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Dawnland Voices: an emergent indigenous digital archive

dawnland voices heaer

I chose to focus on Dawnland Voices because of its focus on archiving and presenting New England indigenous writing that includes writing from members of the Penobscot Indian Nation, a tribe whose input is crucial to a project I’m working on that focuses on the Penobscot River. Linked to and expanding on a print anthology published in 2014, currently houses both a literary magazine showcasing contemporary indigenous writing, and an emergent (i.e. still in process, or intended to be still in process) digital archive that was/is assembled as a collaborative effort between tribal authors, tribal collections, and scholars/students. The book’s editor and one of the collaborators on the digital archive, Siobhan Senier, describes the project’s impetus, with its origins in a lack of digitized indigenous writing:

We wanted a living document—one that could expand to include some of the vibrant pieces we could not fit in the book, one that could be revised and reshaped according to ongoing community conversation. And we wanted to keep presenting historic materials alongside new (in this case born-digital) texts, the better to highlight the long history of Indigenous writing in this region.

The website itself foregrounds the literary magazine; this is where you land via the primary domain name. To find the digital archive, you either need to notice the small link in the header that reads “Indigenous New England Digital Collections,” or navigate to the “About” page, which explains and links to the site’s two components. This right away suggests a focus on the project of presenting contemporary voices, and locates the archive as a site for a more limited audience, one that knows what it’s looking for. The site makes its partners and funding explicit, important for a project that intends to decolonize the idea of the archive: it’s key to show potential audiences, both indigenous and non-indigenous, that appropriate collaborative channels have been followed, and to recognize the labor of the contributors. There is information about how to get involved in the project, underscoring the set intention that it would grow and function as a true community-based and -generated resource.

Ultimately, exploring the archive, you get the sense that it hasn’t managed to expand beyond its pilot phase. Senier writes about this phase, which was supported by a grant from the NEH that enabled the editors to work with three representative partner collections, one at a tribal museum, one at a tribal office, and a cluster of private collections belonging to four elder tribal members who have gathered themselves under the title “Indigenous Resources Collaborative.” After this grant was spent, there seems to have been little activity. What the site presents is therefore a framework for digitizing tribal archival materials, and representative samples (currently 189 items), along with a number of simple, straightforward ways of exploring these materials: by item, by collection (there are currently 3 collections), by nation, or on a map. The map was created using Google Maps, and the website looks like a WordPress site, although there is no information about the technology used to build the site other than a link to the company that designed it. The pages for each item in the collection contain useful basic information: contributor, citation, a link to the document itself, an embed code, a geolocation, a link to the collection(s) to which it belongs.

Key concerns of a project like this include the ongoing discussion around digital repatriation, a term that at its best refers to efforts made by large traditional/colonial archives to increase tribal access to tribal items in their collections that cannot safely be physically repatriated to the tribe in tandem with ongoing efforts towards physical repatriation and collaboration with tribes on stewarding their own heritage. At its worst, it is a kind of coverup term that allows an institution to say it’s participating in repatriation efforts and complying with NAGPRA.

The site’s seemingly indefinitely arrested pilot state also raises questions around whether there might be a mismatch between the project’s intent and the needs/desires of its target audience. Because this project would need to rely on contributions from an expanded network of tribal collaborators in order to move beyond its pilot state, this is a more pressing issue than with an archival project with clearly-defined curators on the one hand and audience on the other, that doesn’t rely on this kind of back-and-forth (that doesn’t position itself as “emergent”). Senier notes the importance of social media for tribal members and institutions, an observation my personal experience can anecdotally corroborate.

Facebook is a proprietary, and notoriously problematic platform, especially on the issue of intellectual property. And yet it has made room, at least for now, for a kind of fugitive curation that, albeit fragile and fugitive, raises the question of whether such curation should be “institutional” at all.

Thus, in its present state, the site is actually an ideal kind of case study or model for creating indigenous archives. Due to lack of long-term resources and possibly lack of interest in the product, it’s not fleshed out; but the skeleton might be productively be built on. It’s at least a good place to start.

I apologize for how absurdly last minute this is. Just realized I never published my final blog. I couldn’t attend NYPL, so I wrote about my experience researching in the reading room at the Morgan one day… Happy summer!

I examined a journal written by William Ellery Channing on Emerson and Thoreau. I can’t include any images, unfortunately. The journal itself was very hard to read most everywhere because Channing’s handwriting is very poor. The book itself is 248 pages and in a very attractive brown leather bound and cover. An interesting quirk is that Channing chose to write some pages upside down of others, so the reading room attendant was worried how I’d flip the book on the stand the Morgan provided when I would have to change directions. She was concerned the stand would collapse and something “catastrophic” would happen to the artifact, so I had to be careful to turn the stand in a certain way that she showed me.


He took notes of people that were curious. Of “young lawyers” and “Edward of the city.” I’m not sure who these people are exactly, whether they are people he met or people he read of. The journal doesn’t seem to be organized in any way, a true stream of consciousness. It’d be frustrating if I was using this artifact for my final project, but since I am exploring it, I’m enjoying myself. He speaks of farms a great deal; one entry is devoted largely to cows and what they do for farms. He also traveled to a town Marlboro (I think he wrote) and talks of the scenery in a very Thoreauian way. Some of the entries have curious lines going through them that don’t have much rhyme or reason to my ignorant eye, but I’m sure he had his reasons. He also did a good job numbering his entries to keep track of his writing. There was also a few little notes and the odd number here and there that were written off to the side to remember something for later, presumably.


In one of Emerson’s letters, there were interesting spots that presumably came from taps of the pen all dotted around what was written. It could just be the paper, but then that would bear the question where one finds spotted paper and why someone would choose to buy it? There was some residual wax left from a seal that was very fascinating to find. It is these little things that give me interesting ideas for aspects of my final project. Emerson’s handwriting is also hard to read, but perhaps that says more about me never reading just about anything handwritten anymore.


Working in the reading room at the Morgan was a meaningful experience. There were other readers here, and just a quick scan shows them over some very intriguing materials. Certainly not the place to ask questions about what they’re researching, but this a place for true scholarship, that is clear. It is incredible to be staring directly at Emerson’s own handwritten pages. Like looking back in time almost.

Schomburg Visit

I think my favorite part of our time at the Schomburg was listening to the archivist talk about her experience working there. I was very interested to learn what I could on the business side of archiving. Listening to her talk about the donors and the various places she receives materials from was very interesting to me. The monetary value of some of these items was very shocking. It really made me realize how special of a place the Schomburg is and how lucky we all are to have it in our community, as it tells the story of the black experience in a way I have never seen before. What’s more was listening to the archivist discuss her process while working. She said it looks more like a sloppy librarian than an organized archivist, and I would imagine you would have to be with all the materials that need a home.


When I asked her about what the process looked like when people wanted to donate materials, she was very thorough in explaining. Often times, if people are in New York, she would travel to their homes and look through what they have. She said that it wouldn’t take her long to know if something was a fit or not. Often times, the archive would be lacking in say photos of a certain event in history, as opposed to maybe letters written about that event. So, before she would even see the materials, she knew what she was looking and/or hoping to find. Items are donated from around the world and some are purchased while others donated. It was also inspiring to hear how the Schomburg keeps one eye open on current events to look for possible source materials from what’s happening around us. The archivist was less robust in explaining, but she said they do and are, especially related to #blacklivesmatter.


I was deeply moved by all of the photos we saw that day. There was an especially fascinating one of a black soldier in uniform. He was cropped into a different image with his partner, and their physical sizes did not match, which was very obvious. Makes one realize how technology really gives us a great deal of agency to manipulate the past in ways that weren’t afforded to those in history. The man presenting these images was a wealth of information about the Schomburg and its many processes, and also of the stories of the photos he was showing.


The building space is very impressive. I was in awe of the photo exhibit of Martin Luther King Jr.  One could tell that this institution has a very notable place for the people that spend time there. It is certainly one of the many highlights of Harlem and noting that I asked the archivist if the author Nella Larsen ever had any connection to the Schomburg, being as she wrote so vividly of Harlem. Unfortunately, she didn’t know but I’d be interested in knowing if and how the two paths crossed.



At the NYPL: Imaginary Archives and Dog Princes

The introductory exercise made for us by Mary Catherine and Tali (“If you could be any archive, real or imagined, what archive would you be?”) was just as nerdy as it sounds—and a great entry point to conversation about what archives are, what they contain, how they are organized, and how they can be used. The presentation that followed offered clear and concrete tools for searching the NYPL special collections and a broader array of archives across the United States. There were enough details (about Boolean searches, for example) that I felt like I’d come away with some concrete tools, but not so many that it was overwhelming. Overall, this was the clearest, most engaging, most accessible, and most immediately useful of the archive tours we’ve done. I left feeling prepared not just to think about doing research at the NYPL, but to actually begin doing it.

I didn’t spend as much time as I could have circulating among the objects that were pulled for us from the archives because paging through the 1894 records of dog licenses from the ASPCA was endlessly fascinating. Tali handed me a prompt card as I looked at it that asked what disciplines might make use of this object, and the provocation guided me as I turned the pages.

There were, of course, straightforward pieces of information you could glean, such as the popularity of particular dog breeds. Mapping the dogs’ addresses could be interesting as well in terms of density of dog ownership. But one might also pay attention to the names of the dogs (why such a rash of “Princes” and the occasional “Princey”—what sociocultural event might this coincide with, or is the popularity of canine Princes relatively stable over time? What about “Nero,” also a common name, which in a cursory Google search now turns up pages of police dogs? And what might be gleaned from dogs whose given names are racial slurs?). Or there might be a use for the list of owners’ names and addresses, recorded only incidentally as dog owners but of course individuals (or data points) in their own right. You could also place this ledger in a context of other ledgers or recordkeeping practices from the time. The way it’s possible to use the ledger depends, too, on whether others are available to look at, and how wide a spread of dates they represent; this particular ledger represents just two months in 1894, circumscribing the scope of dates pretty narrowly.

Zooming back out from my preoccupation with this object—which might also have something to do with the fact that I’m a new dog owner—I very much appreciated the prompt cards (with deep attention to detail, printed on recycled “historical” library catalog cards!) like the one mentioned above that encouraged us to think more deeply, or think differently, about the objects we were encountering. Bringing a rolodex of such cards into an archive when beginning your research would be a nice way of casting your net wide and exploring your material from an unexpected angle.

Visit to the NYPL

This was definitely not my first time at the NYPL because I’ve been doing all of my thesis research there.  The Jack Kerouac Papers are part of the Berg Collection, so I usually go to that reading room on the third floor. I first went there two years ago when I was but a small, novice researcher.  I actually choked up the first time I got to hold one of Kerouac’s notebooks!   

This visit was really wonderful!  I enjoyed the emphasis on critical thinking and discussion.  Too often I find myself focusing only on what information I’m looking for and what artifacts I need to call next.  But pausing to think about what you expect simply based on the item description was really fun!  It speaks to the deeper issues of what we talked about in our first few classes.  How do you manage your expectations while at the archive?  What happens when you go in with expectations but are disappointed?  Should you go in with expectations of serendipity, or just with your to do list?

Funnily enough, I feel like the giant registry of dogs that we looked at taught me some great lessons.  First, there’s a lot to be gained from random encounters.  I would never have sought out that item on my own because it is so far away from my own area of research.  But even the most insignificant, random artifact can help you understand something about the past you never would have otherwise. 

My second take-away was that collaborative research is much more enjoyable.  I can’t remember all the times I’ve been doing research on my own, found something truly remarkable, and just had to whisper in awe to myself.  Just being able to say what I was thinking out loud about the dog registry and hear what others were noticing helped me consider it on a much deeper level.  So often research is isolating.  And I wonder if I would be getting more out of my Kerouac research if I was talking about it with someone else. 

Visit to The Morgan Library

The Morgan Library was only the second archival experience I had ever had—and it was quite exciting.  The building itself was beautiful and it seemed a peaceful place to do research.  The glass ceiling and indoor trees in the lobby, the double-tier of bookshelves in the reading room, all of it brought me so much joy!

I appreciated the presentation’s focus on the investigative nature of archive work.  In my own research I find that the most interesting part—even if it does lead me down an irrelevant path.  I like the idea of looking at multiple versions of the same artifact trying to figure out why this or that thing is missing or incorrect.  I was particularly interested in the Paris Review collection of artifacts.  I plan to go back to look at their interview with Jack Kerouac to see how the actual recorded interview went and what the original versions of the print interview looked like.  The changes between the versions could reveal a lot about Kerouac’s personality and reaction to media personalities.

Though likely unintended, the highlight of trip for me was talking to the librarian about her career path.  I’ve always wondered how the different archivists and librarians I’ve met in academia got to where they are.  It seems like most come from different careers before they start their Masters of Library Science.  As I near the end of my time in grad school I find myself wondering what I should do next.  I wonder if I would be ready for the glamour of an archive…

A Visit to the Sci Fi Collection

On Friday we had the chance to visit the wonderful science fiction collection at City Tech.  The collection is housed on the 2nd floor of the Ursula C. Schwerin Library, as part of their Archives and Special Collections. For the tour, we met with Jason Ellis, who is Assistant Professor of English at City Tech (and who has been responsible for much of the legwork regarding the organization and maintenance of the collection), and Wanett Clyde, the Collections Management Librarian.  To schedule a visit to the archive (visits are by appointment only), one should contact Wanett to set up a time.

The collection itself comes from an anonymous donor, who resided in San Francisco at the time (the materials were boxed and transported by movers to NY).  The materials are enormous in scope and wide ranging in topic, from nearly full runs of popular sci fi magazines such as Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, to an enormous collection of sci fi/fantasy/horror novels, zines, anthologies, and even scholarly works spanning nearly a century.  Having a full collection of the magazines is particularly useful to researchers, as one can then observe large-scale trends that otherwise might be missed if each issue was viewed in isolation.  As this was originally a personal collection, the particular research interests of the donor throughout the years are generally easy to infer, and many of the books contain the donor’s notes, marginalia, and insets from review copies (all of which might pose an interesting dilemma in digitizing the materials).  The curators are, however, interested in expanding the collection beyond the original acquisition and are open to further contributions of relevant materials.  The collection as a whole is still being processed and inventoried, but there are useful finding aids (such as a pdf with call numbers, photographs of the shelves, and a regularly updated Google inventory sheet) available to researchers that detail where exactly items can be found on the shelves.


Reflections: NYPL Visit

This wasn’t the first time I’ve visited the 42nd street NYPL nor will it be the last. Some key talking points which will frame the rest of my post: the communities we as researchers and scholars are a part of; the macro- and micro-level decision making in creating an archive, and the structures governing an archive.

Last semester, in Intro to Doctoral Studies in English, I attended an NYPL field trip. I met Mary Catherine and Tal Nadan during that trip. Following that I worked up the courage to visit the archive on my own time and peruse rare books and manuscripts. A little exercise like this broke down my apprehensions regarding the archive. Nevertheless, I want to emphasize the fact that Mary Catherine and Tal not only remembered me from back then but were just as interested in what materials I am currently researching and how my projects changed since then. Experiences like these remind me that we belong to a community of scholars and researchers. I’m very thankful to know that we have such helpful, beneficent, and supportive people to whom we can count on when we enter places like the NYPL. Due to the proximity of the GC to the NYPL (8 city blocks away), we possess the opportunity to foster such relationships with archivists and curators.

Mary Catherine’s question “If you were an archive which archive would you be?” got me thinking: what sort of archive would I be? What sort of materials would I collect and what would I not collect? Would my scope be broad or narrow? Which materials would I choose to ignore? These questions brought attention to the macro- and micro- decision making that goes into the collecting of an archive. They also shed a light onto the decision making that goes on to choosing our own research practices. Why do we gravitate towards certain objects more than others?

The flow chart outlining the structure of the archive served as a reminder that it’s also another institution. These curators and archivists have bosses. The NYPL as a public institution relies on government funding. The fact that the library closes early speaks to fluctuating funding practices over the years. But we still get access to the material and can touch material without an archivist hounding over us.

Field trip to the Morgan Library

I found the format of our visit to the Morgan Library to be very effective. We began with an overview of collections and research procedures from Head of Reader Services María Isabel Molestina that painted a clear picture of what it would be like to do research at the Morgan, from the broader question of how to secure permission and reading space to the quotidian specifics (pick a locker; wash your hands!). This made the idea of doing primary source research at the Morgan feel accessible and open.

Then we moved from that procedural overview to a focus on several case studies using materials pulled for us from the collection. The curator’s enthusiasm for the materials and the kinds of questions and problems they posed was palpable; to me, that conveyed a sense of the real joy of doing archival research once you’re deeply engaged with your material(s). In our Schomburg visit from the week before, we spoke in generalities about issues like digitization and when/why having access to original documents is desirable, but without concrete objects that instantiated these issues, it wasn’t so easy to imagine concrete instances in which they would apply. At the Morgan, we saw firsthand a letter not included in a published historical record that appears and presents itself as a comprehensive print edition of correspondence in the collection from which it comes: an example of the way the print record can actually obscure objects in the archive by simultaneously ignoring them and making it seem unnecessary to return to the originals at all.

I very much appreciated, too, the constellation of possibilities represented by the full Paris Review interview draft in conjunction with the published interview and the available audio files. This case study showed that even recent, thoroughly archived material can raise potentially unanswerable questions.

A Visit to the Schomburg Center

Knowing very little about the Schomburg Center before our visit, I found our trip to be highly insightful.  From our very friendly and informative tour guide Brian Jones we learned a bit about the history of the Center:  how the NYPL Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints–the forerunner to the Schomburg Center proper–acquired Arturo Schomburg’s massive personal collection of books, paintings, and pamphlets in 1926 (and subsequently renamed the division in honor of his legacy), as well as how integral the Center was to become in shaping the life and community of Harlem residents.

It is perhaps in considering this aspect of “community” that I found the most value in our visit.  It is easy to imagine archives as being stuffy, self-contained, and hermetically sealed spaces which rarely see visitors or the light of day.  In other words, they can tend to foreclose the idea of community rather than invite it.  In one sense, the archives at the Schomburg Center are indeed “closed off” like other archives in that there are first steps and procedures one must take in order to access the materials.  This is often the case simply for very practical reasons:  although they seem to welcome walk-in researchers, one should often contact curators beforehand about specific items one would like to view, simply in order to make sure it is actually on-site and not stored in a warehouse.  For certain extremely rare, valuable, or fragile items, there does also seem to be (from what I could gather from the curator of the Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books division) an internal vetting process in order to properly protect the materials.

Despite this, it seems clear that the Schomburg is unlike many other archives in that it is actively devoted to building community and civic engagement.  Using the archive as its foundation and its basis, the Center branches out into many ancillary areas of public life.  That the Center holds public exhibitions of its archival material (with the current exhibition representing the life and travels of MLK) is a testament to their desire to foster and sustain community engagement. The gallery space acts as an invitation to people of all walks of life, rather than just scholars and academics. Walking into the Schomburg, one notices how bright, airy, and vibrant the space is; people are everywhere chatting, reading, or taking part in community events. Although we didn’t get to tour through it, the Center also contains the Langston Hughes Auditorium in which concerts, forums, lectures, and performances take place.  Other tours and events were even being conducted as we were ourselves touring, but we did get the chance to glimpse the American Negro Theater and examine the Cosmogram floor mosaic on our way out.

Overall, our visit to the Schomburg inspired me to continue to think about the ways in which archives can foster, promote, and sustain communities.  Although one cannot borrow from the Schomburg’s holdings (being a research library), there is certainly a great deal else from the Center that we can take away with us.

Schomburg Center Visit

Why would you wanna be here? What do you see here? Simple but provocative questions. After the Schomburg Center visit I’ve been mulling over these questions. I took some notes during the course of the visit but those observe what was said. What struck me were some of the things the archivists said: before you visit an archive, search their online catalogs. Familiarize yourself with the collections. Think about what it is you’re looking for when you’re looking through these collections. Once you visit the archivist they’ll have a better an easier time guiding you meaningfully to collections and works that you’re searching for. Cite your sources properly.

What motivates a collection might not be so simple and clear-cut. As we’ve learned during the visit, items get divided up according to the logic of said-archive. The Schomburg has five divisions: a research and reference division, a manuscripts and rare books division, an art and artifacts division, and photographs division. According to this logic, a letter and photograph would not end up in the same division. As we’ve learned a donor’s wishes would supersede the archives organizational logic. A letter may be paired with a photograph in the instance that a donor wishes for it. Keeping these in mind, the Schomburg visit is another reminder that we as researchers working within the archives must think not only about the organizational logic of the curator and institution but the logic of the donor. These instances raise more questions: what motivates donors and archivists to organize their materials in particular ways?

Archivists wants to help. They’re clearly amazing resources. In class we’ve discussed the notion of serendipity in relation to the archives. When searching the Schomburg Center’s online catalog I had no clear-cut goal—I serendipitously wandered the collections that emerged within the homepage. I couldn’t find everything I wanted. The visit reminded me—and taught me—that the archivist is an invaluable resource. Their knowledge and experience navigating the archives can aid us in our own projects.

Reflecting on the Schomburg Center visit, I realize there’s a need to understand the history and objective of said archives. The Schomburg Center collects and preserves materials focused on African American, African diaspora, and African experiences. It goes back to my initial question on why anyone would want to explore materials housed at the Schomburg Center. Scholars and researchers interested in the African American experience and cultural history would definitely find a reason to study materials here.