University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries and Recollection Wisconsin kick off Digital Equity Project work
This is the first blog in a series from DPLA’s Digital Equity Project: Advancing Racial Justice in American Libraries. Derek Webb, Head of Archives at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries shares how the partnership between the Libraries and The Milwaukee Women’s Art Library and their collaboration on a new community ambassador position seeks to bridge the gap between institutional support and grassroots community-led collection-building.
To learn more about the Digital Equity Project visit:
A community ambassador: in a nutshell, that is the project that we at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries envisioned for our work with DPLA and Recollection Wisconsin. In 2021 we negotiated the transfer of the Milwaukee Women’s Art Library (MWAL), a collection of the artists’ papers of local women and nonbinary artists, from a local gallery. The MWAL’s goal was to document and support this community long omitted from the historical record. Unfortunately, however, it was sustained only on labor by a volunteer and a single curator, both of whom had since moved on to new opportunities. We wanted someone to act as a bridge from our repository to Milwaukee’s women and nonbinary artist community to help us continue the work of building the MWAL collection. At the same time, though, we also knew that we needed someone to represent the community to us. We wanted someone who could authentically and accurately voice the perspective and concerns of these artists and who would be willing to assess our gift and donation practices, as well as our policy infrastructures, to better understand our own role in documenting artistic practice, the networks that make up the MWAL community, and how best to serve the community overall. And importantly, we knew that this had to be a paid position that was beneficial to both the community ambassador and to the Libraries – possibly even a path to a career in cultural heritage institutions.
This is a brand new initiative, and we knew of no other analogue at other archival or library institutions. So how were we to find the right person?
We started by building a position description and then taking that description to one of the library’s key stakeholders/advocates in the local arts community: Portia Cobb. Portia is an Associate Professor of Film, Video, Animation and New Genres in UWM’s Peck School of the Arts, a longtime advocate and partner of UWM Libraries, and the Director of the Community Media Project which offered media production workshops for youth and teens within Milwaukee’s core neighborhoods for many years. It would be difficult to overstate how many Milwaukee artists Portia has mentored or her impact in the community!
Portia had some helpful insights for us. We were planning to identify someone with an interest in libraries or archives as a career but, as she noted, the person we’re looking for already has a career! She also thought it should be a priority to identify artists who have acknowledged the work of others in the community. That’s the kind of person with the right mindset for documenting a community, made up of individual artists, but with an emphasis on the former. Having Portia’s input was fundamental – looking to our own networks to see where we could find meaningful connections to the MWAL community was a crucial first step.
Among the artists that Portia suggested we contact, one person stood out for her work with the community and her interest in archives and libraries as sources for work, but also as community spaces. Celeste Contreras was a recent Master of Fine Arts graduate from UWM’s Peck School of the Arts. She is a fixture in the community, Milwaukee-raised with a bachelor’s from nearby Alverno College (summa cum laude). She served as artist-in-residence at the Milwaukee Public Library and was a founder of the city’s Dia de los Muertos parade. With her art she has been seeking to reconstruct history lost to colonization and erasure, including her own Mexica (Aztec) and Blackfeet Cherokee heritage.
We decided to set up a virtual meeting with Celeste to gauge her interest in the position. We learned during the call that our own Special Collections Librarian, Max Yela, was one of her reasons for choosing UWM for graduate school, and that among her many projects she has been archiving the books of a faculty member. We were thankful that by the end of the conversation she was excited to accept the position as our community ambassador.
At this writing the paperwork is still working its way through our HR system but once Celeste is hired one of the first steps is going to be getting some training in archiving materials, particularly digital archiving. She’ll be working with our partner, Recollection Wisconsin, for some of that training. Then we’ll familiarize her with the Milwaukee Women’s Art Library collection and talk through the kinds of documentation we want to see preserved, whether with us or some other institution or even by the artists themselves. There are some questions I’m eager to talk to her about to get her own perspective: What do we mean by “artists’ papers?” What makes a document have historical value? What does it mean to document a community as opposed to documenting individual lives? And what is the value of an archive to the community?
Derek Webb, Head of Archives at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries