AAOTUS: Expanding the Archival Circle

June/July 2022

Debra Steidel Wall
Acting Archivist of the United States

 As Acting Archivist of the United States, I also have the privilege of serving as Chair of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), NARA’s grant-making organization. The Commission met in May, and I came away with a renewed admiration for the exciting work going on in archives across the United States. With a relatively small budget, the NHPRC leaves big footprints.

 In its Strategic Plan, the NHPRC puts collaboration at the core of its mission and emphasizes diversity, equity, inclusion, and access (DEIA) in its grantmaking. The results are beginning to appear in projects that make access happen all over America.

 This past May, NHPRC funded a project at Columbia University gathering records from multiple sources to create a COVID-19 online repository; a range of collections related to children’s literature, women, and people of color at Southern Mississippi University; and processing of records at Alternate ROOTS, an arts organization that serves people of color in the South.

Our Archives Collaboratives program enables partnerships to capture the breadth of African American archives in North Carolina; the diversity of rural Valencia County in New Mexico; and a range of Native American records in Missouri. These collaboratives are creating shared digital platforms in Wisconsin, Vermont, and New York City as well as national collections documenting Arab American and Japanese American history. Our partners at state historical records advisory boards—from South Carolina to Montana–—routinely reach out to smaller repositories and provide much-needed workshops and traveling archivist programs. All in the name of expanding the circle.

 With funding and support from the Mellon Foundation, a Collaborative Digital Editions planning program centers the voices of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. On the horizon are new digital editions documenting Latinx history in Wisconsin; stories of the Lakota performers of the Buffalo Bill Wild West shows; Japanese American collections in Los Angeles and San Francisco; and records of people of African descent in Louisiana and in Texas. In addition, NHPRC’s publishing program supports collaborative editions on the Papers of Julian Bond, Civil War and Reconstruction papers in Kentucky and Mississippi, and the new Chinese American WWII Veterans Online Resource, to name but a few.

 Augmenting this diverse group of collaborations are programs that emphasize public engagement, not only through volunteers to help transcribe documents, but also in communities and classrooms designed to give hands-on experience with primary sources. I was delighted to support:

 Curriculum development for the Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery project, which aims to publish historical ads placed in newspapers by formerly enslaved people searching for family members and loved ones after emancipation.

 Alaska’s See Stories for teacher training in using archival materials that document the history of enslavement of the Indigenous People of Alaska.

 Hunter College’s Puerto Rican Heritage Cultural Ambassadors, a free self-paced, multimedia online course on Puerto Rican history and culture based on archival holdings.

 A collaborative project for the public television series The Future of America’s Past to engage grade 6–12 teachers and their students in exploring American history and geography through digital humanities projects.

 A series of augmented reality walking tours centered on the history and archives of Chinese American heritage in San Francisco and Northern California.

 The NHPRC grants program mirrors the values of the National Archives and our outreach efforts, our commitment to DEIA, and our goal of fostering citizen archivists. I am struck time and time again by how these projects will make primary sources come alive. Instilling a love for history as a lifelong passion must begin early and at the personal level, acknowledging and celebrating each individual’s place in our shared American story.