Recently, I was interviewed by my former Professor, Dr. Shawn Graham, for the History Department newsletter at Carleton University. A copy of the interview can be found below. The original newsletter, Issue 4: The View From The 4th Floor Paterson ‘Fresh Snow’ can be read here.
Melissa J Nelson is a Carleton University History Alumna. She recently graduated from McGill University with a Master of Information Studies. In an Assistant Archivist capacity, she has worked for George Brown College Archives, The Presbyterian Church in Canada Archives, the Law Society of Ontario Archives, and Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections at York University. Just before Christmas, she had a chat with her former Professor, Dr. Graham about her work. The transcript below has been edited for length.
Shawn: The last time we spoke, you were applying to graduate school. Tell me more about that and what led up to that.
Melissa: After I graduated from Carleton University in 2013, I left Ottawa and returned home to Toronto. I went the next few years struggling to find work. After that, I decided that I wanted to return to school and complete a master’s degree in Information Studies. I was interested in the archive profession for the opportunity to work with historic materials. I returned to Ottawa and took your course, Crafting Digital History in 2016. I knew this course would make me a stronger applicant for graduate school. I learned how to start a blog and gained hands-on experience with different tools for conducting digital history. In that course, we used our blogs to publish our learning experiences. Shortly after finishing the course, I contacted Career Services at Carleton for assistance with my graduate school applications. I applied to McGill University and the University of Toronto for their graduate Information Studies programs. In my applications, I spoke about the tools I learned in Crafting Digital History and its application to the Information Studies profession. I also included my blog, which allowed me to show evidence of my technical skills. In my blog, I also wrote about my volunteer experiences in museums and archives. This helped make my applications stronger.
Shawn: What was your experience in graduate school?
Melissa: I was accepted into Master of Information Studies at McGill University. This program offers ‘areas of interest’ for different aspects of the field. I was focused on taking courses that could prepare me for a career as an archivist. I did not enjoy my program, I felt that the curriculum was outdated. There was a greater emphasis on traditional theories and practices. Current issues, perspectives, and tools in the archival practice were rarely addressed. Speaking to other students and alumni, I realized that many of them shared my frustration and this issue was common in Information Studies programs across Canada. In my second year, I took a course at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information. While I was there, I joined a student association called the Diversity Working Group. At the time, these students were pushing for their professors to diversify their reading materials by incorporating more BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) perspectives. It was interesting to be a part of that group and see the changes they were trying to make. I met several students in the Diversity Working Group who were working in archives. Speaking to them made me think more deeply about current issues in the practice.
Shawn: Tell me about your blog post Archiving Hate: Racist Materials in Archives.
Melissa: While I was in Toronto, I went to a presentation at the Toronto Public Library called “What can we do with blackface and other racist materials in Canadian archives?” by Dr. Cheryl Thompson and Emilie Jabouin. I was insterested in learning about racist materials in archives since I came across a record with blackface while working at an archive internship. This presentation addressed how to locate racist materials in digital archives and how archival description can hinder discoverability. This presentation inspired me to do research on best practices and recommendations for the appraisal, description, and accessibility of racist materials. After finishing my research, I published “Archiving Hate: Racist Materials in Archives” on my blog. I shared this post on my social media feeds, including Twitter and LinkedIn. To my surprise, several archivists responded positively to the post and it was shared and cited in a few places! Waterloo University Special Collections & Archives cited my blog post in their “Language in archival description changes.” I contacted their Head Archivist, Nick Richbell, and he told me that my blog post helped their archives determine how to address racism in their archival records and description. I was very excited to hear that! This blog post was also cited in “Anti-racism Educational Resources” by the Archives Association of Ontario and “Resources Archives, Antiracism, and Black Lives Matter” by the Association of Canadian Archivists.
Shawn: Why do you think this blog post resonated with so many archivists?
Melissa: I think archivists found my blog post useful because I addressed an under-explored issue in archives. In 2019, there was more discussion on how to address racism in description after the Anti-Racist Description Resources was published by The Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia Anti-Racist Description Working Group. My blog post looked at the broader issue of appraisal, description, and access for racist materials. I also think the awareness the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 brought to archival institutions made my post more relevant and this should be acknowledged. The Black Lives Matter movement made archivists more reflective of their practices and institutional racism.
Shawn: I saw on Twitter that you were doing presentations. Tell me more about that.
Melissa: More professionals were finding my blog post which led to invitations to present at two symposiums. I presented “Archiving Hate: Legacy Descriptions and Offensive Materials in Archives’ at the Institutional Development Committee Members’ Symposium for the Archives Association of Ontario. In this presentation, I looked more specifically at recommendations for the description and redescription of offensive records. I also presented “Critical Archival Thought: Integrating Anti-Racist and Anti-Oppressive Pedagogy and Training” for Archive/Counter-Archive. In this presentation, I advocated for anti-racist and anti-oppressive frameworks to archival education and training in Canada. These presentations have connected me to more archivists, and a professor, who is interested in working with me in a consultant capacity. I never would have considered consulting, but I think it is exciting that professionals value my perspective and research skills.
Shawn: What would you like to work on moving forward?
Melissa: A lot of archivists are concerned with causing harm to racialized communities. The field is predominantly white, so many archivists feel uncomfortable determining online access for racist records. Some archivists have asked me how they can determine if it is safe to make a racist record accessible online or how they can safely do so. There is no clear best practice for selecting racist materials for digitization or how to present them online. Many archives lack the resources to consult with communities and compensate them for their labour. I would like to do more research on access and see if there is a way to make a guideline or list of recommendations to help archivists. I am also interested in doing training. I recently applied to lead a workshop on anti-racist description and access for the Association of Canadian Archivists. There is a need for more archival training that guides archivists on how to adopt anti-oppressive practices.
So, I am developing a name for myself, which is very exciting! I never would have thought that my work would be helpful and insightful so early in my career. I was thinking about it recently —if I never decided to go back to Carleton and take Crafting Digital History, I never would have started blogging. Without my blog, I never would have published my research online and I never would have had these new professional opportunities. You never know how far an opportunity will take you! I think this is just the beginning, I am excited to see where I go from here.
Melissa J Nelson will be presenting at the Association of Canadian Archivists Annual Conference in 2021. It will be a panel of recent graduates from different LIS programs in Canada who identify as BIPOC. It will include faculty from a few LIS programs in Canada. They will discuss issues in LIS programs in Canada in light of diversity, equity, inclusion. Watch out for “Reflecting and Imagining Visions for Archival Education”!