Rebecca Hankins

Rebecca Hankins, 2016 SAA Fellow, Africana Resources Librarian/Curator and Associate Professor at Texas A&M University Libraries

Rebecca Hankins’ extensive work in archives and documenting marginalized groups in the United States is evident by describing the many hats she wears at Texas A&M Universitys Libraries and Archives. She is an Associate Professor, receiving tenure in 2010. Hankins is curator of Africana and Area Studies, and Women’s & Gender Studies collections in Cushing Memorial Library & Archives with subject librarian responsibilities for Africana Studies and Race & Ethnic Studies in the library. She is an affiliated faculty member in the Department of Africana Studies. Rebecca’s commitment to diversifying the archival profession is also manifest in her research and writing, which includes co-editing with Miguel Juarez the recent monograph titled Where are all the Librarians of Color? The Experiences of People of Color in Academia, published in January of this year. Rebecca’s supporters are numerous, and note her commitment to cultivating and curating diverse collections through her work with fellow faculty, students and donors alike.

“Rebecca is an extraordinary colleague, very dedicated to the archival profession. Her work addresses important and difficult social and political issues, and she is a strong advocate for documenting the experience of all communities, most notably the Muslim, African-American and LGBTQ communities. She raises awareness and challenges established approaches. Working with her stimulates new ideas and a deeper understanding of our world. She is also a caring mentor and educator, beloved by students and young professionals. I am very fortunate to work with her.”

-Dr. Francesca Marini, Cushing Library Director and Associate Dean for Special Collections

Rebecca also has a long history of service in SAA, including holding a term as chair of the Archivists and Archives of Color Roundtable from 2002-2004

From the SAA: 

Hankins’s service over the years to SAA has consistently reflected her devotion to the diversification of both the country’s archival record as well as the broader national archives profession.  As an elected member of the Council, as liaison to the Publications Board, as chair of the Archivists and Archives of Color Roundtable, and as newsletter editor of the Oral History Section, Hankins has provided a gentle and steadfast voice of tolerance for different social and cultural points of view.

Rebecca was interviewed by Desiree Alaniz for this project. Des is a dual-degree student in Archives Management and History at Simmons College in Boston. Des’s research and professional interests include social movement history, and community and LGBT archives. She can be found tweeting @littlegoldenage or working on the Zine collection at Simmons’ Beatley Library.


DA: How did you end up in archives?

RH: I’ve always liked history. I didn’t have any degrees or experience [in archives] when I interviewed at the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University; there were a couple jobs that I interviewed for that sounded very interesting to me that I was very excited about, but I wasn’t hired for them. When I was hired at the Amistad Research Center, I had no idea of the hierarchy of being a public/private institution. It was all really new to me, and I was hired by Dr. Clifton Johnson, who was Director at the time. Dr. Johnson became a mentor and longtime friend to me. I was hired to work on the retrospective conversion of their entire archival collection. It was a Ford Foundation grant that I was hired under, and when that was up Dr. Johnson hired me to work for Amistad.

Amistad turned into the best place for me to have been […] it’s an amazing archive and research center. The fact that it was small, and we were housed on Tulane’s campus, gave us access to quite a lot of resources. But in terms of what we had to do at Amistad, I had to wear multiple hats. I dealt with tours, I did reference, I maintained our list of donors, I was doing everything: cataloging the manuscript collections and books, I was doing a little bit of everything. It gave me a wider view of what was “archival” or “library work.”

Having to wear so many hats, you get a crash course not only in archives but having to learn all these other areas..

Yeah, I worked with the gift shop even! [laughs] I dealt with all our mailing, and literally became the technology guru, from dealing with copy-machines to installing software and all of that. It was a crash course in how to manage an archive, I ran the archives on the weekend because I was the only one there. It was an invaluable education.

When I finally did go to undergraduate and graduate school, I already knew so much about the inner-workings [of an archive], so it was definitely an education.

How did you become involved in the AAC roundtable?

Dr. Johnson was an amazing person, and such an advocate for the archival community- he was one of the founders of the Greater New Orleans Archivists. So when I was at Amistad, he felt it was important to engage in the archival profession. He would pay for us to go to conferences, so my first time going to SAA was in the early 1990s. I didn’t know anybody, had no idea what I was doing there, and nobody, to be honest, took me under their wing and said “oh, you’re new here!” So I didn’t go back for a few years, until one of my colleagues, Wayne Coleman (AAC Roundtable co-chair from 2001-2003) encouraged me to go and became a mentor for me at SAA. And then he became co-chair of the roundtable and encouraged me to stand for co-chair.

The year I stood for election was the first time that Brenda Banks and some other individuals brought a group of students to SAA, who were in the audience, and everyone who was present could vote. I believe to this day that if it hadn’t been for those students who voted for me, I would never have won, since there was someone else who was standing who was much more known than I was. So I became Wayne’s co-chair in 2002. I didn’t know what I was standing for! My whole career in someways has been a matter of “I don’t know, I’m going to throw caution to the wind, get out of my comfort zone, and I am going to do this!” And it worked out!

It was really great, and when I was co-chair, one of the things that I thought was important was talking about the archival certification. I felt it was something, especially for archivists of color, that we should consider. There were people who were totally against it, but I just felt that it was an important marker for us. That was what I wanted to focus on. I brought in the President of ACA, Scott Cline, to talk, and I think it made a difference to people to hear someone talk about the importance of certification.

Can you talk a little bit about what brings you to work with students and mentoring?

One of the things I have always enjoyed was working with students. I worked with a wide variety of student groups while I was at Amistad, as well as faculty who would bring their students in. When I was at the University of Arizona, it was a really great environment, because they had a graduate program in Library Science and I was able to teach a couple of classes there. I was only there for two years and I was only able to work with graduate students at that time. I really enjoyed that but I wasn’t there long enough to get heavily involved.

One of the things I was looking for after Arizona was a position that gave me that opportunity to teach and engage more directly with student learning. I looked at a number of position while I was there, trying to get back towards the Louisiana area without going to Louisiana [laughs], and it just so happens that this position came up for an African American Librarian and Archivist. Really they were looking for someone who could work in both areas, so I applied for the position, they brought me in, and then I found out they were interviewing someone else too. So what they had decided they wanted to do, because they wanted someone on the library side and the archives side, they hired two of us, to split our time. So I worked 80% in the archives and 20% in the library, but it never worked out to be honest [laughs].

Rebecca also discussed the differential treatment of library faculty at different institutions:

RH: At the University of Arizona, I was part of this cohort of people that were supposed to be able to work in all the areas of the library, because it was like an internship program. But because I had so many years working in an archive at that point, that’s where I’ve always been put. When I came to the University of Arizona, I had been at the Amistad for twelve and a half years, I was the senior archivist there. Interesting enough, University of Arizona was the first job I had after getting my graduate degree, so I was a late bloomer. After that, I was looking for a research one institution, for a position where I could be faculty. We were faculty at University of Arizona but it was a different kind of faculty. You were labeled faculty, but it was more like a clinical or lecturer type faculty. You had to go through a tenure process, but it was a very different process from the rest of the university. So I was looking for a position that had more of the feel of a faculty member, that your tenuring process was the same as everyone else’s. You had all of the benefits, and shared governance, academic freedom, those kinds of things that other faculty had.

At Texas A&M, you had to go through the tenuring process, but I liked the fact that the librarians here work very closely, they teach classes, they partner on research and scholarship and service. It is very much a situation where you are treated like other faculty, and that was important to me. So I wanted that ability to engage with students from that position, and that is what I found here, you can do that and it is a really great place for faculty who are interested in that kind of experience. There are many archivists and librarians who are not interested in that work, because they feel it takes you away from your primary work, but I wanted a situation where I would be treated in the same way as other faculty and be able to teach.

So how do you communicate the value of archives to students who aren’t really familiar with archives?

They have to come in. You can talk about it, but the feeling you get when you are actually touching something that you have heard about, read about, know about. It’s another thing entirely to touch those documents, and I think archives is that kind of sensory type experience. You gotta touch it, you gotta smell it you gotta feel it in order for it to make that impression. For students here, when I bring them in, I always want them to dig into it. Don’t let me just stand up here and lecture to you. I think it is important to have that actual experience of dealing with the archives, because it has so much more of a profound effect on individuals than just talking to them about it.

Do you collaborate with other faculty to bring students into the archives?

RH: There have been a number of opportunities I could speak about, but one of the most valuable and personal activities that I worked on was with a professor in performance studies. Her students came in for three classes, and in the last two classes I taught them by myself, and having them go through and really dig into the materials, find something they wanted to perform and use, to create plays or performances, and then going and see them perform. I said “these are my babies!” [laughs] To see somebody put it into a performance brought tears to my eyes. That experience of having something you felt was important and have a student decide that “this is something I can really see myself performing and making something with” is an experience that is so rewarding in so many ways.

I’ve worked with certain professors ever y semester, and they bring their students in, and they have to do papers. It’s been interesting to see how the interpretation of [these materials] changes, and what they add to something that you’ve chosen or bought or found, and they can create this whole narrative around it. Especially if it is something that nobody else has really written about, and nobody has even looked any further into. And I tell students that all the time, there are so many untold stories, in these institutions that can enlighten folks. I think the work we do is so important.

It’s also becoming so important, with so many digital collections and projects around marginalized communities now. As somebody who is fairly new to this field, it seems like there are more conversations happening recently around diversity and inclusion, and the need to fundamentally change how archives and archivists are perceived; my question is what do you think can be done to increase this pipeline of diverse students entering the profession?

I do think that we need to grow our own, that whole notion of really dealing with young people before they even decide on a profession, at the high school and undergraduate level. To really mentor and it’s a hard thing to do, because most people are looking to make the big bucks, and oftentimes we are not the ones who are going to be making the big bucks. But in terms of the impact on lives, what I am seeing with young people, at least with some young people, is this sense of social responsibility. And if we can tap into a lot of those groups and organizations that are really looking at ways of being socially responsible. And what more can you do than making sure you are documenting, and providing this material, and making sure that they are documenting their own history.

There is a group here that wants to deal with this black legislator, and has been wanting to get a statue or some kind of memorial to him. I have been here for 13 years, and every year there is a new group saying we want to do this, and I told them, “I’m not saying that you aren’t serious, but I have been here before, and unless you start documenting what you are doing, and creating some kind of historical knowledge, then we are going to continue recreating this wheel.” And it’s at the point where the next person graduates, and then someone says we want to do this. Look, I need for you to be serious about it, and even if you can’t finish it, at least you have a step by step process of what have you done? And how far do you get?

So I do think these are the ways we can reach people about documenting their own-it doesn’t have to be in a formal archival environment. It’s important to just document what you are doing, develop your own community archives, whatever, just do it so you are not a footnote to history where you have no documentation and people can say whatever they want about you. Who do you want telling your story? Do you want you to tell your story or do you want someone who is not concerned about accuracy telling your story? Plus the fact that they can’t acknowledge your contribution because you have no documentation. It is important that students understand [that] when you write that letter to your grandmother, you are talking about your life, and the things that you are doing. When somebody twenty years, fifty years from now, wants to know what was going on now, don’t let them have to make that up. Especially for people of color, if you don’t do it, your story is either gonna be a footnote or someone else is going to make it up.

Do you have advice for students, particularly students of color, who are pursuing their education in archival studies, librarianship?

Get out of your comfort zone. If you get a chance to go international, to see what other people are doing and how you can learn from other environments, do it. I did a month-long fellowship at the American Council on Oriental Research in Amman, Jordan. It was amazing to have an opportunity to see what other people are doing in terms of preserving their archives, their heritage. And this was an archeological institute, I worked with them on developing their archive. It was an amazing opportunity. A few months ago there was a webinar on people who had Fulbrights and other fellowships. It was amazing, these were all archivists and librarians who had done Fulbrights around the world. I tell people, it is so important to get out of the United States. Your vision, the way you view things, it changes and is enhanced and you become much more aware that you aren’t the center of the universe and that you have something to learn from other people. Even if it is just traveling around the U.S., seeing what other organizations and individuals are doing is important because it enhances your understanding of what other people are facing. And also what are they doing that you can emulate?


Experience

  • Associate Professor and Africana Studies Archivist/Librarian, Texas A&M University, 2003–present
  • Archival Fellowship, American Center for Oriental Research, 2012
  • Assistant Librarian/Archivist, University of Arizona, 2001–2003
  • Archivist, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, 1988–2001

Select Publications

Professional Service

Society of American Archivists

  • Membership Committee, 2011–2012
  • Council, 2006–2009
  • Oral History Section Newsletter Editor, 2004–2006
  • Oral History Section Steering Committee, 2005
  • Archivists and Archives of Color Roundtable Chair, 2002–2004

 

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