L.A. as Subject Resident Archivists Complete First Year

L.A. as Subject

Archivists Azatuhi Babayan, Gerard Collins, and Crystal Johnson have been working closely with 90 board members, staff, and volunteers from 29 archives and historical collections in the L.A. as Subject research alliance hosted by the USC Libraries. The residents are part of an education program on building digital collections generously supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Studies (IMLS). The program is a collaborative effort by the USC Libraries, Gerth Archives and Special Collections at California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH), and Oviatt Library at California State University, Northridge (CSUN).

During their two-year terms, each resident is working closely with up to 10 archives and 30 staff and volunteers. They are helping L.A. as Subject archives plan and build digital collections of unique primary materials on many diverse, less-visible aspects of Southern California history. The residents are also assisting community archives from the greater L.A. region with making these unique primary materials widely accessible via national digital platforms.

Mentored by experienced archivists and digital librarians Beth McDonald and Greg Williams at CSUDH’s Gerth Archives and Special Collections; Ellen Jarosz and Steve Kutay at CSUN’s Oviatt Library; and Deborah Holmes-Wong and Liza Posas at the USC Libraries, the residents are immersed in many facets of L.A. history.

As part of her appointment at the USC Digital Library, Babayan works with staff and volunteers at the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives. “My favorite way to explore…is to just open a drawer and choose a folder…and find items from now-closed lesbian bars, clubs, bookstores, and cafés. The collection informs me about a quotidian queer past and invites me to daydream about potential futures.”

Johnson, whose appointment is at CSUN’s Oviatt Library, is working with the Tom & Ethel Bradley Center at CSUN on the African American Life in Los Angeles video oral history project. While transcribing the oral history of Tamu McFalls, Johnson learned about the history of the Che Lumumba Club, a late 1960s L.A.-based black youth organization formed by the California cadre of the Communist Party of the United States. Its prominent members included McFalls and activist and scholar Angela Davis.

“Listening to McFall’s life story,” Johnson said, “was impactful and emotional. One of the highlights of this residency was connecting with the staff at the Bradley Center after my experience transcribing Tamu’s story. It really emphasized the importance of the work the Center is doing in capturing stories which often go undocumented.”

Collins, whose appointment is at CSUDH’s Gerth Archives and Special Collections, is working with several organizations in the South Bay with rich photography archives, including the Compton 125 Historical Society, the Historical Society of Long Beach, the San Pedro Bay Historical Society, and the Tradeswomen Archives.

The three residents are working with staff and volunteers at L.A. Subject archives About…Productions, the Tom & Ethel Bradley Center at CSUN, the Campo de Cahuenga Historical Memorial Association, the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, the Columbia Memorial Space Center, the Compton 125 Historical Society, Corita Art Center, the Ebell Club of Los Angeles, the Girl Scouts of Greater Los Angeles, Glendale Public Library, the Glendora Historical Society, the Historical Society of Long Beach, the Immaculate Heart Community, KAOS Network, the Japanese American National Museum, the Little Tokyo Historical Society, the Marina Del Rey Historical Society, the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, the Rancho Los Cerritos Foundation, San Fernando High School, the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse, the San Pedro Bay Historical Society, Self-Help Graphics, Special Collections at Cal State LA, the USC Polish Music Center, Valley Relics Museum, and the Whittier Public Library History Room.

Babayan, Collins, and Johnson are sharing their expertise with archives and digital collections and leveraging the knowledge of their mentors at CSUDH, CSUN, and the USC Libraries. They will also develop workshops and educational programs about building digital collections tailored to the needs of L.A. as Subject member archives.

The exchange of knowledge with staff and volunteers at L.A. as Subject archives is a two-way street. Babayan, Collins, and Johnson are learning a lot about the complexity of Southern California’s community- and neighborhood-based histories. They are learning from the resilience of these organizations and how they have defined for themselves and in their own terms what it means to collect and preserve their histories.

“I think the most unexpected thing I’ve learned is how varied the idea of what constitutes an ‘archive’ can be,” said Johnson. “There are often very different views…from the traditional academic definitions of archival collections and primary sources.”

“I’ve been reminded daily of the adaptability and creativity of organizations that operate outside of the bounds of ‘traditional’ archives,” added Babayan. “Many of the sites I’m working with are very flexible and able to easily adapt to change and challenges.”

The residents have put these lessons of adaptability into practice with the closures of many California archives due to the COVID-19 pandemic and public safety guidelines by the State of California, Southern California local governments, and federal authorities. While shelter-in-place guidelines remain in effect, the residents are consulting with L.A. as Subject archives remotely and planning for the contingency of online educational videos and related content on building digital collections this fall.

“One project that is moving forward virtually is a scrapbook digitization project with a Girl Scout,” said Johnson. “Luckily through Zoom we can still have weekly check-ins, and I’ll be training her on how to create descriptive metadata. We’ve had to approach the project in a way that’s a little out of order from how digitization workflows usually work…. Luckily, everyone on the project has been enthusiastic and eager to adapt in any way that will keep the project moving.”

Stay tuned for project updates including links to newly created digital collections of rare historical items held by the 29 participating L.A. as Subject members and educational programs created by Babayan, Collins, and Johnson drawing on their experiences with community- and neighborhood-based collections.