Each One, Teach One: Diversifying the Archival Profession

The idea for this post spawned from April Hathcock’s White Librarianship in Blackface: Diversity Initiatives in LIS. We hear several people speak up about diversity (or, more honestly, the lack of it) in “Archivesland,” but it’s often the same folks over and over. Are the rest of us listening? What about the perspectives of folks who aren’t particularly vocal, but clearly are affected by our not-entirely-successful attempts to diversify archivy? Charmaine is not a Mosaic Fellow or a Spectrum Scholar, so her take on how to make the profession more diverse is not tied to current programs. In this post, she talks about her journey to and in library school, and about what might effectively bring more archivists of color into the profession.

Guest author: Charmaine Bonner
MLS Student at North Carolina Central University

A little background about me: I was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan and my only experiences with a library prior to high school were in the neighborhood library up the street from my house. (Shout out to the Jefferson Branch of the Detroit Public Library System; many after school days were spent there). I had some idea of what an archive was thanks to “The Mummy” movie franchise, but that was about it.

Fast forward to when I transferred to Grambling State University to complete my Bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education. I became a work-study student working in the library under Librarian Adrienne Mosby. At the time I was already considering attending library school but also considering a Masters in Counseling to become a guidance counselor, which would have been a natural choice considering my background in Education. However, the idea of library school wasn’t much of a stretch due to my longtime interest and research in genealogy.

During my time as a student worker and talking with Ms. Mosby, I became more certain about the idea of becoming a librarian. The acting library director, Cecilia Iwala, also played a role in encouraging me to pursue library school. Originally, I was interested in a distance education program but realized I preferred the on campus learning experience. I found Hack Library School and began communicating with one of the contributors, Lesley Looper, who attended North Carolina Central University. I made the decision to attend NCCU because that was the institution Cecilia Iwala had graduated from and my communication with Lesley, and after a positive experience during my visit to Durham, I enrolled in Fall 2014.

I originally intended to pursue public librarianship but had a nagging interest in working with historical items. I switched my concentration to Archives and Records Management and joined SAA. I reached out to the University of North Carolina’s SCOSAA chapter hoping to connect with other students interested in archives. I have had amazing experiences at UNC meeting new colleagues and attending the programs and events. I have also taken advantage of the inter-institutional agreement and enrolled in two of UNC’s archives courses this past semester. I enjoyed taking courses at UNC, although it was a hassle at times to travel between UNC and NCCU. I think in the future it would be convenient if there was a bus between NCCU and UNC like the Robertson Scholar Express, which travels between Duke and UNC.

My experiences in library school have been overwhelmingly positive. In regards to scholarships and programs to assist people of color, I became vaguely aware of some programs and scholarships but not until the deadlines were right upon me. I had emotional support and encouragement from the faculty at NCCU, but now I needed to make things happen for me on my own. The importance of networking has resonated with me throughout my library school experience.

Last year, I began communication with Holly A. Smith, Spelman College Archivist, through a research inquiry I had regarding my genealogy. I have maintained contact with Holly ever since and she has been one of my biggest sources of support. She recommended I seek out internship experiences, which I promptly began to do. In the fall, I was hired as the 2015-2016 John Hope Franklin Research Center SNCC Intern at Duke University. John Gartrell, John Hope Franklin Research Center Director, has been cross-training me in different areas of archival work, which is providing a multitude of experiences, from working with donors to digitization proposals.

I am receiving the hands on experiences of working in an archival setting which I’ve been told is crucial to the hiring process. I also was encouraged to attend the SAA’s Annual Meeting. I attended for the first time this year in Cleveland, where I met many archivists and librarians all over the United States. I definitely recommend attending if possible. There are a number of scholarships, and I received one that covered my registration fee from Archives Next.

I have included so many anecdotal experiences in hopes of explaining how they have been essential to recruiting me to this field. I had the initial interest, but talking to librarians of color definitely made the idea of library school more tangible. The individuals I’ve met along my journey and their willingness to have conversation, encourage, and support me was essential. By support, I mean simply being there to answer questions and provide advice, and I believe this is one component to retaining people like me in the field. I appreciate everyone I’ve met along the way, but I must say it’s comforting to know that someone with a similar background has been where you are and made it out alive (totally joking).

Seriously, though, I think a mentorship program for people of color that is formed by people of color could be beneficial. Perhaps such a program will recruit and retain librarians and archivists in the field. If I’ve benefited from forming connections with librarians and archivists of color, I’m sure others would too. I envision an active mentorship program and/or support group in which there are frequent meetings, emails and calls so that students really feel supported. I think the feeling of isolation which comes with the territory of being a person of color in any underrepresented field can be curbed this way. I believe in the idea of “each one, teach one,” and all of the librarians and archivists I’ve met have been more than willing to do so. A formal organization or program to make this happen more frequently only seems natural.

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