Handshakes Are Out, but Collecting Remains a Matter of Trust
Archives hold collective histories, but every collective history is made up of individual stories, experiences, triumphs, and tragedies. Collecting these individual stories requires a trusting relationship between the person or organization and the archive. Before the pandemic, the Schlesinger established that trust by inviting donors and potential donors to the Library for tours, introducing them to staff, and fully immersing them in the archival experience. We accepted invitations to homes and offices to get the best understanding of donors’ lives. We could see how donors organized their materials, where they worked, and what inspired them. But with the arrival of COVID, the intimacy and insights of relationship building were all but gone—or so we thought.
While in-person meetings have disappeared, the acquisition of materials documenting the lives of women across the nation has continued. Whether by Zoom, e-mail, Facetime, or the old-fashioned telephone, donors have delivered progress reports on efforts to sort and pack materials bound for the Library. Though no substitute for the intimacy of face-to-face encounters, video calls have made it possible for staff members to meet donors’ families and see their homes. We can also inspect documents and photos and offer advice on whether a particular item is worth sending, which reflects one of several adjustments to our process for receiving materials.
With the Library relying on shipping services for all collections, communication, both with donors and vendors, has been crucial. The Asian American activist Helen Zia, who lives in California, is currently shipping a collection that includes more than 50 cartons of material. Pre-pandemic we would have visited her, helped pack the containers, and sent the collection via moving truck across the country. Instead, Zia is carefully sending it to us a few boxes at a time. The papers include family home movies, correspondence, and material documenting violence against Asian Americans, the LGBTQ community, and women.
The records of Renew Network, a group for evangelical women within the United Methodist Church, have been arriving at the Library through a similar process. Faye Short, founder and a former president of the group, packed 25 cartons of records at her home in Georgia, and left them in her garage for FedEx. The boxes arrived at the Schlesinger just before Thanksgiving. The Library expects to receive materials from other former presidents this spring. The collection documents efforts to influence United Methodist Church doctrine and the programs of its Women’s Division.
Digital portals to donors’ homes also allow us to welcome them to the Schlesinger. To be sure, it’s not easy to re-create the powerful experience that comes with hearing about our mission and work during a visit to the Library. There’s no virtual match for meeting the staff members who will be working with your papers, or for walking into the building’s vaults and feeling the shift to climate-controlled rooms set for optimal preservation of documents. But with PowerPoint and video chats, we can show pictures and guide donors through the spaces.
The same virtual tools have kept us in close contact with advisory groups, which are an essential part of acquisitions. The Library has multiple advisory groups made up of alumnae, activists, faculty, and scholars who contribute to our collecting efforts. Both the Asian American Advisory Group and the Ad-hoc Working Group on Conservative Collections have met since lockdown. Group members continue to assist in connecting us to potential donors and in shaping strategy around future collections and programs.
While the Library’s methods have changed over the past year, our mission hasn’t. Just as women continue to make history every day across the United States, we continue the work of collecting, preserving, and promoting that history for future generations.
Jenny Gotwals is the Library’s curator for gender and society. Kenvi Phillips is curator for race and ethnicity.