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.

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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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From an English Major: Reflections on Two Undergrad Classroom Experiences

PALS Note: We are super excited to interrupt your summer break for a post by Christna Stubbs. Stubbs is a recent graduate of the University of The Bahamas and will be attending Acadia University for graduate school in the fall. In this post, she writes about some of the classroom activities that stood out to her the most as an undergrad. This is a new perspective for the blog, and we welcome the commentary from our students. 

As I sat, thinking about the thousands of things I could write about regarding this topic, I was forced to reminisce on my past classroom experiences. I literally mulled over in my mind the very first class I took as a fresh-faced freshman, to the last one I took as seasoned senior. Thinking back on that period of my life as an undergrad, I find myself remembering my “AHA” moments…You know those moments, right? The moments in class when you become excited about the text you’re studying. It’s like a lightbulb goes off in your head after days, or sometimes weeks of feeling like you’re sitting in class with a highly decorated dunce cap on your head, or “I don’t understand” tattooed across your forehead.

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After these “AHA” moments, you FINALLY understand why the lecturer was so excited when she introduced the text on the first day, and why she looked so disappointed when the class didn’t seem to share her initial excitement. The text somehow becomes more than just another text that you have to read or write about, or pretend to like in order to appease your lecturer (you students know what I’m talking about); it resonates with you, it becomes one of those texts that you know you will always remember.

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It’s those “AHA” moments that reminded me of why I love literature in the first place. When I think about the classes I took in the past that allowed for those experiences to occur, in contrast to the classes that made me want to die of boredom, I realized a few really noticeable differences. So, I decided, (after days of brainstorming!) why not take you through two of my experiences as an undergrad student? I want to talk to you guys about what took place in the classroom that influenced one of my “AHA” moments, and what occurred in another classroom that simply didn’t make the cut.

So, without further ado…let’s dive in!

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CLASSROOM #1

Before I say anything else, let me assure you that I really do love British Literature, and I appreciate all that I learned in this particular course. However, I just don’t recall ever having any “AHA” moments in this class, and here’s why:

As a class, we were never given any tools/exercises that encouraged us to engage with the texts.

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Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that all lecturers are obligated to come up with clever ways to make the literature more appealing to their students, but I must say that it can make the world of difference. (Take it from a student.) At the time, I really could not fathom why I always felt disconnected from the lectures or discussions. I somehow always felt out of the loop, and it took a toll on my confidence as a student. As a sophomore, I began to rethink my decision to study English because of my inability to fully understand or connect with the material that we studied in this particular class. When I think back on that experience, I honestly believe that I felt this way because as a class we were never really given any tools that would encourage us to engage with the readings. Class time often consisted of the lecturer beginning with a detailed biography of the author, moving onto a lecture on the reading. We usually wrapped up with the lecturer asking everyone about their thoughts on the lecture (which many of us never had)…it was all very methodical. Rigid even.

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Apart from this routine, we were never really given a chance to engage closely with the text. It may have been different if our lecturer might have begun class-time by asking everyone how they felt that the reading could possibly connect to their lives? For instance, our class consisted largely of black, postcolonial students, and up to that point, many of us had taken at least two levels of West Indian Literature, in which we were to read at least five postcolonial texts per semester. Because of our rich background in postcolonial literature, and also being products of a postcolonial society, it would have been nice if we were given the freedom to discuss how reading British Literature made us feel, since it was a huge colonizing force. Did we come to class with any preconceived notions about some of the authors because of our exposure to postcolonialism? Did we feel disdain when we read it? Were we able to appreciate it in any way? Did we want to cringe when we found out that Wordsworth would be on the reading list for the semester? Simple questions like these would have been really great exercises that compelled us to engage more with a lot of the readings that we were assigned. I think if we were given tools like these, or similar to these, class-time would have been a lot less anxiety-ridden, and drawn-out.

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Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy most of the readings, but they were just that…readings that I enjoyed. I was never able to engage with the texts apart from the usual themes that are usually explored or explained. Now, I do think that it’s wonderful to enjoy the texts that you read in class, but I believe that it is even more wonderful to learn something from the texts that you read. I think a text should teach you something– about life, about the people around you, or about yourself; a text should challenge you, and make you look at the world in a way that you never would have thought about looking at it before. Because we were not allowed the opportunity to do more than just enjoy the readings in this class, most of the class-time felt like a race against the clock. I think I spent more time looking at my watch and thinking about what I would be eating for lunch than trying to understand the material. While I did always appreciate the lectures and discussions (the parts I were able to fathom, at least), I believe that if we were given exercises that compelled us to engage with the text, or think about it in a way that different from the usual, maybe class-time would have been a bit more enthusing. Who knows, I may have had an “AHA” moment?

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CLASSROOM #2

The very first day that we opened Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy in my Caribbean Women Writers class, I was honestly unimpressed.

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I couldn’t get why everyone kept runnin’ on bout dis Lucy book. Translation from Bahamian English: “I could not understand why everyone kept praising the Lucy book”. I felt like Lucy covered the same old themes that we discussed about Kincaid’s work in previous classes. Nothing new or original stood out to me about the text. My lecturer, however, who so graciously wanted us to appreciate the book as much as she did, began class by eagerly asking each person what they thought of the text. I bit my tongue, not wanting to disappoint her or sound like a killjoy, but chose to speak up after a few gruelling minutes,“It honestly didn’t do much for me.” And that was the truth at the time.

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Some of the other students seemed to think otherwise, but it’s safe to say that most of us shared the same sentiments. Thankfully, my lecturer did not look the least bit disappointed, but continued to discuss various themes that we would cover throughout the semester. I honestly left class that day eager to move on to the other texts that were scheduled on the syllabus.

Little did I know, my lecturer was cooking up ways to force us to really engage with the text, and by the next class, she didn’t care to ask us if we had a change of heart overnight, but instead instructed everyone to take out a copy of the text. This is one of the first things that made this classroom experience amazing—a simple exercise that my lecturer introduced to the class. This exercise not only changed the way we all engaged with the text, but it inspired discussions that simply could not end, even after the semester was over.

Our lecturer had us read through the very first chapter of Lucy quietly, making us highlight whatever colour that we noticed. My first reaction was…Huh? Colours? What does that have to do with anything?…. but I did it anyway, and the results were mind-boggling. After highlighting the colours that stood out, she asked us to look at the colours pointed out in chapter one, and think about the moments in the text where these colours reappeared. Can they represent something more than what we see at first glance?

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I remember looking down at the words that I highlighted, “pale yellow,” and I thought long and hard about the moments in the text where this colour yellow resurfaced—half listening to the array of colours that my classmates pointed out and explained.

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I can still recall sitting there, fighting with myself, trying hard to remember that one moment…then something clicked to me, and guess what guys? I became excited, like super excited. This was the beginning of my “AHA” moment. I could not remember the last time I was so excited to discuss a revelation that I had in the classroom. I eagerly raised my hand, and explained (with giddy pride) that Kincaid used pale-yellow to describe the appearance of the sun in America on Lucy’s first day as an au pair. She described it as being “pale-yellow, as if the sun had grown weak from trying too hard to shine; but still sunny” (5). I vigorously turned to middle of the book where this pale-yellow colour emerged again, describing what seemed to be an aura of sunlight that enveloped the character Mariah, the mother of the children that Lucy cared for. Now guys, at this point, I had disregarded the character of Mariah…I mean like completely wrote her off, simply because I didn’t think her character had any depth worth exploring.

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However, after I thought about the re-appearance of the pale-yellow colour, and connected it to the character. I realized that just like that pale-yellow sun tried hard to shine, Mariah tried hard to live a perfect life, although it really was not perfect. I knew, even after giving that answer that I was barely scraping the surface, and I wanted to know more. This pale-yellow colour could mean something so much deeper than I thought. I don’t think I would have ever begun to understand the character of Mariah without my lecturer compelling us to think about what the colours meant. I became so engrossed with this pale-yellow colour and its connection to Mariah that I wrote my first paper of that semester on the topic.

Now, while this colour exercise initiated my “AHA” moment, I think that my classmates polished it off for me. Because we were all so excited about our revelations after the colour exercise, we became eager to discuss other aspects of the text, like Lucy’s actions towards her friends and Mariah. Some of my classmates thought that Lucy was just a messed up, angry person; however, after sharing our own experiences and attempting to place ourselves in Lucy’s shoes, most, if not everyone in the class felt as though they could relate to Lucy’s experience as not only a black individual, but one whose actions were a result of her disdain for colonialist ideology. As products of a postcolonial society, many of us, like Lucy were bombarded with colonial ideals. Like Lucy, we were taught to adore flowers that never once bloomed in our native land, and like Lucy, we were praised when we spoke “proper” English, because our native tongue, Bahamian English “implied ignorance”. Because of this, we understood Lucy’s decision to leave home at the beginning of the text. We didn’t see it as her being selfish, or disobedient to her mother—we saw it as her desire for autonomy—to define herself on her own terms, not on the terms that her mother (who constantly imposed on Lucy colonial ideologies and ideals), sought to define for her. Living in a society where colonial ideologies are still pervasive, we all agreed that it somehow made sense for Lucy to leave home. We knew that the longer she stayed, the easier it would be for her to conform to the colonial ideals that she sought to flee. We were even better able to understand the somewhat cold, and indifferent life that she lived. We could almost empathize with Lucy, despite these personality flaws, because we knew that her actions were a result of her desire to reject everything that her colonial counterparts sought to impose upon her. We no longer looked at Lucy as an angry, promiscuous character; she became more of a comrade, someone who we could understand, despite some of the bizarre things that she did. Like Lucy, we refuse to be mentally enslaved to the ideals that our forefathers fought to free us from. Like Lucy, we wished not to be controlled by the oppressive ideologies of our colonial pasts. Because we became so connected to Lucy as a character, many days, we left the classroom feeling inspired and united—all with a similar purpose, to refuse to be controlled by ideologies that permeated our society (like Lucy) and live life to the fullest. This here was the polishing off my “AHA” moment—being able to discuss the text with classmates that just got it. They understood my struggles, and we were all able to connect with Lucy because she too shared a lot of those struggles.

Now, when I see my copy of Lucy sitting on my book-shelf, I smile. I think about my role as a postcolonial individual, I think about the fact that I could see a small glimpse myself in Lucy. Most importantly, I think about the simple colour exercise that my passionate lecturer thought of, and my amazing classmates—both of which made my smile possible.

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I can probably talk about my classroom experiences for about 100 pages, but I’m on a word limit here guys. So, I guess I’ll just wrap up by saying that although they may seem trivial, utilizing simple exercises in a classroom to encourage students to engage with a text can make a break a student. This couldn’t be more true for me. When I thought about the “AHA” moments that I experienced during my undergrad career, I realized that they almost always occurred because of simple exercises that my lecturers thought of. These exercises changed the way that I not only viewed the literature that I studied but fostered a class environment that allowed myself and my fellow classmates to feel comfortable enough to both express ourselves and connect with the texts that we read and each other.

As I transition into my graduate career this fall, I truly hope that these exercises aren’t forgotten, because I believe that it is these very same simple exercises that pave the way for many of our “AHA” moments.

Contributor Bio:

11076246_10155439349135397_5313472970728128444_n (1)I recently graduated from the University of The Bahamas with a Bachelor of Arts in English. I will be attending Acadia University in the Fall to pursue my Master of Arts in English. I am an avid blogger, and I’m interested in Postcolonial and Children’s Literature, as well as literature that explores themes regarding Gender and Sexuality.