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Michelle Caswell: Renewal of Mellon Foundation Grant to Support Community Archives Internships

By Joanie Harmon

The UCLA Community Archives Internship Project, led by Associate Professor of Information Studies Michelle Caswell, has been awarded a renewal grant of $340,000 from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to continue funding paid internships at community archives for UCLA MLIS students and to conceptualize an expansion of the paid community archives internship program to MLIS programs across the United States.

“I'm really excited to see what the next three years has in store for this project,” says Caswell, who serves as principal investigator for the UCLA Community Archives Lab’s research projects. “The students in our MLIS program do the most amazing community-engaged work. I was completely in awe of the work that they managed to do, even remotely - deeply community engaged work that ran the gamut from the most highly conceptual theoretical [work] to the most nuts-and-bolts necessary work that community archives need. Every single student in the internship program has made themselves useful to a community-based archive in incredible ways: writing grant proposals, creating digital preservation plans, assembling bookshelves, compiling mailing lists, doing video interviews with community elders, and creating interactive finding aids to provide context to collections. 

“This grant from The Mellon Foundation will enable those students to continue to get paid to do this kind of work. Payment is absolutely essential. If we don't enable our students to get paid internships, it perpetuates inequality in the field, because it means only the most wealthy students can afford to do internships, which provide experience that  is necessary for employment after graduation.”

With the support of the Mellon Foundation over the past three years, the Community Archives Internship Project has placed 26 students at 15 community archives sites, where they have accomplished crucial work processing and digitizing collections, enacting participatory description projects, organizing exhibitions and other outreach activities, fundraising, and building digital asset management systems. The project has been instrumental in helping preserve and make accessible the unknown histories of marginalized communities in Los Angeles, while at the same time increasing the capacity of community archives and providing MLIS students with paid opportunities to gain practical skills.

Professor Caswell notes that the project not only provides professional skills for UCLA MLIS students, but that the networking opportunities within the internships have resulted in valuable connections and even employment for students.

“After three years of running the program, we have a lineage where students are getting hired by the sites where they have interned,” she says. “We have two former students who are now archivists at the Skid Row History Museum, one former intern who just graduated who was hired at the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, and another student who was hired to work at the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archive. That speaks volumes to the work that the students are doing, that the sites themselves are so excited about working with the students that they're finding ways to fund them in ongoing positions.”

Other graduates of the program have reported the importance of the skills they acquired at their community sites to their current work in libraries and archives, including positions at UCLA’s Ethnomusicology Archives, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the Santa Barbara Library Foundation.

The next proposed phase of the Community Archives Internship Project will place 21 student interns at seven sites over three years. The sites are: La Historia Society; the Skid Row History Museum and Archive; the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives; the Los Angeles Contemporary Archive; Visual Communications; the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California; and The Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC).

Given the success of the Community Archives Internship Project at UCLA, the next phase will also develop plans to convene a group of archival studies faculty from iSchools across the country to design a paid community archives internship program for MLIS students nationwide.

Professor Caswell says that in the wake of national debates over the teaching of critical race theory, the work of the Community Archives Internship Project and UCLA Community Archives Lab is all the more important.

“Community archives build archival systems, practices, and theories that are designed to support the needs of minoritized communities rather than oppress them,” she says. “Critical race theory asserts that white supremacy is baked into dominant institutions in the U.S.. Rather than trying to change dominant archival institutions that were designed to oppress, community archives enable minoritized communities to create their own theories and practices that liberate rather than harm. As a field, archival studies needs to take these theories and practices very seriously if we are going to remain relevant and contribute to transformative justice in our society.

Professor Caswell says that while UCLA has led the charge nationwide in preparing a workforce of community archives professionals, she hopes that the establishment of a nationwide program of paid internships for MLIS students will be instrumental in shaping community-engaged archival practices both in the United States and globally.

“The new component is to figure out how we can increase the impact of the program by working with faculty at other iSchools who teach community engaged archives and community engaged practices,” she says. “We’ll be looking at MLIS curricula to see how the curriculum at the iSchools is being transformed to reflect community-based theories and practices as well, so that the students are properly trained before they go into community archives sites.

“The idea is really to transform the MLIS curriculum nationally [and] hopefully eventually internationally … looking at these community centered practices that have developed in minoritized communities and taking those theories and practices really seriously and pushing back against the [current] archival studies core, which is based on dominant Western values, and fully take seriously and incorporate values and practices from minoritized communities, BIPOC communities, and/or LGBTQ + communities.”

Caswell, who has been recently appointed chair of the UCLA Department of Information Studies, observes that the field of archival studies is now in “a transformative period.”

“The field has completely changed, I would say, in the past 10 years,” she says.  “We’re really in an exciting time to be within archival studies. We have a lot of work to do, and a lot of catching up because the field has been really conservative and holding on to those dominant Western practices for so long. But there are so many signs that those practices are dissipating, being chipped away at, and being replaced with values and practices that really respond to the needs of minoritized communities.

“I was just looking at the schedule for AERI, the Archival Education and Research Initiative that, which is an annual conference and workshop, and the schedule for this year, 10 years ago, would not have been possible. The kinds of conversations that are happening in the field have completely shifted in really exciting ways in the past decade. Support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for community archives is certainly a part of that as well.”