University archives working to capture all voices of student activism on campus
For Taylor Notah, a trip to the Arizona State University archives brought the past immediately into the present.
Notah, who was searching the archives for material to use in the latest issue of Turning Points magazine, found a photograph of several students, including her father, protesting on campus more than 40 years ago.
“That was a really huge moment for me, to see this history and how I personally was affiliated with it,” said Notah, who graduated from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications in 2018 and is a management intern in the Center for Indian Education at ASU. She is the editor of Turning Points, a magazine geared toward Native American students written by an all-indigenous staff.
Notah, who is Navajo, will talk about the importance of preserving the history of student activism at a national symposium called Project STAND @ ASU, held at ASU’s Hayden Library on Feb. 27 and 28. The conference, which is free and open to the public, will feature students, alumni, staff and faculty.
The ASU event will be the last in a series of four symposiums sponsored by Project STAND (Student Activism Now Documented), a four-year-old initiative to help universities better record social justice on their campuses. The Institute of Museum and Library Services provided the grant for the project.
Project STAND is devoted to recognizing the importance of recording marginalized student identities, such as black, Chicano, Native American, Asian American, LGBTQ and students with disabilities.
Preserving current student activism isn’t as straightforward as it would seem, according to Shannon Walker, assistant university archivist at ASU, and the lead for the conference.
“A lot of student activists use social media to gather and communicate, so a lot of what we’re trying to figure out is how much we should be documenting that,” she said.
“If they send a poster of their event, that’s straightforward. The digital is much harder to wrangle.”
There are technological challenges to archiving a social media post. Archivists must decide whether to keep only the main post or the comments as well. And the replies to the comments.
“It’s difficult to ethically make sure we have clear permissions for the posts and the photos,” Walker said.
“Otherwise I can’t then provide it as research for people going forward, which is the whole reason I want it.”
Even in the age of communication through the click of a button, the best way for university archivists to collect materials is to painstakingly build relationships — a challenge when dealing with student groups.
“It’s difficult in such a large institution to try to capture everyone’s voice. Not everyone thinks to donate their materials to university archives so we have to proactively go out,” Walker said.
“Student clubs and organizations can be a weakness because they’re in transition all the time. We make a contact, they graduate. We make a contact, they graduate.”
But inclusion in the archives is crucial, Walker said.
“It’s really easy to go after the low-hanging fruit and the prominent people on campus, and that could really take up all of our time,” she said.
“So the challenge for me as a university archivist is trying to capture more voices than just a few, and being aware of which voices I’m capturing.”
All universities are facing this challenge.
“Schools have to keep certain records by law. Those records end up in university archives and that alone is a full-time job for an archivist,” she said. “At some institutions, the university archives is one person. So to think about doing anything else proactively can be a stretch.”
ASU was selected as a site for the conference because it’s already doing good work in this area. Nancy Godoy, associate archivist of ASU's Chicano/a Research Collection, won a $450,000 grant in 2017 to preserve and improve the archival collections of marginalized communities within Arizona.
Godoy will speak at the conference on Friday. Other events include a keynote address by Reyna Montoya, founder and CEO of Aliento, an advocacy organization for undocumented people; a panel that will explore how preservation of diverse voices is a form of resistance against oppression, student performances and a tour of the newly renovated Hayden Library. The event is free and open to the public.
The conference also will include presentations on best practices from other institutions, including the University of North Texas, which developed an app that allows student groups to upload materials to be archived.
Conferences like the Project STAND event are one important way for university archivists to make progress in expanding access.
“We are building relationships with communities and making students aware that the archives are not unreachable, and the archives want to capture their voices,” Walker said.
The timing of the conference was perfect for Notah and the rest of the Turning Points staff because their most recent issue was devoted to the legacies of Native American students at ASU. She spent a lot of time looking in the archives.
“Our whole team did a lot of research about students who decades ago advocated for more native student representation and resources for native students,” she said.
“Chicano student groups and students of color were also advocating a lot back then.”
But she said that all students should realize that they’re leaving a legacy to be preserved for future generations.
“Whatever we’re doing in our studies or our work, we’re all leaving legacies that will tell our children what we did,” she said. “It can come back full circle, like my story with my father.”
The photograph that Notah found in the archives showed her father, Ferdinand Notah, who studied agriculture at ASU and was the first in the family to attend college, in the background of a protest on campus. But Taylor Notah said she believes that activism can take different forms and doesn’t necessarily have to involve protests.
“For Native students, activism can be choosing to write a paper about their tribal history or what’s going in their community, because the one thing we encounter and combat daily is invisibility,” she said.
“At ASU, despite the fact that we’re surrounded by tribal nations, it’s a common narrative that they’re the only Native in their class or sports team or dorm floor. So it’s to remind people that we’re here, we exist, and there are major issues going on in our communities.”
Notah is passionate about supporting the archives.
“From an indigenous perspective, archivists are caretakers of stories and that’s a powerful position to be in,” she said.
“Archives can be viewed as our ancestors.”
Top photo: When ASU alumna Taylor Notah was looking in the university archives, she found this photo of a 1970 protest on campus by Native American and Chicano students. Her father, Ferdinand Notah, is in the background of the photo. Photo from ASU University Archives.