University Archives and Community: Insights from an Archivist

There are thousands of stories in the archives. Tufts Digital Collections and Archives (DCA) is the home of the Tufts University Archives and is the primary archives and manuscript repository at Tufts. Archival records exist from the founding of the university and DCA itself traces its origins to 1964 when the first university archivist position was created at Tufts in recognition of the need to create a formal program to preserve evidence of the university’s past. The University Archives’ founding documents and original mandates refer to official university records and some formal student work such as theses and dissertations. This focus has continued and now includes a records management program that provides advice to staff, faculty, and students across the university about document retention and transferring material to the archives. The archives have grown to thousands of boxes and terabytes of digital data. 

University records generated in the course of working at Tufts don’t tell the full story of the university’s past, however. Over the last several years, much of the work of our dedicated team of professional archivists has focused on centering stories of students and faculty that are underrepresented in the archives and removing barriers to access to the archives so that they are as accessible as possible to the entire Tufts community.

One way we have tried to highlight a variety of communities at Tufts across time is by hiring  students as “roving archivists” to discuss donation of archival material from students and student groups, and acquiring collections—most prominently the papers of faculty member Gerald Gill—which document his extensive work on the history of Black students at Tufts. 

We’ve also begun reparative work on our description of collections and cataloging information in awareness of the impact that language can have on researchers and users of archival material. We’ve focused our attention on digitizing and providing online access to student publications such as Onyx, Voices, and South Asian Literary and Art Magazine (S.A.L.A.A.M).  All of this documentation is essential to understanding not only communities within Tufts that have been traditionally underrepresented or harder to find in the archives, but to the entire university’s past, present, and future.

Perhaps most fundamentally, we’ve focused on removing barriers in users’ access to archives. The essential first step in providing access to archival material is developing empathy for our audiences and ensuring that our physical and digital spaces and environments are welcoming and approachable. This can range from being mindful of images and representations displayed in reading rooms and public spaces to designing policies and security procedures with the minimum amount of surveillance and monitoring to studying and improving users’ in-person and digital experiences.

It also requires, as archival scholars Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor point out, “that users have [deep emotional ties] to records, the affective impact of finding—or not finding—records that are personally meaningful, and the personal consequences that archival interaction can have on users.”

Caswell and Cifor explicitly discuss not only the relationship between archivists and users, creators, and subjects of archival records but also propose a reorientation of archival work within the larger community. In this shift, archivists have “‘responsibilities towards unseen others’—those who are not direct users of archival records, but for whom the use of records has lasting consequences.”

A University Archives’ relationship with the wider community can be deep and profound; the implications of the relationship can impact many aspects of archival work from creating collections and appraisal policies to outreach and academic programs seeking to repair harm. At Tufts there is very strong interest in this type of work from both students and faculty, and we at DCA have been partners on a number of projects with faculty, staff, and students from across the University. 

One notable project has involved collaboration with the Center for Study of Race and Democracy, documenting sites related to the African American Freedom trail on Tufts’ campuses. This work has included numerous public events; one such event in 2018 included photos of Black students projected on the central part of Tufts campus, including Goddard Chapel. It was a moving event with people from Tufts, Medford, and Somerville, including many people who may never come to the Archives to do traditional (or any) research. Many expressed joy at seeing these images projected onto the most prominent buildings in the most prominent part of campus.

This work has continued to develop, and this year has included the Leading While Black at Tufts project, including a symposium, exhibit, and documentation effort centered on Black academic leaders at Tufts, along with the project team led by Kris Manjapra, Alonso Nichols, and Katrina Moore. All of this work demonstrates that we are not telling a special interest or narrow “side” story. It’s not an attempt to provide “balance” in the historical record but to demonstrate the ways that Black students, faculty, and leaders are central to the Tufts story—that Tufts would not have evolved to this point without them.

To do so we’ve needed to expand some of our traditional notions of what an archive does—moving a bit away from a focus on collections and traditional research and instead towards filling expressed needs of the wider community. This work is complex and will always be ongoing as we work towards documenting as full a picture of Tufts as possible.