AMIA BLOG 19-20/11 GIVING COMMUNITIES A VOICE

During the last day of the AMIA conference I was ready to hear about the content, not preserving bits or metadata extraction or file validation. I wanted to hear from those who were in it because of their passion and drive to save collections, their need to help communities. The IMAP (Independent Media Arts) session was a good start: three cases studies - an archivist from Outfest talked about the crisis facing collections documenting the LGBT community (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender). The challenge of finding institutions and funders to save material documenting these communities isn’t easy yet is essential to giving these communities a voice and educating the general public as a whole about their humanity. By working with the UCLA Film and TV archive, and through the generosity of specific individuals, they are saving ground breaking documentaries and other collections.

The second speaker, a student from the MIAP NYU program had a different mission - working on the collection of a woman artist, musician, journalist who had passed away at a young age of cancer. The collection was sitting in the artist’s husband’s house; he wanted to save it but couldn’t part with it either, it would have been like losing her again. Working in such a situation requires not only professionalism but empathy. Lastly, a young archivist from the Texas southwest was singlehandedly volunteering her weekends to assess, organize and preserve the SWAMP video collection. Representing 40 years of local community media, she was determined to find out what was there and make it accessible. I asked why are you so driven to work full time and then spend weekends volunteering to do this on your own? She said “because I’m from there and want to know what’s in those boxes. I know there’s great stuff”.

A different session later in the day set out to present a ‘post-custodial/non-custodial’ approach to acquiring, preserving and making collections accessible. All three panelists worked with human rights collections: WITNESS, the University of Texas Human Rights Initiative (UTHRI) and the Texas After Violence Project. They all agreed that with the increase in community driven media production, archives could no longer think of ‘acquisition’ as gaining custodial control over physical items as in former days. It was about establishing relationships between local communities, empowering them to tell their story, and linking with institutions who have the infrastructure and willingness to help preserve and make the materials accessible (in this case the UTHRI). 

As Howard Besser remarked, the UTHRI was truly ‘enlightened’ in its openness to allocate a tradition acquisitions budget to training local communities on digitization and cataloging material which the university would never formerly ‘acquire’. The university had realized that the ability to aggregate the resulting digital material into their ‘digital space’ strengthened their collection; they didn’t need to own the physical objects and it empowered the local communities by giving them the chance to control their own story. This is one of the great changes digital technology has brought to archives. The day brought me in contact with different collections sharing some common characteristics – they not only document parts of society not often seen in the mainstream media landscape, but can also be left out of mainstream collecting institutions; the archivists involved were looking to ‘nontraditional’ ways to ensure these collections would be rescued and made accessible into the future and finally, all had either individuals or special institutions dedicated to the idea that collaborative partnerships can not only ensure that communities have a voice, but that this voice becomes history. It was an inspiring end to the conference.