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William “Wild Bill” Holmes performing his signature move. From “I believe I can fly: William ‘Wild Bill’ Holmes” by Kimberly Holmes Ross and Brittany Estell, esq. in the Shorefront Legacy Center Journal

Let the People Lead: Supporting Sustainability vs Dependency Models for Funding Community-Based Archives

Bergis Jules
Nov 3, 2017 · 5 min read

On October 20th and 21st, 2017 we wrapped up the last forum in the IMLS supported series, Diversifying the Digital Historical Record: Integrating Community Archives in National Strategies for Access to Digital Cultural Heritage. A collaborative project between the Amistad Research Center, UCR, South Asian American Digital Archive, Shorefront Legacy Center, and Mukurtu. The four forums over the past year have been great opportunities to listen to people who run community-based archives, advocates, and collaborators. But they have also been a stark reminder of the precarious clouds constantly hovering above these vital community spaces, threatening their very existence. In the grant application we defined community-based archives this way:

Some of the most valuable collections documenting the lives of marginalized people in the United States reside in spaces outside traditional academic and government institutions. They exist throughout the country as independently curated, highly valuable sites for remembering, and owned by the communities they document. Recent research in archival studies notes a growth in community-based archives. These archives are independent, grassroots alternatives to mainstream repositories through which communities make collective decisions about what is of enduring value to them, shape collective memory of their own pasts, and control the means through which stories about their past are constructed. Such organizations are often created in response to minoritized communities being shut out of dominant historical narratives created by mainstream memory institutions.

With cultural heritage funding agencies directing new focus on community-based archives, Jon Voss and I, along with a growing number of colleagues, have been thinking a lot about what the future could look like for these spaces if grant makers got serious about support. We’ve been talking about the many years we’ve spent listening to and advocating for community-based archives, in efforts to highlight and support their work, and to help the wider public recognize their existence and the legitimacy of the historical records they hold in telling our collective stories. Throughout that time, the same issues have had a consistent and almost too obvious presence when it comes to support for these spaces: money, labor, and time. They are always identified as the main barriers to progress, whether it’s for keeping the building open, hiring staff, maintaining and growing the collections, doing preservation or outreach, or providing broader access to materials. Yet there exists no comprehensive understanding of the history or current landscape of funding models for community-based archives.

If grant funders, cultural heritage advocates, government agencies, or community groups are to more effectively support community-based archives with funding models intentionally designed toward sustainability and around local values and needs, it will be vital to first understand how these spaces exist now. They’ll need to investigate the current funding practices these archives operate under, explore and learn from innovative funding models in other sectors, perform funding needs analyses that incorporate community values, and propose new models for community-based archives that are informed by these activities collectively.

Grant makers can have an extremely important role to play in funding the sustainability and the growth of community-based archives, but they risk replicating exploitative models if the people who do the the work of community archives aren’t at the table from the beginning or tapped to lead some of these efforts.

So we would like to offer a few thoughts on how grant makers might tackle this work if the goal is truly to empower community-based archives and ensure their sustainability.

  • Funding should go directly to community-based archives. This will of course require assessment of current funding and reporting requirements and the recognition of the realities of small, community-based organizations.
  • Funding should not be restricted from supporting the operations or administrative needs of community-based archives. Grant makers can fully support the commitment and labor of the people who work in these spaces. That will be a key aspect helping to ensure sustainability.
  • It must be recognized that academic institutions have historically presented Eurocentric, extractive, and systemically racist approaches to scholarship and research, amounting to historical trauma of the very communities these institutions now seek to engage. We must resist these ideas. Therefore, we believe that libraries, archives/special collections or museums based at academic institutions can support and collaborate on this work, but they are seldom suited to lead this work. Instead, grant funders should seek partnerships led by trusted community organizations or community-based archives.
  • To design these new funding models, grant makers can continue to listen to people who work in or with community-based archives, including archivists and scholars who work with communities in collaborative and inclusive ways, local community members who can advocate for these spaces, or local social justice organizers who can help humanities funders gain deeper understanding of these communities.

And finally, cultural heritage sector grant makers should prioritize investment in community-based archives through dedicated funds and a named priority area. Models already exist in our sector where grant makers either set aside significant money targeted for specific areas of interest or where they publicly state their funding priorities for certain areas as a way to generate ideas and proposals from the community. There are many examples of this of course, but some that come to mind are the Institute for Museum and Library Services’ creation of the National Digital Platform, the Mellon Foundation’s support for the Council on Library and Information Resources Hidden Collections & Digitization projects, and the National Endowment for the Humanities’ National Digital Newspaper Program & Digital Humanities work.

Major support for community-based archives can also be structured in this way, where a significant pool of money, perhaps a “Community Archive Fund,” is set aside for direct support or re-granting. This would certainly make a strong statement that grant makers are committed to a sustainability, and not a dependency approach to supporting community-based archives.

We’d certainly like to hear your thoughts on the future of funding and sustainability for community-based archives. Your voice will be needed as well to help address these issues. Please comment on this post or reach out on Twitter.

On Archivy

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