By Adria Carpenter
During the 2020 uprisings, Institutional Archivist Ellen Holt-Werle had been volunteering for organizations working to preserve materials created and offered out of the mass emotions people felt following George Floyd’s murder.
These were community archives, collections made by members of a community outside the realm of institutional archives like the University of Minnesota Archives and Special Collections or the Minnesota Historical Society.
The Twin Cities has plenty of community archives, as well as individuals with growing collections in their basements or apartments, who wouldn’t necessarily call themselves archivists.
Community archives fill in the gaps left by large archival institutions that often create barriers for marginalized groups, particularly BIPOC communities. These predominantly white institutions have ignored and overlooked these communities, leading to a loss of their stories and memories.
Because of the barriers baked into the archival profession — education, archival processes, the legacy of white supremacy and settler colonialism, ongoing structural discrimination, and many more — many marginalized communities decide not to engage with institutional archives, and instead will preserve their own histories.
Holt-Werle has seen this firsthand. In her previous career as the archivist and special collections librarian for Macalester College in St. Paul, she talked with plenty of students and campus organizations that refused to donate their documents or records to the college.
Historically, these institutions haven’t prioritized building relationships and collaborating. Instead it’s been a patronizing mindset of “give us your materials because we can take care of it better than you can,” she explained.
Are predominantly white institutions the best stewards of that history, when they don’t have the relationship, background knowledge, and cultural context to know what materials are important to preserve, how they should be preserved, and who it should be for?
“It’s for communities,” Holt-Werle said. “They should be the primary audience for their own materials.”
The Community Archivist Hub
As part of the Radical Librarianship Institute program, Holt-Werle and Ego Sowinski decided to build a network centered around and led by community archivists — independent of institutional influence — where they can share their work, expand archiving practices, and critically, encourage more people to document their lives and communities. Sowinski is the archivist for The Black Gate, a studio residency project by St. Paul artist Seitu K. Jones.
The community archivist hub will have virtual time for people to discuss, ask questions, and share challenges. The hub will also have in-person meetings held at different community centers around the Twin Cities, where people can obtain basic storage supplies, use scanning equipment, or access other resources.
Holt-Werle will also make a cumulative zine that will document the network’s formation and progress. The final product will depend on the community archivists’ input, but it might be a directory of local community archives, advice about how to archive and preserve materials, or a discussion about the importance of preserving BIPOC history, she said.
Holt-Werle thinks this network will help people build relationships and rely on each other for support. But most importantly, she hopes it’ll emphasize why community archives are needed, and why we should preserve our own history.
“In my previous job, student organizations were like, ‘Well who cares about my stuff? My stuff isn’t important,’” she said. “And I’ve heard that sentiment too, ‘The papers and letters that my family members have, who cares about those?’”
Similarly, being in a network of radical librarians was comforting for Holt-Werle. Hearing other people’s questions and ideas, and how their projects changed from their original proposal, helped refine her own ideas. The sessions were dense but instructive, especially the project management workshop.
“They weren’t kidding when they said intensive,” she laughed. “It was really great. It was really tiring, but it was also really fulfilling.”
Holt-Werle believes that more institutional archivists should support community archives and the generational knowledge, advocacy, and activism the provide. For her, being a radical librarian means ensuring that libraries benefit people who have been previously excluded, ignored, or under-researched. Archives should focus on people, not just their possessions.
“There are really good things about librarianship and archives, and also that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be critically examined and radically re-envisioned,” Holt-Werle said.