Backpack-sized archiving kit empowers

An Archivist in a Backpack oral history kit (courtesy Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill).

Allison Meier, Backpack-Sized Archiving Kit Empowers Community Historians to Record Local Narratives, Hyperallergic, 21 June 2018

The new Archivist in a Backpack project from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill equips community partners with tools to start material and oral history archives.

Much of our understanding of the past is based on archives, and who assembles those records, and decides what’s worthy of protection. A new project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Southern Historical Collection (SHC) is making archive creation more accessible by offering resources that can easily launch community partners on memory projects. Called Archivist in a Backpack, it supplies compact kits with basic tools for oral history and material archives.

“There’s this sense that there’s something arcane and a little mysterious about what it takes to preserve history,” Josephine McRobbie told Hyperallergic. McRobbie is the community archivist at SHC in the Wilson Special Collections Library. “Our experience is that history harvests are often the starter material that fuels larger archives aspirations in communities, and the backpacks contain what a citizen-historian might like to have to get started.”

One kit is specifically for oral history interviews. While it has the expected audio recorder and tripod, it further assists DIY historians through interview question cards and a training guide from the Southern Oral History Program, as well as thank you cards to send participants. Another is designed for archival preservation and digitization of ephemera, whether photographs, letters, or diaries. A flatbed scanner, thumb drive for files, acid-free sleeves and folders, and cotton gloves for handling fragile photographs, are joined by user-friendly technical tips.

“For some people, archival supplies are really important,” McRobbie stated. “We have worked with several historic black towns in the South through our partnership with the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance, and a theme that has shone through is the effects of environmental racism on how people are able to preserve historical documents. Not only are we in the South where it is muggy and humid, but there are many stories of African American communities that have lost documents and historic landmarks due to being located in flood-prone areas.”

This April, McRobbie brought the first set of kits to the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum, which is dedicated to recognizing African American heritage in San Antonio, Texas, through collecting documents and interpreting history. As part of the visit, six of the organization’s volunteers were trained in using audio recorders and scanners, while a Scan-A-Thon, oral history event, and open house involved the public.

Often the history being archived by these grassroots groups or smaller history organizations is overlooked in major institutions. For instance, one focus of the scanning in San Antonio were photographs related to Rev. R. A. Callies, who helped found one of the largest MLK marches in the country. His daughter and people who worked with Callies additionally shared their stories, contributing to a rich resource on his legacy.

Over Memorial Day weekend, the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project used the Archivist in a Backpack kits to digitize historic photographs for an upcoming exhibition timed with the Eastern Kentucky Social Club Reunion in St. Louis. SHC’s other community archiving partners — including the Appalachian Student Health Coalition and the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance  — will also receive kits as part of the initiative.

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