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A Spotlight on Community Archives with Melissa J. Nelson

15 Feb 2024 4:10 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

From municipal and federal government to universities, from religious congregations to community organizations, archivists work in a variety of settings. This year, the ACA blog, In the Field, is setting out to talk to archivists across Canada about the unique joys and challenges of their work environments. We will feature a different type of archives each month, with the objective of showcasing the rich spectrum of archival work.  

This month we are featuring community archives. In today’s post, the In the Field blog chats with Melissa J. Nelson, Founder and Creative Director of the Black Memory Collective.

Q: Can you briefly tell us about your academic and professional path?

Melissa: If you want to know my path, I have to take you back to my childhood. My parents are from Jamaica. My mother, in particular, instilled a deep love for history. She used to share folklore, oral traditions, stories, photographs. My mother was the family keeper of records. She passed that on to me. My love for history led me to pursue a Bachelor of Arts (honours) in History, with a minor in Sociology at Carleton University. I then graduated from McGill University with a Master of Information Studies. Understanding the past allows me to make sense of the present. 

In 2020, I published my blog post “Archiving Hate: Racist Materials in Archives.” This was cited by several institutions in their statements of commitment to equity practices, including the Baker Library of Harvard Business School. This blog post led to a series of opportunities that inspired me to start a consulting business. I offer a range of consultation services on inclusive archival practices including research, writing, policy review, and training. I lecture and facilitate workshops on the intersections of race, racism, and the archives. 

After I graduated from my Master’s program, I felt compelled to seek community. I was often the only Black student in my archives classes. So, I became intentional about connecting with other Black archivists. In 2022, I launched the podcast, Archives & Things, to make these conversations accessible to a wider audience. I discovered a vibrant and diverse community, but I often found my interviewees were unaware of each other’s work. I felt a deep need to bring people together. This past November, I founded the Black Memory Collective to create a network and build a community of practice around Black archiving in Canada. The founding members were brought together through my work on Archives & Things. This collective is part of a larger movement to reclaim, recognize, and celebrate Black memory and imagine Black futurities.

Q: What brought you to the field of archival studies and practice?

Melissa: Well, I didn’t know archival studies was an option. I didn’t know what was possible as an archivist. I met someone who was studying information studies and she encouraged me to look into it. I am so glad she did! I love being an archivist. For me, this work extends beyond the processing area. It’s about inspiring and generating change. It’s a liberatory practice. My work centers Black being and belonging in the archives to support collective healing and liberation movements. Black archival practices and memory work can transform our future. 

Q: What do you wish the public understood better about Black archivists? What do you wish other archivists understood about Black archivists? 

Melissa: I want people to understand that, for many of us, archival work is liberatory work. It’s memory work. It's our way of understanding ourselves and keeping the memories of Black people alive. It’s our way of challenging pervasive racism and bias in this country. We are not keepers of dead records. Our work is about Black life. We come to memory work in different ways. Those who joined the Black Memory Collective are artists, urban planners, architects, game developers, curators, journalists, museum professionals, and so much more.

Q: Can you tell us about your plans for the collective? 

Melissa: Right now, the Black Memory Collective consists of a private Slack group and virtual chats. I intend to have in-person meetings as well. These spaces will allow us to connect, socialize, and exchange ideas. We believe it is important to create safe and affirming spaces for Black people to just be. The dream is to have this work reach communities. We can have newsletters, partner with graduate programs, partner with archives associations, and have events for Black youth to inspire the next generation. I will continue to dream.

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