SAA President, 1995-1996
SGA President, 1988-1989
Chair, SAA Diversity Task Force
Co-Founder, SAA Archives & Archivists of Color Roundtable
Co-Founder, Georgia Archives Institute
Deputy Director, Georgia Archives
President and CEO, Banks Archives Consultants
For a complete listing of Brenda’s many professional accomplishments, please see AACS’s “Memorial Resolution in Honor of Brenda Banks.
This remembrance of Brenda Banks is authored by Courtney Chartier, Head of Research Services, Rose Library, Emory University. Courtney thanks David Carmichael, Karen Jefferson, Holly Smith and Kerrie Williams for contributing their time and thoughts to this remembrance of Brenda.
How do you even start to write about someone like Brenda Banks? I’ve started ten different times, in ten different ways and remain at a loss. But I did work for Brenda for over two years, and suddenly I can hear her say, in her offhand way that was never actually offhand, “Just get started.”
As a new professional working under Brenda to process the Morehouse College Martin Luther King, Jr. Collection, I was often overwhelmed by her vast expertise, the sheer volume of her accomplishments, and how with all of her commitments, she managed to remain always on point focused on the practical matters a hand. Brenda was one of the few stars I have had the good luck to know; she was full of grace, generous, warm and welcoming, with a razor-sharp wit and an appreciation for the finer things in life.
More than anyone I have ever met, Brenda emphasized the importance of getting done what you could do now with what you had, because proving that you could do more with less could bring so many more resources.
Brenda was also terrifically practical. As her friend and colleague Karen Jefferson told me, Brenda often said, “Progress, not perfection.” More than anyone I have ever met, Brenda emphasized the importance of getting done what you could do now with what you had, because proving that you could do more with less could bring so many more resources. She knew that skipping the smallest steps could lead to chaos; it came as no surprise to learn that when, as Deputy Director of the Georgia Archives, Brenda oversaw the building of a new, state of the art facility, she required that the contract prevent the construction team from leaving any trash on site so that no insect colonies would be invited into the ground or the bare bones of the building. I’m told that Brenda took it upon herself to enforce the clause.
She believed deeply in the importance of the collections held by our nation’s HBCUs, particularly her alma mater, Spelman College, and worked tirelessly to author successful grants to found the Spelman archives; create training institutes for HBCU staff; provide expert conservation work; and fund mass digitization projects. She believed deeply in continuing education for people at all levels in the profession, and so co-founded the Georgia Archives Institute and funded the Brenda Banks Scholarship under the Society of Georgia Archivists.
But being practical in no way limited her vision. She believed deeply in the importance of the collections held by our nation’s HBCUs, particularly her alma mater, Spelman College, and worked tirelessly to author successful grants to found the Spelman archives; create training institutes for HBCU staff; provide expert conservation work; and fund mass digitization projects. She believed deeply in continuing education for people at all levels in the profession, and so co-founded the Georgia Archives Institute and funded the Brenda Banks Scholarship under the Society of Georgia Archivists. She tried to retire, but her passion and commitment led her to consult for archival institutions around the world, and while shepherding the King collection, she also found time to acquire and process the Audre Lorde papers for Spelman College.
“You need to learn to walk softly, and carry a big stick.”
She was also my friend, and guided me as a young professional. She could be critical, but in a way meant to teach you and build you up, never to hurt. When I mentioned how I was struggling in Atlanta, it wasn’t long before she found me a part time job with a friend’s pet sitting service, saying, in her offhand way, “I thought you’d have fun doing it” so that I could accept her help without feeling ashamed. She bought me the first piece of cashmere I own, convinced me to try mussels for the first time (cooked with champagne and strawberries, no less) and gave me the best piece of constructive advice I’ve ever gotten, “You need to learn to walk softly, and carry a big stick.”
Since I can now hear Brenda rolling her eyes, I’ll stop with my own trip down memory lane, and share the words of others who valued her as an archivist and loved her as a friend.
Karen Jefferson, AUC Woodruff Library: I met Brenda actually at a SAA meeting, but we really became friends when we went to a three week preservation workshop in Boston. So we had we had a long time for just the two of us to interact, because it was a small preservation workshop… maybe about 15 people, so that gave us the chance to really bond. I was at Howard University, at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.
Kerrie Williams, DC Public Library: It must have been 2000 or 2001. I met Brenda at the HBCU Mellon Archives Institute in Atlanta. I was working for Dillard University in the Archives and the Africana Studies department. Brenda was reaching out to HBCU libraries and archives offering training to staff who worked directly with collections. The training came after she wrote a report on the state of archives at HBCUs.
David Carmichael, Pennsylvania State Archives: I first met Brenda through colleagues at an SAA meeting, probably in the late 1980s or early 1990s. By then I knew her reputation as a leading light in our profession. Fortunately for me, she was on the staff of the Georgia Archives when I became its director in 2000, and that is where we first began working together closely. During my initial reorganization of the State Archives, in early 2001, I promoted Brenda to be my Deputy Director. From that time until her retirement we worked very closely on a daily basis.
Holly Smith, Spelman College Archives: I first met Brenda when I came for my interview at Spelman in December 2013. We had actually spoken about the position prior, one of my college mentors Dr. Johnson said, “You should apply for the job at Spelman and talk to Brenda Banks about it.”
I did get the chance to speak to Brenda about the job and applying and she was, even just over the phone, really helpful and really transparent, and I had long known about her reputation and being a rock star in the archival field…I’ll never forget how warm and welcoming and open she was when I came and met with her.
It’s only been about two years, but she and I just became so close so fast. She was just so loving and encouraging and giving of her time.
KW: I worked with Brenda on the Audre Lorde papers at Spelman. We physically processed the collection, created the finding aid and prepped the collection for digitization. We also traveled to St. Croix to meet with Dr. Gloria Joseph, Audre’s partner, to identify additional items for the collection.
I worked with Brenda on smaller projects for her consulting firm but Audre’s collection was the biggest….on both professional and personal levels.
HS: She and Kerrie did such a phenomenal job, I mean, beautifully processed, so accessible, the finding aid, and did a program for us. We have series called “Archives Speak!” [and they] gave a really wonderful, illuminating conversation about the procedure of going to St. Croix, and working with Dr. Joseph, Audre Lorde’s partner, to get the materials, and processing it, and the use, and that was something that the students and staff and faculty, and really the community, appreciated, since it is so heavily used.
KJ: Most important for me was her work with historically black colleges and universities. She organized several institutes in which she got funding to help train the staff, which were primarily librarians who had responsibilities for archives at HBCUs, and she pulled in me, and was partnering with Taronda Spencer at Spelman. She was very concerned about the important records that were at HBCUs but many of the staff who had responsibility didn’t have the training or the resources. And so she would always do whatever she could to be supportive of that.
She was, in my opinion, the most perfect deputy director a person could have. Every initiative benefited from her quiet, competent support and profound work ethic. She had such rich and personal connections throughout the archives profession (and among many other professions as well) that she could bring the latest and best practices to bear on almost any project we undertook.
DC: Brenda once told me that she hated to be the person out front; that she much preferred to be the one who worked behind the scenes quietly eliminating barriers and smoothing out the path ahead. Initially I found that hard to believe—she had been president of SAA, after all—but eventually I realized how true it was. She was easily qualified to be a state archivist, but she recognized what she loved to do and played to that strength. She was, in my opinion, the most perfect deputy director a person could have. Every initiative benefited from her quiet, competent support and profound work ethic. She had such rich and personal connections throughout the archives profession (and among many other professions as well) that she could bring the latest and best practices to bear on almost any project we undertook.
HS: She was not necessarily worried about building up the accolades or the resume, but when she saw a need and it needed to get done, why not galvanize colleagues who you like and respect, why not “let’s get this grant”? I think about the love that she had for Spelman, and the importance of HBCU histories and her going to different HBCUs and talk to staff and to provide her expertise but also the desire to set a foundation there. Not that all HBCUs don’t have archival programs, but when we think about the uniqueness and richness of those histories, those are the places where you’re not going to find that history elsewhere. I think her love of Spelman and experience here helped gird that passion for “This is what needs to be done to preserve HBCU history as well.”
KW: Brenda was a visionary and a doer. She knew that professional archivists and associations needed to do a better job of reaching out to and supporting archivists and potential archivists of color. Her work with the HBCU Archives Institute was her vision to get/to press institutions to take responsibility and care of their collections/history. Brenda wanted to make sure HBCU’s had trained staff to preserve and work with these collections. She also required the schools to support staff through future training.
KJ: She was very much in the leadership [of SAA and] recognized there. She had a lot of energy, and so she really was a person who could speak for what needed to be done and because of her experience and responsibilities working in a State Archives, she had a whole other level of archival responsibility. She was very welcoming, she would always reach out to you, she would do the work. She didn’t just talk the talk, she walked the walk. She was a person that immediately anybody would know that here’s a mover and shaker in the profession; she put herself out there for people, by embracing you to be a part of it, so she wasn’t so particular about being in the leadership.
Brenda’s motto could have been ‘Excellence in everything.’ She had no tolerance for sloppy work or half measures.
DC: Brenda’s motto could have been ‘Excellence in everything.’ She had no tolerance for sloppy work or half measures. From a simple reception to a major construction project, she watched the details to see that everything conformed to archival professional and ethical standards and that they reflected well on the State Archives itself. She was particularly (and rightly) concerned that the archives always reflect proper archival practice. TV reporters or news photographers often waited while Brenda ensured that no pens were in view of their cameras or that documents were not overlapping or hanging off the edge of a table. Every image of the archives—and every impression received by visitors—had to reflect professional standards.
HS: We’ve all had the experience where people have just been flat out inappropriate and rude with their directness, because it wasn’t really rooted in trying to enlighten you and illuminate you, but she was very direct in a way that needed to happen because, when somebody really wants the best for you personally, professionally, they also want to see you succeed, but they want to equip you with the right tools…I have a tremendous respect and love for Brenda, so even if it was something that I changed my mind about or I didn’t necessarily agree, I appreciated and valued her opinion. And it’s just so important to have that critical discussion and real talk, but it was never in a way that felt like it was detrimental or demeaning. It was always about building you up to be a better professional, a better manager, and frankly, a better person, with greater confidence, that you can walk in your decisions, that you know how to treat your colleagues and people you might supervise.
KW: I was supposed to be a history professor at some small liberal arts college. When I met Brenda she told me I should consider becoming an archivist. She told me that if I loved history I must also be concerned about the stories that get told. I must be concerned about what gets saved and who has access to these stories….to these documents. She said that I should consider the archives profession if I was concerned about historical narratives. She helped me identify classes and an archival management program that was best for me. She connected me to professional archivists I still call on today.
KJ: I saw her as a mentor for a lot of people. She definitely reached out, no matter what your position was; definitely for folks coming out of school, people new to the profession, she was always reaching out to people and embracing them, so I did see her as a great mentor, and a lot of people I’m sure saw their careers move because of Brenda. She introduced a lot of people to the profession and brought them in. Sometimes she was their supervisor and their careers broadened after working with her. I can see countless people who she touched their lives, and they would call her a mentor.
DC: Frankly, when I first met Brenda I was somewhat intimidated by her reputation and her long experience at the Georgia Archives. I was younger, with fewer years in our profession than she, and I suspected she could use her influence and experience to undermine the new director if she chose to do so. Of course, as I came to realize, I had nothing to fear on that score. Instead, she used her influence and knowledge to support me in every way possible, guiding me through the labyrinth of Georgia politics and policies, assuring her network of contacts that this Yankee was someone they could work with. We rapidly formed a very effective partnership.
Ultimately, Brenda’s ability to mentor and influence flowed from the huge respect she commanded and, more importantly, from the deep love she engendered in those of us who worked with her.
…It was so important to see a professional black woman of the rank and status that she was; she was really be able to nurture and mentor and say to me, “This is real talk. This is what it’s like” when you’re in SAA and you’re the first black president
HS: I think it was so important to see a professional black woman of the rank and status that she was; she was really be able to nurture and mentor and say to me, “This is real talk. This is what it’s like” when you’re in SAA and you’re the first black president; real talk, you have to deal with this when you’re the only person of color in a meeting; and get some real talk from her experience, because it can be discouraging, when you feel like you don’t belong in these places and spaces. I think that was really encouraging as well. And she teased me, “So when you start thinking about SAA President…” and I said, “Oh Lord…I speak against that!”
Just to even have someone I love and respect that much to even joke about that meant a lot, that she saw this in me those leadership qualities. That just meant a lot. I was fortunate to have someone who I respect, who can speak to my experiences as being a black woman in this profession meant the world to me.