Feature Friday: Reckoning in the Archives

Posted on: February 18, 2022

Selena standing on ladder next to stacks of colorful books
Selena St. Andre among a class of students visiting JMU Special Collections. Photo courtesy of JMU Special Collections.

As a JMU Libraries student employee, Selena St. Andre (‘18) found her passion between the pages of old JMU scrapbooks and handwritten farm ledgers from Shenandoah Valley farmers in the early 1900s. Previously, she planned to use her history degree to work in museums, but after working in JMU Special Collections, she saw what made archival work unique:

“Museums are great, but they curate for a certain audience. You don’t get to see what wasn’t included in the exhibit, right?”

Now she is pursuing a master’s degree in Library and Information Science and considers herself among a growing body of archivists who are committed to making archives more inclusive.

Q & A

How do you describe Special Collections to people?

Detail of artist book from JMU Special Collections. Photo by Julia Merkel.

“Special Collections is essentially the preservation of unique, rare historical documents on a certain topic. It’s almost like stepping into a museum that you get free rein of. With archives, you do have to connect the dots yourself a little bit, but archives are open to you and you get to decide what you want to focus on. Every place has a different specialty. Special Collections in JMU Libraries primarily  focuses on JMU history and local history within the Shenandoah Valley. There’s also a strong artists’ books collection, and the comic book collection is huge. So it really depends on the institution.”

So…how do you make archives more inclusive? 

JMU alumna Selena St. Andre (‘18, left) looking at Black & White on Bluestone Hill: JMU’s Racial History in the Archives exhibit in Special Collections, created by former graduate student Austin Shifflett (‘18M, right). Photo courtesy of JMU Special Collections.

“I want to preface by saying that no answer I give is going to be completely correct or reflective of all viewpoints. I sit at a certain level of privilege. Inclusivity is something the field as a whole is trying to reckon with. My current supervisor has written a paper about this and actually did a workshop with JMU Special Collections last semester on Reparative History and Reparative Description—essentially recognizing that, historically, archives have determined who is important and who gets to be remembered. While not everything can be saved, it’s a whole different conversation when material is destroyed in a fire rather than someone saying, directly or indirectly, ‘I don’t think you are important enough to be included in the historical record.’ Archivists are now taking responsibility for that. I think one way to make archives inclusive is through participatory archives. The archivist is not the end all be all of what is important.”

What are participatory archives?

JMU students meet members of the Simms Advisory Board and the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project for the Celebrating Simms project and digital archive, January 2016. Photo by Seán McCarthy.

“Participatory archives, in a nutshell, actively involve the community you serve in order for them to have a say in what is important to their collective history. An archivist might think certain things are important, but community members may say, ‘This is way more important.’ So elevating the people in the communities that you’re working with and amplifying  their voices is really important. Oral histories are a  big way to do this. With paper collections, or even digital collections, there are so many gaps, but with oral histories, the person you’re speaking with really gets to tell you their story in the way that they want to tell it.”

“Inclusion is a big topic in archives—one that archivists are continuously addressing. This is a whole field of study now in archives. How do you make archives inclusive? I think the best way is to just start. It might be rocky at first and there’s a lot of trust building involved, but you have to start somewhere, right?”

Can you tell me more about what you did in JMU Libraries?

Selena St. Andre in the JMU Special Collections reading room. Photo courtesy of JMU Special Collections.

“I knew nothing about archives when I started but really dove deep into what an archivist would do, and that greatly inspired my career path. While at JMU Special Collections, I was most focused on processing. I think I processed over 10 collections. The first was a farm ledger from the early 1900s. The Furious Flower Poetry Center records were one of the last ones. I worked on a lot of scrapbooks as well. In addition to that, I retrieved items for researchers and helped them with research questions. Special Collections also works very closely with JMU classes on semester-long projects and one time instruction, so I was able to assist with that too.”

What was your favorite item you worked with?

Hair from a scrapbook in JMU Special Collections. Photo courtesy of JMU Special Collections.

“A lot of the scrapbooks actually have human hair in them. And not just like small little pieces. They have very long locks. Another interesting thing in one of the scrapbooks was a half consumed piece of gum from the 1920s, I think. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s delicious.’ Those are some of the odd ones. Then there were these tiny maps that would fold out to giant maps. And I loved some of the World’s Fair items we had in the collection. There were so many things I loved in the collections.”

Do you find yourself archiving your own life now, like, adding metadata to your journals?

“The way I organize things and the information I include has definitely changed. Other than that, not really. I know what to do, but I feel like I’m almost too close to it. You hear about nurses and doctors being the worst patients, and it feels similar to that. Archives have made me more aware of issues with born-digital materials though. I took a digital preservation course last semester, and learning about how fragile all the digital material we create is is absolutely insane. It’s more fragile than physical material. I think of old computer hard drives that I have at my mom’s house that haven’t been touched in years with a lot of photos on them. I’m seriously considering taking a good look at all the digital materials I have to just try and figure out how to actually preserve it all before it deteriorates.”

Selena St. Andre working in JMU Libraries. Photo courtesy of JMU Special Collections.

Tell us about where you’re working now!

“I’m in a masters of Library and Information Science program at the University of Maryland, College Park, right outside of D.C., and I work as a graduate student assistant at the University Archives. The work I do is really different from working at JMU Special Collections, but still focuses on access and how we tell diverse stories and make the archives inclusive, since they haven’t historically been that way. That is something that the field itself is really trying to work on.”

Now that you’re in Maryland, what Harrisonburg restaurant do you miss the most?

“Whenever I visit my mom, I go to Harrisonburg. I love visiting Jack Brown’s. It’s a classic.”

Are you into Jack Brown’s for the special sauce or the wacky burgers or the fried oreos?

“All of it. But honestly? Probably the sauce.”

This story is part of our Feature Friday story series. Thank you for supporting Special Collections in JMU Libraries!

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