Archival institutions working towards environmental sustainability

By Anicka Austin, Emory University Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, SGA Blog Contributor

Dr. Melanie L. Harris starts off her book “Ecowomanism: African American Women and Earth- Honoring Faiths” by describing her mother’s garden, which is always in bloom. It reminds me of my favorite things about Spring when she writes, “gazing at bees already humming at my mother’s roses, I noticed that we all seem to be singing the same song. Even the color of the roses added a melodic tune.”

From this introduction to her family, Dr. Harris goes on to describe the first step of ecowomanism, which is to access our individual and collective ecomemories. How did we get here? Although the word “sustainability” is now in our collective vocabulary, there is a history of faith-based practices by African diasporic women that extends well-beyond our contemporary understandings of environmental justice (Harris, 2017). The legacy that Dr. Harris describes is extensive. She says, “the parallel between the colonization of the earth and the colonization of black and African bodies throughout the history of the transatlantic slave trade up to the present is an important theme in ecowomanist thought.”

History plays a major part in how we shift action and conversation around sustainability. This is one reason why the work of archivists and memory workers is directly related to our environment. Ben Goldman (2017) encourages archivists to steward collections that tell stories that are “fundamentally more respectful of our environment”. Senior Collection Archivist and Chair of Rose Library’s Sustainability Committee, Laura Starratt, notes that Rose Library is a major collector of political and social activism. She says, “we hold many collections focused on social justice, which relates directly to the conversations on environmental sustainability.  Holding these collections, but not addressing how we are actively contributing to climate change would be an ethical conflict.” In fact, one of the collections at Rose is that of Alice Walker, who’s work provides a basis for Dr. Harris’ ecowomanism method. However, as Starratt mentions, there is tension between collecting and acting in the best interest of the environment and the Sustainability Committee at Rose is examining ways to reduce collecting. Even as we advocate for collecting the records of “people who are deeply observant of their communities” (Goldman, 2017), we also know that collecting less may be more beneficial to the environment than acquiring more.

With that in mind, acknowledging history is not just about collecting. Institutions could acknowledge the history of the land on which their archival repository resides. The ecohistory of Emory is tied to how the land in Dekalb County, Georgia was acquired. In the land acknowledgement developed by Professor Craig Womack and Professor Debra Vidali, it is noted that “Emory University was founded in 1836, during a period of sustained oppression, land dispossession, and forced removals of Muscogee (Creek) and Ani’yunwi’ya (Cherokee) peoples from Georgia and the Southeast.” Emory, like other academic institutions, relied on the labor and land of indigenous and African people. With this and ecowomanism in mind, it matters that conversations around environmental sustainability are nuanced and diverse. In recognizing old narratives and creating new ones, Dr. Harris notes that “as a first methodological step to ecowomanism, mining ecomemory simultaneously pushes back, critiquing traditional forms of environmental history that leave out the histories of peoples of color, and pushes forward social justice commitments to be incorporated within the environmental movement.”

Finally, archival institutions can address how we are collecting that history and the legacy we want to leave behind through our process. Starratt talks about how the materials we use reflect our commitment to sustainable archival practices:

We can also look for options to reuse.  We should be looking for ways to reuse what we already have.  The boxes may have writing on them or not be the right color, but they can still hold materials…. Recycling means more than just having bins in our spaces for paper, aluminum, or glass.  We should ensure that we are not buying single use plastic or Styrofoam.  This is a common packing material for archives, but there are options.  We should also be insisting that the people and organizations we work with refrain from using these materials.  We should only buy recycled paper for our printers (and continue to reduce how much we print).

Rose Library’s Sustainability Committee has been advocating for some changes that might help other libraries in their commitment to sustainable practices.  According to Starratt, “the committee was set up in 2018 by then Digital Archivist, Dorothy Waugh with goals including creating a culture of sustainability, developing green habits, and building resiliency.”

Some of the committee’s successes are in line with practices Jan Zastrow (2019) supports as ways to move towards greater sustainability. She mentions supporting research projects with environmental themes, selecting conference venues that have made commitments to sustainability and going to conferences remotely to offset our collective carbon footprint. We have all been going to conferences remotely for the most part (due to covid-19, of course) but the sustainability committee at Rose aims to take further steps. Having a zoom option for all meetings is becoming normalized, as to encourage teleworking after pandemic restrictions lift.  Rose Library has also received a Silver Level Green Office certification from Emory University.

Acknowledging history and creating a legacy that reflects care for the environment can allow for more nuanced and diverse conversations about sustainability. For more resources to help sustainability efforts in archives visit Archivists Against History Repeating Itself and Archivists Responding to Climate Change.

References:

Goldman, Ben (2017 May 13). “Things the grandchildren should know: Archives and the origin of an ecocentric future”. Libraries and Archives in the Anthropocene Colloquim, New York.

Harris, Melanie L. (2017). Ecowomanism: African American women and earth-honoring faiths. Orbis Books, New York.

Interview with Laura Starratt, Senior Collection Archivist at Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library (17 May 2021)

Womack, Craig & Vidali, Debra. Native American and Indigenous Engagement at Emory. “Land Acknowledgement and History Statement”. https://scholarblogs.emory.edu/nae/land-acknowledgement/

Zastrow, Jan (2019). “Environmental Sustainability and Climate Action in Libraries and Archives.” The Digital Archivist: Trends in Curation and Digital Preservation for Special Collections.

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