We have talked about the complicated and sometimes contradictory histories that we find in the archives before, and we will again. I wanted to share today how the Special Collections staff and our descriptive practices continue to evolve as we work with artifacts of trauma and suffering.

As purveyors of primary documents, the archives are haunted with materials that showcase the many realms of humanity. Dr. Maya Angelou often reminded us that, as she paraphrased poet Terence, “We are all human; therefore, nothing human can be alien to me.” This is a comfort–we are united in our humanity–but I also take it as a reminder that we are all capable of being monstrous.

Last summer, 2018 Wake graduate Julia Ough digitized the papers of history professor David L. Smiley. While, in nothing that we saw in his papers, did Smiley stridently defend the Confederacy, he did offer defenses of Confederate symbols and extolled the virtues of Confederate soldiers. Not only is history full of contradictions, so are the humans who work with it.

Last March, Director of Special Collections Tanya Zanish Belcher stated “It is important to not hide from the past while remaining sensitive to the hurtful nature of images such as these [in University publications].” For the past few years, SCA staff have described items in our digital collections as racist when encountering them rather than obscuring them and are guided by a Sensitive Materials statement.

As an extension of noting digital records that contain the imagery of discrimination, we are doing the same for our analog collections. We are working on identifying all the manuscript collections and University records that contain sensitive content related to discrimination and suffering, adding a note indicating that. By adding these notes, we reduce the likelihood that folks will encounter materials that they are not prepared for.

There is discussion about how to work with traumatic history in classes (some insight comes from this “Trauma and Trigger Warnings” roundtable discussion hosted by the Organization of American Historians), but students have context for such discussions and are supported by professors; that’s not possible in the same way when doing archival research. We don’t want people to be blindsided by materials. Also, by adding these notes, we are providing keywords that make materials more accessible for researchers.

Our criteria are a big umbrella, and we expect them to sharpen as we apply these notes and keep them in mind while we write collection descriptions. Currently, notes point to materials related to traumatic subjects including enslavement and war crimes.

Here are some of the collections that we’ve identified so far. If you have questions or comments about our description work, please get in touch.