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I attended Storytelling for Justice: How Libraries and Archives Hold History to Account

Updated: Feb 11, 2021

**A virtual program with the following speakers**:

Dr. Elizabeth Alexander

Jarrett Martin Drake

Dr. Carla Hayden

Dr. Kelly Lytle Hernández

Sponsored by: The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Mellon was a perfect sponsor for such a topic. For example, they have assisted with purchasing the Ebony/Jet Archive and Harry Belafonte's Personal Collection. They wanted to see those materials become publicly accessible.

The event focused on the following questions:

Whose stories get remembered?

How are stories shared? And, by whom?

The primary focus of the program was the question:

How can archives and libraries serve as tools for justice?

My favorite question was: What was an archival discovery that deeply impacted your work and shaped the way you thought about potential of libraries/archives as spaces for justice?

Dr. Carla Hayden shared a story of when she started her position at the Library of Congress. While on a tour of the shelves in the Madison Building, she asked if she could look at the Frederick Douglass papers. She pulled a box at random and lifted out a file. While standing in the stacks, Dr. Hayden looked over Fredrick Douglass' handwriting. In her hands were what Douglass wrote about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. His editing laid bare, before her. His change of word choices. His markings and frenetic lines, which could be read in ways as clearly as the words he left behind. That moment stayed with Dr. Hayden. It never left her memory. Several months later when she was working on a project, she sent an archivist to pull that same file. Ever-the- librarian, Dr. Hayden gave that archivist a note that included the box and file number attributed to the document from her earlier exploration. Yet, it somehow took hours for the person to return with the file. When they did, they apologized for the delay and shared that the document was actually misfiled. Meaning, it would not have been found by Dr. Hayden had been in the original place intended. That experience left her thinking even more deeply about the importance of giving records a light to the public, making important materials in our nations history as open and accessible as possible. Technology certainly helps in this effort.

Dr. Hernández spoke of her graduate school experiences. Dr. Hernández's research sits at the intersection of immigration, race, and incarceration. She learned about the archive and the idea of going to do research by asking to have collections pulled. But, what happens--she asked--when when your research topic is not something that archives/libraries have historically chosen to preserve? Or, what if the records they have, do not be include the perspective of the historical actors you are studying? Her questions are something I relate with quite intimately. As increasing number of graduate students can relate.

Jarrett Martin Drake shares the story of John Brown, an African American freedman in Maryland who helped enslaved people flee. For this act of goodwill, Brown was not only incarcerated and he was ultimately murdered in prison by state actors. Drake uncovered a process by which Brown's story was remade through newspaper and court records. The violence of the carceral state is foregrounded in a way that casts a long shadow not just over the past, but into our present problems with the the criminal justice system.

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