Michelle Caswell: Archivist’s Project on First Experiences of Immigrants Honored by the American Historical Association

IS professor is co-founder and board member of the South Asian American Digital Archive.

Michelle Caswell, UCLA assistant professor of information studies, and her “First Days Project” have been honored with the Roy Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History by the American Historical Association. The project, which enables immigrants to chronicle their first 24 hours in the United States, was created by the South Asian American Archive (SAADA), of which Caswell is a co-founder and board member. The website is free and accessible to the public. To date, the First Days site presents the narratives of 226 immigrants since it was established in 2013.

The First Days Project is a community-based online resource within SAADA that solicits and compiles short audio, video, and written narratives about immigrants’ first day in the U.S., as told by family, friends, and the immigrants themselves. While the project was initially conceived as a project to document South Asian American immigrants, it has since been expanded due to interest from a diverse array of immigrant communities. Caswell calls the site a “digital participatory microhistory project.”

“Participatory microhistory projects have three common characteristics: they document perspectives not commonly found in mainstream memory institutions, they convey affective elements absent from official records, and they enable community participation,” says Caswell. “The First Days Project is built on these three elements, and was started in response to the lack of everyday immigrant voices in most archival repositories. The board of SAADA – especially the organization’s Executive Director, Samip Mallick – thinks it is extremely important to document these often-overlooked perspectives in order to diversify the historical record and raise awareness of immigrant experiences.”

Caswell says that the First Days Project provides for visitors to the site “a sense of how emotional the immigration experience is – from fear, anxiety, and loneliness to excitement, relief, and wonder. These emotions are not found in bureaucratic documentation like immigration paperwork, so in many ways the stories in First Days balance out the official record,” she notes. “And finally, the project enables community participation, resulting in the democratization of stories found in archives.”

Caswell says that SAADA is a natural home for the First Days Project.

“We discovered that no single repository in the U.S. had South Asian American history as a collecting priority, so we decided to start our own,” she says. “SAADA’s founding was inspired by the urgency for such an archive, due to the aging of many South Asians who arrived after the Immigration & Nationality Act of 1965 and the need to preserve material history from the early 20th Century that was in the possession of children and grandchildren of first-generation immigrants.

“With a lot of hard work, we’ve evolved from an idea to an incorporated nonprofit organization that now houses the world’s largest collection of materials related to South Asian American history. While our mission is to document and provide access to South Asian American history, our organizational values stress the importance of all immigrant experiences to the larger American story, so the project arose organically out of those values.”

Caswell says that for SAADA to be honored with the Roy Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History is very meaningful.

“Roy Rosenzweig was a pioneer in advocating for the development of digital resources to make history more accessible to people outside the academy,” she says. “Those values really resonate with SAADA’s mission. But even beyond that, to be recognized by the American Historical Association demonstrates how far we have come as an organization and shows that community-based archives have finally gained some legitimacy among historians. It is great to see our work validated in that way.”

SAADA is currently working on its end-of-year fundraising campaign. Approximately 95 percent of the organization’s funding comes from individuals.

“We have to work hard to earn—and steward—every dollar,” says Caswell.

Caswell and her SAADA colleagues are also working on the organization’s first book, “Our Stories: An Introduction to South Asian America,” which will highlight dozens of stories from the archive and provide context for the stories that have been documented in SAADA. The book is scheduled for publication in Summer 2016.