Last Updated on May 19, 2023, 9:34 am ET
Alice Walker’s childhood home in Putnam County, Georgia Photo by Wayne Bellamy, courtesy of Willson Center for Humanities & Arts, University of Georgia
The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) Scholarship and Policy team builds capacity for scholar-focused research services, with a focus on community-based scholarship. As part of its Accelerating the Social Impact of Research (ASIR) initiative, ARL released a report and profiles of how eight participant libraries are working at the intersection of openness and community-engaged scholarship for social impact research.
The Russell Library story below supplements the ASIR work. This story was informed by conversations with Toby Graham, university librarian and associate provost, University Libraries, University of Georgia (UGA), and ARL member representative; Christopher Lawton, director of Experiential Learning for Putnam County Schools and director of the Georgia Virtual History Project; Christian Lopez, head of Oral History and Media at UGA’s Russell Library; and Winnie Smith, associate director, Willson Center for Humanities & Arts at UGA.
Since this article was drafted, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) named the University of Georgia as the winner of the 2022 C. Peter Magrath Community Engagement Scholarship Award.
Students in Putnam County Connect History with Place
Students in Putnam County, Georgia, are deepening their understanding of the community they call home as part of an oral history project, An American Literary Landscape: Life, History, and Memory in Putnam County, Georgia.* I learned about this project from Winnie Smith when we partnered to advocate for humanities funding as part of the National Humanities Alliance (NHA) Humanities Advocacy Day. At UGA, the Willson Center is housed in the university’s Office of Research, giving it the flexibility to facilitate public humanities and arts projects throughout the university by funding projects, speaker series, student travel, fellowships, author visits, and more. In a follow-up conversation, Smith shared that public humanities research projects like these can show students that local stories can help them better understand who they are and where they come from.
Christopher Lawton elaborated on this point, describing how teaching and learning can connect students with the community outside of their classroom. Through activities like recording oral histories and scanning and identifying photographs, students in Putnam get to know the rich literary traditions of the place they are from, and draw from the county’s history of enslavement to give context to current economic conditions. When we spoke, Lawton described how teaching students to collect and record stories allows them to realize what is missing or wrong in the textbook version of American history, and empowers them to “untell” that history, and to create new spaces for the voices that got left out. Lawton is leading a new initiative to create a pipeline from Putnam County Public Schools to Albany State University, which has committed to keeping the students in college for four years; the initiative is meant to support students in not just understanding, but also chipping away at, the socioeconomic weights that may have held them back.
Principles of Community-Engaged Research
Christian Lopez and Toby Graham see the library’s oral history program as one way to ensure that the library’s collections reflect the local community of Athens, Georgia. The Athens African American Oral History Initiative emphasizes shared agency and shared authority, which are key to understanding how oral histories at UGA have evolved. This evolution began when library leadership recognized the need to broaden the scope of its oral histories from reflections on Georgia politics to include representation of the intersection of politics and policy, government and culture. Lopez began to expand this scope by partnering with faculty from UGA’s history department—who also had a background in oral history—on a research project on the intersection of civics and music, art, and theater in the Athens music community. In planning for what became the Athens Music Project Oral History Collection, it took more than a year to train students to conduct outreach, record the interviews, and describe them using archival indexing.
Next, Lopez partnered with music faculty to examine the intersection of politics and economics from the perspective of different local musical communities in Athens. Through a grant from the Georgia Music Foundation, the library trained and compensated community interviewers, who conducted outreach and recorded 20 oral history interviews documenting music history in Athens; half of the interviews were with the hip-hop community. Today, the Athens Music Project Oral History Collection includes dozens of interviews documenting the diversity and depth of Georgia music and culture, and the Athens music culture and community.
As it has shifted toward collecting a more diverse set of voices, UGA’s oral history program is informed by the following values and principles of community-engaged research and archiving:
- Community-engaged research is not possible until you have already done meaningful community engagement. This involves multiple conversations, and can take lots of time to build trust. These conversations may not necessarily result in action items. Lopez advises, “Start with a conversation, not an ask.” Throughout our discussion, Lopez emphasized the distinction between community engagement and community-engaged research. In a follow-up email, Lopez reiterated, “It takes a very long time.”
- Understand that the needs of the institution and academy may not necessarily be the same as the needs of nonacademic communities. A community’s needs may not align with grant deliverables or timelines, or even with the academic calendar. Communities may have historic distrust of academic institutions, particularly when they parachute in to purportedly “help” communities without actually taking the time to build the necessary relationships.
- Research libraries can support a culture change on campus by supporting faculty and students in understanding best practices in community-engaged research, and helping them understand what it means to strengthen relationships with community organizations. This includes understanding what it means to share agency, to co-curate, compensate, and follow up. These practices must be sustained before and after the community-engaged research. Working outside of academia may mean being adaptable, for instance, conducting interviews off campus, and outside of the school calendar.
Humanities in Place
Graham pointed out that UGA is a flagship land-grant research university, and that it’s important to correct the disconnect between the institution located in Athens and the community of Athens and around the state through UGA’s mission of research, instruction, and service. For instance, changing the culture of academia to ensure that oral history collections, special collections, and archives include materials created by Black people and organizations will support more inclusive teaching and research by faculty and students. Culture change is a long-term investment, and may involve discomfort, but it is critical to change the way we think about and engage with communities before we do the research. Graham said:
We have a great deal of work to do to correct the historical omissions in our collections. If we fail to build, steward, and share the diverse collection needed by our faculty and students, then we simply are falling short in serving our core teaching and research missions. We take very seriously our obligation to serve the people of Georgia and beyond, as well. Representing the stories, realities, and voices of all of types of communities should be a natural extension of our service mission. Going back to the principles, respectful and inclusive community engagement is key.
Oral history programs are among the most impactful tools we have in this work. There are all kinds of inequities associated with the ability to provide an enduring paper trail of one’s experience—the traditional bedrock of archives. But most people are able to tell their stories. What I most appreciate about Christian Lopez’s approach to community-based oral history is that he prioritizes the empowerment of our partners in engaging with one another to collect their own stories largely on their own terms. Oral history isn’t an extractive industry for him. It’s about listening and building relationships.
The Willson Center is currently partnering with UGA’s Russell Library on a Mellon Foundation–funded expansion of the Global Georgia Initiative, a public humanities program that began in 2013. The expanded Global Georgia Initiative includes Humanities in Place, a program to bolster off-campus public humanities collaborations. As part of its Humanities in Place program, Lopez successfully submitted a proposal for the Athens African American Oral History Initiative, which will build on the community-engaged work of the Athens Oral History Project and Athens Music Project Oral History Collection.
Stay engaged with the Athens African American Oral History Initiative on social media.
* The Putnam County project is supported by a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Challenge Grant, with matching funds from the UGA Willson Center for Humanities & Arts.
The post Principles of Community-Engaged Research: Conversations with Toby Graham, Christopher Lawton, Christian Lopez, and Winnie Smith appeared first on Association of Research Libraries.