April 3, 2023

Black Digital Archives: Panel Discussion

The first in our set of events on archives brought together a panel of archivists to discuss their work documenting Black life. Based on data from the 2016 Statistics Canada Census, only 1.4% of working librarians (130 of 9,570 total) and 0.8% of working archivists (15 of 1,950 total) in Canada identify as Black. We wanted to create a space for Black librarians and archivists to come together and generate conversation around the complexities, challenges, and considerations that come with both archiving Black histories and archiving while Black.

What does it mean to remember Black histories? What can we do to recover histories that have been lost? How do we remediate the archive/archival practice to better remember Black life? How do we restore Black joy and humanity into the space of the archives? With our speaker series engaging in #blackdigitalhumanities, we want those attending our events to explore further questions like: What does the digital enable? How can the digital move archival studies toward Black archival practices that better reflect Black life? What is the significance of Black archives and archival practice in the creation of Black futures? How can we move toward more radical and liberated futures while - and through the very act of - looking back?

This panel featured Angela Stewart, Alissa Rae Funderburk, and R. Gerrad Lee from the Margaret Walker Centre and Charmaine Gooden, founder of the Black Fashion Canada Archive.

The Margaret Walker Centre, housed at Jackson State University, is an archive and museum "dedicated to the preservation, interpretation, and dissemination of African American history and culture. Each of the three panelists focuses on a different area of archival work, with Angela being their head archivist managing more traditional material, Alissa working on oral histories, and Gerrad focusing on digital humanities/archiving. Named after Black poet and author Margaret Walker, the archive's scope reflects her commitment to telling the stories of those deemed "unimportant."

The Black Fashion Canada Archive is an online collection documenting the often forgotten Black trailblazers within the Canadian fashion scene. The project aims to preserve, document, and celebrate the contributions of these fashion pioneers and operates in a less traditional form through interview based records. Charmaine, the founder, comes from a background of journalism and her work on this project began after she met Professor Kimberly M. Jenkins of the Fashion and Race Database who inspired her to work on a similar project within a Canadian context.

Beginning the discussion, Alissa highlights the archiving Black histories requires considering more than representation. While there is an undeniable need for more Black histories to be documented, it is also incredibly important to consider the wants and needs of the people whose histories you are archiving. Do they actually want their personal histories put online? Part of the ethics of the archive is people have agency and transparency! Adding tot his, Angela adds that there are contracts behind archival donations and donors can structure their contracts in ways they want to. This requires doing your due diligence in ensuring there's informed consent and donors know where their information is going and what it's going to be used for.

Building upon what our previous speakers have discussed, applications of technology within the archive must be carefully considered as it can easily lead to unintended harm. Garrad brings up the use of AI in archives, highlighting problems that AI still has with things like transcribing Black southern voices, recognizing Black people in photographs as distinct, etc. If we use these technologies, it is important that they are designed by the very communities they are meant to be representing.

Turning to Charmaine, one of the biggest difficulties she faces with recovering Black histories is the problem of age - as people age, it becomes so much more important to document these histories before they disappear. "We must speak to as many people living as possible. Get the facts straight so we are the source of credible information," says Charmaine, and people are able to tell their own stores while they can.

When working with digital archives, Alissa notes that another one of the challenges is the question of "How much will technology change in the next five years, or twenty? And will what I do now last in the future?" Angela further reminds us that not everything needs to be digitized. As digital archivists, we have to think critically about what digitization is doing and if it is actually necessary or meaningful to those whose material is being archived. Alissa also notes that one of the most important things in doing oral history work is care. Part of ethical oral history work is just putting in the time to ensure that your work properly reflects those whose histories are being documented.

For students, sometimes getting involved is as simple as having the passion and providing the skills you already have. Charmaine started her project with a Facebook post, putting out a call-out to her students to help conduct interviews and write profiles. This is sometimes all it takes! There are a lot of skills that students can bring into this work - listening, interviewing, being able to manage spreadsheets, etc. - these are all skills that can transfer into digital humanities work. Angela brings up three C's - curiosity, critical thinking, and care - as three key attributes that emerging digital humanists need and Charmaine adds "collaboration." Digital humanities is a fundamentally collaborative field! It is important to be able to work with others, whether your team members or the folks whose histories are being archived.

For prospective Black digital humanists - one of the first things you can do to engage with this field is exploring your local archives! A good launching point is identifying what you are personally curious about and asking questions like: Where do you find this history? Who is already working on archiving these histories? What - and who - is missing from these existing projects? These are questions you can ask yourself that can help you understand what space needs more TLC. Once you identify your problem space, you can then reflect: What skills can help you document these histories? Who are other folks that you can potentially collaborate with?

Further Engagements


Black Archives

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