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On diversity and archives

February 9, 2011

Happy Wednesday, dear readers! I hope your week is going well. It has been a crazy busy week at my library. I seem to be running from one meeting to another constantly. But I wanted to take the time to just ramble a bit about something that struck me last week while I was doing research at the Bancroft and put in a couple of cents on the entire “is academia still relevant/” debate. And I’d like your thoughts on these matter too.

First a bit of background. I was doing research at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley last week. The Bancroft, for those that are unfamiliar, is one of the premier archives in California and houses both the University Archives and Special Collections and is just really pretty awesome (and one of the busiest archives around). It was a wonderful three day research trip that I was able to fit into a week that blessedly had no meetings on three consecutive days. I was a bit anxious going to research at the Bancroft because their website isn’t the friendliest ever, but everyone was extremely helpful and nice, the remodeled building is lovely, and the reading room has great tables, comfy chairs, and is only slightly too cold for comfort. Plus I found some amazing information in the collections for my research project and was able to even meet up with a friend for lunch. In all a very worthwhile trip.

However, on my second day at the archives, something just struck and unsettled me for the rest of the trip. I live in the East Bay and therefore naturally took BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) from my town to Berkeley. BART is one of the things I love about the Bay Area. I am a big fan of public transit and not having to find (and pay) for parking in the sprawling cities of the Bay Area. After living in Boston, public transit is to me a more natural way of traveling than driving. And BART is one of those public areas, much like the “spectacular realities” talked about by Vanessa R. Schwartz, that bring people together in a common space. There is a great cross-section of people riding the BART and it feels like the Bay Area, which is one of the most diverse places in the country. This diversity is one of the main reasons that I came back to Northern California and was ecstatic about getting a job at East Bay.

This was then juxtaposed with sitting in the reading room at the Bancroft where most of the people researching were Caucasian. If you just plunked someone down in the room without letting them know where they were, the person wouldn’t be able to tell they were in the Bay Area. The reading room, in other words, in no way represented the population of the Bay Area. This difference strikes me from time to time in various settings, usually in academia, and I still haven’t exactly figured out what, if anything, to do about it. I didn’t have time to fully process this uneasiness during my research trip as I was speed reading through boxes of manuscript materials, but I thought I’d share it now to see if others have had similar experiences and their thoughts on them.

I think many of us in the profession have become more sensitized to this issue of lack of diversity in the profession because of the push that’s been occuring in both the library and archives fields to increase diversity in the profession. And that makes me uneasy too, not because I don’t think we should increase diversity–I do, but because I’m leery of recruiting anyone into a profession where there are simply not enough jobs for those already in the profession or professional schools yet alone enough positions to absorb the increase in professionals if any recruiting efforts are successful.

But coming back to the archives example, and to stay away from too much rambling, I really wonder about how archives can appeal more broadly to a diverse community and how we can get more diverse voices in the process of writing history (as historians can often be found lurking in the archives) and have these histories be seen as “academic” or “serious” works and not maligned as “public history.” (And I won’t even get into how annoying I find that public history is not seen as “serious” history in some circles because we would be here until next Wednesday).

So I have no solutions to this issue of the disconnect between some areas of academia and the communities in which the academies are located. It is just something that I wanted to write about because it does concern me as a person and as an academic, especially as there seem to be more attacks, for lack of a better word, on the importance and relevance of universities and colleges. I’m also concerned in my role as an archivist, and specifically as an archivist studying the histories of community archives, about the lack of coordination and communication among community and institutional archives. I want to see the archives, libraries, and academia in general reflect the diverse, contradictory, and multiplicity of voices of the communities in which they are embedded. I worry about creating a larger gap between those in the “ivory tower” and those outside, but am hopeful that we can keep this from happening and even close the gap. And I’m hopeful that the research I’m currently working on can eventually help. That’s all I really have to say.

Any thoughts you have on this issue or related issues, I’d love to hear about in comments. I’ll be back on Friday with tech news and fun. Have a wonderful rest of your day. Allons-y!

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. litbrarian permalink
    February 9, 2011 6:19 pm

    It may be that archives still have many of the stigmata that people have been desperately trying to dispel. It could be the history field or it could be archives. Though increasing accessibility is likely a step in the right direction for diversity and recruitment… breaking barriers and whatnot. Though at the same time, it may just not be something in which minorities (though I hate to use the word, especially here) are interested. I’m reminded of the New York Philharmonic who, when accused of discrimination, started a year-long recruiting campaign… and even after all that, they only had a couple of black musicians… and even now don’t have any. Increasing diversity is definitely tricky business.

    • dwakimoto permalink*
      February 9, 2011 7:57 pm

      I’d definitely agree that increasing diversity can be tricky, but think that it is necessary for the profession and especially for increasing the relevance of archives to the communities. Because I think that people are interested, but they aren’t coming to the institutional archives–they are bypassing them for community archives and community history projects. If we don’t find the connections among the various archives and communities, the relevance of the field and repositories to those outside of the privileged positions inside academia will continue to decrease.

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