Michelle Caswell: Archival Internships Continue for UCLA IS Students

Scholar of community-based archives oversees site-specific student internships with remote learning course and innovative projects that can be digitally executed.

UCLA Associate Professor of Information Studies Michelle Caswell has taken on another teaching job in the current environment of school closures and students of all ages learning at home.

“In addition to being a professor, I’m now a full-time kindergarten teacher,” says Caswell, associate professor in UCLA’s Department of Information Studies, and mother of a five-year-old son.  

“It’s totally different. My son is in a Spanish language-immersion program at UCLA Lab School. I took Spanish in high school, but am by no means fluent. He doesn’t want to sit in front of a Zoom meeting all day and definitely needs Spanish practice, so I find myself trying to master a new job in a new language in addition to being a professor.

“It’s funny when he interrupts me, which is constantly,” she laughs. “I tell him, “People take out student loans to listen to me.” 

Fortunately, the rest of Caswell’s students, who are graduate students in her community archives class, are a bit more adaptable. And, as she has found, so are the challenges of remotely teaching a course that traditionally depends heavily on an on-site experience.

The co-founder of the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) , Professor Caswell has helped to empower members of U.S. communities from South Asian nations including Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Pakistan to record their histories and to make them available to writers, scholars, artists, activists and other researchers.

Caswell’s book, “Archiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia” (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), was recognized in 2015 with the Waldo Gifford Leland Award from the Society of American Archivists (SAA). She is currently working on a new book, “Urgent Archives: Enacting Liberatory Memory Work,” on using community-based archives for political activism, to be published by Routledge in 2021.

Caswell also directs UCLA’s Community Archives Lab which explores the ways that independent, identity-based memory organizations document, shape, and provide access to the histories of minoritized communities, with a particular emphasis on understanding their affective, political, and artistic impact.

Ampersand had the opportunity to speak with Professor Caswell on the progress her community archives class has made and how even in the pandemic environment of remote learning, her resourceful students have managed to not only fulfill their coursework but continue to make the professional connections in their field that is one of the hallmarks of a UCLA degree in Information Studies. 

Ampersand: How have you been able to adapt a course on community-based archives, which is centered on engaging with project sites and their communities, into a purely remote learning experience?

Michelle Caswell: My husband is an emergency physician and I have a five-year-old son, so trying to figure out how to move things [to remote learning] so quickly was very challenging. Also, the course that I am teaching on community archives is a fieldwork-based class. 

Most quarters, in the second or third week of class, students are sent out on field trips to multiple community-based archives across Los Angeles. And then they are matched with an organization, and the bulk of work for the class is doing actual projects for a community-based archive. 

It was quite a shift, but the class is going well so far. It’s a big class – I have almost 40 students, and I try to be as flexible as possible. For the papers that would normally be reports about visiting a community archive, they can write about any issue related to community-based archives, including if they want to visit a community-based archive virtually and describe and analyze it.

For their finals, I gave them two options. They either can write a paper or do remote fieldwork for a community-based archive, and I would say that about 20 students have taken the option of remote fieldwork.

The projects that the students are doing are incredible. We have this grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to pay some of our students to do internships at community-based archives. Many of the students who are doing internships are also in the class, so a lot of them have taken on leadership roles where they are now organizing their classmates to do remote work for the community archive site.

Of the six Mellon interns this year, five of them were able to do remote work this quarter for their community-based archive site. They are working on amazing projects, creating finding aids or guides for digitized collections, using culturally appropriate metadata to describe digitized items, developing online exhibitions, and creating access policies. I am in awe of how they have adapted so quickly. 

&: What quality of community-based archives has lent itself to remote learning for your students?

Caswell: Community archives are really agile at rising above under stress and adapting to rapidly changing environments. The beauty of community-based archives is that they are not burdened with the kind of bureaucracy that university or government archives are, so they can respond very quickly when something like [the pandemic] happens, even though they are very under-resourced.

Community-based archive sites – including the Mellon internship sites – are under a tremendous amount of financial stress right now. At SAADA, we were supposed to have a big fundraising campaign in May – we’re not doing that anymore. A lot of individual gifts have dried up. SAADA’s Executive Director had to cancel multiple events, which meant a loss of registration income and speaker’s fees. There is a lot of uncertainty in the cultural heritage sector right now, across the board, but the crisis is particularly detrimental to fiscally precarious organizations like community archives, especially those that serve communities most impacted by the crisis. 

But at the same time, even though these organizations are under-funded… they have developed really creative practices to respond to the needs of their communities. So, trying to figure out how to make this all work remotely for many of them, has not been a huge challenge. It’s just a matter of shifting priorities. 

For example, The Skid Row History Museum can’t have public programs, but they can work on a backlog of materials that need to be described or transcribed. Same with Visual Communications, which is an Asian American multimedia archives. Initially, our student intern there was working with seniors in that community to get their input to describe materials. He can no longer do that, so instead he’s putting together an online exhibition. So, it has meant shifting priorities, but the work is just as important.

&: How have the community archives sites been able to make this happen?

Caswell: So far for the community archives class, students are working on different projects remotely for six different sites. One of the sites is La Historia Society, an organization in El Monte that documents Chicana/o farmworker history in that community. I have two students working on applying for grants to expand the organization’s public programs next year.

For SAADA, three students are working on transcribing oral histories for digital files and creating what we call item-level metadata, particularly detailed descriptions of single items in the archives. Those materials were already digitized, but they were not given the attention that they deserve in terms of describing them with culturally appropriate keywords so the community can access them.

At the Skid Row History Museum and Archive, students are working on two different projects. One is a transcription of video-recorded oral histories and the other is working on developing an access policy and finding aids. A finding aid is a guide that helps you access a collection. 

The Mellon intern we placed there last year, Henry Apodaca, was then hired on as a digital archivist. So, there’s a nice lineage developing there of our graduates and students.

Another [site] is Visual Communications, which is an Asian American multimedia community archives. Some of our students are working on an online exhibition there. At the June Mazer Lesbian Archive, our students are also working on a project coming up with creative finding aids for a film about the Mazer.

Those community archives that were already more digitally oriented, it’s much easier for them to respond because they already have materials that are digitized. I think that the priorities have been shifted for remote work: describing collections that have been digitized, working on finding aids, creating online exhibitions, or writing grant proposals. These things can be done anywhere.

&: Are there any projects at community-based archives related to the coronavirus crisis that involve you or your students?

Caswell:Yes, there is one project that is related to the work of the Skid Row History Museum, but it’s a separate project. Zachary Rutland, who is a Mellon intern at the Skid Row History Museum, is interested in creating a social media archive about how the COVID-19 crisis is impacting people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles. Rather than start from scratch, he’s contributing to a larger public history project run out of Arizona State University called  “COVID-19: Journal of a Plague Year.” He’s also organizing students from the community archives class to work on it as well. It’s a great lesson for the students—why start a new project when you can join forces with a pre-existing project with the same mission and vision? 

From the start, when I was shifting gears and thinking about teaching this class in a digital environment, I thought, “Why don’t I use the class to create some kind of digital archive about the coronavirus crisis?” I decided that I didn’t want to push that because we are all responding to the situation differently. Some students are really traumatized and some are too close [to the situation]. For other students, they will work through it – it’s archival work and that’s what they want to do.

Also related to the crisis, I’m a consultant for a new SAADA project called, “Letters from 6’ Away,” which was just launched this week.  Samip Mallick, who is the executive director and Maryam Ahmed, who is the program coordinator, are really driving that project, and asked for my feedback on its scope, content, and marketing. The project enables South Asian Americans to write letters to their future selves about their current experiences with the COVID-19 crisis. The letters enable the community to envision a future outside of this crisis, while simultaneously documenting their experiences for the archives. It’s gotten a very enthusiastic reception so far! 

&: So clearly, it is possible to give students a robust internship experience even if they can’t go onsite…

Caswell:Yes, it is possible. I think it helps that the interns for the Mellon projects had two quarters to develop relationships at the sites in person before this happened. In many ways, it’s a continuation of the work that they had been already doing. This is an unprecedented situation, so I think it will be interesting to evaluate the students in the community archives class who are doing fieldwork projects to gauge their sense of connection to their sites and to the communities after doing this work. 

Many of them have already had Zoom calls with community members and archivists at their sites. I definitely think that there will be less of a visceral sense of belonging to a particular space, but I don’t know. The level of interaction in some cases, is different. Transcribing something – it’s really important, but it’s not at the same level as being at community events and listening to people in person. But it’s also work that is much needed by community archives. 

&: Will more and more archives move toward digitization in light of an event like the pandemic?

Caswell: Yes. I think in the future some community archives will prioritize digitization work so that when things like this happen, that there is some continuity of work. 

But I also think there are very real reasons why some community archives have not focused on digitization. I co-wrote a paper with Chris Harter and Bergis Julesa couple of years ago about barriers to digitization for community-based archives. What we found is that, yes, in some cases it’s [about] capacity and finances. They don’t have the money to buy scanners or the money for technical infrastructure, or the expertise to manage digital assets.

But in many cases, digitization does not serve the needs of their community. They’re much more interested in that one-on-one interaction, and on guiding who has access to the materials. So, rather than assuming that anyone with an internet connection should be able to access their materials, many community archives are concerned about protecting the materials and only want them shared with members of their community, rightfully so. 

For example, you can think about how Indigenous knowledges in the U.S., Australia, and Canada…  have been extracted from their communities and misrepresented and appropriated. So many of these community-based practices and values really call into question this notion that universal open access is the highest ethical good. In some cases, it is. In other cases, it’s not. Equal access is not necessarily equitableaccess. 

Part of the beauty of community archives is that they reflect the particular values and historic specificities of their communities. For some of them, like SAADA, most of what we have [in the archive], we want others to access it. But for some other communities, the context and the values are quite different. So, the practices that are developed are unique and specific to each community. That range of theories and practices is part of what makes community archives so exciting. 

Above: Michelle Caswell, UCLA associate professor of Information Studies (at left) and Maryam Ahmed, program coordinator, South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) at SAADA’s “Revolution Remix” event in Philadelphia, August 2019.

Photo by Justin L. Chiu