An Archivist in a Backpack oral history kit (courtesy Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Much of our understanding of the past is based on archives, and who assembles those records, and decides what’s worthy of protection. A new project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Southern Historical Collection (SHC) is making archive creation more accessible by offering resources that can easily launch community partners on memory projects. Called Archivist in a Backpack, it supplies compact kits with basic tools for oral history and material archives.

“There’s this sense that there’s something arcane and a little mysterious about what it takes to preserve history,” Josephine McRobbie told Hyperallergic. McRobbie is the community archivist at SHC in the Wilson Special Collections Library. “Our experience is that history harvests are often the starter material that fuels larger archives aspirations in communities, and the backpacks contain what a citizen-historian might like to have to get started.”

One kit is specifically for oral history interviews. While it has the expected audio recorder and tripod, it further assists DIY historians through interview question cards and a training guide from the Southern Oral History Program, as well as thank you cards to send participants. Another is designed for archival preservation and digitization of ephemera, whether photographs, letters, or diaries. A flatbed scanner, thumb drive for files, acid-free sleeves and folders, and cotton gloves for handling fragile photographs, are joined by user-friendly technical tips.

The San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum scanning event (courtesy Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

“For some people, archival supplies are really important,” McRobbie stated. “We have worked with several historic black towns in the South through our partnership with the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance, and a theme that has shone through is the effects of environmental racism on how people are able to preserve historical documents. Not only are we in the South where it is muggy and humid, but there are many stories of African American communities that have lost documents and historic landmarks due to being located in flood-prone areas.”

Archival photograph of Rev. Callies holding an MLK statue head (courtesy the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum)

This April, McRobbie brought the first set of kits to the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum, which is dedicated to recognizing African American heritage in San Antonio, Texas, through collecting documents and interpreting history. As part of the visit, six of the organization’s volunteers were trained in using audio recorders and scanners, while a Scan-A-Thon, oral history event, and open house involved the public. Often the history being archived by these grassroots groups or smaller history organizations is overlooked in major institutions. For instance, one focus of the scanning in San Antonio were photographs related to Rev. R. A. Callies, who helped found one of the largest MLK marches in the country. His daughter and people who worked with Callies additionally shared their stories, contributing to a rich resource on his legacy.

Over Memorial Day weekend, the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project used the Archivist in a Backpack kits to digitize historic photographs for an upcoming exhibition timed with the Eastern Kentucky Social Club Reunion in St. Louis. SHC’s other community archiving partners — including the Appalachian Student Health Coalition and the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance  — will also receive kits as part of the initiative.

Material at the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum scanning event (courtesy Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

As the project progresses, UNC will use feedback on what works and what doesn’t to improve these kits for wider use. Needs can vary from archive to archive, whether it’s the Appalachian Student Health Coalition — created in the 1960s to provide healthcare to low-income residents of Appalachia — that has its archival repository at UNC, or the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance, which involves several towns and needs training for its regional archivists.

Archivist in a Backpack is just part of a three-year, $877,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that supports the community-driven archive projects at SHC. While the kits are simple — some supplies and tools in a backpack or traveling case — they encourage the preservation of local narratives that might otherwise be lost. Being an archivist doesn’t mean creating a completely perfect collection; it can be recording community stories, and giving attention to overlooked history, with whatever resources you have.

“We’re definitely aware that these kits are limited in what they can do for an individual project, but we want to help demystify the process of preserving and sharing history and empower people to get out there and further their projects,” McRobbie said. “Our staff are inspired by the work that is already being done in communities, often with extremely shoestring resources, and hope to offer some additional tools.”

An Archivist in a Backpack kit (courtesy Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...