Archivist Tracy Drake searches boxes of archival material that tell the history of Reed College.

Archivist Tracy Drake searches boxes of archival material that tell the history of Reed College.

Who Gets to Be Remembered?

Tracy Drake leads archivists to democratize memory.

By Brandon Zero ’11 | July 21, 2022

Tracy Drake, Reed’s director of special collections and archives, and Monique Queen ’22, Reed student and psychology major, were searching through archive after archive with no luck. Posters, official administrative papers, Quest articles, pamphlets. In a building storied for its repositories of knowledge relevant and esoteric, they were inundated with important dates, names, and figures from Reed’s past. But the Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library wouldn’t deliver what Drake and Queen were seeking: pictures of students of color. 

The elusive photographs raised an important question: How do institutions like Reed record and construct their histories? What material makes the cut? Will our experiences as individuals passing through these institutions be included? 

“Depending upon who facilitates or holds the archives, they have different purposes,” explains Drake. “If we only let institutions tell the story, we only get one side of what happened, and we want to get as many perspectives as possible. It’s up to the researcher to decide what’s true.” 

Picture a timeline of Reed events in all their chronological sprawl, from the college’s founding to the present. You might imagine both official moments—like papers from the president’s office showing how curricular strife among the faculty was resolved—and informal events—like a particularly epic brawl for the Doyle Owl—par for the course, as a visit to Reed’s special collections will corroborate. 

Now change the aperture, focusing on events and narratives of particular import to students of color. Traditional sources of Reed knowledge reveal a few pictures of students from across the years: the 1960s student-led protest for a Black studies program, South African apartheid divestiture occupations and actions. These were seminal events in the college’s life, no doubt. 

But what of students, staff, and faculty living through periods without such tumult? What comprises the historical record from the lives of Asian students in the ’70s or Indigenous scholars from Reed’s founding to date? 

“Not everything is contentious. I fully believe in documenting joy as well. As institutions, we get asked when there’s drama and tragedy, ‘Help us contextualize this,’” Drake says. “But also, people live full lives and experience joy and trauma, and I find it problematic that—this is one thing that I want to change—every time we tell the story of Black students at Reed, we do so via the Black studies program.”

Voices fill the gap

That’s why Drake is widening the lens on what contributes to Reed College’s narrative. An inclusive college history requires historical vignettes, photos, and observations from more than official documents and from more points of view. A full institutional history includes Reed’s unofficial moments and culture alongside the official ones.

Drake’s own search for democratically sourced narratives has been refined through her work with Chicago-based archival group the Blackivists, where she’s helped bring obscured stories to life. The group collected testimonies from members of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party to curate an oral history that stands in contrast to stories heretofore told only by police surveillance reports and government pronouncements. That work is archival, but in adding a viewpoint left unexpressed, it is also activist.

Her eye for scenes worth adding to the historical montage is key. Her practices are inspired by historian Ashley Farmer, whose work profiling Black reparations activists is complicated by a lack of written records. Farmer’s political subjects were prolific, but their class and race helped deem their records not important enough to preserve. Learning from these lessons, as Reed’s archivist, Drake sees gaps worth filling.

The college’s newest oral history project also promises work that is archival and activist. The special collections librarian has deputized Monique Queen, Multicultural Resource Center (MRC) Black diasporic events coordinator and archive student staffer, to help interview and compile audio from today’s diverse students about their experiences. The MRC oral history project found fertile ground. In February, staff and students weighed in on the subjects they wanted to discuss, and in April they began recording audio in groups of five or more people.

Some conversations revolved around circumstances that might otherwise escape a grand historical narrative of the college: the feeling of ease students said they felt when entering spaces like the MRC or the predecessor theme dorms that allowed students of color to decompress. These were places to escape the nonstop rigors of academic expectations and laugh in community.

“I’ll say this, everyone emphasized how communal and family-like these spaces on campus and the people in these spaces feel,” Queen summarizes. “[They’re] often referred to as a second home or a living room—‘My second kitchen’—which is really nice.”

The camaraderie forged in the now-defunct Equity and Social Change Program and the Students of Color Union were common touchstones in the video-recorded group student session. 

“I think in this instance, we captured these very rich conversations,” Drake says. One person would add a memory, to which another would add a slightly different interpretation. “We could’ve gone on for another two hours.”

How has the student center’s event programming shaped life for students of color? And how would students reimagine the campus and world they’d like to see? Administrators gave their take in one-on-one sessions with Queen following the group student interviews.

For the sake of students’ privacy and consent, the full depth of those conversations is left to future explorers of the archives. Oral history project participants get a final say on which parts of their recordings will survive a final transcription, so the audio remains under wraps until the last consent forms roll in. 

 But the curious and the patient can visit the archives over the next year for answers, or at least fragments of debates, that might have otherwise been consigned to the common rooms of yesteryear.

 Expect the final version to clear a high bar. Students got to workshop their historical craft alongside experienced practitioners from the Blackivists, members of which visited campus in April to give a panel discussion and advice to the aspiring collectors. Conversations hinged on the importance of selection, among other topics.

 “There’s a lot of power in archival work,” says Drake. “I get to choose materials, what gets remembered later, control the narrative about which items get saved in perpetuity. That’s a really important role in our society; I’m not sure everyone understands that role, but I understand that power.”

A People’s History

Another subject ripe for such kaleidoscopic treatment is the Reedies Against Racism protests that roiled campus from 2016 onward. The class-disrupting demonstrations, in particular, were well documented, but Drake noticed that the preserved material only told part of the story. Drake commissioned an oral history project to tackle faculty, staff, and student reactions to get the rest. 

“It’s about creating counternarratives that may not exist inside the institution,” Drake explains. “RAR documents are based on newspapers, presidential papers from the time, and some official documents, but we didn’t get the stories of students on the ground, what faculty and staff felt. It’s important.”

In this way, the documented oral histories give insight into the unofficial culture at Reed, a history that is often only implicit in collected ephemera.  

Nick Campigli ’21 was a freshman in the second year of the protests, and theirs was one of the last classes to experience the more Western-centric Hum 110 course. Now it’s their job to document the campaign that led to its demise. 

“[Hum 110] dominated the conversation in the friend groups I was in,” says Campigli, now working as a library staff member on campus. “[My experience] gave me perspective on the kinds of questions I wanted to ask when I was giving the interviews.”

On Campigli’s questionnaire? Respondents’ reactions to a speech at the end of orientation week by a student protester in Kaul, who had just met with then president John Kroger about the Western-centric humanities course. For some first-year students still learning the quickest route to their dorm rooms, the testimonials from other students were powerful and confusing. 

Staff and students, whether they attended the demonstrations or not, had voices that are important to include. Contemporaries didn’t just see demonstrators holding placards; they saw them compiling research to buttress claims and demands, spending hours studying for class and hours more spent lobbying administrators—things a camera crew’s one-hour tour of campus might miss.

“For us, the protest movement taught us a lot of what to expect from [the] administration, what the relationship between it and the student body was like,” Campigli says of his classmates. “It affected our interests and the trajectory of how we thought about politics going forward.” 

Oral history participants include contemporaneous student activists, Quest journalists, and student body representatives. At eleven interviews into the project, archivists anticipate making a few more audio recordings before winding down. The final version will then take time to transcribe.

Campigli wouldn’t disclose whether their own initial shock and confusion that fateful O-week day was shared by oral history interviewees, but the recordings will speak for themselves once compiled.

And that’s really the point, isn’t it? That the experiences of student, faculty, and staff leaders and observers will live side by side as a sort of aural point and counterpoint in a people’s history that gives those without institutional bona fides a shot at enduring memory. 

“Giving the power to the people is one of the most important parts archivists have to combat [one-dimensional] institutional narratives,” Drake explains.

The work continues. Both the MRC and RAR oral history projects are ongoing. Referrals from students already interviewed continue to turn up new candidates to speak with. “There’s always a group of new students coming in, so always a new collection of stories,” Drake notes.

Tags: Campus Life, Diversity/Equity/Inclusion, Institutional, Reed History