8 Important Takeaways from the Discovery Phase

When we began Chronicling Resistance, we had a lot of questions about what stories of resistance PACSCL members had and didn’t have in their collections, who knew about those stories, and how we could amplify those and current stories of resistance in ways that would be meaningful to people who don’t often use our reading rooms but who care a lot about Philadelphia’s resistance history and how they are a part of it.

After about a year of public programing, online questionnaires, and two focus groups, here are some of the major lessons we learned and how we’re going to apply them to the project and to our work as archivists and special collections librarians more broadly:

1. Art and public programs help connect our vast holdings to audiences in meaningful ways.

This was more of a confirmation than a discovery. We knew people conducted historical research not only to write books or find out about their families, but also to produce visual, literary, and performing art works or to further inform their activism. We knew organizations/institutions like churches, neighborhood associations, small non-profits, and grassroots movements often took it upon themselves to preserve evidence of their existence, without an official in-house historian or archivist to help them.

But by bringing these artists, cultural organizers, and community archivists to Chronicling Resistance as presenters at our listening sessions, we were able to witness how audiences are most likely to connect with history.

Also, artists, writers, and storytellers who have conducted research physically in archives spoke about their metaphysical connection to papers and rare books and suggested more art and more living things in archival spaces as ways to help facilitate that metaphysical connection. Presenters and audience members also noted, however, that there’s already a lot of art on the walls in the special collections libraries; most of it is just of rich white men. And for people who already feel under-represented in Philadelphia’s cultural heritage sector, this may not be the best décor.

For the future of CR, we’re thinking about how to encourage more first-hand encounters with primary source documents without endangering the documents, how to expand institutions’ capacity to offer programs and art, and how to train PACSCL archivists to better recognize the perspectives of diverse users.

2. The public connects the past to the present, but doesn’t necessarily connect the past to archives.

This lesson was most apparent in the listening session following a tour of At These Crossroads: The Legacies of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois, at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Parkway Central branch. The exhibition featured facsimiles of archival documents found in several PACSCL-member institutions. Most people in the audience didn’t know these institutions existed and were pleasantly surprised to learn they are also open to the public. They were also excited about the idea of preserving their own documents and wanted to know more about the types of documents local archives are interested in collecting.

There is a thirst for knowledge of the past, a joy in discovering it, and an inherent appeal in thinking of oneself or one’s experiences as an important part of the historical narrative for family members and researchers of the future. Going forward, PACSCL wants to capture and promote these sentiments to nontraditional reading room users. Part of CR’s next phase includes asking community activists and organizers doing research in PACSCL member libraries to document discoveries as they happen using Instagram, blogs, and live social media feeds.

3. The major barrier to connecting communities to archives is not knowing what materials are available or that they are available to anyone.

As stated in the second point, the public accessibility of archives is news to lots of folks. But doing research in special collections is also a little different from searching a public library’s card catalog. What would a keyword search for “resistance” uncover in most PACSCL finding aids? Not much.

Since May, we’ve been building a resistance collections website to help people who are trying to chronicle resistance find what they’re looking for more easily. The site is live, and growing.

4. Resistance can be very personal, and people are usually in direct and/or intimate relationship with their resistance heroes.

We asked, “What does resistance mean to you?” and “Who are your Philadelphia resistance heroes?” The vast majority of respondents described cultural preservation, surviving inherently oppressive environments, every day acts of joy, or a relative or community elder who taught them cultural traditions or (cultural) survival skills, or held on to family or community documents and stories.

Unlike protests, direct action, or prominent historical figures, these types of resistance and resistance heroes aren’t covered in the newspaper, and the lessons they passed on often were not in a diary handed down through many generations. What does this mean for broadening whose resistance stories we collect? We’re still not sure, but we’re staying in the ongoing conversation among archivists about what we collect (i.e., oral histories? Instagram posts?) as well as who we solicit collections from. We’re also keeping personal resistance in the front of our minds as we build the resistance collections website.

5. Nonetheless, a clear definition of resistance will make messaging easier going forward.

One of the questions that we are often asked is, “How are you defining resistance?” We left this definition open to interpretation on purpose so we could hear what people thought instead of dictate what they should think. However, many people want to start here before proceeding, and explaining our rationale took time. Our thinking partners suggested we ask people to think about “large and small acts of resistance,” and we’ve updated the website and printed materials with this wording.

In the next phase of the project, we want to engage activists and cultural organizers from specific fields and match them with institutions that can best support the work they do. To that end, we’re framing resistance as “political, social, artistic, religious, or scientific”–the way we did in a grant proposal we feel like we wrote a long time ago. (And yes, those categories can have subcategories, too, so we’ve changed the language on the About page to make our meaning even clearer.)

6. Language matters.

We heard our audience and thinking partners: the back half of our project title was problematic. “Enabling” can come off as paternalistic, and that could make it seem like we intended to remove agency from the individuals and groups we most sought to connect with. Additionally, some understood that to enable resistance may also mean enabling the oppression that someone is resisting.

You noticed “Enabling Resistance” is gone, right? We’ve received much more positive reviews upon pitching, “Chronicling Resistance, Affirming Resistance,” as “affirming” expresses strong support for resistance work already being done and retains agency among those doing the work. “Affirming” hasn’t appeared anywhere on our material yet because the title for phase 2 is still in progress.

Also, as I stated in a previous newsletter, we wrote our initial slogan and single-sentence “about the project” statement at a post-graduate reading level. While we don’t know if the language alienated any of the core groups we initially set out to reach through this project (communities of activism, K-12 teachers and students, and journalists), we thought a rewrite and an apology were good ideas.

This lesson also helps PACSCL to think more about the end-user in its new mission and vision statements, adopted in April 2019. We want to “reach out to the worldwide community of scholars (in the broadest sense, from senior researchers through K-12 students, area residents, and lifelong learners).”

7. Bias is present, even with the best of intentions.

The point about language helped us realize how some of our own biases play out in the execution of projects like Chronicling Resistance, in which institutions attempt to exit their silos and make more meaningful connections with individuals and groups in other fields of work. 

The same lesson was revealed in some of our initial attempts to talk with activists. While we didn’t go into these conversations thinking, “We’ve come to save you from historical obliteration!” we did enter thinking, “We want to hear from YOU about what’s important and how we can do better, and we have funding to listen–clearly this is an awesome project!” Surprise to us: Communities often feel that they are asked to donate their intellectual and cultural labor behind the scenes of a well-funded project and are then left behind after a project is completed. So, some attempts to meet with grassroots organizers one-on-one or to host a listening session with their communities failed due to organizers’ desire to protect themselves and their communities from (more) institutional harm. 

To help address this, we paid all consultants, presenters, and focus group participants. We also formatted listening sessions as panel presentations or screenings so that those in attendance could glean as much information as they gave.

Several communities, groups, and venues did let us in during the discovery phase, and we thank them. Going forward, we hope to build on these relationships by making every effort to get out of our silos during the planning stages of PACSCL projects and by thinking more about how communities can continue to benefit after a grant-funded project has concluded.

In all of the listening sessions that included a panel presentation, panelists and/or the audience expressed the importance of collecting their communities’ histories, preserving them and/or passing them down orally or in writing, and making them accessible, first and foremost, to their own communities. 

8. It is time to respond to traditionally marginalized communities’ need to have agency in and authority over the collection and interpretation of their own histories.

For decades, scholars whose research focuses on ethnic or women and gender studies have been frustrated about the lack of archival evidence of these groups’ experiences. They tend to critique the archives for this void and encourage archivists to start making amends by collecting documents from these groups now. But we found that many people in these communities aren’t as interested  in handing their stories to an institution as they are in building archives that feel more accessible to their neighbors. Their concerns include not knowing if people in their communities will feel welcome at a traditional archive, needing preservation to be done in a way that safeguards their affiliation with a marginalized group, and the concern that their story will be misinterpreted in mainstream hands.

In other words, everyone has the desire to preserve what could be lost or has been omitted, but the people and institutions with the most resources have to figure out how to best assist with community archiving efforts as they try to diversify their own collections.

In the next phase of the project, we want to provide activists with community archiving kits. We’re looking at projects in other states to help understand best practices for distributing these kits and helping the communities who use them to preserve their stories.