June 2, 2015 - Comments Off on In Process | Bridging Local History & Community Archives

In Process | Bridging Local History & Community Archives

In Process is a blog series that highlights the activities and experiences of current archival studies students in the Los Angeles area. Check in every two weeks, for grad students’ insights and fresh perspectives on new and emerging trends, issues, and events in the field.

By Noah Geraci

Photograph of a busy street with a sign that says

University Ave., 2006. Photo by Peyri Herrera, licensed under Creative Commons BY-ND 2.0.

I care about places and their histories more than I care about many things. If we are close friends, I’ll want to walk with you in the neighborhood where I grew up and narrate the changes I have witnessed in my lifetime: the condo complex that sits where the bowling alley used to be, the loud, sprawling patio of the sports bar that used to be a windowless gay bar, marked on the exterior only by a painting of a wolf, the fancy restaurant with condos on top that used to be the weirdest, best junk store. I’ll hope that you’ll want to do the same, to show me where you are from. This is partly how I came to archives: wanting to learn the secrets of places.

One of the first places I started looking for these kinds of secrets, as a teenager, was in the local history room of the San Diego Public Library. By looking through the historic newspaper collections, I was able to get a better grasp on the tensions surrounding race, sexuality and class that had shaped North Park, where I’m from. So when I began to consider MLIS programs years later, one of my first daydreams was of working as a local history librarian in a public library.

In my mind, local histories and marginalized histories were inextricably intertwined. Yet as I’ve begun to navigate academic and professional worlds in LIS, I’ve found that’s often not the case: local history collections seem to have a sometimes especially frumpy reputation, and many do focus largely on commemorating settler histories and the "Great Men" of local business and government, with little focus on marginalized communities or more recent histories. I rarely meet peers who are interested in working in local history, and many of the people who are doing the work I find interesting and important are working at universities and/or frame their work within the discourse of community archives rather than local history.

It seems impossible to me to think about local histories without thinking, especially, about race and racism. As George Lipsitz and many others have written, race and place have a long and fraught relationship. The notion of property itself is heavy with racialized histories, and from colonization to redlining and restrictive covenants to gentrification, racism has played a central role in structuring how land is used and particularly who is able to live where. In my dreams, local history collections would not only responsibly steward materials reflective of the diversity of their surrounding communities, but help to frame records like property and development-related records within the context of the power relations that created them, as important evidence surrounding institutional racism.

While making this kind of change can be difficult and sometimes impossible depending on institutional climate, I wish that there was more overlap between community archives people and public library local history departments-- after all, public libraries are already free, accessible public spaces that are able to to bypass many of the tensions that can surround university-community relationships.

But of course, that’s not to say nobody is doing the kind of work I’m thinking about. Manny Escamilla, an archivist at the Santa Ana Public Library local history room, grew up in Santa Ana and has done some great projects working with youth to document immigrant histories and histories of neighborhood violence. Shades of LA at LAPL, which was initiated in the early 1990s and collected copies of thousands of family photographs from local communities of color, is another great example of a public library project that one could imagine being equally at home in an independent community archives setting. I hope that this kind of work will continue to grow, and that more of my peers interested in community archives and critical reflection might consider local history collections as possible sites for engaged critical practice-- I think that for people to have access to quality information on the histories of the places where we live can have resounding emotional and political importance, informing identity, community, and action.

Noah Geraci is an MLIS student at UCLA who works at UCLA’s Digital Library Program. Born and raised in San Diego, in other lives he has been a mental health counselor, home care worker, elementary educator, writer, and punk musician.

Published by: Los Angeles Archivist Collective in In Process

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