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