For Phase 2 of its Culturally Competent Description Education Campaign, the Rockefeller Archive Center organized a series of reading group discussions to explore how to implement workflows and policies for creating more inclusive archival description, how to make histories that have been marginalized more discoverable, and how to recognize and combat white supremacy culture in our practices. Lessons learned from organizing and facilitating conversations about culturally competent description during the first phase of the Education Campaign influenced how Amy Berish, Katie Martin, and I approached developing the reading group sessions while increased collaboration and knowledge sharing with our colleagues expanded and invigorated the substance and scope of each discussion. The sessions’ escalating focus on the collections and practices of the RAC have made the path towards action more tangible.
Building from Phase 1 to Phase 2
Amy, Katie, and I proposed the reading group component of the CCD Education Campaign when we devised the campaign’s project charter in the fall of 2020. Whereas the Phase 1 remote learning part of the campaign was designed to establish a shared foundation of knowledge about cultural competency practices within the framework of archives in order to give all of our colleagues an opportunity at engaging these subjects, I would say that the reading group strived to explore the possibilities for reimagining the practices and ideologies that embed and perpetuate white supremacy in archival collections and archival institutions. As the reading group sessions progressed, we continuously encouraged participants to place what they had read within the context of our institution’s collections and practices so that they could think about behaviors, actions, and projects they and their teams could implement to create change. We then finished the reading group with a session that delved into specific examples of problematic description within our own holdings.
The reading group consisted of three discussion sessions in total. These sessions convened on an almost monthly basis, and each one concerned a different reading or set of resources about inclusive archival description and other related topics in archives and allied fields. Neither attendance at the Phase 1 discussion sessions nor attendance at any previous Phase 2 reading group session were required for a staff member to attend an upcoming session if they wished to join. We remained consistent in our objective to make the education campaign open for all staff to participate and carried over some of the facilitation techniques we learned in Phase 1 like the use of the ground rules we had developed based off of the University of Minnesota’s “Setting ground rules for productive discussions”.
Above all else, the inclusion of guest facilitators in the reading group sessions is responsible for advancing the second phase of the education campaign from the foundations we set up in Phase 1 to bringing the RAC closer to performing reparative description actions. Amy, Katie, and I are all on the Processing Team, so incorporating the perspectives of people who interact with the RAC’s archival description in contexts outside of processing into the organization and facilitation of the reading group sessions made the discussions more impactful in a number of ways. Each facilitator brought their particular expertise and understanding of how their job intersected with the RAC’s archival description to how they approached the reading group’s content and were able to speak to colleagues in similar positions. Fortunately, we had a solid foundation of support to draw from because throughout the whole education campaign, the project received an enormous amount of commitment and engagement from across all levels and teams at the RAC. We thank our colleagues for devoting their time and efforts to delve into the reading group materials and to contribute to the discussions through listening to one another and sharing their thoughts.
From a project management standpoint, Amy, Katie, and I were also conscious of how we had underestimated the work and emotional labor involved in putting together the first phase of the education campaign. We wanted to see the CCD project progress and not disintegrate because we and our institution could not continue prioritizing it. Sharing responsibilities, nurturing stronger investment in the project, and valuing and incorporating the perspectives of our colleagues helped sustain the education campaign and ensure the prospect for future reparative description actions at the RAC.
For the three reading group sessions, we had guest facilitators join us from Digital Strategies, Research and Education, Reference, and Collections Management. We also had a discussion session co-led by the RAC’s 2020 Selznick School Fellow, Christian Balistreri. The section below outlines how each of our collaborators contributed to building the reading group.
Phase 2 Progression
Reading Group 1 - Collaboration with Digital Strategies and Research and Education
The inclusion of guest facilitators in the reading group originated from when we were planning the first phase of the campaign and two of our colleagues, Hillel Arnold, Assistant Director for Digital Strategies, and Rachel Wimpee, Assistant Director for Research and Education, approached us about ideas they had for continuing discussions at the RAC around decolonizing the description of our institution’s materials. These discussions emerged from a presentation our former RAC colleague, Elizabeth Berkowitz, gave about reframing Hillcrest House (the building which houses the RAC) and the objects it contains in relation to social justice and inclusion issues during the summer of 2020. Amy, Katie, and I met with them to see how their ideas and the CCD Education Campaign could fit together, and we all agreed that Hillel and Rachel leading a staff conversation around the text they were considering would be a great way to kick off the reading group we had envisioned for Phase 2.
During the course of the first phase of the education campaign, Amy, Katie, and I had also heard from other staff members interested in finding ways to more actively assist the project. Elated by their enthusiasm, we considered their interests in relation to our planned collaboration with Hillel and Rachel and decided that recruiting volunteer facilitators for each discussion session would become a permanent feature of the reading group.
The text for Reading Group 1 was:
- Chapter 1 of Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History by Michel-Rolph Trouillot
Hillel and Rachel used their past experiences with facilitating a reading group to bring together the archival theory and methodology knowledge of the Archives Program teams and the history theory and methodology knowledge of the Research and Education team to situate our discussions around CCD within how we understand the ways in which history is produced. This reading group session explored the role archives have in the production of history and the creation of silences in historical narratives as well as the relationships between archives and other participants active in the production of history.
Reading Group 2 - Collaboration with Reference
The second reading group session provided us with the first opportunity to issue a call for volunteer facilitators from all of the staff, and we were thrilled when Renee Pappous, an archivist on the Reference Team, generously offered to help. Amy, Katie, and I had been particularly interested in the Reference perspective since we started developing the CCD project because of that team’s expansive knowledge on our institution’s records, their interaction with our users, and their experience with using the RAC’s description to aid researchers. We also came to this session more prepared to learn from a collaborator who had experienced the CCD Education Campaign solely as a participant up until that point. Renee helped us better understand how other staff members perceived the content and direction of the reading group.
For Reading Group 2, we looked at:
- Identifying and Dismantling White Supremacy in Archives poster by Michelle Caswell’s Archives, Records, and Memory class, Fall 2016, University of California Los Angeles (poster design by Gracen Brilmyer)
- “Digitizing and Enhancing Description Across Collections to Make African American Materials More Discoverable on Umbra Search African American History” by Dorothy Berry
During this reading group session, we and our discussion group participants reflected on the specific actions recommended in Caswell’s poster as well as those Berry described. We considered how our work and that of our teammates aligned with those actions, how those actions could be carried out at the RAC, and what we would have to rethink and reimagine about our work and how we do it in order to successfully implement them.
Reading Group 3 - Collaboration with Collections Management Team and 2020 Selznick Fellow
Our final reading group session emerged out of a larger collaborative project between us and the RAC’s Audiovisual Archivist, Brent Phillips from the Collections Management Team, and our 2020 Selznick School Fellow, Christian Balistreri. As part of his fellowship, Christian investigated how CCD work could be applied to the RAC’s audiovisual materials. He and Brent used a segment of the reading group session they co-facilitated to share with the staff all of the work Christian had accomplished, including a broad, collection level statement to be applied for AV materials with problematic language and/or content and examples of problematic description he found within titles and scope notes of RAC AV materials.
Reading Group 3 looked at films:
- “A Gray Zone of Noncompromise: Sponsored Film, the American Film Center, and One Tenth of Our Nation” by Craig Kridel
- “‘Feelings Come First.’ Music and Sounds as Entertaining Forces in The City, The River, and One Tenth of Our Nation” by Costanza Salvi
In this reading group session, for the first time, one of our institution’s holdings, the film One Tenth of Our Nation, was used as a case study for identifying where archival description can be harmful and erasing and what reparative measures can be implemented to reduce this harm. Christian and Brent led us from discussing possible collections and practices we could address from a CCD standpoint to discussing why the description for a specific RAC record was problematic and how we can apply a CCD framework to address those issues.
To read more about the fantastic work Christian and Brent completed for the CCD/AV project, check out Christian’s blog post!
Moving to the Action Campaign
Building off the momentum generated by the work Christian completed for his fellowship and by the enthusiasm demonstrated by the last reading group session for digging into the actual records of the RAC, the RAC’s CCD efforts will transition from an Education Campaign to an Action Campaign so that we can begin the work of assessing our collections for where reparative description actions should be carried out and equipping our colleagues with the guidance and means for implementing those actions.
We fully recognize that our education on culturally competent description and anti-racism in archives and archival description will be forever ongoing, and we commit to continuously engage with emerging literature and practices regarding those topics. At the moment, we believe that the best learning opportunity for us and our colleagues is present in our description and workflows and that we must begin auditing our collections and interrogating our practices in order to access those lessons of failure and increase and distribute understanding across our institution.
One small step towards the adoption of reparative description practices was made during the midst of Phase 2 of the CCD Education Campaign when the entire Processing Team collaborated on revising our team’s mission statement to specifically include our pursuit of CCD practices. The revised statement is included below but can also be accessed on the RAC’s website.
The Processing team establishes and enhances intellectual and physical control of our archival holdings by effectively and efficiently organizing, describing, and preserving all eligible materials, regardless of form, medium, or creator, to facilitate user access. We ensure timely, open, and equitable access to primary sources on site and online. We actively promote the use and understanding of the historical record through the collection guides we create in accordance with DACS descriptive standards, and all program policies and procedures foster accountability and transparency. The Processing team commits to culturally competent descriptive practices, as we acknowledge that our collections and the archival descriptions we create are shaped by racial, gendered, and other cultural identities and biases. We aim to describe materials representing marginalized, underrepresented, and historically oppressed people and cultures appropriately and respectfully. As we learn and grow through professional development, we seek opportunities to contribute to the archival profession and collaborate with practitioners in related fields.