What We Don’t Have In Our Archives

CMU Libraries expands initiatives to document more inclusive history

Most people consider library archives - records of old materials, categorized and easy to search - as the definitive records of an institution’s history. And yet archives are not neutral. Increasingly, organizations are recognizing that archives do not tell a complete story.

At Carnegie Mellon University, the collections of preserved records skew heavily white and male, giving the impression that CMU’s history lacked diversity. In fact, people of many ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientations and gender presentations have been members of the community since Carnegie Technical Schools first opened in 1905.

In recognition of this absence in recordkeeping, University Libraries has assembled an exhibit entitled "What We Don’t Have” that aims to fill the holes in CMU’s history. The exhibit emphasizes archivists’ training to be unbiased, objective stewards and acknowledges that some stories have been prioritized over others.

Shannon Riffe, director of marketing, communications and external relations for University Libraries, said the exhibit itself is just the beginning of the Libraries’ work toward diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). "We are acknowledging the stories that have not been prioritized," she said. "And what’s exciting is to also see this effort supported at the university level. We shared our plans as part of the university’s Strategic Actions on Confronting Racism and Promoting Equity and Inclusion in July and are delighted that the university has provided support for a dedicated DEI archivist position. It’s a great signal that the university and the libraries are committing to acquiring and processing these important collections."

Carnegie Mellon University Libraries owns thousands of archival materials stored in three locations. A new funding stream will allow the archivists to focus their attention on processing materials that tell a more complete, inclusive story about the history of the university.

For the past three years, Julia Corrin has co-taught a course for Integrative Design, Arts, and Technology (IDeATe) called "Digital Archives and Storytelling." Students are asked to pick elements of the university archives where they feel they can see themselves in some way. "Every year we have students come in looking for first-hand accounts from students, not just statistics and university reports," said Corrin. "Students want to know what their peers in 1914 or 1945 were thinking and their thoughts on the university. And we can never give them that."

In response to and in conjunction with the "What We Don’t Have" exhibit, Corrin began to work with the students to look at these absences. "We encourage students to look at what is not there and ask ’what does it mean that I cannot find a voice like mine in the archives.’ Students then think about what that might be able to tell them about history and about our institution," Corrin said.

SPIRIT was originally founded as the Black Student Organization, and for many years generally identified as a multicultural organization. In 2017, the organization identified itself as the Black Student Union. Archival items, such as these photo albums from the 1986 SPIRIT fashion show, help to preserve the history of the entire university and more accurately tell its story.

Good Stewards of Vulnerable Communities

One such collection is the university’s CMAP collection, which stands for the Carnegie Mellon Action Project, a program started in the 1960s to increase the recruitment and retention of Black students. The archivists are processing materials from their collection for the first time. "Processing our CMAP collection will tell the story of Carnegie Mellon’s African American students that has never really been told before," Riffe said.

Along with the online exhibit, the Libraries are bringing a series of speakers to talk about community archives for underrepresented communities. Harrison Apple, creator of the Pittsburgh Queer History Project, spoke in October about the archives of the LGBTQ+ community and the difficulties in archiving a community that in some ways does not want their story to be visible.

Prioritizing What’s There

Archivists don’t like the stereotypes created by movies like Citizen Kane, showing dusty halls full of endless, unlabeled boxes. But there is some truth to the image, as CMU currently has over 3,000 boxes in the second floor of Hunt Library, plus 5,000 linear feet of materials in a Penn Avenue warehouse and even more stored at Iron Mountain. "Fifty percent of that material is unprocessed," said Julia Corrin, university archivist.

The university has only employed archivists since the 1980s, and the work of sorting through an ever-growing collection and making the material searchable is daunting. Corrin explains that if material is unprocessed, researchers don’t know it’s available and it cannot contribute to either the storytelling or information gathering necessary to solve society’s challenges.

Corrin says the university has been aware, for example, that the archives contain papers and materials from George Corrin (no relation to Julia), likely the first Black student in the School of Design. George Corrin worked as a set designer and helped pioneer the design of television news, including the sets for the Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates. "We’ve had this material for 20 years," said Julia Corrin, "but they’ve essentially been hidden from the public due to lack of description."

Julia Corrin is excited by the potential of a dedicated DEI archivist who can process the materials CMU already has in the archives and also reach out to obtain materials that will create a more complete history of the people and the work of the CMU community.

The concept of archives has been around since ancient Egypt, and Corrin explains that their primary role had been to maintain records documenting the relationship of citizens to governments. "Archives have always been meant to be a place of transparency to help hold people accountable," Corrin said. "Not everyone sees our work as integral to society, but if we really think about how to tell the stories of this moment and how we got here, we need archives."

Riffe said, "Archivists are the keepers of the institutional history - we even have a cross section of The Fence - so it’s important that our University Archives are reflective of our CMU community."

To that end, Brian Mathews, University Libraries’ associate dean of innovation, preservation and access points out that the university has created a fund to support the collection and preservation of more diverse collections. "Inclusivity is an area that our archivists really want to explore further, to be open and thoughtful about our collections. While the exhibit provided us with an opportunity to reflect on what’s missing and why, the newly-funded archivist position and the supporting fund gives us a chance to do something about it," Mathews said. "This work helps us ensure we’re as representative as possible of the research, education, service, culture and engagement happening across CMU for the years ahead, and the impact we have on the world around us."

Archivists play a critical role in preserving history and influence how the public interprets current events. Speaker Bekezela Mguni will examine how archives can be both sites of powerful memory-keeping as well as of oppression and violence. Mguni, librarian-in-residence at the Pittsburgh International Airport, will present her lecture on February 25, 2021. Register online

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