A Q&A with Tanya Zanish-Belcher, President of the Society of American Archivists

A Q&A with Tanya Zanish-Belcher, President of the Society of American Archivists

Earlier this month, we caught up with Tanya Zanish-Belcher, the President of the Society of American Archivists and the Director of Special Collections and Archives at Wake Forest University, to get her thoughts on archives, diversity, and much more.

So how did your life lead you to your career?

I have a B.A. in History (Ohio Wesleyan University) and an M.A. in Historical and Archival Administration (Wright State University). I was looking for a way to combine practical day-to-day uses of history and management as well as a focus on public service. Being an archivist has allowed me to achieve that.

What does your team do day to day?

We have the core responsibilities of acquiring, appraising, and making our collections available; serve the public by answering reference questions and providing access to our materials; and finally, hosting and coordinating events to connect our campus and local community.

For the coming year, SCA plans to continue expanding our instruction and outreach efforts for all WFU students. Archivists and librarians will teach for-credit classes Lib260: History of Rare Books and Lib290: An Introduction to Research using Primary Sources, host numerous Lib100 sections, and collaborate directly with both faculty and students to create and share the unique resources which best match WFU’s curriculum. SCA is also focused on serving as a campus cultural hub for exhibits, events, oral history projects, and special performances which will expand the opportunities for students to be introduced to a new intellectual universe.

What is your perspective on the amount of diversity in archives?

I have long been interested in the issue of diversity, particularly as it relates to collections. At my first job at the Alabama Department of Archives and History, I compiled collection resource lists for African-Americans and women. After I left Alabama, I became the Curator for the Archives of Women in Science and Engineering, Iowa State University. The majority of my time was spent collecting the papers of women scientists and conducting oral histories. For background, please see:

“The Archives of Women in Science and Engineering: Future Directions for Oral Histories and Questions for Women Scientists.” Centaurus 2012: Vol. 54: 292-298

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1600-0498.2012.00276.x

Diversity should always be considered by archivists, particularly when focused on collection development. Here at Wake Forest, we focused on the collecting of better and more inclusive documentation (including oral histories) in the University Archives for the LGBTQ community, global programs and international students, our First Magnolia scholars program (being the first in their families to attend college), and multicultural groups.

Why is diversity in archives important?

With more perspectives being held in the archives, the better we can provide a more realistic view of our world and enable our students to broaden their horizons. Given the many responsibilities archivists face in preserving the historical record, this is no easy task.  It takes effort and resources, and a willingness to work outside the box, to ensure that as broad a swath of our society as possible is saved and preserved for the future.

Universities give us many opportunities to expand our collecting beyond the traditional mainstream. An example from Iowa State University is 2011’s “Documenting and Digitizing the Student Experience: A Collaboration Between Iowa State University’s Carver Academy and the University Archives”https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1000&context=speccoll_conf

How can organizations around the world begin to fix this problem?

For the most part, it is setting new priorities and expanding collection development policies to collect in these areas. It also means serving as a referral for collections–I recently connected Winston-Salem’s Hispanic League and their collection with the local public library, which then agreed to house their collections. Many archivists also assist with post-custodial collecting by working with local organizations (such as churches or those assisting refugees) which retain their collections.

Here are a couple of recent posts from the SAA President’s Off the Record blog on related topics:

Some Remarks on the SAA Council’s Recent Statement on White Supremacy

Grappling with our Difficult Past: How Can Archivists Help?

Who is doing a great job at collecting diversity?

Here are some repositories and collections:

Archives & Special Collections, Dickinson College: http://archives.dickinson.edu/

Iowa Women’s Archives: http://www.lib.uiowa.edu/iwa/

Schlesinger Library: https://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/schlesinger-library

University of Wisconsin-Madison: https://www.library.wisc.edu/archives/exhibits/madisons-lgbt-community-1960s-to-present/

SAA Publications:

Through the Archival Looking Glass: A Reader on Diversity and Inclusion:

https://saa.archivists.org/store/through-the-archival-looking-glass-a-reader-on-diversity-and-inclusion/3922/

Perspectives on Women’s Archives:

https://saa.archivists.org/store/perspectives-on-womens-archives/3334/

Here are additional resources from the Society of American Archivists:

Recent SAA Statement on Diversity and Inclusion: https://www2.archivists.org/statements/saa-statement-on-diversity-and-inclusion

D & I Initiatives: https://www2.archivists.org/advocacy/diversity-and-inclusion-initiatives

Defining Diversity (2010): http://www.archivists.org/council/Council0210/0210-IV-B-DiversityDefinition.pdf

Task Forces recently created (November 2017)

Task Force on Accessibility: https://www2.archivists.org/sites/all/files/1117-IV-E-AccessibilityBestPrac.pdf

Task Force on Tragedy Response Initiative: https://www2.archivists.org/sites/all/files/1117-V-C-TragedyResp.pdf

Diversity Award: https://www2.archivists.org/governance/handbook/section12-diversity

Anything else you want to share?

What do the collections in Special Collections & Archives (SCA) represent? What do they mean for our users? They are a real and tangible link to our past, present, and future–they remind us all of our connectivity through the generations and years. Preserving and caring for these materials, and helping others access them in new and creative ways, is a true professional challenge and responsibility.


About this article: This is the first piece in a series of articles examining the future of archives and digital collections. Stay tuned for more.

About Pass It Down: Pass It Down is an award-winning digital storytelling company revolutionizing how libraries, museums, businesses, and organizations bring their stories to life with our digital platform.