Undergraduates in the Archives – Powell 4
4What are some of the challenges you have encountered?
Timothy B. Powell
Director, Native American Projects – American Philosophical Society
Senior Lecturer, Department of Religious Studies – University of PennsylvaniaEditor, Gibagadinamaagoom: An Ojibwe Digital Archive
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The biggest challenge by far is the preliminary work, which must be completed before the semester begins. In order to work with either the APS or Penn Museum collections, a good deal of paperwork must be filled out to secure permission from the curatorial staff. Because this material is rarely used by students who are designing digital exhibits for the web, often we must create new forms and convince very cautious curators who want to be sure that the tribe’s involvement will be properly documented—itself a very time-consuming endeavor. I find that it is also essential to communicate openly and honestly with institutional administrators at every level to help them understand that such projects are mutually beneficial to the archive, the students, and the indigenous communities. The next challenge is to locate enough relevant material to keep the students occupied for a month, or even an entire semester. One must also be aware that a good deal of time and expertise are required after the semester is over to ensure that the resulting exhibit is of a high enough quality to be valuable to the Native American communities and the general public. The current Andrew W. Mellon grant that I direct for the APS includes a Native American Fellows program that brings distinguished members of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians and the Ojibwe Nation to Philadelphia. Ideally, this provides the students a unique opportunity to meet the indigenous wisdom keepers who are responsible for returning the digital surrogates to their community. This is a wonderful experience for the students, but requires great care to make sure that the Native people feel comfortable talking to students who have no real sense of the diplomacy and respect for indigenous protocols involved in this kind of work.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Pedagogically, it takes at least a month to provide the students with enough historical, anthropological, religious, and cultural background so that they can identify important primary materials. Because some of the material is considered sacred, students must learn protocols for dealing with culturally sensitive objects. This is made even more difficult because the Society of American Archivists has not yet issued protocols concerning Native American cultural sensitivities. The current APS Mellon grant will digitize 3000 hours of audio recordings related to Native American cultures. The grant has also allowed us to create a Native American advisory board to establish protocols for protecting culturally sensitive archival materials. Currently, I have two independent-study students working on documenting and implementing protocols for cultural sensitivity at the APS. This cutting-edge work is another important means of involving the most advanced students in ongoing research projects with archival materials.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 It can be difficult, however, to teach the students to be respectful of how Native people see their own culture. The idea, for example, that museum artifacts are considered animate objects—or living beings—is sometimes beyond the intellectual reach of some students. The success of the projects, therefore, often depends on the students’ respect for and understanding of the culture. The students’ performance can be very uneven, with some going on to win grants to pursue further work in the area and others sitting quietly in the corner.