Zach Rutland: UCLA IS Mellon Intern Helps Preserve Skid Row’s History

Soon-to-be MLIS grad from the Class of '20 fulfills internship remotely for community museum and archives focused on the homeless in Los Angeles.

As students and faculty in universities across the nation have adapted to the remote learning environment, Zach Rutland has gone a step further. While preparing to graduate in June with his MLIS from the UCLA Department of Information Studies, he is also completing an archival internship at the Skid Row History Museum & Archive

“It fosters a really good environment for an archivist, “says Rutland, who has also participated in community activism in his Koreatown neighborhood. “I get to listen in and be a part of the conversation on these big ideas – like how to house 7,000 people on Skid Row.”

Rutland, who began his internship last September, started off by processing paper collections that focused on the establishment of housing initiatives in Skid Row in the 1980s. He also worked on cataloging VHS recordings of performances by the theatre group of the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), the community organization that launched the Skid Row History Museum & Archive with the collections of John Malpede, a director, performer, and activist. Malpede founded the LAPD in 1985 as the first performance group in the nation that is made up principally of Skid Row artists, and the first arts program for the homeless in Los Angeles. 

Rutland says that the nature of the community-based archive, which was established in 2015, helped to smooth the transition from working on-site to a completely virtual workspace.

“There have been a lot of struggles with being an archivist and not being in an archive, that come down to not being able to access or take materials out of the archives and work on them,” he says. “It’s not the idea way to fulfill an internship, but because of the relationship that I’ve been able to build with my supervisors and the organization itself, it’s been easier.

“We’ve been meeting every week on Zoom, and … have documents on our Google Drive, and we’re cataloging and improving the metadata on these records. We’re also discussing implementing a content management system, so there’s a lot of research that has to go into identifying what our needs are. It’s highly collaborative, and that’s the only way that we can still run as an archive. If I was working at [a major institution], it might have been just a termination of the internship. But because it’s a community archive, and there’s a community effort to it, we’re flexible. We don’t have the same demands that an institutional archive has – we’re able to do something.”

Rutland is part of a cohort of UCLA IS students who are participating in the UCLA/Community Archives Internship Project, an initiative of the UCLA Community Archives Lab that is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Lab is directed by Michelle Caswell, UCLA associate professor of Information Studies, and additionally funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services Early Career Grant and the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies Dean’s Student Diversity Initiative. 

Students working on projects of the Lab engage in documenting, appraising, describing, digitizing, and exhibiting community history as needed by their host organizations, in order to help preserve and make accessible the unknown histories of marginalized communities in Los Angeles. Lab projects provide UCLA MLIS students with paid internships to gain practical skills, including cultural competency and the opportunity to produce research that delineates a deeper understanding of the community archives phenomenon.

Rutland says that working with Professor Caswell has given him an understanding of “aligning archival practice to community- centered political goals,” that will inform his practice as an archival professional.

“I see my position as an archivist as balanced between advocacy and also being engaged with community members,” he says. “My commitment lies in the fact that I’ve been engaged in activism and advocacy, so along those lines as an archivist, I’m in the mindset of trying to come up with solutions to homelessness. 

“I was involved with a community organization called Koreatown for All. There was going to be a shelter built – literally next to my apartment – and it was being opposed by the community and businesses in Koreatown. There were a series of protests and I became involved in what was basically a bunch of neighbors coming together and saying that the arguments against the shelters were absurd, given the state of homelessness in L.A.” 

Apart from the Mellon internship, Rutland is also contributing to a project led by Catherine Gudis, a professor of public history at UC Riverside, and a LAPD board member, on a collection of social media posts that are being created by the Skid Row community during the COVID-19 crisis. Rutland says that his experiences as a community activist on issues of homelessness strikes a personal chord for him in working on this project.

“I wouldn’t be involved in this project if it didn’t mean something to me personally and politically,” he says. “My knowledge of how the city usually deals with people who are unhoused – how they shift them around and displace them, and take their things and arrest them, informs the way that I want to go about this project personally as an archivist. 

“We’re communicating with individuals – we’re not just collecting social media – and actually trying to document it ethically,” notes Rutland. “Some of the documentation includes pictures, photos, audio files. Hopefully, if we create this documentation, it will work to [inform others] about the public health crisis due to increased homelessness that Los Angeles must create solutions for — a crisis that preceded the current pandemic.”

Rutland says that current shelter-in-place orders and the need for the public to maintain social distancing and sanitizing measures, has highlighted the urgent need for policies and resources for L.A.’s homeless population.

“In this pandemic, you have to practice social distancing,” he says. “How do you do that [living] on the street? We need a huge public policy change. There’s something drastically wrong when we are in an emergency and we don’t have proper facilities in the first place for the most marginalized people in our society. Hopefully, [this project] can influence people, with archival evidence that shows that these are the real effects. These are things that need to change.”

A native of Ventura County, Rutland graduated from UCLA in 2014 with his BA in History, and spent six years after that operating his own remodeling business. He says that he was drawn to archival studies on the recommendation of a former UCLA professor Karen Wilson, who suggested that he apply for an internship at a Jewish community center in Pasadena. Rutland then decided to apply to the MLIS program at the UCLA Department of Information Studies.

“The decision to go to UCLA was mainly a professional decision,” he says. “Our department gives you great opportunities. UCLA has a focus on social justice and a commitment to building leaders. And you also get a more well-rounded education because you’re dealing with a lot of theoretical concepts and applying them to professional practice. It helps build a professional ethic. I just felt like that was something that was emphasized, and you couldn’t get it at another school.”

Rutland also appreciates the opportunities at UCLA IS for networking and access to the expertise of information professionals while still a student. One of his supervisors at the Skid Row History Museum & Archive is UCLA alumnus Henry Apodaca (’19, MLIS), who also served a Mellon internship.

“The connections that you have after you graduate from UCLA… are everywhere,” says Rutland. “This is probably true for a lot of things, but in the archival world and the library world, a lot of them are the people who will hire you and who you’ll be working with.”