In this interview, Choice sits down with Dacia Metes, Digital Archives Manager at Queens Public Library, who discusses the Queens, New York-based archive, the Queens Memory Project. Founded in 2010, this community archive collects personal histories of Queens residents in the form of audio recordings, photographs, and more. Thanks to a robust team of volunteers and support staff from Queens College CUNY and Queens Public Library, Queens Memory has captured and shared hundreds of stories through its outreach programs, deep-rooted connections with the community, and savvy use of social media and media-sharing platforms. Dacia dives into Queens Memory’s audience, events, and collection workflows, as well as her hopes to resume in-person events greatly missed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Queens Memory is a community archiving project. Can you explain what a community archive is? How would you describe Queens Memory to a perfect stranger?
Community Archiving involves and empowers members of the community toward self-documentation. Sometimes this kind of activity is entirely coordinated by community members for themselves, or, like in the case of the Queens Memory Project, these history-making activities are supported by an institutional partner. Our community members who record their stories and digitize their family photos are supported by the archival expertise and preservation infrastructure of the Queens Public Library and Queens College CUNY. Staff at these institutions focus on preparatory activities (training community members to conduct interviews) and preservation activities (creating high quality metadata for donated recordings and publishing them online for researchers to access). By working in partnership, everyone can contribute from their areas of expertise. Community members can share their deep (often unrecorded) knowledge of local places, events, and people, while professional archivists can focus on preservation and long-term access for this content.
If a stranger were to ask what the Queens Memory Project is in the simplest terms, it’s a team of librarians and community members recording interviews and gathering artifacts to capture the history of Queens.
You mentioned the support of Queens College CUNY and Queens Public Library. What are the benefits of working with a public library and academic institution?
From the beginning, the partnership between the university and the public library was key to the success and sustainability of the project. These two organizations have complementary resources to offer. Queens College provides access to faculty, students, and Special Collections and Archives staff from the Rosenthal Library. This bright and energetic workforce has been responsible for a large percentage of the oral history interviews produced for Queens Memory. Scholars often have special topics they bring into their interview practice, so we end up with collections of interviews on a variety of themes: Culinary traditions in immigrant families, Public Health, retired faculty and alumni accounts of campus life, and hip-hop history, to name a few. Queens College also hosts the QueensMemory.org website, which is built in WordPress and maintained primarily by Queens Public Library (QPL) staff—we are very interwoven!
“A couple of years ago, I received an email from someone in California whose grandmother had passed away. In researching her life, he found an oral history interview we had recorded with her. The family was so happy to have that record of her life story in her own words and voice.“
QPL provides a preservation infrastructure for the digital archives accumulated by Queens Memory activities. Queens Memory operates out of the library’s Metadata Services division, which is also responsible for the cataloging and digitization of the library’s collections. Due to the library’s substantial international language collections, staff in Metadata Services speak many languages. Their cataloging and language skills are put to work processing the interviews and other materials submitted by the public through the Queens Memory Project online submission forms and public collection events. The library maintains a digital archives website for these materials, and the marketing and communications teams help promote the collections and programmatic offerings.
However, the greatest resource QPL has to offer Queens Memory is its network of 62 branch libraries. Most people in Queens live within walking distance from their nearest library. The staff working at these branches have real knowledge and close ties to the communities they serve every day. This makes them ideal hubs for local history programming and collecting. This past year, QPL launched an internal initiative called the Ambassadors program, which gave ten competitively selected staff members a small budget and training to support local history projects of their own invention. These projects reflect local interests and known archival silences.
On your website, it states: “Our dream is that any Queens resident who visits these collections feels his/her experiences and perspective are represented.” Who is the intended audience of Queens Memory? How do you envision this archive being used by those in and outside of Queens?
Our goal is that the collections can be a resource for current and former residents and their descendants. Whether their family has lived in Queens for generations or only briefly decades ago, we want to help people learn about their family history. The images and interviews we collect today will be family history for the generations to come. A couple of years ago, I received an email from someone in California whose grandmother had passed away. In researching her life, he found an oral history interview we had recorded with her. The family was so happy to have that record of her life story in her own words and voice.
Queens Memory collects materials through ongoing events, oral history sessions, and online submission portals for photographs, wild sound recordings, and scanned materials. Could you talk about the process of assembling and sorting the Archives? What role do volunteers play in collecting these histories?
We simply could not function without our incredibly dedicated volunteers! Volunteers conduct most of our oral history interviews and create transcripts, but they also contribute to just about everything we do. We have volunteers who work on the podcast, at our community history events, and many who recruit their friends and family to contribute as well. Our volunteers help us expand our reach and capture what’s unique about their diverse communities.
We have materials coming in from so many different sources that we’ve really had to streamline our processing workflows. If someone donates a large number of materials, scanned photos, interviews, etc. we create their own collection and process it as we would any archival collection. Most often, people will contribute a few photos or a single interview. Regardless of how many items we’re dealing with, we follow the same workflow: We save preservation masters of all the materials we collect, as well as any deeds of gift or consent forms. We also create access copies and detailed metadata for each item in order to share online.
Everything we collect through Queens Memory is either scanned or born digital, so our digital platforms are integral to both collecting and sharing materials. By sharing online, we can provide access to people from all over the world. Sharing on multiple platforms allows us to reach different audiences. Some researchers are perfectly happy to browse through the Queens College or Queens Public Library Digital Archives repositories, but others might prefer the map-based layout of Urban Archive. The key is to find ways for the different platforms to work together. For example, we will often post a photo that was donated as part of an oral history interview. We’ll then create a link from Urban Archive or Instagram to our Aviary site, where people can listen to the full interview. Social media doesn’t always allow for a lot of context, but by linking the varied platforms we can provide a fuller context for the items we highlight.
One unique aspect of Queens Memory is the training programs and materials you offer to encourage Queens residents to submit their own records. Has this training always been integral to the project? Why do you feel it’s important to provide these resources to the public?
The Queens Memory Project was built within a post-custodial archival framework. The aim has always been to leverage the professional expertise of the QMP’s archivists to share best practices with contributors. Providing free training on oral history, digitization, and personal archiving topics is a core activity. Our Community Coordinator holds regular training sessions that are attended by individuals who go on to conduct interviews. Most of those interviews come back to us as archival donations, but some interviewers keep their recordings as private family records—and that’s okay too! Our educational goal is really more about inspiring deep listening and the preservation of stories, not just growing our collections. Moreover, the processes and methods used by the QMP team have always been publicly available. Many professional and amateur community archiving groups have reached out over the years to access this documentation and learn from us about what has and hasn’t worked as our program has developed. We always enjoy learning about community archiving projects happening around the country (and the world) and welcome folks to be in touch!
Students and faculty from the Queens College Graduate School of Library and Information Studies worked with the Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground Conservancy to document and preserve the history of the site.
Rudy Hartmann, 2016. Queens Memory Project Collection at Queens College Libraries’ Department of Special Collections and Archives.
Yes! Glad you noticed those project reports. We believe that qualitative evaluation is often much more meaningful than the quantitative measurements forced on library and archival work. Getting lots of “butts in chairs” at your program is so much less important than working meaningfully with participants and partner organizations. We have done some deep work with partners that we feel really proud of, work that has advanced and refined our practices, so we want to help others who are figuring out how to hold similar programs. We hope by sharing the details of how we do our projects, others can learn from our mistakes instead of repeat them.
These project reports are also a way to offer respect and credit to the often-invisible labor of the staff and volunteers who make these programs run. We like having somewhere to document the work that goes into planning and executing these multiphase initiatives.
And last, this kind of documentation is so helpful as a reference when working with a new partner. It can give them an idea of how a collaboration might work based on previous experience, how long it will take, and how many people will be needed to make it successful. Project reports are a great place to store resources for future reference too! Sometimes it’s easiest to find a particular facilitator guide or set of instructions if they’re embedded in a report about a past project. Besides the reporting we do on QueensMemory.org, we also contribute project reports to GlobalGrandCentral.net, where they live alongside contributions from cultural activists from around the world.
Despite archivists’ work to prove otherwise, the idea still exists that archives are stagnant rows of shelves that hold decaying materials few interact with or utilize. Queens Memory rejects this idea. You have a podcast series, an Instagram, and seem to be constantly expanding your digital footprint. Can you talk about the value of a versatile and adaptable archive? How can digitization and social media help reach a larger audience?
Versatility is key! People search for and use information in many different ways, so it’s important to meet them where they are. By digitizing materials and posting them online, we can reach those people who, for a variety of reasons, might never come to our in-person events. Social media allows us to cast a wide net, but also to engage directly with other people or organizations. We’ve developed some great partnerships by simply reaching out to someone who posted a cool photo on Instagram. Due to the COVID- 19 pandemic, we haven’t been able to have any in-person events for over a year, so social media outreach has been crucial to connecting with our audience.
Online resources and especially social media can be ephemeral, so we’ve also begun a Web Archiving initiative to try to capture some of the news articles, blog posts and social media posts that might otherwise disappear. It’s another way of preserving and providing access to history.
Something that struck me about this archive was its focus on community-building. You offer dozens of events per year that engage with the public. How have you adapted these events during the COVID-19 pandemic? In what ways were you prepared for the move to virtual events and communication, and in what ways were you not? Are there any adjustments you’ve made in the past year that might stick around once in-person activity is more feasible?
One thing is for sure, our public programming and interview recording will continue online long after the pandemic has subsided. We were forced to adapt our practices to an all remote work environment, which has welcomed a fresh set of (mostly younger) volunteers and allowed us to capture interviews with people living far away. Unfortunately, it has isolated some of the participants we often see in our programs who lack access to technology at home. I’m really looking forward to meeting these folks in our community libraries and partner venues for live programs again once it’s possible. That in-person interaction is so important. We believe a large part of the social value of oral history work is creating opportunities for meaningful intergenerational interactions that reduce social isolation.
Do you have a favorite collection, project, or memory from your time at Queens Memory?
One of the most memorable Queens Memory events I’ve attended was the Memories of Migration: Common Thread — Making a Community Story Quilt program. Attendees learned textile arts and used simple electronics to create talking family story quilts. The participants created individual quilt blocks of their own design and constructed a finished quilt. They also recorded accounts of their families’ migration stories, whether from another country or another state to New York. This audio was then embedded into the finished quilt to create a multisensory experience.
Most of my work happens in the back offices, processing the recordings and scanned materials, but for this event I was right there. I listened to people’s stories and helped create this amazing talking story quilt. We were then able to display the finished quilt in a few different locations and share its stories.
What are the benefits of being a community archive? What is the value in granting a community that creates its own history the power to forge its own narrative as well?
Archivists have a very powerful role in shaping a future understanding of people alive today. Sharing that power and responsibility with a larger set of community stakeholders will undoubtedly create a more interesting, representative, and accurate story of our times. Once people feel empowered to tell their own stories, that stays with them. Our hope is to see that engagement in history making take root throughout the communities we serve in Queens.