citation layout. People will come for the receipts; be ready.

Allow critique
Critique of the findings of an exhibit such as this can and should happen. As with any sort of research, rebuttals or varied readings of your findings should be welcomed – this is the beginning of a conversation, not the end of a soliloquy. Plan community conversation events to let voices be heard.

Take Credit
A Campus Divided was mounted as an exhibit in Andersen Library as part of our regular exhibits lineup that showcases materials from Archives and Special Collections. Because of this, it was not always strongly branded as part of the University Libraries, nor did I as the archivist who mounted the exhibit add myself to the list of co-curators. As attention for the exhibit grew outside of the libraries and the university, these things fell to the wayside. None of the publicity included my name or role in the exhibit; I could have named myself co-curator but I did not. The work of our exhibit designer Darren Terpstra is also rarely mentioned. Make sure, from the start, that credits are clear, and that an exhibit is branded as part of the library if you hope to get credit for the work that you do.

Let go
That being said, let it go. After years of working on the exhibit, we had no idea how it would be received. There was no initial intention of pushing to change the names of buildings around campus, and yet this became the rallying cry from those who viewed the exhibit. Students became very energized–writing articles in the campus newspaper, staging protests, and demanding change. These students created life for the findings of the exhibit long after the exhibit itself was taken off the walls. You have no idea where the energy of such an exhibit will lead; it is wonderful when you let it go.

Know that timing might change the context
A Campus Divided happened to open only a few weeks after the events in Charlottesville, a time when many people were openly talking about institutionalized racism in the United States. Know that if your exhibit highlights racist history at your institution, current events or recently enacted policies might shine a further spotlight or give new context to the exhibit. There is nothing you can do to mitigate this, but be prepared for potential shifting attention.

The reverberations of the A Campus Divided exhibit are still being felt on campus. As I look back, what I tend to focus on was that the exhibit showcased the power of the archives. This exhibit illustrated perfectly how history, in particular primary source research conducted in the archives, can have a relevant and powerful impact on our present day. Conversations about the history of our institutions are undoubtedly tough and constantly ongoing, but these conversations are worth having if we hope to move forward as equitable and inclusive institutions.

A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anti-Communists, Racism, and Antisemitism at the University of Minnesota, 1930-1942 is still available online – visit acampusdivided.umn.edu to learn more.

Kate Dietrick is the Archivist for the Upper Midwest Jewish Archives at the University of Minnesota Libraries, a position she has held since March 2013. Prior to that time she worked at the Whitney Museum of American Art and for the Kress Foundation. She earned her MLIS from Pratt Institute and BA from St. Olaf College.


TMZ University or: How I Learned to Love the Past Pettiness in Higher Education


By Ian Post

As a university archivist, I find great satisfaction in collecting, preserving, and sharing the histories of institutions of higher education. Among the archival collections, I find not only curiosity in and revere for the faculty, staff, and students whose stories I steward, but also a guilty pleasure: cheap academic drama.

While some archives have sensational collections containing letters of infidelity, risqué photos, or records of criminal activity, many records in university archives tend to be more milquetoast. By no means are the archives insignificant or uninteresting, but, rather, they don’t boast quite the same sexiness as other archives. However, what university archives do have an abundance of—and what I’ve happily consumed throughout my work—is historic academic drama of every variety.

Sometimes petty actions taken during faculty in-fights, departmental dysfunction, and flippant frustrations in academia unknowingly become part of the historical record. In the moment, excoriating letters are written, grandiose memos are distributed, and issues are ferociously brought forward in agendas and minutes (following Robert’s Rules of Order, of course). For the participants, these battles in higher education seem monumental; indeed, sometimes the clashes are significant or revealing of deeper trends. Once they enter the historical record, though, they become fabulously entertaining pieces of history akin to reality television or tabloid journalism.

Take, for example, Salisbury State College’s (now Salisbury University) library staff from 1979 to 1981, whose meeting minutes in the Records of the Library tell of excruciating meetings held to improve “interpersonal communications.” After a workshop with a guest faculty member from social work, the Acting Associate Dean paid a visit in 1981 to make the following comments: “Just because you are professionals does not mean that your ideas must be followed,” “[I] would like to hear that you have been shouting at each other and working the problems out,” and “Petty things seem to be getting in the way.”[1] Did his advice help resolve the tensions over librarian communication? Doubtful.

Academic drama has arisen throughout Salisbury University’s history for a number of reasons, both mundane and serious. Documents show that spats have started over little things like telephone usage, room temperatures, leaving doors unlocked, excessive noises, indoor and on-campus smoking regulations, and space utilization. Incidents have also resulted from more consequential academic debates such as promotion procedures, grading systems, committee and subcommittee charges, and, a current favorite, general education reform. Former faculty and staff members leave a trail when embarking on their crusades and now, decades later, I find it amusing to follow those stories.

Evidence of past pettiness oftentimes hides among routine records in university archives, which makes it all the more satisfying to discover. It’s easy enough to find sources about campus scandals like a president’s forced resignation or controversial social media activities, so that doesn’t quite pack the same punch. There’s something intriguing about the minor quakes opposed to the drama that shakes a campus to its core. Perhaps that’s because petty drama is something that is part of the core of academic life.

University archivists like myself find joy in learning and sharing the histories of people, places, and groups within higher education. There are so many stories that weave through the past that are significant for any number of reasons. On the one hand, there are sustentative parts of an institution’s history that mark the high and low points shaping its identity. On the other hand, there is my metaphorical candy—cheap academic drama.

No institution of higher education is immune to the drama inherent in academic life because ideologues will continue to fill the ranks. When these personalities duke out their ideas, they’ll exchange furious memos and bring forth their manifestos. And, inevitably, these documents will enter the historical record for archivists like me to find—and revel in—years later.

[1] Professional/Reference Staff Meeting Minutes, 1979-1988, Records of the Library, [Box 1, Folder 3], Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture, Salisbury University, Salisbury, Maryland.

Ian Post is the University Archivist and Special Collections Librarian at the Nabb Research Center at Salisbury University. Originally from Michigan, he earned his MSLIS from the Pratt Institute School of Information. He has worked in several archives in West Michigan, New York City, and Maryland.

Meet Your Steering Committee: Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez

This post is part of a series highlighting our section leadership.

Elvia Arroyo Ramirez
Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez, Assistant University Archivist, University of California, Irvine.

Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez is the Assistant University Archivist at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). She earned her Master’s in Library and Information Science with specialization in Archives, Preservation, and Records Management from the University of Pittsburgh in 2011. She served on the 2017-2018 SAA Nominating Committee and is a contributing member of Project STAND. She is co-editor of an upcoming issue of Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies (JCLIS) on “Radical Empathy in Archival Practice.”

Why or how did you find your way to becoming an archivist?
I applied to UCLA’s Performing Arts Special Collections (now part of Library Special Collections) as an undergraduate in the work-study program simply because the title had the word “art” in it. As a student studying art history, I was searching for what I could logistically do with an art history background (beside getting a Ph.D). At the time, I had no idea what archives or what primary sources were. My boss, Lauren Buisson, had a deep influence on me. I admired how she took care of patrons who came into the reading room. I also admired the patience visiting researchers exhibited in the archival research process. My relationship to archives is continuously evolving. What archives are, how they are used, whose stories are preserved, are all questions that keep me curious and in this field.

Can you share a success you have had in your repository of late?
I am fairly new in my role here at UC Irvine; all of my experience prior to being Assistant University Archivist is in personal papers and manuscripts. I have largely focused on getting oriented and being patient with myself about the differences and challenges that are unique to university archives. My draw to university archives was to challenge myself to be a better advocate for archives and have more public facing responsibility to the university community.

One early success I can share was collaborating on a “Time Capsule and Treats” event at the end of the 2017-2018 academic year. The event (and title; I assure everyone reading that were was no time capsule making involved) was organized by one of our partners on campus and the purpose was to encourage students to donate their student organization records to the University Archives. One way to encourage students to stop by our booth was offering free pastries and milk tea from 85C, a local favorite coffee, tea, and bake shop. The ruse worked: a lot of students went wild for the free 85C. Some students did express an interest in transferring their organizations’ records, but I was unsure whether we would get any new transfers out of the event.

Fast forward to August and I received two new transfers from the LGBT Resource Center and the Asian Pacific Student Association. It turns out some of the students who attended the “Time Capsule and Treats” event took flyers and brought them back to their place of employment (LGBT Resource Center) and their student organization (APSA). I am so glad those 85C treats really did pay off!

What project are you most excited about in your archives?
Starting this winter quarter (most of the University of California campuses are on the quarter schedule), I will be the UC Irvine Cross Cultural Center’s Archivist-in-Residence. I am partnering up with the Cross Cultural Center on campus to host open office hours in their space so I can be readily available to assist student leaders in transferring their student organizations’ records to the University Archives. The Cross already has a couple of residencies (Faculty-in-Residence and a Counselor-in-Residence), so the idea to be the Archivist-in-Residence really comes from the culture the Cross has cultivated to make faculty and staff accessible to students outside of the usual office hours. The Cross Cultural Center has long been home for many student umbrella organizations; in fact, many organizations host their weekly meetings there. So it is my hope that this will help strengthen the Library’s relationships with present student leadership and help students become more familiar with archives and how they can transfer their organizational records.

You’ve moved from grant-funded positions into full-time permanent positions. What advice do you have for archivists who find themselves in term appointments?
I had a difficult time working through this question because there are the grant-funded positions that have a specific project and timeline, and there are the term-positions that are articulated like project positions but in reality are responsible for work that is ongoing and permanent. In either case, contract employment can negatively affect your psychological worth and value. I really dislike the expectation to do term-labor in our profession and the systemic culture that perpetuates it. But I am glad there’s been recent movement to acknowledge this and strategize for ways to move away from it thanks to folks like Ruth Kitchin Tillman, Sandy Rodriguez, and colleagues at UCLA who are speaking out against temporary contract work. Some of us stay in yearly contracts for years and even entire careers, which impacts quality of life in ways that are not immediately clear. For example, when I was working at Center for the Study of Political Graphics, I was on a two-year NHPRC grant-funded position. I wanted to co-sign a mortgage loan for a home my parents were buying. I was rejected because I was contingently employed, despite a decent credit score and low debt. It was so painful to be told that I was not a trustworthy borrower because of my employment status and that I could not help my parents in that way.

We all have our non-negotiables with regard to career opportunities and it usually goes: location, compensation, and growth. In our profession one of these usually has to give. Early in my career I knew I had to give up my number one non-negotiable (location) so that I can get the other two, and back to my number one. I went to parts of the country where I had no direct or established community and was far from my support system. While I was growing professionally and getting paid a living wage, I was emotionally starved from the people and places that I needed to feel healthy. So ultimately, my advice to folks who are on term appointments is to constantly re-evaluate what is the most important to you. If you are in a term position but feel like it is going to open new doors to get you to that permanent, better compensated, dream job location: get what you want out of it and go when you can. Do not stay if you can help it. You deserve permanence; you deserve growth; and you deserve exactly what you want.

What have you learned through your experience as a founding member of the LIS Microaggressions collective?
I learned about the power of telling your truth and how storytelling is one of the most effective methods to get folks to pay attention to a perceptively invisible issue that affects so many. Microaggressions are difficult to talk about because they come as small slights that may or may not be consciously intended. On the individual level, one microaggression doesn’t hold too much weight. Repeat incidences of microaggressions, however, begin to have a cumulative effect on employee well-being. Just like gaslighting, folks at the receiving end of microaggressions feel like it is in their head, that they are being too sensitive. Fear of retaliation and defensiveness from the folks who perpetuate such behaviors are all real barriers to have honest conversations about racism and sexism in the workforce as well. With the LIS Microaggressions project we (all early career women of color LIS professionals) wanted to remove the stigma and fear of sharing the scars we carry with us by allowing folks to anonymously post about their experiences with microaggressions in the workplace. I also learned about the power of zines and zinemaking and how they empower folks who usually do not see themselves or issues that affect them in commercial print publications.

You’re working to edit a special issue of the Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies on how an archival ethics of care can be enacted in real world environments (based on Caswell and Cifor’s notions of radical empathy). What are some ways in which individuals in a university archives might engage in acts of radical empathy?
Caswell and Cifor apply a feminist ethic of care to their concept of radical empathy to ultimately define four key relationships that affect the work of practicing archivists. Thus, “[i]n a feminist ethics approach, archivists are seen as caregivers, bound to records creators, subjects, users, and communities through a web of mutual affective responsibility.” An additional fifth relationship (archivist-archivist) was proposed by folks in the 2017 SAA session. Because university archives are mandated to preserve the history of the university, it is perhaps easy to lose sight of what is at the root of what we do as archivists. We are here to document the relationships people (faculty, administration, students, the greater communities) have with the campus, as well as be the repository for all of the official publications the university produces about itself.

A very real struggle I am experiencing right now is how to move forward with archival collections that involve individuals who have been involved in sexual harassment allegations. I’ve had to reckon with this scenario more than once in the near year I’ve been working at UCI, with the renaming of the Science Library as one of the more public instances. How should Special Collections & Archives respond to sexual harassment cases that involve their record creators? What inclusive description should be employed to acknowledge the fullness of this person’s relationship with the university? Radical empathy has helped me ground my feelings of helplessness in cases like these to think thoughtfully about how to move forward.

Can you talk about how you balance your research projects with the day-to-day responsibilities of your job?
Balance feels aspirational at times! I feel like I haven’t yet gotten to a point in my career where I feel comfortable saying “no” to professional opportunities – that might be my new year’s resolution. I know my partner at home has to reel me in at times when I start to bring “work stuff” home. I like to work; and I like to listen and be a part of a movement that is rethinking the way archives are collected, preserved, and accessible.

I am very fortunate to have a boss that not only shares these values, but is also deeply professionally involved, and she understands and allows folks in the department to build in time during their working hours to write or work on other professional projects. She invited me to her Friday morning writing sessions where we get out of the office and go somewhere else on campus to write or do other professional commitments. In previous places of employment, I never felt encouraged or supported to be professionally involved and I never felt like I was allowed to work on presentations during work hours. I always felt guilty and paranoid that someone was going to walk in on me while I was putting a slide deck together.

What projects do you envision the section undertaking during your 3-year term on the steering committee?
I am excited to work with Ellen and the rest of the Steering Committee on identifying our next priorities for the year. This year, I’d like to take more of the back burner approach and let other more seasoned members lead so I can learn from them. Ultimately, something I would like to pitch is designing some infographic materials relating to university archives. I would really like to see if we could put one together about FERPA – what kind of records constitute FERPA-protected records. As someone who is relatively new to university archives records, I constantly have to double, triple check my notes about the nuances of FERPA as I come across records that are in a gray area. It would be helpful to have a poster at my office to remind me of what records fall under FERPA. Another potential poster idea is an infographic for public colleges and universities who are legally mandated to observe state public records laws.

Call for participation

I am pleased to announce that the C&U Section Steering Committee recently voted for the theme of campus and campus-related histories, as this year’s Section focus. We will center on social justice-related work, such as inclusive and evolving historical narratives, contested commemorations, town-gown relations, and privilege within the archival record. 

I welcome your feedback on key questions we might pose, outputs that would be helpful to you in your jobs, or programmatic ideas for working together on this broad topic.

We’ll work as a Steering Committee and as a Section through the spring, and this will be the topic for the Section Meeting at SAA’s Annual Meeting in Austin, TX. Please join in, and feel free to reach out to me or to any member of the Steering Committee

Thank you!

Ellen Engseth
Chair, College and University Archives Section
Society of American Archivists

Development from Negatives

by Christina Zamon

Since the beginning of 2018, my team and I at Georgia State University worked tirelessly to pull together an exhibit featuring our photographic collections while speaking to the challenges of preserving the over 8 million photographs and negatives in our collections. The idea was to build a donor base and reach a broader audience beyond our traditional subject areas while garnering financial support for photographic conservation efforts.

For some background, many of our collecting areas have an archivist that serves as a curator for those collections. Our photographic collections, however, do not have a full-time professional archivist overseeing them and are heavily used by a multitude of constituencies. Our collections also contain the most comprehensive set of photographs documenting 20th century Atlanta including the photo morgue for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Many of the negatives in our collections are in fair-to-poor condition necessitating extensive conservation work. Without an in-house conservator, we must pay to send these out to a qualified conservator and generally spend $5,000 or more per year on approximately 30 negatives. We will all be dead and gone (and many of our negatives as well), if we continue at this rate.

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This boomerang showing a damaged negative that has been restored was used in online promotional materials to demonstrate impact. Courtesy George State University.

In order to address our challenges in preserving these negatives, we decided to try many new ideas, maybe too many, all at once. This exhibit was to be only the second regular exhibit opening for the library in its history and we decided to pull out all the stops. My curatorial team worked on creating two physical exhibits, one to be housed in the exhibit gallery on the 8th floor of Library South, and a smaller “satellite” exhibit in our Clarkston Campus library. In addition to the physical exhibits, they produced a complementary online exhibit to allow us to feature as many photographs from our collections as we could. The online exhibit also functioned as a test ground for Omeka Everywhere. After advocating for over a year I was finally able to purchase technology for our gallery and worked with our administration, Digital Scholarship Librarian, and Digital Library Services Unit to purchase a touch screen table top display where we could feature the online exhibit in the gallery alongside our physical exhibit.

As if that weren’t enough, our new Assistant Director of Development for the library wanted to test out some new fundraising ideas: not one, but two! So, we launched the library’s first crowdfunding page to pay for the exhibit and catering for the opening. That campaign ran from July 1 through the exhibit opening on September 23. Besides the crowdfunding campaign, we also decided to have an “adopt-a-negative” fundraising component to raise money to have one or more negatives restored by a professional conservator. The idea was that we could launch the “adopt-a-negative” component with the opening of the physical exhibit (so go from fundraising for the exhibit to fundraising for the collections) by having a room set up with print outs of damaged negatives and examples of negatives that were beyond saving. The adoption process could then be carried on throughout the year through our Omeka exhibit.


Clarkston Exhibit
Satellite exhibit at the Clarkston campus. Courtesy Georgia State University.

As we have difficulty drawing an audience for events on weekday evenings, due to traffic as well as finding the location of Library South, we decided to try something different. We decided to hold the opening on a Sunday afternoon so that folks could go to church and come downtown for the afternoon. We promoted the exhibit opening wherever we could, including the Decatur Book Festival, at tables in the library, in the university calendar and the Atlanta Celebrates Photography booklet, as well as the student newspaper. Our library marketing staff was set to announce it on the Visix displays across all campuses, in community calendars, etc.

Everything was planned out and the hope was to draw new donors and folks who had never stepped foot through our doors. Now, I had been told that “no one comes downtown on the weekends” and that most people were only downtown during the week because they were there for work and school and were gone on the weekends. But the weekends also mean free parking, which was heavily advertised. We also had activities for guests including free green screen photos where you get to put yourself in a historic Atlanta photograph and either get a postcard print or email it to yourself. And of course, you could adopt a negative and get the digital files for your own personal use. What could possibly go wrong!? Almost everything…


One of the green screen photographs created during the exhibit opening. Visitors could have their photo taken against a green screen and inserted into a historic photograph. Courtesy George State University.

There were things we were aware of and didn’t factor in and then there were things that did not even cross our radar. The biggest mistake? Trying to do all these new things at once. Had we thought more carefully, it would have been better to introduce these new ideas gradually. Not only did our exhibit focus on two things, collections and preservation, we decided to move the event from a weeknight to a weekend, and no, free parking did not draw the masses.

Beyond these issues we ran into other problems. Our marketing staff, as it turns out, did not do all the marketing that was discussed or expected. Our crowdfunding raised more than we had expected ($2,000 out of our $5,500 goal), but still fell short and did not cover all expenses incurred by the exhibit, especially the catering, which cost more than anticipated because it took place on a weekend.

Ultimately, 14 people attended the event; all but two of them were friends or family of the two exhibit curators. There were only two people, both graduate students, who made their way up to the exhibit gallery because they saw the directional signage down in the library. Not one person came to the event as a result of any of our social media or marketing. There were more of us working at the event than attendees, so it was a struggle not to have five people attending to each one person who walked into the gallery.

In the end, we had zero adoptions of negatives in person and to date, none online. We did not grow our donor base as hoped and did not use our existing donor base for the library as leverage. There were several lessons learned:

  1. Focus the exhibit on one topic. In this case, it should have been focused solely on preservation.
  2. Pick one fundraising activity per event. We should have focused solely on the “adopt-a-negative” fundraiser and leveraged our existing donor base by sending out promotional materials to those donors.
  3. There were too many people and activities involving a multitude of deadlines. This led to people dropping the ball, missing deadlines, or failing to follow through on assignments. Had we been more focused on one activity, we would not have overburdened staff members.

With these lessons in mind, we are now planning another exhibit launch in the fall of 2019. We will continue with the two physical exhibits and the Omeka exhibit in response to requests from the library administration, but we will likely drop the fundraising component or will pick one fundraiser. We will also hold the opening from 4-6 pm on a weekday and ensure that it is promoted to all of our donors and to the larger Atlanta metro area. Making these changes should ensure a better turnout and return on investment!

Christina Zamon is the Head of Special Collections and University Archives at Georgia State University, a position she has held since September 2016. Prior to that time, she served as Head of Archives and Special Collections at Emerson College. She is the author of The Lone Arranger: Succeeding in a Small Repository. She is currently a member of the College and University Archives Section’s Steering Committee and previously served as chair of the section (2014-2015).

Meet Your Vice-Chair: Benn Joseph

This post is the first in a series highlighting our recently-elected section leadership.

Benn Joseph headshot
Benn Joseph, Head of Archival Processing, Northwestern University Libraries.

Benn Joseph is the Head of Archival Processing at Northwestern University Libraries. The Archival Processing unit provides centralized archival description and collection management services for each of the Libraries’ Distinctive Collections, which include University Archives, the McCormick Library of Special Collections, Herskovits Library of African Studies, and the Transportation and Music Libraries. Previously, he worked as Head of University Archives & Special Collections at Illinois Institute of Technology, and in positions at Chicago History Museum and Benedictine University.

Why or how did you find your way to becoming an archivist?
This was after taking an intro to archives course in the MLS program at University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. Some of our assignments involved actually going to the Southern Historical Collection and using the materials there. I was hooked! It was way more interesting to me than what we were doing in cataloging, collection development, etc. I ended up with an internship at the Southern Folklife Collection, and a part-time job digitizing slides at the Duke University Medical Center Archives — upon finishing the program it just made sense to keep going!

Can you share a success you have had in your repository of late?
Earlier this year we hired a Digital Archivist, who is based in the Archival Processing unit. This took a number of years to accomplish, and was such a dire need for us that we’re hoping not to overwhelm Kelsey with things to do! Prior to her arrival, we had been required to take more of a DIY approach to born-digital materials in collections, and although that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, we’re very happy to have been able to really formalize this aspect of our work over the past year.

What project are you most excited about in your archives?
Recently the Archival Processing unit was tasked with centralizing the archival accessions function for all of Distinctive Collections (5 separate collecting units, including the Northwestern University Archives and the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections), something that has up until now been done in myriad ways over the course of many years. It might not sound that exiting, but good recordkeeping is its own reward!

What are some of the challenges you face as Head of Archival Processing?
Most challenges I perceive are connected in some way with the creation of this new unit, Archival Processing, and our efforts to define our unit’s role in the department where none existed before. To me it’s all about the streamlining and formalizing arrangement and description, but what does that mean exactly?

For one, I think striking a balance between volume and detail in processing is one of our more common challenges. Also, keeping on top of what we’re doing between each of the five repositories. We know well the wonders of MPLP, but the curators who bring in collections might not always share our enthusiasm with it in practice. Plus, even though we in Archival Processing work to determine a collection’s research value through the process of archival appraisal while we process, our appraisal and that of the donor and curator might not always match up. Sometimes the resulting recommendation winds up being item-level description for an acquisition that may only need a collection-level record.

And what about public services? In a department called Archival Processing you can imagine there may not be many opportunities to work with researchers, teach a class, etc. But, after spending months processing a collection, it is the processing archivist that is now the expert in this area … How can we bring this expertise to bear in a way that makes sense and is a good use of everyone’s time?

Lastly, the process of prioritization. For instance, as collections are ranked in priority for descriptive work, we usually assign higher priority to those in need of digitization, or ones that will be used for a class. Sometimes there are circumstances involving donors that require us to work quickly. As we do this, we also want to make sure we’re prioritizing, appraising, and describing in a way that ensures diverse voices are heard. And it’s a balancing act — we don’t want any jobs to seem rushed.

What strategies are you using to manage and process digital records in your repository?
With the Archival Processing unit having taken on the management of born-digital collections materials that come into Distinctive Collections, we’re trying to approach things as being format-agnostic. It’s all here to be used, regardless of format! Still, there’s a very different looking workflow that born-digital materials get shuttled through before being made available via the finding aid (or otherwise), and keeping track of all that really keeps us on our toes. The first phase involves migrating data for preservation and forensically analyzing it to prepare it for processing. We use a dedicated digital archives workstation that we call “Fred” (even though it’s not actually a FRED) to acquire, quarantine, ingest, and bag born-digital collection materials into the Fedora repository used by the library. Once these activities are complete, it can enter a more traditional queue for processing, where the processor analyzes the content itself, its metadata, and makes determinations about how to describe and arrange the material. All files that can be are copied and converted to open formats for access and further determinations are made about accessing proprietary formats that cannot be converted easily on a case-by-case basis.

What projects do you envision the section undertaking under your leadership?
I don’t have any particular agenda — for now, just continue with the work on this year’s initiative led by section chair Ellen Engseth. The steering group has done some brainstorming as to what might be a good project to undertake, and as the group works to expand on those ideas I think some ideas will take shape and carry over to the next year — these are topics like student workers in the archives (led by immediate past chair Rebecca Goldman), accessibility, documenting tragedies, and others. And of course I’m very interested to hear from anyone who wants to explore new ideas! 

Mapping Student Learning in the Archives

by Erin Passehl-Stoddart

This blog post is drawn from presentations at the 2017 SAA Research Forum[1] and the 2016 European Conference on Information Literacy[2].

I was intrigued by a question posted by Rebecca Goldman on the Academic Archivist blog to kick start this year’s focus on student workers: “How can we center student workers in this conversation and highlight their accomplishments?”[3] I believe there are two different perspectives that can help answer this question, and that incorporating both perspectives provides the maximum impact towards highlighting student learning in the archives.

The first perspective is that of the student worker, a voice that can be difficult to capture. With that in mind, I designed a pilot study around semi-structured interviews with student workers who interacted with archival materials at work. The interviews included open-ended questions about working in academic libraries and self-perceptions of how their work aligned with professional standards and how they will use what they learned after graduation. While I won’t dive deep into that here (it will be published in the Fall/Winter 2018 American Archivist), I will address the second perspective to the question how we can highlight student learning and their accomplishments.

The second perspective that is equally important to capture is that of archivists (and supervisors). As the head of special collections and archives at a land grant university, I often considered how I could better communicate the department’s impact in the library, university, community, and beyond. One aspect of this was to look at student learning taking place on the job. How do archivists usually convey student success and learning while on the job? The first ways that came to mind were written (evaluations, annual reports, development newsletters, etc.) and verbal (in meetings, donor conversations, etc.). I also wanted to acknowledge the value that archivists bring to teaching and enhancing the student worker experience. Many times, archivists articulate this through evaluations and statistics for annual reports, considering questions such as:

  • How does the archives/library provide effective learning opportunities for students?
  • How does student learning align with our professional standards?
  • How does the academic library align with university learning standards and strategic planning/mission?

One way to consider how archivists communicate student learning and highlight their successes is through an exercise that maps student job responsibilities to professional standards and literacies. As part of the exercise, I mapped functions found in student job descriptions to a corresponding standard or literacy learning outcome. For example, student positions that were heavily involved with physical or digital exhibits mapped well to visual literacy standards[4]; students heavily involved with processing or digitizing collections mapped well to the new primary source literacy standards[5]. This exercise can be broad or narrow; I decided to map functions to both the overarching standard and when appropriate a learning outcome found underneath it. This mapping exercise provides supervisors with more cohesive language that exemplifies both the student learning experience and the archivists’ role in teaching students in the workplace. Table 1 below shows common job duties that can be found in many archives departments.

Microsoft Word - Document1
Table 1: Student Position Job Duties Mapped to Professional Literacies and Standards

A second mapping exercise that I found helpful to articulate learning occurring while at work in the archives was to connect student job descriptions and functions to campus learning outcomes[6]. I found this exercise was effective in communicating with internal and external stakeholders and that I was better able to advocate for additional student opportunities. Academic courses taught at colleges/universities typically include specific learning outcomes for the course that align to campus learning outcomes. While not quite the same, one way to communicate student learning while at work in the archives is to utilize the same language. By making similar connections between learning in the classroom to campus learning outcomes, archivists can connect what students are learning at work to the same campus goals and speak the same language as other academic departments (see an example in Table 2 below). By placing student learning into broader competencies outside of professional standards and literacies, this information can be used by archives and library administrators to communicate the impact on student learning for annual statistics, reports, and accreditation reviews.

Microsoft Word - Document1
Table 2: Student Position Description Mapped to Campus Learning Outcomes.

By reframing and aligning activities of student workers to professional standards, literacies, and campus learning outcomes, archivists can highlight student accomplishments and the value of archivists in a teaching role. Mapping student worker functions is one way to help archivists strategically communicate impacts on learning while working in the archives to our stakeholders at all levels, whether the position is paid, volunteer, or intern. The mapping exercise serves as a helpful tool for administrators to advocate for how the archives or library contributes to campus-wide learning outcomes, as well as help improve the student worker experience.

Erin Passehl-Stoddart is the Strategic Projects and Grants Development Librarian at the University of Oregon. She previously was Associate Professor and Head of Special Collections and Archives at the University of Idaho. She holds an MSI with a specialization in archives and records management from the University of Michigan and a BA in history and political science from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Erin is a past president of Northwest Archivists and served as SAA key contact for Oregon and Idaho.


[1] Passehl-Stoddart, Erin. “Student Employment Matters: Mapping Literacies and Learning Outcomes in Special and Digital Collections.” Poster presentation at the Society of American Archivists Research Forum, Portland, OR, 2017. https://www2.archivists.org/sites/all/files/Stoddart_Poster_SAA_2017-Final.pdf

[2] Passehl-Stoddart, Erin. “Information Literacy Contributions From Archives and Special Collections.” Presentation at the European Conference on Information Literacy, Prague, Czech Republic, 2016. http://ecil2016.ilconf.org/thursday-13th-october/.

[3] Goldman, Rebecca. “Seeking Input: How Should the Section Act Upon a Theme of Student Workers in the Archives?” Academic Archivist, January 24, 2018: https://academicarchivist.wordpress.com/2018/01/24/seeking-input-how-should-the-section-act-upon-a-theme-of-student-workers-in-the-archives/.

[4] ACRL Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. 2011. http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/visualliteracy.

[5] SAA-ACRL/RBMS Joint Task Force on the Development of Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy. 2018.  https://www2.archivists.org/standards/guidelines-for-primary-source-literacy

[6] Stoddart, Rick and Beth Hendrix. “Learning at the Reference Desk: A Pilot Project to Align Reference Transactions with University Learning Outcomes.” Journal of Academic Librarianship 43(1), 3-7.

[7] University of Idaho Learning Outcomes. https://www.uidaho.edu/learningoutcomes (accessed October 15, 2018).