The following post written by Beatriz Maldonado draws on her experiences in the “Creating Archives” course at Scripps College.
When I began this course, I was pretty unfamiliar with online resources for archives, museums, or academic sites. In some ways I felt that I wasn’t “allowed” to go into that sphere, that I was not academically prepared to find, challenge, or really even use a broad variety of web resources. I certainly wasn’t aware that these (Omeka and Scalar) programs existed and were available to me. I don’t know that I can state it strongly enough – it wasn’t just an issue of not finding the resources; it was that I didn’t even know that the possibility for such things existed. I had to learn what it meant to find the sources, how they and their histories matter, and how I might participate in the making of such sources myself.
My feelings of anxiety were not just limited to official websites, they were there for social media too. We participated in the Day of Digital Archives using twitter and I was so nervous: I know they say that there aren’t stupid questions, but I worried that I was just going to ask stupid questions.
Our course included a set of readings on the history of archives and libraries and Prof. Wernimont asked us to post each week to our online course management system, Sakai, with responses to those readings. This was a really important technique for me – it was a way of transforming my internal voice into an external one – even though our class forum was a private online space, it was like a gateway to participating in the digital community.
Before the class, I was unlikely to think of posting online. It wasn’t that I didn’t have something worthwhile or interesting to say – I felt that I did – but I felt that I hadn’t yet received enough training for my voice to really count in an Internet community. I thought that my readers would specifically denounce me as false, attacking me for lack of credibility. By the end of the course, it had become clear to me that in fact, I have been preparing for this and I have the authority to make an argument that people will want to read.
A numbers crisis
Prof. Wernimont kept pointing us to the ways that archives are crafted by choices, that people decide what is important to keep and that those decisions affect the histories we can write. As I was working through the Denison collections, I came across minutes from meetings where people talked about increasing diversity, but these documents talked in terms of percentages, of numbers of people. Administrators were focused on increasing the number of students of color on the campus and that was it.
The more I read, the more I found myself seeing other people only as numbers as well. I felt myself wondering if this was how I was going to be written about in the future – as a number. I wanted to know why other histories weren’t here – histories of Café con Leche or the women before me who also had felt as though they didn’t quite fit in. There was almost no history of Latina women here at the college. I was very angry; I wanted to ditch the project, it’s hard to be passionate about a project when you feel no connection and I didn’t see a way for me to feel connected. I wondered how I was ever going to feel connected to my college – at home here – when I couldn’t find a way to connect to its history.
But I did not lose hope; I had a strong desire to make a statement. After all, I wanted my project to mean and say something powerful. I kept digging, searching for the record of something meaningful for me. When I came across the Alexander Protests in the Student Unrest Archives, I was set. I kept thinking to myself, “in the year that I was born, students were fighting to preserve and maintain a college major that I am currently following now” (American Studies). At that moment I felt the responsibility to carefully voice the protests in the best way possible. With that responsibility I began to feel more comfortable in accepting that challenge I had feared for so long.
With passion, a student has the ability to create a great deal of change. Not just change in the world, but change for one’s self. As I created the Scalar book, I was writing a history of cultural diversity at the Claremont Colleges and a place for myself as a Latina. The book, authored in Scalar and titled Honk for Diversity, uses archival material to recount the week of the Alexander Protests where countless students and faculty of the Claremont Colleges united to fight for more cultural diversity within the Colleges (you can also check out the other student archives at the Creating Archives site)
I never mentioned it to my professor, but I was afraid to give her permission to “make my Scalar book public.” I was afraid that by making it possible to see my book, I was also giving people permission to criticize it. Of course, I understand that criticism serves as a way to improve, but also functions as a way to create doubt – in the argument, in my ability to express an idea.
But I knew that it all had to begin from somewhere. If I kept feeding my fear of not exposing certain information because of outside rejection, what I discovered in the archive would remain unknown. Instead of challenging ideals, I would simply be conforming to them. I think, above all, this experience helped to strengthen my confidence.
Not only did I learn new information, but I was also able to present it in such a way that it became accessible to the rest of the world. I also learned that feeling at home in college is not about choosing an already existing path – I previously had wondered why I couldn’t just “click” on a path here at Scripps – instead, in order to feel at home at Scripps, I had to create a path for myself, my own option to “click.” I too had to become part of the cycle of opening the gateways to knowledge and make a place for myself.
Now I know that I hold the power, I hold the agency, I hold the voice.
Coda: Prof Wernimont’s Thoughts
I’m not going to add a whole lot here, as I think Bea’s story deserves to stand on its own. I do want to say, however, that her story and her experience still gives me goosebumps because of what it says about the power of both primary research and digital technology to intervene in the effects of race, class, and gender. At a time where many faculty think of students like Bea as “digital natives,” I am struck by her story’s demonstration of how challenging the public spaces of the Internet can be and how powerful it is to find one’s voice. Bea’s experience working with the archival material and digital authoring/publishing tools was challenging, sometimes painful, and, finally, empowering. I hope that her willingness to share her experiences will help illuminate one way in which our sometimes abstract discussions about race, class, gender, and sexuality vis-à-vis the digital humanities have real impact in the lives of our students.