I want the whole story.

I want the whole story.
The Gilman School class of 1968 featured its first four African-American graduates

As a grad student and now a professional archivist, I find myself drawn to integration stories. This might be a function of being in Maryland, where describing the topic as fraught is a vast understatement. But lately I’ve been thinking there’s another reason.

I’ve written and thought a lot about school integration, first at the University of Maryland where I wrote a series for the archives blog called “Trailblazers,” which stemmed from a research project about Parren Mitchell, the first African-American student to take all of his classes at the College Park campus and receive his degree from there (a masters in Sociology, another subject near to my heart). Those qualifiers- took all of his classes on campus, received an actual UMD-College Park degree- are what I think has sparked my interest in these stories. Because while we use the word “first”, the story is so much more complicated than we want it to be.

At my current job at Gilman School in the heart of what was once whitest, WASPiest Baltimore, I wrote this piece for Women’s History Month to trouble the very notion of what we talk about when we say integration. After all, it’s not as though there weren’t African-Americans on campus from the school’s start in 1897, it’s just that there was no way they could have sent their sons here.

But it was another recent discovery/uncovering that threw my desire to tell these stories into sharp relief. Here, we tell the story of a group that called themselves “The Fantastic Four”- the first four African-American students to graduate from the school, in 1968. The first of these four came to the school in 1963, and has often been referred to (including by me) as “the first”.

Except that wasn’t the case.

I found when doing my work at the University of Maryland that the school and local papers only covered so much of integration stories. They were mostly bland or occasionally self-congratulatory, and always scant on detail. I learned quickly that for “the rest of the story”, I had to turn to the Baltimore Afro-American or “The AFRO”. While still imperfect, it was a treasure trove of names and events that slipped past the notice of larger papers like The Baltimore Sun (for reasons that belong in another post).

In peeking through the AFRO recently for items around the time Gilman integrated, I came across this story:

Gilman Intergration.jpg

I found myself oddly furious. Darryl Dunmore wasn’t a name I had heard or come across- what was the deal? I checked our records and found that he did in fact attend the school, and so there were two African-Americans here in 1963- one in 7th and one in 8th grade. Dunmore didn’t graduate from here, he transferred out his sophomore year. And maybe that’s why I’d never heard his name pass through anyone’s lips.

But it still made me angry. Hiding in plain sight was this young man who should be celebrated as a “first” (whatever that really means), yet he was relegated to the background.

And that’s when it struck me. The stories we tell about integration are so glossy and short because we can’t wait to move past them. “We did this, and it went great, and now can we just move on please?” We gloss over African-American servants and students who didn’t want to stick around because that just complicates it. After all, we’re doing this great thing to serve a portion of the population we ignored for decades- isn’t that enough?

And (white) archivists have been the architects of this for a long time. We’ve collected the oral histories of those who had good experiences, because that’s easier and supports our institutions. We’ve hidden photos of maids and cooks far away because who wants to see that stuff, right? We helped do this- helped create short, sweet, lazy narratives that make us look good and make other well-meaning white folk feel good.

And so we must undo it. It’s not enough to wait for researchers to happen upon items and do the work for us. At an institutional level, we have to seek to tell the entire story, warts and all. Angry (possibly racist) missives from university presidents? You know where they are. The sub-par wages paid to African-American laborers? You’ve got the ledgers. Our oral history projects must include those who hated every minute of their time on campus. You’re a professional researcher- can find them. If we are to fulfill our mission to our institutions, we need to get uncomfortable and do it.

I know, we don’t do “uncomfortable” well, as a matter of course. But I have a great deal of hope that we can. My Twitter feed is filled with people talking frankly about these topics and lots of other complicated subjects in ways that might have been unimaginable a few decades ago. Folks like Jarrett Drake and Stacie Williams, to name just two, are constant inspirations to me in pushing myself to hack through my own privilege and position to examine the difficult topics right under my nose.

I want the whole story. I want to be part of undoing the benevolent blindness we’ve developed. Is that too much to ask?

Following Hamlet Stanley Philpot

The following was my submission to the Short Fiction Contest recently put on by the Society of American Archivists. I highly recommend checking out the winning entries– they’re fantastic and deserving.  While this is not the finest piece of writing, I had a great deal of fun doing it. I leave it here to remind myself to do more of this sort of thing.

The only photo in our collection identified as being of Hamlet S. Philpot.


I’m the archivist at a boys’ day school. It’s a unique position, allowing me the chance to research more than a century’s worth of stories and tell them to boys whose families have been a part of the school since the beginning. Continue reading “Following Hamlet Stanley Philpot”

Just Quickly: Providence Deserves Better

Providence City Hall. The Archives is currently on the fifth floor. (photo from RINPR)

Last week, news broke that Providence City Archivist Paul Campbell was not going to have his contract renewed come January (it’s a position appointed by the City Clerk). There was, of course, more to the story- according to the ProJo, the city wants to pass the archives on to two local non-profits, which includes moving them out of their current horribly insufficient space in City Hall (take a tour with Campbell).

The people of Providence may not know it (judging by some of the comment sections), but this is all awesome news. Continue reading “Just Quickly: Providence Deserves Better”

Attribute your stuff, man.

The basics of attribution, from the post “Credit is always due.” by Austin Kleon. http://austinkleon.com/2014/01/27/credit-is-always-due/

Thanks to the aforementioned football rivalry, the archival materials under my charge have been in the local media a lot lately. Of course, in some cases you’ll have to take my word for it. Numerous videos, blog posts, and articles were pushed out using our photographs and films without a single mention of where they came from. And that really gets my goat.

It’s not about compensation or notoriety. As far as I’m concerned, almost all of our collections are CC-BY. Take it, use it. That’s why it’s there. But that “BY” is huge to me because people should be able to trace the source of the item. If you want to find out more about who’s in a photo or what year a film was made, XYZ Media Organization will give you little more than blank stares. But I’ll talk your ear off for an hour if you let me. And even more important, I can tell you where to find more stuff just like it.

If the tables were flipped, XYZ Media would lose it if I cribbed something from them wholesale without giving credit, and rightly so. So why should I expect less from them?

I should say that most of the media that I’ve dealt with over the past months have been great and asked first and attributed properly. But those few examples? They’re going to stick with me a while. And for every BS stereotype about archives and archivists, one is undoubtedly true- we have long memories.

(this is another reason to attribute, by the way- we’re good friends to have on your side.)

Some notes on a process.

Some notes on a process.

As so often happens, the school I work at has a big football rivalry. Much of my summer has been spent plotting and scheming displays and outreach activities around the 100th regular season iteration of that rivalry, coming up this fall. One project in particular is related to a trove of videos that a vendor has been digitizing for us. I wrote about that project over on the school blog.

Identifying the videos relating to this rivalry has been a serious challenge, so I wanted to share some of the challenges while I’m still in the middle of it. Here’s a list: Continue reading “Some notes on a process.”

Your archives needs a mascot!

Meet Harold Hatty Hat.

Harold Hatty Hat hard at work
Harold Hatty Hat, hard at work

I met Harold my first day on the job. As sometimes happens in an archives, Harold was left anonymously by someone who didn’t want to care for him anymore. All he had was his hat. Poor sad Harold. I gave Harold a t-shirt and bow tie (and my name tag), and KABLAM! he took on a new life as the Gilman Archives mascot. The kids love him- after a visit by the third grade class, several of the kids took it on themselves to make sure that they said goodbye to Harold on their way out in the evening.

And that last bit? That’s why your archives needs a mascot. Maybe not Wally the Green Monster or anything, but a mascot of some sort.

A few weeks ago, I gave a talk on outreach ideas for archives, and I kept coming back to this idea of archives becoming “beloved”. This isn’t a term often associated with our profession. We are serious primary resource providers, and our public presence often reflects that. Beyond our projections, public perception of archives does not exactly skew towards “love”. Thing is, I truly believe this puts us at a huge disadvantage in resource battles.

So what can we do? Build on mutually beneficial relationships, of course. But also, we need to show our lighter side. Make public our bad puns, write silly blog posts, and yes, show off our mascots. Mascots are an immediately recognizable, visual touchpoint for our stakeholders, something we often lack. I mean, who would forget Archive the Archival Box? Or Gravitas the Lobster? It shows we’re human, it breaks down some of the barriers between archivist and user, and most importantly it’s just plain fun.

So. Does your archives have a mascot? Tell me more! If not, why not?

The Hard Skills of a Job Hunter

math-and-frustrationI’ve been on the job hunt for a while now, stretching back to before I graduated in May. It’s not been easy, in fact it’s been a slog. But as I was shipping off a few more resumes this morning, I got to thinking about the skills I’ve gathered during this time. Few would advocate for having a section on your resume titled “Job Hunting (date-date)” with these items listed underneath, but there are some real benefits. I call these “hard skills”, not in the traditional hard/soft skill dichotomoy, but more because they’re really hard earned. For example:

-Ability to successfully navigate poorly designed systems.

Now, you don’t want to tell an employer that their application system is deeply flawed, but most are. Most of the time it’s not explicitly the fault of the employer- maybe they had an intern do it in-house, or they’ve bought into an inexpensive package that they had little input in designing. Whatever the situation may be, only the most nimble of job hunter can navigate the murky language, unclear instructions and tricky required items of the system. It takes practice!

-Ascertain the difference between employer needs and employer wish list.

Every job hunter has come across a mile-long laundry list of skills an employer “requires” or “prefers”. With time, we learn that  A.) our skill sets are in fact plenty for most employers and B.) that no single individual has the entire list of skills listed, except perhaps for the person leaving the job being advertised.

-Self-starter able to maintain positive attitude during the darkest of days.

I have yet to meet a job hunter who hasn’t occasionally slumped into a chair, declared everything a failure and spent the day binge-watching that show they won’t admit they love. The truly talented job hunter is able to bounce back and get right back to it the next day. There’s no shame in self-care.

-Doggedly persistent in seemingly futile causes.

People with jobs often tell job hunters “Don’t give up! The market is hard, but something will work out.” To job hunters, this sounds exactly like Charlie Brown’s teacher. The market (especially for archivists *cough*) is bloody awful, and we have no reason to believe that today will be our lucky day. Yet we get up again, turn on the computer, tweak our resumes, craft beautiful cover letters and send them off. If that’s not a marketable skill, I don’t know what is.

What did I miss? What’s a skill that you would add?