“Moving the profession forward”: UVA Library wins grant to host Archives Leadership Institute

By Molly Minturn | June 13, 2023

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In a rapidly changing world, archivists’ jobs have become increasingly complex. Their knowledge must encompass not only paper, film, and audio records, but also born-digital materials and their required infrastructures. Archivists sometimes balance the roles of historian and budget planner, all the while preparing for crisis response or protecting materials against climate change. And many archivists are pushing back against outdated structures and systems embedded in the field’s theories and practices.

The University of Virginia Library will explore these and other issues when it hosts the Archives Leadership Institute (ALI), a summer program that provides advanced training and experiential learning for mid-career archivists and memory workers. Late last month, the National Archives’ National Historical Publications & Records Commission awarded UVA Library a $300,000 grant to host ALI from 2024 to 2026. The ALI program, which started in 2008, is the only leadership institute for archivists designed by archivists. At UVA Library, the program will focus on organizational leadership, relationship-building, and self-knowledge, using the complicated and sometimes painful landscape of this university to examine power of place and its role in the work archivists do.

We are looking for archivists who have an appetite for moving the profession forward, who want to refine their social justice lens, who want to be aware of the environment in which they work and be responsive to their communities, who desire to lead their organizations with empathy and compassion, and to be skilled in developing strong relationships as well as repairing fractured and broken ones,” said Brenda Gunn, Associate University Librarian for Special Collections and Preservation, whose proposal won the National Archives grant for UVA Library.

We spoke with Gunn about how the Archives Leadership Institute will take shape at UVA. Our conversation is below.

Q. What will the Archives Leadership Institute look like at UVA Library (how long is the program, where will students stay, etc.)?

A. ALI (which is the shorthand it is known by in the profession) is a weeklong, in-person intensive program, and the 25 members of the cohort will stay on Grounds, likely in Bond House. The cohort will arrive on Sunday night, June 16, 2024, for an opening night dinner and orientation. The cohort begins their work in earnest on Monday morning. Sessions will continue through Friday night with an end-of-institute capstone event. Students depart Charlottesville on Saturday.

It doesn’t end there, though. Following the in-person experience, the cohort will continue to learn together via Zoom in a series of meetings that will continue until the next ALI program begins in June 2025.

Q. What can you tell us about the instructors for the ALI program?

A. Mary Brackett with UVA’s Organizational Excellence will be part of the faculty and will be the facilitator for the week. In her facilitator role, she’ll begin and end each day and weave all of the themes together throughout the week. From UVA Library, Elyse Girard, Executive Director of Communications and User Experience, will be working with the cohort on leadership through communication. And Catalina Piatt-Esguerra, Associate Dean for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity & Accessibility, will work with the cohort on IDEA elements, which are built in throughout the week.

Our other faculty come from different parts of the cultural heritage sector, including Christina Thompson Shutt, Executive Director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, and Makiba Foster, Librarian of the College at the College of Wooster and leader of the “Archiving the Black Web” project.

Q. What will cohort members come away with?

A. My hope is that the participants leave Grounds with confidence to correct narratives in their own institutions. Part of the beauty of having this type of program on Grounds is the ability to use the University’s landscape, the built environment, as a backdrop for capacity building in leadership. How does a memory worker lead a change and transformation in the field at large, in their communities, in their institutions, and even within their own workgroups. We’ll take them from the macrocosm to the microcosm and stops in between. 

Q. What makes UVA Library a good place to host this program?  

A. UVA has a strong commitment to leadership development and training, and UVA Library has excellent facilities that can be used for in-person portions of the program. These buildings are across the street from the West Lawn, part of the historic Academical Village. Put another way, the locations will be replete with history and symbolism, and will support the Institute’s concept of the power of place. The ALI@Virginia experience will be grounded in place and our landscape, and the cohort will explore leadership through the lens of the unique emotional, historical, and frankly traumatic landscape that UVA offers.

We also intend to have one day of learning out in the Charlottesville community, ideally at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. Other venues likely to be used will be the UVA Rotunda and Morven, UVA’s Sustainability Lab, located on 4000-plus acres in Albemarle County, a short distance from UVA Grounds. We feel confident that the places we take the cohort will yield fruitful discussions.

Q. Who should apply for the program, and what previous education is required?

A. The program is targeted to mid-career folks who work in an archival setting or who are archives adjacent, such as a records manager, or an exhibitions curator, or a consultant. Typically, a cohort member has a degree in information science or public history, with an emphasis on archival studies, but there are also cohort members who have degrees from a wide variety of disciplines. They do need to be working in a cultural heritage setting and be energized by and committed to transforming archives and archivists, whatever that may mean to them. 

Our application process will depart from previous practices and has been informed by considerations of how to remove barriers for applicants, and how to attract more BIPOC individuals and candidates with a variety of lived experiences.

Q. Anything else you’d like to add?

A. ALI has been around since 2008, when it launched at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Other institutions that have hosted include Luther College (in Decorah, Iowa), Berea College (in Berea, Kentucky), and most recently Purdue University. The cohort model of an intensive works really well in smaller communities and on a college campus because of the on-campus housing, which brings folks together.

I was a member of the 2010 cohort in Madison. I was also a steering committee member for ALI@Luther and ALI@Berea. I’m the director of the program and have a wonderful advisory/steering committee: Steven Booth, Audra Eagle Yun, and Petrina Jackson (who worked at UVA as the Instruction Librarian in Special Collections). 

This is the only leadership institute for archivists designed by archivists. In that regard, there is a lot of prestige attached to it, and high visibility and interest. We have designed the leadership curriculum to be intensive and challenging, just as the University’s landscape carries intensity and challenges for those who walk through it.