– by Libby Coyner, Archivist
It’s been nearly a month since I had the incredible opportunity to attend the Archives Leadership Institute in Berea, Kentucky, and I wanted to jot down a few thoughts about the magical week. The experience gave me lots of great stuff to bring home to my own institution, but on a personal level, I wanted to share how wonderful it was to enjoy a few days in a lovely setting, getting to learn from my colleagues across the country, and to be reminded of how very fortunate I find myself as part of this larger archives community.
First off, I want to say thanks to the organizers of Archives Leadership Institute – I know that coordinating a schedule that action-packed is no small feat! On top of that, they made the week accessible to everyone thanks to a grant funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) – I was a recipient of a very generous scholarship that enabled me to attend. ALI receives at least twice as many applications as can attend, so I recognize what an honor it was to have been selected. (I believe I was the lone representation from a state archives).
After several canceled flights, missed shuttles, and sleeping on the floor at the airport, I left Phoenix 6 hours late and arrived in Lexington, Kentucky. Berea is a much smaller town about an hour’s drive away, and I was treated to beautiful green rolling hills along the way. Following the Phoenix heat, it was nice to arrive to cooler weather, though I did gain new appreciation for the term “it’s a dry heat” – that humidity! Berea is a town of under 15,000 folks, and is home to Berea College. Berea is a private liberal arts school that uses a unique model of accepting only students with financial need, and offers education free of charge, but with work-trade. Many students work in artisan workshops creating traditional Appalachian crafts, and it is a central goal of the school to keep these crafts alive – broom-making, ceramics, woodworking, and weaving.
The ALI schedule was an ambitious one, with days beginning at 7:30 a.m. and lasting until 8 p.m. or later. It was packed with all kinds of fantastic workshops, including assessing our own leadership strengths, working through archives ethical case studies, learning some tricks of project management, advocating for our institutions, and helping one another polish up the practicum projects we had submitted as part of our application process. (My practicum focuses on an archivist swap, so that archivists in Arizona can travel to each other’s institutions for extended periods of time to learn new skills from colleagues).
A highlight of the visit was a workshop on broom-making, one of the traditional Appalachian crafts taught at Berea College. We had the opportunity to visit the Broomcraft Shop, get a tour of the different types of brooms they create there, and finally, we had the chance to weave our own brooms to take home. As I mentioned, a core mission of Berea College is to keep traditional Appalachian crafts alive, and their students learn skills in broom-making, wood-working, weaving, and potting.
Of course, sometimes the highlights of a trip may be the serendipitous, unplanned aspects. For me, this was the surprise lunch we were able to have with author, activist, and identity politics thinker bell hooks, who I’ve been reading since I was a teenager. We had the opportunity to enjoy a meal with her, and travel to her center right there in Berea to discuss her life, her work, and her visions for the future. We wouldn’t have had this opportunity if it weren’t for the incomparable Rachel Vagts, Head of Special Collections at Berea College. We learned that Rachel and bell became friends because of a mutual love of popcorn and thrift stores, but their friendship has blossomed into a relationship between bell and the college, and her papers are now deposited in the Berea College Special Collections and Archives.
Rachel’s work speaks to a wonderful quality I see in many archivists – the ability to deal with the most personal details of people’s lives with a sweet professionalism – the recognition that who we are individually is what enables us to connect with the communities whose records we preserve. I’m beyond grateful to have had the chance to attend, and am so happy to call my colleagues my friends!