Sharing and saving community stories

In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.

This week, SHANEE’ MURRAIN, University Archivist at the University of West Georgia, explains how the university library’s Special Collections department empowers communities to tell their own stories. 

By Shanee’ Murrain

Shanee' Murrain

Shanee’ Murrain

I plan my Tuesday morning commute to ensure that I am equidistant between home and work at 7:35 a.m. This gives me more than enough time to listen to StoryCorps Atlanta during Morning Edition on 90.1 FM WABE, the local NPR station, and to gather myself in the parking lot outside the library before officially beginning the workday. StoryCorps is a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives. Since 2003, nearly 100,000 everyday people have recorded their stories with StoryCorps; it is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind.

As a recent transplant to the area and as the University Archivist at the University of West Georgia (UWG) charged with capturing, preserving, and making accessible content that is administratively and culturally significant to our campus, I delight in hearing folk thoughtfully share the stories of their lives. Listening to StoryCorps Atlanta has taught me about the trials and triumphs of city planning before and after the 1996 Olympics, the unifying power of cosplay at DragonCon, and the sacrifices of Georgia Department of Transportation Highway Emergency Response Operators.

These oral histories document the uniqueness of Georgia culture and highlight the impact everyday people have in shaping our region’s collective memory. Providing opportunities for community members to tell their stories and facilitate the preservation of these stories is a turn many archivists are taking toward building archives representative of the people and free of the traditional institutional repository.

Community archives are based upon the post-custodial theory in which archival organizations, like Special Collections at the UWG Ingram Library, work to assist records creators with the collection and preservation of primary source materials, as well as with the creation of pathways for public access to those materials. The records creators retain mastery, both intellectual and physical, of their records instead of donating them to an archival institution.

Special Collections at Ingram has incorporated this broader view of community-based archives into an extraordinary two-fold outreach program, which features student-curated exhibitions about the history and experience of marginalized groups on campus, and provides digital preservation consultation and services for West Georgia cultural heritage institutions and African American churches.

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Community archiving allows the public to take ownership of its records and memories. Here, Special Collections invited past and current students to share their experiences.

In sharing the history of students at UWG, it is critical to give current students and alumni an opportunity to share their personal perspectives and to offer, literally, a stage upon which to speak about their lives in the context of the university and in the world.

On December 2, 2014, five UWG students – Deborah Crawford, Kelby Mitchell, Tia Tuggle, Zhanee’ Aniece, and Aubrei Savage – spontaneously organized a kNow Justice, kNow Peace march around the UWG campus in Carrollton, Georgia, as a peaceful protest in response to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and to systematic racial injustice. Videos and still images of that march were donated to Ingram Library’s Special Collections and became central to the idea for an exhibition chronicling the experience of black students at our university.

The exhibition, African American/Black Student Experiences at UWG, co-sponsored by the Center for Diversity & Inclusion and Alumni Relations, was on display from February 1 through May 15, 2016. It documented the time of integration in the summer of 1963 to the present and highlighted black student life by decade. Special Collections deliberately gathered materials from student organizations and solicited testimonials from alumni and current students about their experiences at UWG.

Those of us at the campus library, which also holds the university archives and actively engages students through teaching, feel it is imperative to link the significance of archival materials to current student experiences. Student voices in university archives, preserved in student newspapers and college yearbooks, are often overshadowed in volume by other university records such as presidential papers and departmental records.

The university archive gives us the rare, unique opportunity to serve as ambassadors for the institution at crucial times in the life of the college. The exhibitions we create are a model for how archives can overcome the challenges of documenting community life and the events that are socially relevant to community by centering them as creators and characters of those stories. Both of these aspects were key to the student exhibitions, as they provided a student and alumni voices.

LGBTQ exhibition

Multiple stakeholders collaborated to create the Live Out! exhibition.

Live Out!: Identity & Activism of Diverse Gender & Sexualities on Campus, curated by Special Collections graduate student assistant Laurel Durham and student volunteer Jazz Lee-Coley in partnership with LAMBDA, the Responsible Sexuality Committee, and the Center for Public History, draws on historical materials from Ingram Library’s Special Collections and materials generously loaned by LAMBDA to tell part of the story of the students of diverse gender and sexualities on campus.

The exhibition, on display now through December 2016, explores why engaging both the LGBTQ community as well as the non-LQBTQ community is vitally important: to share experiences, strive for social and health care improvements, prevent bullying and violence, secure freedoms, and promote policies that acknowledge differences and fight invisibility.

Building on the understanding that community archives are best kept where they are accessible to the community that created them, Special Collections is developing two community outreach projects, “Enhancing Discovery of Archival Holdings in West Georgia” and “Preserving African American Church Records in Carroll County” to help preserve local history. UWG recognizes the value of West Georgia regional historical societies, genealogical societies, churches, and organizations and their importance in preserving culturally significant materials.

We will partner with organizations and families to identify materials of value, preserve and organize them, provide public access to them, and measure the impact of the project and use of the records for research over time. Special Collections will assist in the creation of standards-based Encoded Archival Description finding aids, the content of which will then be hosted online at UWG’s Finding Aids website at the Digital Library of Georgia.

Just shy of four months into my new role, I am working with student researchers on three university history projects, including a campus folklore and ghost tour. The stories of UWG, especially those that up until recently have only been whispered in select circles, are as deserving of devotion and wide circulation as those featured on public radio. Special Collections is committed to providing comparable access to these histories with intentionality and fulfilling our mission to support the use of community archives in university research, scholarship, and teaching. Georgia feels like a place ripe for the harvesting of stories.

At UWG we are building both institutional and community archives that give us the opportunity to challenge the dominant narrative of history and highlight cultural contributions from marginalized groups.

Interested in telling your story? You can make a StoryCorps recording here in Atlanta at the Atlanta History Center.

Shanee’ Yvette Murrain is University Archivist and assistant professor at the University of West Georgia. She is the former Director of Library Services and Archivist at Payne Theological Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio, where she curated the African Methodist Episcopal Church Digital Collection. Murrain is passionate about landing a “walker” role in the Georgia-based zombie thriller The Walking Dead along with equity in archival representation, digital collections, information literacy, and community outreach.

Kelly Caudle and Allison Hutton of Georgia Humanities provide editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.

Jamil Zainaldin is president of Georgia Humanities, a nonprofit organization working to ensure that humanities and culture remain an integral part of the lives of Georgians. The organization is a cultural leader in the state as well as a pioneer nationally in innovative history and humanities programs. The New Georgia Encyclopedia is a project of Georgia Humanities, in partnership with the Office of the Governor, the University of Georgia Press, and the University System of Georgia/GALILEO. The first state encyclopedia to be conceived and designed exclusively for publication on the Internet, the NGE is an important and authoritative digital resource for all Georgians.

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