Fostering Diversity in Archival Collections

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of New Hampshire]On: 05 October 2014, At: 15:24Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH,UK

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    Fostering Diversity in ArchivalCollectionsKren M. Mason PhD aa Louise Noun-Mary Louise Smith Iowa Women'sArchives, University of Iowa Libraries , USAPublished online: 22 Sep 2008.

    To cite this article: Kren M. Mason PhD (2003) Fostering Diversity in ArchivalCollections, Collection Management, 27:2, 23-31, DOI: 10.1300/J105v27n02_03

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  • Fostering Diversity in Archival Collections:The Iowa Womens Archives

    Kren M. Mason

    ABSTRACT. Since its establishment at the University of Iowa Libraries in1992, the Louise NounMary Louise Smith Iowa Womens Archives hassought to document the broad spectrum of Iowa women and to acquire col-lections that represent diverse populations. To that end, the Archives initi-ated special projects to collect the papers of Iowas African Americanwomen and rural women. This article explores the benefits of such projects,the methods used to acquire diverse collections, and the challenges ofproactive collection development when resources are scarce. [Article cop-ies available for a fee from The Haworth Document Delivery Service: 1-800-HAWORTH. E-mail address: Website: 2002 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.]

    KEYWORDS. Archival collections, African American women, ruralwomen, womens archives, Iowa women, diversity

    IOWA WOMENS ARCHIVES: THE BEGINNING

    On May 15, 1991 a painting by Frida Kahlo entitled Self-Portraitwith Loose Hair sold for $1.65 million at Christies in New York,

    Kren M. Mason, PhD, is Curator, Louise NounMary Louise Smith IowaWomens Archives, University of Iowa Libraries.

    This paper was originally presented at Diversity: Building a Strategic Future, April4-6, 2002, a national conference sponsored by the Committee on Institutional Coopera-tion (CIC) and the Association of Research Libraries (ARL).

    Collection Management, Vol. 27(2) 2002http://www.haworthpress.com/store/product.asp?sku=J105 2002 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.

    10.1300/J105v27n02_03 23

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  • breaking the record for the sale price for a work of Latin American art.The sale was big news not only in the art world, but in the archivesworld as well. Why? Because the painting was sold in order to establishthe Iowa Womens Archives (IWA) at the University of Iowa.

    The painting was owned by Louise Noun, a Des Moines philanthro-pist, art collector, and historian. In the 1960s Noun researched and wrotethe first (and to date only) history of the womens suffrage movement inIowa, which was published in 1969. Not surprisingly, she had difficultylocating archival collections on Iowa women suffragists in an era whenhistorians (and many archivists as well) still believed that there were in-sufficient sources by and about women to support the study of womenshistory. Louise Noun conceived the idea of a womens archives, modeledon the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College, that would collect the pa-pers of Iowa women and make them available for research. With the saleof the Kahlo painting in 1991, Nouns idea finally came to fruition.

    It is fitting that the Archives was funded by the sale of a Frida Kahlopainting. Kahlos work was overshadowed by that of her more famoushusband, Diego Rivera, during her lifetime. Kahlos paintings havebeen rescued from obscurity in recent years, thanks in large part to col-lectors like Louise Noun, who over the past several decades have soughtto acquire and exhibit artwork by women. Likewise, Nouns establish-ment of the IWA was meant to rescue the papers of Iowa women fromobscurity, neglect, or destruction and to preserve them for use by stu-dents, scholars, and the public.

    The Louise NounMary Louise Smith IWA was established in 1992to collect, preserve, and make available the history of Iowa women, thatis, women born or educated in Iowa or women who lived in Iowa for atleast part of their lives. The Archives is housed in the Main Library atthe University of Iowa, where it has its own stacks, offices, and readingroom separate from the University Archives and Special Collections.

    I was hired as the first curator of the IWA and arrived in July 1992 tobegin building the collections of the Archives. Unlike most archivists,who inherit collections, traditions, and policies, I began with a clean slateand have had the rare opportunity to shape a new repository. From theoutset, the Archives has sought to document the broad spectrum of Iowawomen and thus to build a diverse set of collections. In one sense, thevery existence of the IWA fosters diversity in archival collections, in thatit focuses its collecting on women who had previously been neglected byarchivists and historians. For most of history, archivists collected the pa-pers of the rich, the powerful, the elite; in short, they preserved the historyof white men. As archivist Nancy Sahli (1994) has written,

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  • Perhaps this is as it always has been, that the dominant culture has de-fined what will be preserved and transmitted to future generations.For dominant cultures have held the keys to power and to those insti-tutions that both create and preserve the historical record. What wehave been witnessing in the past thirty years, however, is the increas-ing diversification of that culture, accompanied by rising self-con-sciousness of particular groups in society, groups eager to documenttheir own history and gain access to those bits and pieces of their his-tory that have survived in traditional repositories. (p. 100)

    The past two decades have witnessed a dramatic growth in the numberof repositories that define themselves as womens archives, dedicated topreserving the history of women. There has also been a growing commit-ment among archivists to document non-dominant groups, to capture oursociety, culture, and history in all its diversity. That commitment has notalways translated into more diverse collections, in part because of practi-cal considerationsoften because of a lack of resources to carry out thesegood intentions. In the paragraphs to follow I will describe the efforts ofthe IWA to foster diversity in its collectionsin particular, what has suc-ceeded and what factors have inhibited our efforts.

    IOWA WOMENS ARCHIVES: BACKGROUND

    The mission of the IWA is to preserve the history of Iowa women. Itis open to the public, serving as a research facility for students, scholars,and the public. Since its establishment in 1992, ten years ago, the Ar-chives has acquired some 850 collections of personal papers and orga-nizational records of Iowa women, measuring nearly 1500 linear feet.These collections represent a wide range of Iowa women. Areas that areespecially strong include political life and second wave feminism, butthere are also rich collections documenting the arts, education, journal-ism, volunteerism, sports, and any number of other topics and occupa-tions.

    The Archives acquires collections by donation only, not by purchase.The mode of collecting consists of four basic approaches:

    1. publicizing our interest in womens papers through speeches, arti-cles, and brochures

    2. writing letters of solicitation to individuals and groups identifiedthrough newspaper articles or suggested by others

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  • 3. sponsoring or attending events at which our interest in womenspapers can be publicized, and

    4. establishing good working relationships with people around thestate who might assist in our efforts.

    ESTABLISHING THE ARCHIVES COLLECTIONS

    The manner in which the Archives was founded and funded created asplash in the media, resulting in a great deal of publicity in newspaperssuch as the Des Moines Register and Iowa City Press-Citizen, in Uni-versity of Iowa publications, and even on Iowa Public Television. In in-terviews with the media, Archives staff members always emphasizedthe desire to document the broad spectrum of Iowa women, to collectnot only the papers of prominent women, but of so-called ordinarywomenwomen who were not known outside their families or commu-nities but whose papers might shed light on the lives and experiences ofIowa women through history.

    Over time, these methods yielded results. In the first two years of its ex-istence the Archives acquired only about 40 collections of letters, diaries,speeches, scrapbooks, photographs, minute books, and other such primarysource material. As word of the Archives grew, collections were donated ata more rapid rate. But I soon discovered that these collections were notnearly as diverse as I had hoped. That is, they represented a somewhat nar-row spectrum of women. For example, by the end of the first three years,the Archives had the papers of just a few African American women, de-spite our best efforts. Even though the staff had established contacts withand solicited papers of African American women in various parts of thestate, the results were disappointing. Part of this, of course, is inherent in ar-chival work. Fieldwork often involves planting seeds that will not bear fruitfor years or even decades. An archivist may ask for someones papers, re-ceive a tepid response (if any), and not hear from that person again until 20years later, when she decides its time to find a home for her papers.

    Another obstacle archivists face is that most people have never givena thought to their papers. Many do not even know what an archives is,and if they do, they do not realize they have anything that might be ofvalue for historical research. History to them is the Civil War or WorldWar II. Its presidents. Its politicians. Its museums and artifacts, notletters and diaries unless they are very old. This is especially true ofwomen who cannot imagine they have ever done anything that meritsremembering outside their home. And if this is true of privileged white

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  • women, how much more so of African American or Indian women orLatinas, whose lives and work and achievements have been overlookedand devalued for so long.

    AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMEN: A COLLECTION INITIATIVE

    It became clear early on that if the Archives were to represent the di-versity of Iowas population, its staff would have to make a concertedeffort to reach underrepresented groups. It was not until we hired an ar-chivist to focus on collecting the papers of African American women,however, that we built a strong collection in that area, and even then, ittook time to acquire these collections. The fundraising took some time,but by the fall of 1995 the Archives was able to hire Kathryn Neal as as-sistant archivist to undertake the African American Women in Iowaproject. Louise Noun, co-founder of the Archives, had encouraged theArchives to reach out to African American women and then UniversityLibrarian, Sheila Creth, persuaded the University of Iowa Foundationto raise money to support such a project. Since Kathryn Neal describesthis project in her article in this issue of Collection Management, I willnot go into great detail, but will discuss it briefly. The project was ini-tially funded for two years; the Libraries was able to secure grants to ex-tend it for an additional year and a half. Had the project lasted only twoyears, it would not have been nearly as successful. It takes time to iden-tify leads, establish contacts, visit with potential donors, and persuadethem of the value of donating their papers. Multiple visits are often nec-essary. As a result of Neals efforts, however, the Archives acquired thepapers of more than 50 African American women, and completed 15oral history interviews.

    After Kathryn Neal left in 1999, the number of collections being ac-quired slowed to a trickle. The University of Iowas Graduate Collegeprovided partial funding for a graduate assistant for two years to con-tinue Neals work, but that was not as effective as having a full time ar-chivist out in the field who had already won the confidence of potentialdonors. The graduate assistants had no background in archives and thusrequired very basic training. Therefore, their work consisted primarilyof organizing and writing guides to collections. The Archives has at-tempted to maintain some visibility for the project by taking tabletopexhibits to Ill Make Me a World in Iowa, an annual event held at theState Historical Building in Des Moines to celebrate African Americanculture in Iowa, and by including updates on the project in the Archivesnewsletter.

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  • TARGETED COLLECTION DEVELOPMENT

    For the most part, the African American Women in Iowa project hasbeen a successful model for targeted collection development. It gave theArchives high visibility, established contacts around the state, and dem-onstrated the Archives commitment to documenting African Americanhistory. Through it, the Archives acquired a significant core of very richcollections on African American life in Iowa that have seen frequent re-search use. Such projects are not without drawbacks, however, in par-ticular, the need to maintain the effort with existing staff once theproject ends and the project archivist has left. The IWA has only onepermanent professional staff member (me) and one paraprofessional.The remaining staff consists of graduate and undergraduate students.With my administrative, user education, and staff training responsibili-ties, it is not possible to continue the outreach, contact new donors, andfollow up on contacts to the extent I would like. The Archives reallyneeds a staff member dedicated to collection development.

    To do a thorough job of acquiring the papers of underrepresented groupsrequires more than a firm commitment. It requires a concerted effort,which means money, time, and staff. In particular, it requires someone outin the field on a regular basis, publicizing the project, pursuing leads, mak-ing contacts, and following up on those contacts. But given the shortage ofresources common to many or most institutions, targeted collection devel-opment for a short term is the most effective means of acquiring a core ofcollections. It also establishes the perception in the larger community thatthe institution is committed to building diverse collections.

    RURAL WOMEN: A SECOND COLLECTION INITIATIVE

    The IWA undertook a second focused collecting initiative in 1998when funding was received from the Iowa Farm Bureau Foundation tohire an assistant archivist to document Iowas rural women. DorisMalkmus joined the staff in September 1998, and spent the next twoyears traveling across the state, acquiring account books, diaries, scrap-books, photograph albums, and other materials of women who live orlived on farms or in small towns. The Archives received additionalgrants to do two small oral history projects from a local historical foun-dation and from the state-funded Historical Resources DevelopmentProgram. Why would we need a Rural Womens Project in the state ofIowa? The reason goes back to my earlier comments about how women

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  • perceive their lives. Those who have not held prominent public rolestend to dismiss their lives as having little historical significance. This isespecially true of rural women.

    The Archives acquired more than 100 collections belonging to ruralwomen in the course of the three-year project, which ended in Decem-ber 2001. These range from reminiscences of farm women, to minutebooks of rural township clubs initiated by the Farm Bureau, to scrap-books of photographs and newspaper clippings documenting a girlsbasketball team that won the state championship in 1924. The oral his-tories were needed to capture womens responses to the rapidly chang-ing farm economy, as well as their roles as activists during the farmcrises of the 1960s and 1980s.

    BUILDING COLLECTIONS: CHALLENGES

    Of course, the Archives cannot expect to undertake a special projectfor every group that it wishes to document, though I expect to initiatesuch projects from time to time. But in the meantime, we need to con-tinue our efforts to document diverse groups in other ways. Chicanoshave long had a presence in Iowa, coming here early in the 20th centuryto work on the railroads, later as migrant farm workers, and most re-cently as packinghouse workers. Efforts to document Latinas in Iowahave been small but fruitful.

    In July 2001, the Archives hosted a reception for University of Iowaalumni who were on campus for the 30th reunion of the Latino NativeAmerican Cultural Center. Archives staff had mounted a small exhibitin the Archives display cases about Rusty Barcelo, a University of Iowaalumna who was co-founder of the Cultural Center and had recently do-nated her papers to the IWA. Throughout the course of the two-day con-ference held in honor of the Centers anniversary, Barcelo remindedpeople how important it was to preserve their history and urged peopleto donate their papers to the IWA or to the Special Collections Depart-ment. I am also working with a graduate student in the College of Edu-cation at the University of Iowa to gather the papers of MexicanAmericans in her hometown of Fort Madison, Iowa. She has taken in-formation about the Archives to the annual fiesta in Fort Madison anddonated an oral history she taped with her mother, who was born in FortMadison in 1931, of Mexican immigrant parents.

    Currently, the IWA has no papers of Indian women. Building on thealumni theme and to begin publicizing the Archives need for them, one

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  • of our graduate assistants created a small exhibit to display at the Pow-wow in Iowa City. The exhibit contained images and information aboutthe archives and has encouraged other students of color to donate papersdocumenting their experiences at the University of Iowa.

    It takes resources to build diverse collections. Without the AfricanAmerican Women in Iowa Project we would not have nearly as manyAfrican American collections in the Archives as we now have. But theArchives will not be able to hire an archivist for each group whose pa-pers it wishes to collect. Therefore, we need to build cultural capital inwhatever ways we can, so that we can fall back on it when resources arelean. We need to continually demonstrate our commitment to diversity.

    The IWA has built a solid foundation through its special projects andin so doing has demonstrated its commitment to documenting diversegroups. Kathryn Neal made contacts in the major African Americancommunities in Iowa; Doris Malkmus visited nearly all of Iowas 99counties to publicize the Rural Womens Project. Each member of theArchives staff has done a great deal of public speaking around the state,as well as meeting with individual donorsthe key to building diversecollections. Even though Neal and Malkmus are no longer with the Ar-chives, I can build on the foundations they established. Whenever I givea presentation, I talk about these projects and read from some of the ru-ral and African American collections in the Archives. Every timeKathryn Neal or Doris Malkmus gave a talk they created allies. As a re-sult, there are advocates for the Archiveswomen who will take themessage to othersaround the state, and that is a very effective means ofcollection development.

    Several years ago, four women from Des Moines called and asked ifthey could schedule a visit to the Archives. They did not have papers todonate and, as far as I knew, were not financial contributors. But theyhad been reading about the Archives since its establishment and wantedto see it. So I spent a couple of hours with them, giving them a tour, andjoining them for lunch. Recently I spoke at a luncheon sponsored by awomens foundation in Des Moines and one of these women was there.She came over to say that she had recently attended a play in which aprominent African American television and stage actor from DesMoines was starring. Though no longer living in Iowa, he returns fre-quently to Des Moines and is the author of a series of essays on growingup African American in the Midwest. This woman, who had visited theArchives, approached the actor after the play to tell him about the IWAand suggest that he donate his mothers papers. He was very interested;it turned out his mother had recently died and he was in the process of

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  • transcribing some of her writings. The Archives may or may not ulti-mately receive his mothers papers. But at least now he knows about theIWA and can consider placing the papers there. Without this womansintervention, he would not have heard of the Archives. Advocates suchas this woman have been and continue to be integral to our success.

    CONCLUSION

    In closing I would like to quote the words of historian Gerda Lerner(1997), who writes Womens History of the past thirty years has of-fered a corrective to selective forgetting, seeking a holistic worldviewin which differences among people are recognized and respected andwhich records the commonality of human striving in all its variety andcomplexity. In remembering wholly one can fight the system of distor-tions and half-truths out of which sexism, classism, racism, andantisemitism grow like poisonous weeds (p. 211).

    Through its proactive collection development practices, the IWAseeks to build collections that support a holistic worldview. We want toavoid selective forgetting and to provide the sources for a history thattakes into account the wide varieties of experience of Iowa women andshatters the myth of homogeneity in Iowa.

    REFERENCES

    Lerner, Gerda. (1997). Why history matters in Why History Matters: Life and Thought.NY: Oxford University Press, 199-211.

    Sahli, Nancy. (1994). Commentary on Ramon A. Gutierrez. Decolonizing the body:Kinship and the nation. American Archivist 57 (1): 100-104.

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