Activism in Archives: Virginia Archives Month 2021 

Happy October, everyone! Much to my personal delight, we’re firmly in the season of cooler weather, changing leaves, spooky porch decorations, and Archives Month! 

Every year at this time, Virginia members of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC) observe Archives Month with a theme designed to draw attention to the variety of unique and important collections housed in the many different Virginia academic and cultural heritage repositories. This year, organizers drew inspiration from the recent growing movements in social justice activism and chose the theme Activism and Archives. 

A large group of people standing outside the US Capitol building holding up their fingers in peace sign gestures.

March to End the War in Vietnam, 1969, from the Centennial Image Collection, photograph by Dan Dervin, image courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives, Simpson Library, University of Mary Washington.

The Virginia Archives Month 2021 website asks the question: How do archives intersect with activism? Their answer, 

…not only do archives provide documentation of activists, activism, social movements, and social injustices through the decades, archives and archival collections are also used as tools in modern activism. 

It’s a good answer, but there’s more. Archives can absolutely be tools, helping activists bring forth the quieter parts of an institution’s history. The information gathered through archival research can indeed support a cause, provide necessary documentation, and help tell a story. But we must always remember whose story it is.  

Image of a protest sign held up in front of the White House. The sign reads "privilege is thinking you do not have the time to fight for others' rights."

Mary Washington students join protest at 2nd Annual Women’s March on Washington, photo by Allison Tovey for Blue & Gray Press, February 1, 2018, image courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives, Simpson Library, University of Mary Washington.

We’ve said before that archives and libraries are not neutral. The decisions about what to include in these institutions are purposeful. Activism shouldn’t just use archives as tools; archivists can be activists too.  

As custodians of cultural heritage, we have a tremendous responsibility to support an honest narrative that includes all voices. Sometimes this is exciting and liberating, and we want to share our wonderful historic artifacts with the whole world. Other times, this can be painful, shameful, or confusing, and we might prefer to hide the secrets deeper in the stacks, or whisper guardedly about them. Our professional challenge is to find and share these stories too. A comprehensive, honest history is one from which we all grow. 

A large group of predominantly Black people depicted marching through a city street.

Desegregation march in Danville, June 10, 1963. Danville Civil Rights protesters practice nonviolent resistance to local and state authorities, 1963. Image courtesy of the Library of Virginia.

For Virginia Archives Month, the staff in Special Collections and University Archives shared some of our projects to try to bring some previously underrepresented stories to prominence. These include the ongoing Alumni Oral History Project and the James Farmer Reflections Lectures. UMW students carried out the bulk of the work to see these projects through, and it’s exciting to see folks in our community engaging with all types of histories. 

In addition to our projects, the site includes links to important projects from all over the Commonwealth, such as the Old Dominion University Social Justice and Activism Archivethe 19th Amendment in the 20th Century Exhibit presented by George Mason University Special Collections Research Center, the College of William and Mary’s Lemon Project, and Virginia Commonwealth University’s East Marshall Street Well Project. There are also links to nationwide initiatives and resources around social justice and activism, as well as some playful coloring book and puzzle activities. 

Two people standing in a door frame, one holding up the peace sign gesture with his fingers. In the foreground is a uniformed police officer.

Students under arrest after demonstration, 1970 April 26, #prot01, image courtesy of James Madison University Special Collections.

You’re also invited to view the Flickr page of images collected from the participating Virginia institutions that highlight our various communities’ activism, or print postcards from some of the selected images 

UMW Special Collections and Archives is open Tuesday – Thursday from 1:30 – 4 p.m. and by appointment. We welcome all members of our community for research or to discuss partnering on a project like the ones mentioned above!

October 15, 2021