In the routine world of libraries and archives, there is not a lot of time for self-reflection about the institution’s mission, given the demands of normal service and user requests. In a year like 2020, with the twin issues of a pandemic and racial unrest, the shock waves can cause us to examine what we’re doing and what we’re hoping to achieve.
According to Shannon Riffe, director of marketing, communications, and external relations at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Libraries, the murder of George Floyd by police officers inspired the university “to look inward with a critical eye at its own collections.” The result was CMU Libraries’ virtual exhibit, What We Don’t Have: Confronting the Absence of Diversity in the University Archives, which explores the lack of diversity in the University Archives’ collections. In other words, CMU has taken the unusual step of forming an exhibit based on its negative space. It debuted in fall 2020, and it will run indefinitely.
How the University Evolved
In 1900, Scottish industrialist Andrew Carnegie founded the Carnegie Technical Schools in Pittsburgh, and its doors opened in 1905. His vision was to provide educational opportunities for the children of his mill workers and other working-class residents of Pittsburgh. In 1912, the name was changed to the Carnegie Institute of Technology, and it became a full-fledged degree-granting college. By then, the college consisted of four schools, including the Margaret Morrison Carnegie School for Women. The Mellon Institute of Industrial Research had been founded in 1913 by businessmen Andrew and Richard Mellon, growing out of a department at the University of Pittsburgh and achieving independence in 1927. The two institutions merged in 1967, and CMU has taken its place as a first-tier research university, with notable alumni such as artist Andy Warhol, lunar astronaut Edgar Mitchell, author Kurt Vonnegut, and actor Holly Hunter.
In 1989, the university formed the Human Relations Commission in response to concerns raised by Black students about insensitivity and harassment on campus. For the next decade, CMU worked on a wide-ranging array of issues around diversity, including homophobia, sexual harassment, and all forms of racial discrimination. In 2017, CMU furthered its diversity efforts by opening the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion. In 2020, it became engaged in a multi-pronged effort to “build a more diverse, inclusive and equitable community.” Each academic unit is involved, so there are too many specifics to list here, except to report that each unit must create a 5-year plan for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Also, the university has created the new position of vice provost for diversity, equity and inclusion, which has been temporarily filled while candidates are being assessed for the permanent slot.
A Look at the Exhibit
In comparison to most universities’ online exhibits, What We Don’t Have: Confronting the Absence of Diversity in the University Archives presents a somewhat austere face to the user. There are no images as such, but some text is highlighted in red to add emphasis. After a brief introduction, there are six sections. Each one covers a collection of papers (or lack thereof) and talks about an aspect of the work that archivists perform. In the first section, the site discusses the previously mentioned Human Relations Commission and reports that the archives has no direct documentation of its work. The point is that you cannot serve up archival material that you don’t have.
The second section covers the former Black Student Advisory Committee. There were fleeting references to it in the campus newspaper, and the archives may have some material about it in the papers of a former CMU president, but they have not been processed. The section goes on to explain the concept of processing archival objects so they may be made available to researchers.
The next section talks about the papers of George Corrin, a Black student who attended CMU in the 1940s and became an important figure in the television news industry. Although the archives has the material, it is not yet available to users (but will be soon).
The fourth section covers CMU’s annual Lunar Gala. Specifics about its origins are unknown, as the archives is missing any fliers, posters, or adjunct material about the event. This brings in the concept of “historical value,” because the students who produced the first gala were unaware of the “ongoing usefulness of [their] records.”
In the fifth section, the site talks about the LGBT+ experience on campus. The archives asserts that the materials it possesses are inadequate, so to help fill the gaps, it has a program that encourages past students to provide their oral histories.
Finally, the sixth section discusses SPIRIT, a Black student organization with a more than 50-year history. This pairs with the concept of “archival power,” which means that archivists can make things historically significant by shining a light on them.
There are frequent entreaties for past CMU students to help the archives out with any materials that can add to the full picture.
Checking In With the Archivist
Julia Corrin (no relation to George) has been the university archivist since fall 2014. Prior to that, she worked as an archivist at Arkansas State University, gaining significant experience in the digital preservation of archival data.
Knowing that there is such a major diversity initiative on campus, I asked Corrin via email where the idea for the exhibit originated. She writes, “The idea came out of the archives department. Our campus leadership has taken a much more proactive approach to issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion this fall, and we luckily already had this in the pipeline.”
I asked her whether the exhibit would be updated to announce the addition of things that are currently being processed. She replied, “We do plan to update the exhibit as we identify more material. We’re also planning social media, blogs, etc. to announce collections as they are received and are made available for research. We recently finished processing George Corrin’s papers and will be adding links to that finding aid as soon as it’s completed, for example.”
I wondered if the university added a catalyst to the project in the form of extra staff dedicated to diversity issues. Corrin noted, “We’re thrilled that the university has provided us with funding to hire an archivist to focus on this issue—to process collections in this area and help us continue to develop a programmatic approach to this work, hopefully ensuring that this work will be central to the archives moving forward.”
Robert Fulghum once wrote that the examined life is no picnic. I think that the archivists at CMU have done a fine job of examining the meaning of their work, and they have developed a better understanding of the power of archives to illuminate the entire university experience. I hope that this will be a trendsetter that will help other colleges and universities perform the same kind of self-examination.
Others who might follow this path could take a hard look at the last line of the exhibit: “Who controls the past, controls the future; who controls the present, controls the past.” —George Orwell