Treasures from the Archives

Note: PALS is kicking off its 2017-2018 year with this introduction to working with archives and archivists by guest writer Cheylon Woods. Cheylon is the head archivist at the Ernest Gaines Center and has worked with other archives in the past. Here she gives us some insight and pointers for bring the archives into our course planning and our students to the archives. Also see librarian Kelli Hansen’s post from last year on Collaborating with Your Special Collections Librarian.

In the last five years, I have noticed the word “archive” being used…a lot. From archives on DIY blogs to individuals discussing their “personal archives” in their homes, a general concept of an “archive” seems to be catching on, and I couldn’t be happier…kinda… I am an archivist, and personally I find archives completely fascinating! I love the fact that people seem to be learning what an archive is, but I find myself wondering if they really understand what archives are and what they offer, or do they think it is just a term to apply to where they keep their “old stuff” (spoiler, it’s the latter). Personally, I am of the mindset that some conversation is better than no conversation, so I am happy to take the idea that an archive is simply a place for “old stuff” and expand on that, because archives are so much more. Luckily, I am in a perfect position (being an archivist and all) to use my experience and collection to advocate for the support and use of archives.

South Dakota State Archives
South Dakota State Historical Society Archives
A brief background

First, I think I should start by introducing myself and the archive in which I work. My name is Cheylon Woods, and I am the Head of the Ernest J. Gaines Center located at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. I have a background in History, Political Science (B.A.), Heritage Resources (M.A.), and Library Science (MLIS). Needless to say, I love “old stuff” and what that “old stuff” tells us about how we have always interacted with others during any period of human existence.  I like reading about it, I like talking about it, and, most importantly, I like preserving it.  The Ernest J. Gaines Center is a manuscript archive. The center was opened in 2010, and its mission is “to foster research and scholarship on the life and works of Dr. Ernest J. Gaines, to archive, house, preserve, protect and utilize the ‘Collection of Ernest J. Gaines,’ and to make the collection available to scholars in perpetuity.”

While the above mission was written specifically for the Ernest J. Gaines Center, at its heart is the purpose of all archives. The spaces where “old stuff” is stored are treasure troves of information, and potential projects, just waiting to be used. Archives and archivists have a unique calling to ensure that history is not forgotten. Such a statement sounds so lofty, “to ensure that history is not forgotten.” But that is the easiest way to explain it, and not explain it at the same time. I could drill down and get really detailed about what exactly archivists and archives do, but what is more important to understand is WHY we do what we do. As a society, when we think of “historic” documents, we set the bar really high, but archives and archivists have a much broader approach.

When people think about historical records they normally think about “iconic” records, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation, or government records, like census reports and draft records, but archivists also see your grandmother’s letters or cookbook as historic. The Ernest J. Gaines Center is a perfect example of the broad definition of historic when discussing archives. The Ernest J. Gaines Center is a manuscript archive, and the majority of our collection is the multiple drafts of the published works written by Dr. Ernest J. Gaines. We do not have any records about the plantation where he was raised, or community in which he grew up—things that are easy to understand as historic—but we have the letters written to him by students and inmates about how his work affected them. We have his research that influenced his books, journals that he helped edit, gifts given to him by other writers and researchers.

While, on the surface, it may not seem like this information has historical value, looking at it through the greater lens of the Black Arts Movement and the social movements happening during the decades Gaines chooses to write about provides a researcher with connections and shows how something as small as A lesson Before Dying  can have a lasting effect on a reader.I n the Gaines Center Archives, there are a series of letters from incarcerated men about the Jefferson. Jefferson is the character in the book A Lesson Before Dying who is sentenced to die for a crime he did not commit. in some of the correspondence, the writers expressed  how the evolution of Jefferson reminded them about their own humanity as they served their time in some de-humanizing spaces.

The records created by people,  be it a grandmother in Detroit during the 1940s or a world renowned author like Dr. Ernest J. Gaines, are important and they provide an interesting context to the dates and places memorized in class. Everything that happens in “history” happens to the people who happen to occupy that particular intersection of time and space, and the records they create give those events context. Without context, it just feels like “timey whimy wibbly wobbly” stuff;  archives, archivists, and the records they preserve help untangle history by saving relatable experiences.  Prior to completing my MLIS, I was am IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Science) Fellow at the Alabama Department of Archives and History.  During my internship I worked with birth records that date back to the turn of the century, an African American family that dated back to emancipation, and civil rights flyers. All of these documents put faces in the spaces where Alabama History took place. Reading letters and wills discussing how property (including slaves) were to be divided after death, or looking at the original charter for a university or state college illustrate decisions that affect present day society.

How to use archives and archivists in the classroom

Outside of history, using archives and working with archivists can seem daunting, if not impossible. This is furthest from the truth. Archives are spaces that were designed to preserve the human footprint in history, and human interaction has an effect on every aspect of society, be it the arts or STEM.

In all of his work, Dr. Gaines’ writes about technology and mechanizing the agricultural spaces. If a STEM student or educator was so inclined, one could look at the Dr. Gaines’s manuscripts and identify how the inclusion of tractors affected the communities who traditionally farmed  “by hand”, or consider the concept of rotating crops and how it not only had benefits for the soil, but also created a type of calendar for the people who lived in the quarters.  Records of oil drilling and infrastructure in a municipal archive or university archive could be used to evaluate the effects of certain projects have on communities, and how future innovation can benefit or harm a community of interest.

If you are in literature, you can assign a project that asks your students to use their archive to write a fictional story based on someone in one of your college’s or community archive’s collections. Special Archives (like mine) can also be used beyond the scope of their collection mission. One of the more interesting artifacts housed in the Ernest J. Gaines Center is script (a type of currency) from Riverlake Plantation, which is where Dr. Ernest J. Gaines was raised. I use the script to explain how people were paid in the quarters. This currency could not be used in any other location except Riverlake Plantation, and, during class tours,  is a great example of the hardships people faced under the tenancy and sharecropping systems. The Ernest J. Gaines Center is mostly used by the English Department, but his stories could easily be incorporated in other fields, like Education, History, or Social Services. His short story “A Long Day In November”,and the associated manuscripts, have been used in education classes to explain why new teachers should be empathetic to their students. The characters Dr. Gaines creates and how they evolve can be studied (without going through IRB) for a number of types of papers or used as teaching tools. If you work at a university, you can set up visits with your archivist to discuss collections that relate to your course, and if you work in K-12, local archives are great field trips, and most have some sort of educational outreach programming in their repertoire.  The best thing about archives and archivists is that we can be used, and we want to be used, in almost any way that suits you. If you are not sure, don’t be afraid to ask your local archivist, I am sure they will be excited to be invited into your class.

In conclusion

Honestly, archives are really cool places. We are more than a place for “old stuff” or people who “organize old stuff” ( we do that too). We are people and places that can help you create more robust assignments. We understand the very complex nature of humans and pour over boxes and boxes of the things they created, and are currently creating, documenting their lives. We are places where no one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten, and no movement, fandom, organization, or entity is forgotten. We are places where people matter because we exist because of people. People create records, even if they are on a corporate level, and those records speak volumes about the society that produced them.

Archives can be your best resource if you choose to use them. Not only are they full of cool things, a treasure trove one may say, but they are full of cool people who can help you become an expert on all of their cool things. All those boxes are filled with lessons, and they are just waiting for you to pair them with all of your syllabi, and one day (hopefully) they will be filled with your records as well.

Contributor Bio

professional.photograph.cheylon.woods (1).jpgCheylon Woods, Assistant Professor and Archivist/Head of Ernest J. Gaines Center, received her MLIS from LSU. After completion of her MA in Heritage Resources from Northwestern State University, she was awarded an IMLS (Institute of Museum & Library Studies) fellowship through HistoryMarkers (oral history archive based out of Chicago) where she was assigned to work as an Archivist at the Alabama State Department of Archives and History. She actively worked with communities and prominent figures in the region to fill in information gaps related to African American history in the state of Alabama. Cheylon also received a dual BA degree in History and Political Science from Louisiana Tech University. She is a member of Phi Alpha Theta, Society of American Archivists, Louisiana Library Association, and Association for the Study of African American Life and History. She has presented at annual meetings for Society of American Archivists and worked on numerous public programs for the Alabama Department of Archives and History specializing in preservation and displaying historical documents and artifacts.

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