Monday, September 20, 2010

(Public) Humanities + Archives = Activating the Cultural Footprint

I recently finished a ten-week internship in the Archives Division at the Auburn Avenue Research Library as part of my master’s program in Public Humanities at Brown University. I am frequently asked about public humanities and its relationship to the work of archives.

The humanities are comprised of subject areas that analyze, interpret, and reflect on the human condition. According to the 1965 legislative act that created the National Endowment for the Humanities, the humanities are “branches of scholarly and cultural activity … [that help us] achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future.” These include the fields of anthropology, archaeology, art history and theory, ethics, history, language, literature, jurisprudence, philosophy, and religion.

While university professors and writers are obvious examples of humanists, the interdisciplinary field of public humanities supports the tools and spaces to incorporate a wider group of participants into this sphere. This is reflected in the work of my fellow students, who connect with community historians, schoolchildren, farmers, teenaged Civil War re-enactors, and others in sites as diverse as museums, archives, rural farms, dance studios, national parks, community art centers, neighborhood porches, and cyberspace.

Public humanities recognizes that the general public is an active creator, and not merely a consumer, of humanities. Thus, public humanities also serves as a vehicle for civic engagement for all members of a community. As Thomas Ehrlich writes in Civic Responsibility and Higher Education, “Civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.”

My summer internship gave me many opportunities to promote the “knowledge, skills, values, and motivation” for civic engagement through the humanities. Processing the Mary Park Washington Papers and creating the collection finding aid allowed me to provide access to Washington’s vast knowledge of African American art and artists, her process as an artist commenting on history and society, and the documentation of her civic engagement as an arts educator and advocate.

I also launched social media initiatives for the Archives Division, creating a Twitter account and this blog, and expanding the Archives’ presence on Facebook. In addition to providing a forum for sharing our collections, social media helps us communicate with our users and donors, allowing us to learn about their priorities, knowledge, and needs. One example was the post on behalf of Dr. Barbara McCaskill, seeking community knowledge about photographer J. Richardson Jones. Social media also helps potential donors (maybe you!) see the far-reaching impact of archives and the importance of donating their papers to an institution such as AARL.

Thanks to the AARL’s collaborative relationship with cultural heritage and humanities organizations in Atlanta, I was also able to work on a special project for the Georgia Humanities Council, in support of their initiative to promote civic reflection on issues of race. Last year, the GHC organized a town hall meeting for the initiative, demonstrating how ordinary people can use their knowledge of morality, history, and philosophy to reflect on ways to improve their communities. Using the insights raised in this town hall meeting as well as my knowledge of Atlanta’s history gained from working in AARL’s Archives Division, I formulated discussion questions and a reading list that will hopefully help stimulate similar discussions in community groups across Georgia.

The interconnectedness of the Archives Division’s staff, collections, donors, collaborators and community of users invigorates the humanities and promotes civic engagement. My internship reinforced the power of archives to help the public use, build upon, and share diverse forms of cultural knowledge in order to improve community life. Janice Sikes-Rogers, an AARL librarian, calls this process “activating the cultural footprint.” How do you see the Archives Division as your partner in activating the cultural footprint?

Posted by Krystal Appiah, Brown University

1 comment:

  1. The reading list you created for the Georgia Humanities Council will be used in other settings as groups convene to think about how to be in community.
    I appreciate your remember one of the quotes as I rambled on about the need to be an activist in connecting information with our communities.J.Sikes-Rogers