If Not Us, Then Who?

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Below is a post from Verónica Reyes-Escudero about cultural competence in archives.  If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email archivesissues@gmail.com.

“My mother would turn over in her grave if she knew her papers were going to the Yankees.” One of my donors spoke these words as he considered donation of his mother’s papers with us. As a donor of Mexican decent, his words captured his fears and misgivings about donating his family’s legacy to a U.S. academic institution. Two years into our relationship, he was on a visit to our archive, and I was demonstrating what we had to offer to preserve, process, and make his mother’s invaluable papers accessible. We were standing by one of the stacks. I could see he was delighted by the future we offered for his mother’s papers – preservation, organization, access – especially in light of their state in his home. But anxiety came over him as he contemplated the decision. What would it mean to him – to his extended family? to his mother’s legacy? – to deposit her papers in a place, institution, and a nation representative of so deep a history of marginalization, even rejection? I understood his misgivings – the tremble of his voice — the knot in his throat. And I didn’t just understand: I knew it, too.

I recently co-authored a book with Patricia Montiel-Overall and Annabel Nuñez entitled Latinos in Libraries, Museums, and Archives: Cultural Competence in Action!An Asset based approach. The Issues & Advocacy (I&A) Roundtable generously invited me to blog on cultural competence in archives after the book was announced on the Archives listserv. When my colleagues and I began to discuss writing about working with Latinos, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to take on the task. But my professional service had led me to see the importance – the imperative – to write about cultural competence in our field. For me, the opportunity was timely: Dr. Montiel-Overall had written on the topic of cultural competence, and I had already presented widely on building relationships with donors from underrepresented communities. Our colleague Annabelle Nuñez had long worked as a health sciences librarian, brokering relationships between community and colleagues in Public Health.

I did not take on a book lightly. It was a substantial commitment for all of us. We would necessarily sacrifice evenings, early mornings – and, for me, the only family day each week with my small children. And, as a minority faculty, I wondered whether or not research on diversity and cultural competence would be taken seriously. (I’m sure there are one or more studies on how research by minority faculty is discounted – especially when they research diversity.) After many cafecitos to discuss our ideas and experiences, we decided the issues, and our commitment to them, was too important. If not us, then who?

In my now longish library career as a librarian, I’ve immersed myself in several areas, including more than twelve years in special collections. As Associate Librarian and Borderlands Curator for Special Collections at the University of Arizona Libraries, I’ve worked with many donors with misgivings just like the one I mentioned above. Slowly, I began to realize I brought assets and competencies into my work with donors I was otherwise taking for granted.

Special Collections Librarians and Archivists working with the Latino and other communities face a variety of challenges in pursuit of collections. We heed the calls to acquire materials from various underrepresented communities. We join our efforts to those of other institutions. Yet we’ve hardly considered the skills necessary to work within, and with, these communities. As we wrote Latinos in Libraries, Museums, and Archives, we had long conversations about our respective clients, donors, patrons. Most importantly, we recognized the importance of tacit knowledge. We began to tease out long-ago learned behaviors and knowledge so deeply held it was second-nature, and hardly valued. It did not escape me what we were delving into what might be described – perhaps diminished – as “soft skills.” But I know now, through our experience and the research, these competencies are essential, hard-won, even painful insights to our communities. Trust and relationships with our underrepresented communities cannot be taken for granted. Research, identity, and the historical record depend on trust and relationships. While the Latino community is our book’s focus, the suggestions will ring familiar to anyone working with other underrepresented communities.

There is much to be said. A previous post delves into some of that conversation already. What I offer here are some competencies necessary for work with the Latino community, and brief thoughts on their importance.

In Latinos in Libraries, Museums, and Archives, we listed characteristics of a culturally competent professional. I have used all of them in my work as an intermediary between donors and my home institution. My cultural awareness – of myself and others – and my awareness of context and history has informed my actions many times. I am of “the same background” – in my case Mexican – but I see, understand, and appreciate differences and the nuances of the Mexican community. I understand how various factors affect how we communicate and relate to one another. We are varied. We cannot be depicted or represented with the same brush. And who we are affords us assets: ties to others, knowledge of resources, the ability to speak more than one language, and the knowledge of the place and significance of experience found in archival material. By practicing an ethic of caring, librarians and archivists doing the hard work of building trust with the disenfranchised and disregarded learn respect and patience, and the importance of an open mind, an open heart, authenticity and genuine commitment to building trust.

Culturally-competent librarians and archivists alone are not enough. To be successful, our institutions must understand and support commitments to diversifying collections and nurture cultural competency. Institutions must do the important work of self-reflection. What institutional values are in place? Have the parent institution and the library established standards for diversity? Are the institution’s or library’s statements about diversity focused, manageable, and clear? Or are they too broad? Has the institution committed resources to meaningful diversity projects?

Anyone working with donors knows the necessity of managing expectations. When building trust with the Latino community or any other underrepresented communities, we know missteps can take enormous energy and time to repair – or prove irreparable. Our institutions must understand their commitment is paramount. We cannot be looking over our shoulders, wondering about institutional support. And, given past experiences, many of our donors are looking over our shoulders at our institutions, and they are dubious about the depth of commitment. Our knowledge of our own institutions and archival standards and ethics go hand-in-hand with our cultural competencies.

The end to my donor’s story proved something of a fairy tale, as several things came together. Standing there in the stacks and shelves, voice trembling, my donor decided to donate his mother’s papers. His family, learning about the deposit, and with some additional relationship-building, donated still more material. Their collections afforded the opportunity for our inaugural Spanish-language finding aid. At an event to celebrate the launch of a related, bilingual digital exhibit, long-standing family differences were set aside to celebrate an extraordinary legacy and an archive preserved, open for research, and accessible.

At an interview in preparation for the same event, my donor was asked what made him decide to donate the archive to our institution. I was there to translate. He spoke of me, our relationship, and my institution. You were authentic with me, he said. I could see that you were a serious person. And you had the institution behind you to do what needed to be done.

Verónica Reyes-Escudero is Associate Librarian and Borderlands Curator at the University of Arizona Libraries Special Collections.


2 thoughts on “If Not Us, Then Who?

  1. ““My mother would turn over in her grave if she knew her papers were going to the Yankees.”” since the donor is of Mexican decent (sic) I believe that the individual was actually saying Yanqui and not Yankee. Yanqui is the term applied to all who Caucasians non-Latinos who live north of the Rio Grande. Yankees is used for folks who live north of the Mason-Dixon line. Commonly used during the Civil War and Reconstruction era.


    • Yes, thank you pak152. The English spelling “Yankee” is often associated with Union Soldiers during the Civil War and a pile of other things. But it is also accepted as a derogatory term used in reference to anyone living or from the U. S. according to other contemporary Oxford Dictionaries – the Oxford English Dictionary is also accepting of the broader usage though. I did quibble over using the Spanish spelling “Yanqui” instead, but opted for the English spelling Yankee. I hope I didn’t detract from the message too much by the choice I made. Thank you for reading and for your comment. Use of language does matter, right? I kinda wish I’d used Yanqui now. Warmly, Veronica.


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