How do we protect legacy?

When I began here, nearly four years ago, the UHD community was on the edge of a sea-change: its first big generational turnover as UHD (it had its first changeover back in the early 80s when the original South Texas Junior College employees were retiring, which led to Dr. Garna Christian’s pioneering effort to record stories via oral history). The people who built UHD and shepherded it, who started as young people just out of grad school and worked here for 25, 30, or 40 years,  were retiring.

All archivists are deeply aware of these generational turnings; it’s part of our work and it shapes our practice.  There is a professional sense of loss associated with each and every person whose story is only partially shared, or never shared at all. Even though the connection between people at UHD is mainly one of employees to one another, it’s the individuals themselves who make the story of UHD possible. When I arrived, I was tossed immediately into this tumultuous changeover.

Luckily, my first full year was also UHD’s 40th anniversary, so much of my initial work in learning UHD’s story happened in a spotlight created by others, who had more clout within the community. An oral history project was underway, photographs were being actively hunted down, paper and ephemera came to the archives in piles. Within a single year the archives grew from zero to over 50 linear feet of material. People were aware of a historical watershed and it prodded them to contribute their knowledge and experience to the story of UHD.

One thing that I noticed, though, in my first year, was that most people in the UHD community didn’t see much objective value in our story, or in our legacy. Or rather, they didn’t see that UHD *had* a story at all. To me, it felt like the community as a whole was shortchanging itself, especially as it became clear that this university has been underappreciated and underestimated for its entire existence. Knowing that this is the case made it easy to fall in love with the story of our institution, and to keep working to make the story more visible.

Now it is UHD’s 43rd year, and no organization has ever had a gala for their 43rd year. To the casual observer, the history gathering has slowed down. But for an archives, this work cannot stop. People still retire, things still happen. As an archivist, I’m generally accustomed to two responses from people when I approach them about records: they either try to convince me that their materials aren’t important, or they try to convince me that the archive is not the right place to preserve their materials. You might think that these sentiments would hurt my feelings, but all archivists get these reactions so I have a thick skin in this regard. What concerns me more, in these years when there is no institutional push towards collecting, is that we are in danger of losing legacy. History does not keep itself, and it never has. My purpose as the Archivist for this institution is to make sure that history does not fall through the cracks, that everything which should be saved, is saved, and then made safe so that the story can be shared in the future. The assumption “my history is not/should not be important to the archivist” hurts only the person doing the assuming, but it does make my job (and the job of any archivist) very hard. But don’t worry, the archivists (specifically, me) will keep bugging everyone anyway. That’s how legacy gets protected, after all.

commuter students

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