Ellen Swain, Anna Trammell, and Noraleen Young 2016-09-26 12:54:39
From the recently-established to the long-standing, from social fraternities to honorary organizations, Greek Letter Organizations are a significant component of student life on college campuses past and present. While records from local chapters of these organizations may be found in the archives of many universities, the management of the national organization’s records vary considerably for each group. Straddling the world of university and corporate archives, those who are responsible for preserving the history of Greek Letter Organizations are faced with a unique set of challenges. A relatively small number of these groups employ professional archivists, which means that many national fraternities and sororities rely on staff or volunteers whose primary responsibilities and expertise are in other areas. Creating professional development opportunities and a community for those tasked with managing the records of Greek Letter Organizations are the goals of the National Archives Conference for Fraternities and Sororities. The First Conference Ellen Swain, archivist for Student Life and Culture at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, and Noraleen A. Young, CA, project archivist with Kappa Alpha Theta Fraternity, began talking in the mid-2000s about bringing together those who were responsible for historical collections at the national level among Greek Letter Organizations in order to provide archival training and networking opportunities. Swain and Young were well-situated to take on this project. Since 1999, Swain has directed the Student Life and Culture (SLC) Archives, a program dedicated to documenting fraternity and sorority history in North America. Endowed by alumnus Stewart S. Howe, a national fraternity leader and owner of a national public relations service for fraternities and sororities, the SLC Archives’ Howe collection of Greek publications is the best in the country. The archives also holds national archives of major Greek umbrella groups and social, professional, and honorary fraternal organizations. Working at Kappa Alpha Theta since 1997, Young came into contact with individuals at other Greek Letter Organizations and knew from questions asked that there was an interest in how to manage their collections. Since 2001, Young also served as part of the planning team for the Girl Scouts of the USA’s (GSUSA) regular training sessions on managing historical collections for volunteers and staff of local councils. Affectionately referred to as the “History Conference,” GSUSA had been offering multi-day workshops with archival and museum professionals for their volunteers and staff from around the country on a regular basis since the 1990s. The goal is to help local councils that have no extra funding for an archivist, preserve local council history, and develop programs to bring that history to the membership. Looking to the GSUSA model, Swain and Young sent out a needs assessment to national Greek Letter Organizations in late 2005. Discovering an interest in a similar gathering, they planned the first National Archives Conference for Fraternities and Sororities in 2010. Hosted on the University of Illinois campus and funded by the Stewart Howe Endowment, the first conference covered topics such as basic collection management, introduction to preservation for small archives, preserving scrapbooks, managing photographs and artifacts, digitizing historical records and archives, and identifying, preserving, and providing access to born-digital records. All sessions stressed the importance of networking with other archivists and history professionals in their local communities. Participants returned to their organizations informed and ready to write collection policies, approach leadership for additional funding, or begin tackling the management of digital records. A Ripple Effect Conferences in 2012, 2014, and 2016 have continued along this model, offering basics as well as in-depth sessions on a variety of topics. Increasingly, participants have taken the opportunity to present on what they have been able to achieve as a result of their conference attendance, including digitization projects, outreach, and major renovations of collections areas and museum spaces at their organizational headquarters. Regular attendee Shirley Gee of Kappa Delta said that the information she brought back to her organization had “revolutionized the thought process of our leaders. After I presented a twelve-point presentation following the first [conference], I was able to convince our executive director and board that we needed to take action.” At this year’s conference, Gee presented on the great strides her organization has made as a result of her participation in the conference, including a new dedicated archives and museum space at their national headquarters, an oral history program, and increased funding for the archives. Rebecca Knapper of the International Music Fraternity Sigma Alpha Iota attended her first conference in 2016 after taking an interest in the upkeep of the organization’s records as an undergraduate student member. “No work has been done on our archival material in sixty years. I now know where to start and where to get help,” said Knapper. A highlight of the recent conferences has been the plenary presentations which have invited attendees to view their organizations within the context of national student life history and archives. In 2012, Diana Turk, author of Bound by a Mighty Vow: Sisterhood and Women’s Fraternities, 1870-1920 (NYU Press, 2004) , spoke about conducting research in the archives of Greek Letter Organizations. In 2016, Tanya Zanish-Belcher, vice president/president elect of SAA and director of Special Collections and Archives at Wake Forest University, spoke to the group about challenges archivists face in the twenty-first century. Sharing Experiences Although the training is beneficial to participants, the ability to network with others who share similar collections and challenges has been what attendees value most. Many attendees have sought advice from one another via a Facebook group for Fraternity and Sorority Archivists which began as a result of the conference. After the 2012 conference, Sigma Nu historian Robert McCully said, “I found the speakers extremely knowledgeable and very informative about a wide range of subjects. Perhaps even more important was the opportunity to meet so many of our fellow archivists, curators, and historians who toil so often without much in the way of resources to preserve the rich history of our fraternal organizations. The time spent swapping ideas and sharing problems and solutions was invaluable. There is no way I’ll miss the upcoming conference—it’s just too valuable to pass up.” As the conference continues into future years, we aim to expand the types of groups represented and to provide sessions that will help attendees just beginning to think about their organization’s archives as well as more experienced attendees. For more information about the conference, contact Ellen Swain at email@example.com.
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