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Preserving Local African American History at the Public Library

by Amanda Davis on April 27, 2018

By Amanda Davis, ahdavis1@gmail.com.

At PLA 2018, presenters Valerie Bell, Angela Stanley, Rikki Chesley, and Rhiannon Eades addressed absences in the archives and the importance of preserving African American heritage in changing cities.

While working for Athens Regional Library System (ARLS), archivist Angela Stanley realized that the rich history of African Americans in her community wasn’t well-reflected in the library’s archival collection. So, with the help of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ “Match-Your-Project” tool, she was able to find and apply for a Common Heritage grant, which was developed to help small to mid-size organizations digitize archival materials and perform community outreach about preservation.

As a successful grant applicant, Stanley shared some tips for future grantseekers. Along with proofreading and carefully following instructions, Stanley also encouraged grantseekers to use all the tools available through the NEH, such as free application review and access to sample applications. Having secured the nearly $12,000 grant, ARLS went on to purchase flatbed scanners, laptops, flash drives, and physical preservation materials to be used at community scanning events throughout the city.

In early 2017 Stanley accepted another position at the Georgia Public Library Service, after which Rikki Chesley became Head of Archives and Special Collections at ARLS and took lead on the project. According to Chesley, the first thing to do when embarking upon a project like this is to ask, “What story do we want to tell?” As a second generation genealogist, Chesley was taught from an early age that “no one is forgotten as long as someone knows their name.”

With that in mind, Chesley made her initial visit to community partner First AME Church with glass plate negatives of two African American families whose identities were unknown. As she they looked at the images, they discussed why some people may be hesitant to share information about their family history. One person at the meeting said, “remember what you’re asking–it’s personal and painful.” The trauma and indignity many people’s ancestors survived is not a subject families often want to remember, but in order for this project to be a success, the team had to help the community trust them with their stories. So, in addition to partnering with the church, an already-trusted organization, the library team also ensured their community that this was for their families’ benefit more than anyone else’s.

ARLS public relations specialist Rhiannon Eades said, “this isn’t for the library. This is for the public to preserve their history.” That is, the purpose of this project was not to build a digital archive for the library to use; the purpose was to help people collect and maintain family photos and artifacts, along with easy-to-understand metadata so they could pass along that information within their own families. Though ARLS did partner with the Digital Library of Georgia, participants in the scanning events were not required to submit their digitized materials for public display. The library aimed to ask, not pressure, and in this type of relationship, participants felt that they had a choice in how their materials were used and that they could use the preservation services without the library expecting anything in return.

ARLS director Valerie Bell said, the library’s mission is “engaging communities and exceeding expectations.” With this digitization project, the library was able to accomplish this goal and set themselves up to be a trusted source for community archival preservation for generations to come.


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