UCLA MLIS Students Make Southern California History
UCLA/ Mellon Foundation Interns report on their work.
Leveraging Technology to Preserve California’s Chinese American Stories
by Anne Olivares
During the first quarter as the 2021–2022 intern with the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California (CHSSC) located in DTLA’s Chinatown, I have been privileged to regularly work alongside two brilliant and enthusiastic individuals—Coryn Hardison, the site’s 2020–2021 Andrew W. Mellon UCLA Community Archives intern and current Collections Manager; and Linda Bentz, career archaeologist and long-term board member who oversees archives activities for the site. I am fortunate to have Coryn and Linda at my side as we discuss goals for the archives and the various challenges of community archives—storage space, digitization, and accessibility to the collection via various online platforms.
Since beginning with CHSSC in October, I have encountered members of Southern California’s Chinese American community in a variety of ways. The persistence of COVID-19 has complicated this, however I am grateful to say it has not completely hindered my ability to connect to the material CHSSC collects and maintains for their community, a challenge Coryn also dealt with in the previous school year. I have briefly encountered members of the community during on-site work at CHSSC, where board members drop in time-to-time and individuals occasionally drop off donations to the archives. I also had the privilege to volunteer at a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony for Chinese American veterans of World War II in Ventura in November 2021, including a living veteran in his 90s.
My goals with CHSSC have been a moving target that include many opportunities to handle physical material alongside an ongoing project of refining CHSSC’s online content and accessibility. For example, I have assisted with the organization of their extensive library—a collection of books related to the Chinese American experience as well as tangential histories—both physically and digitally via a Libib account created with the help of volunteers over the last several years.
Although I have a lifetime of experience working with technology, I have been challenged with digital exhibition creation using Omeka S, quite a steep learning curve I must admit, and assistance with the deployment of the archives’ first data logger. Before the end of this internship, I intend to gain experience with more technologies used by both small and large archives including: ArchivesSpace—to create finding aids for yet unprocessed material —and Airtable—to keep track of material related to the Southern California Oral History Project taken on by CHSSC members some years ago and the related metadata. CHSSC is also collaborating with Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West who utilize Airtable to gather and organize an incredible amount of data related to Old Chinatown for a future augmented reality project surrounding Los Angeles’ Union Station.
The experience with CHSSC will undoubtedly provide an incredible foundation for my future goal as an archivist and memory worker for small collections going forward. I have a passion for understanding and tackling the various challenges archives and collections outside of large institutions face, and this experience falls immediately within that realm.
Stories from El Monte
by Samantha Abbott
During my time at La Historia Historical Society Museum (LHHSM), I have had the pleasure of seeing how this archive and museum is closely tied to the community it serves. El Monte is located in the San Gabriel Valley, a few miles east of Los Angeles and LHHSM is situated near important community landmarks such as El Monte High School, the El Monte Library, and other museums, community centers, and parks. LHHSM seeks to preserve the history of the city’s Latinx, Asian, and Native American communities over the past century through photos, artifacts, art, videos, and more. Joining LHHSM’s team for the past four months has granted me the opportunity to work directly with community members through oral history projects and raise funds for the archive through grants that support the archive’s preservation and exhibition work.
LHHSM acts as a point of connection where community members can link their lives to other El Monte residents across time. During a visit to the museum, one group of siblings browsed through the archive’s photo collection, which is displayed throughout the museum walls. These photos highlight daily life in the distinct barrios of El Monte and this family was able to recognize their father photographed throughout the museum and share his name with LHHSM. By identifying loved ones featured within the archive, community members share their knowledge and help to fill gaps in the museum. LHSSM’s guests are often both attendees and contributors, helping to name people within photos with limited descriptions, and are key parts of preserving El Monte’s history. Community members are also involved as part of the archive’s staff and board. LHHSM conducts its work through the dedication of its volunteer staff whose consistent advocacy has enabled its growth as a small community archive. With the support of programs and grants like the UCLA Community Archives Lab/Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Internship Program, LHHSM has been able to expand its projects to accomplish its mission.
Community members further contribute to the museum through their participation as narrators in LHHSM’s oral history projects. My First Car, the museum’s most recent oral history project started by last year’s Mellon intern Juliana Clark, explores coming of age in El Monte and documents the relationships community members have with their first car and with the parts of El Monte they love to visit. Various interviewees have spoken of a car culture that connects family members and where oldies can often be heard playing through the speakers of cars riding through the city. LHHSM hopes to combine these narratives with photos and objects donated by the oral history narrators to illustrate their stories. It has been rewarding to speak with El Monte residents and as LHHSM expands, I hope to continue to support the archive’s team in bringing about exhibitions that represent El Monte’s close community to people across Southern California.
 City of El Monte. “About El Monte | El Monte, CA.” https://www.ci.el-monte.ca.us/334/About-El-Monte.
Visual Resistance: Exploring the Role of the Art Archive and Personal Archive-Building in Dismantling Carceral Narratives by Hannah Whelan
With the support of Andrew W. Mellon Foundation/UCLA Community Archives Lab, I’ve spent the past six months exploring methods of community art archiving and exhibition at Los Angeles Contemporary Archive (LACA).
LACA is a community art archive and library that houses art-related objects and small edition artist’s books created by anyone who self-identifies as an artist. LACA is open to the public and is located in Chinatown’s Asian Center, where it has stood for the past five years.
The collection at LACA is artist-run, which means that living artists are donating, deciding what is valuable, and generating language for inventorying their work on their own terms. One part of this process that I particularly admire is that artists create the metadata for their donated materials, which is an exchange that both demystifies the metadata creation process and helps to narrow the chasm that can exist between archivist and donor perspectives on value and subject matter. LACA’s collection materials can be accessed through the LACA database, where born-digital materials are housed alongside pirate radio broadcasts, recordings of LACA programming, and scanned ephemera—all of which are archived at the item level.
Along with their digital and physical archives and library, LACA also maintains an exhibition space that hosts public events including panels with scholars and activists, book releases, performances, and temporary exhibitions. As I have spent time over the past six months becoming familiar with the LACA collection and working alongside those who care for it, I have also been developing an open call for an exhibition that I will be curating and exhibiting at LACA. The exhibition will feature works of art created on envelopes carrying correspondence between currently and formerly incarcerated artists and their loved ones on the outside.
Beyond adding decorative value, these works of envelope art, which are often collected and preserved in the homes of loved ones, offer community members experiencing incarceration a way to express their self-determined identities while maintaining crucial ties to their networks. By being deposited outside prison walls, these works allow senders and recipients to carve out space for communication and exchange to occur on their own terms—free from the physical presence of prison guards and the constant threat of institutionally-sanctioned destruction that exists when works of art remain in cells.
Because the stories that emerge from the circulation of envelope artwork hold incredible power and affective reach that resists state-generated narratives of dehumanization, these works are particularly vulnerable to surveillance, censorship, and destruction within carceral institutions. Given that my research at UCLA focuses on how archival projects intended to aid the incarcerated must avoid perpetuating surveillance and criminalization, the deed of gift I am creating for the collection takes into account the very specific vulnerabilities that exist with this project.
By collecting and exhibiting these works at LACA, we are using the space of the archive to resist carceral narratives and instead highlight projects of self-documentation and archive-building that convey the individual and collective humanity of those experiencing incarceration. The role that letter writing and envelope art play in disrupting carceral narratives and protecting the livelihoods of senders and recipients is one I have long been aware of, as my father has spent the past eighteen years in prison serving what will ultimately be a life sentence.
Through my research at UCLA and my work with LACA, I’ve found myself considering our correspondences as part of a history of artistic exchange and personal archive-building that is not only essential to the survival of our relationship, but will be indispensable to the preservation of his legacy as one that is not solely shaped by his incarceration.
While my connection to this show is deeply personal, I am inspired by any opportunity to explore collaboration between artists, archives, and abolition work. I am currently conducting outreach to currently and formerly incarcerated artists and am continuing to explore the various ways that artists and activists are using forms of visual expression and archive-building to resist carceral narratives. I look forward to continuing to develop the exhibit and associated public programming in conversation with those who have joined us as partners, and I am grateful to LACA for providing the platform to help activate these discussions.
Digitization and Quality Control for Community Empowerment in the Visual Communications Archives
by Elizabeth Wood
In February 1942, two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which called for the “evacuation” of Japanese Americans from coastal areas. The order resulted in the upheaval of communities, forced people from their homes, and, in some cases, broke up families. Under the order, Japanese Americans (including children and the elderly) from all over California were forcefully imprisoned in desert camps and made to sleep in hastily converted horse stalls or crammed together in bare wooden barracks. Most people were imprisoned for three to four years, and while some returned to their homes upon release (homes that were often tagged with racist graffiti in their absence), many chose to relocate permanently. President Ronald Regan issued an order in 1988 apologizing for the internment camps, but California did not officially apologize until 2020.
Visual Communications (VC) is an Asian Pacific American community media arts organization located in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. Founded in 1970 with a dedication to documenting the civil rights and Asian American movements, their work has been preserved in the VC Archives, which have grown to include materials donated by Asian American families and individuals, including photo albums and scrapbooks. Among the collections are thousands of photographs (both from family collections and from efforts to collect and copy photos from the War Relocation Authority), newspaper clippings, and scrapbook pages documenting the period leading up to, including, and after the internment camps. Over the past several years, a concerted effort has been made by VC to have these documents digitized, and part of my work as an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation/UCLA Community Archives Lab intern at VC has been to cross-check the file directory of digitized images against binders of photographic negatives to ensure that every image in the photography collection has been digitized and cataloged.
I grew up in a small rural town in Virginia, and my public school education on this topic was cursory at best. The only camp I was familiar with prior to my work at VC was Manzanar, so many of the names I saw as I worked through the binders – Tule Lake, Granada, Heart Mountain, Jerome – were unfamiliar to me and I looked them up as I went. I found that several camps have been protected as national monuments and so are represented on the National Parks Service website, and more information exists at the National Archives and the Library of Congress. Notably, these are all government bodies, which means that the stories of these camps and the people affected by them are being told by the institutions that perpetrated the crimes, and the language reflects that dynamic. For instance, photo captions on these sites often refer to the camps as “relocation centers,” and the people interned as “residents of Japanese Ancestry” (deliberately distancing and denying their American citizenship and identity). The descriptions and histories on these sites refer to prisoners as “evacuees,” as if their internment was for their own safety. It struck me how differently the communities affected might tell these stories in comparison. Nobuko Miyamoto, a Los Angeles songwriter, dance and theater artist, and activist who appears frequently in the VC Photographic Archives, opens her memoir Not Yo’ Butterfly with a detailed account of her and her family’s internment, which began when she was just two years old. She describes sleeping in horse stalls and human beings being “stored” while awaiting transport to concentration camps. There is power in names, and as such, it is critical for communities to be able to tell their own stories, and for us as archivists to get those stories right.
That, to me, has been one of the tangible impacts of my work at VC. Film is a medium that is at a high risk of deterioration and loss. By taking the time to digitize all of these images (an enormous undertaking that has only been possible thanks to the years of interns that came before me, including Serena Rodholm, Dylan Karlsson, and Yuri Shimoda from the UCLA Community Archives Lab) and, crucially, to cross-check the digital images against the physical negatives to ensure that all have been accounted for, these images are now in a format that can be activated by VC filmmakers and artists to tell those stories. The history of US concentration camps is only a small part of the collection in the VC Archives; digitizing and cataloging allows these stories to be shared online, published in educational resources, and used to challenge the dominant narratives that have historically shaped (and silenced) public discourse in the US.
Source: Miyamoto, Nobuko. Not Yo’ Butterfly: My Long Song of Relocation, Race, Love, and Revolution, edited by Deborah Wong, University of California Press, 2021. pg. 5.