Public Historian by way of Archives and Reference

This is a guest post by Reference and Research Services student assistant Ariana Varela. 

The definition of public history is fluid and debated between the various types of public historians. One form of public history is archival work where documents and various other types of media are collected, preserved for future use and cataloged in order to facilitate research. The Freedom Archives, located in the Mission District of San Francisco, preserves materials from progressive history in the Bay Area, United States and larger international movements. Their collections range in material from “the civil rights, student, antiwar, prison, women’s, and LGBTQI movements along with broad collections on the Puerto Rican independence struggle, political prisoners and in-depth reports on key events from San Francisco to South Africa” (Moore).

Image used with permission of Nathaniel Moore.

As an intern at the Freedom Archives I practice the “behind the scenes” version of public history. Through collecting, preserving and cataloging documents I am able to make documents and various media available for research. After researching the historical context of the sources I am able to make a comprehensive record of each individual source with its correlating metadata. The main purpose of cataloging at the archive is to build a database that records all the types of media available at the archive for research.

Image from the Freedom Archives courtesy of Nathaniel Moore.

It is then interesting working at the Reference Desk in Gleeson and being able to explain to patrons the logistics of library research in regards to our databases. Through demonstrating how to use our library’s databases in order to begin preliminary research, the importance of the work in archives is reinforced. By explaining the use of key words and other metadata limiters, I can see the importance of practicing archival work that centers on accurate cataloging and preservation for future use. Knowing how keywords are chosen when cataloging materials makes it easier to explain to patrons how they should begin their research and utilize slight changes in phrases and related searches to expand their source options.

For example, one student came up to the Reference Desk asking for sources on Malcolm X but was unsure of the exact angle she wanted to portray in her paper. I began by explaining Ignacio and the different databases we could use to find information on Malcolm X. I explained that searching different sources yields different results, from reference biographies and scholarly articles to more extensive books. We navigated through the various phrases associated with Malcolm X to get a variety of perspectives. At the Freedom Archives I worked on editing audio clips of Malcolm X’s speeches so I knew about the transitions in his ideologies and that recorded speeches would be a good way to get an idea about his politics. Through working in the library I was able to share the knowledge I had acquired at the archive and explain the method behind database organization in a student-friendly manner. Some of the digitized speeches of Malcolm X are available through the Freedom Archives’ website in mp3 format.

Photo of Malcolm X licensed for creative commons use

I feel as though I have achieved a holistic balance that pairs practiced public history with reference librarianship through my experiences working on the back end of research through the archive, coupled with working up front with library patrons at Gleeson.


Works Cited

Moore, Nathaniel, ed. “About the Freedom Archives.” The Freedom Archives. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Jan. 2016.

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