I began my work as a Fellow with the Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC) in late May of this year, for a 10-week termed position. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the hands-on work that I would have undertaken had to be altered to best accommodate an offsite remote Fellowship. Thus, my work turned towards research. One of these projects involved various avenues of research and investigation into culturally competent description (CCD) and how it can be utilized to better reflect the content and represent the recorded cultures in the RAC’s audiovisual (AV) collections.

Education Stage:

The guiding framework for my research started by studying the immensely thoughtful education campaign organized by archivists Amy Berish, Katie Martin, and Darren Young of the RAC Processing team. The purpose of the education campaign has been to assist the RAC staff in learning more about cultural competency concepts and overall inclusive and representative archival description.

As with the rest of the RAC staff, I interacted with several learning modules regarding cultural diversity competency (CDC) which acted as the first phase of the education campaign. This included my participation with several online learning modules that have been provided by the Society of American Archivists (SAA). These modules helped in the creation of shared terminology and provided examples of problematic systemic racism in the field and within archival description. An important aspect of CCD is understanding how implicit racial/ethnic biases can affect an institution’s own archival description and how we as archivists can combat these issues on a personal and institutional level.

My education continued into the campaign’s second phase, which consisted of several readings that had been used as the framework for prior RAC Reading Group Sessions. These documents, which I consider affluent elucidations on CCD related topics, provided an excellent background in reforming my own personal unconscious biases both within the field and outside of it. For example, Jessica Tai’s essay “Cultural Humility as a Framework for Anti-Oppressive Archival Description” provided an insightful and internalized look into archival description framework to produce redescription and new description, a framework that is transparent, representative, and inclusive. The “Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia: Anti-Racist Description Resources”, which was created by Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia’s Anti-racist description working group, laid out foundational recommendations for terminology, voice, style, collaboration, and reparative processing of archival materials that involve the lives and histories of Black people, within and outside of America.

Research Stage:

From this research, I started working on a document to break down important aspects of CCD that I considered pertinent and relevant to the RAC’s future plans for creating CCD guidelines for their audiovisual material. This document consisted of several considerations in the form of statements and questions that a processing archivist might want to contemplate before describing a film, video, or sound recording. I defined these as pre-description thinking points.

Several broad generalized statements were then collected that alert users of potentially problematic content. These examples came from multiple locations, including archives, libraries, universities, and corporations, and provided me with a rough structure to create a generalized statement for the RAC to use for its audiovisual collections. This draft, which can be used at the series or collection level, has since been modified to best reflect the mission statement of the RAC.

Soon I was scrutinizing the current audiovisual titles in the RAC collections, specifically the Ford Foundation collection and the Rockefeller Foundation collection. The first part of my work was comprised of identifying and selecting titles from these collections that are problematic and elaborate on why. Audiovisual titles designated as problematic contain racist, gendered, and/or ableist terminology. Obviously, the titles of films, videos, and sound recordings cannot be changed. Because of this, it is important to identify and acknowledge these titles and how we can address their problems in our descriptions and statements.

The second part of this work had me studying the RAC’s current description of audiovisual materials and choosing sections (or areas) that may need potential changes or edits to meet intended CCD standards. Film titles were selected and content descriptions closely read in combination with watching the digital transfers that are available on the RAC’s YouTube page.

For the Ford Foundation, I selected When the Walls Come Tumbling Down (1975). The 16mm film depicts the actions of members of the resident-management program and their response after the failure of the Pruitt-Igoe urban housing project. I gravitated to this film due to its problematic representations of urban housing. As a past film student, I was drawn by the film’s depiction of architecture and its relation to Foucault’s writings on panopticism. The problems facing the Black community in St. Louis in the early 1970s were greater than what is being represented in the film. It’s these representations that caught my attention as I inspected potential areas for redescription.

The second film, which comes from the Rockefeller Foundation collection, is One Tenth of Our Nation (1940), which we used as a case study for a Reading Group Session in collaboration with members of the Processing team as part of the on-going education campaign.

Case Study – One Tenth of Our Nation:

One Tenth of Our Nation is a 1940 sponsored film funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and the General Education Board. It is considered by the American Film Center as the first great documentary of Black education in the United States. Directed by journalist Felix Greene and written/narrated by Maurice Ellis, One Tenth of Our Nation provides a fairly accurate depiction of Black poverty and segregated education in the American South. The current RAC description of the film fails to encapsulate the impact of a Black oriented film during a time when segregation and Jim Crow laws were still running at full force.

My research into the history of One Tenth of Our Nation led me to two academic papers that provide background about the film’s production. In particular, Craig Kridel’s “A Grey Zone of Noncompromise: Sponsored Film, the American Film Center, and One Tenth of Our Nation revealed the impactful changes that can affect the creation of a sponsored film, and that One Tenth was re-edited in 1943 to become As Our Boyhood Is. This later film had a severely revised (and whitewashed) viewpoint on the problems facing Black Americans in the South. From this research, we conducted a Reading Group Session for RAC staff members, using these conflicting films as a case study to illuminate the propagandistic nature of both titles and the persuasive power of film.

Final Reflections:

This experience has brought to my attention just how vital culturally competent description is for an archive and their collections. I have come to recognize that the work we conduct in an archive comes from a place of privilege. Thus, we are responsible for how histories are represented, described, and accessed. I better understand my obligation as an archivist to make sure that I am doing my due diligence when it comes to representation of these historical objects. My experiences in learning and researching CCD has provided insights and practical actions to combat erasure and hidden histories. This awareness will serve as a guide as I begin my journey as a professional audiovisual archivist.