Alumnae/i Feature

Holly Smith ’08MS Archives the Life Experiences of Black Women

Holly Smith ’08MS is a college archivist at Spelman College, where she leads the management of the long-term preservation projects and access to on-site collections. The Archives are part of Spelman’s Women’s Research & Resource Center (WRRC), which houses the Comparative Women’s Studies program.

The archive is the official repository to the college, documenting the history of the school, faculty, students, and staff. Spelman College is also part of the Atlanta University Center, a consortia of historically black higher educational institutions — Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, The Interdenominational Theological Center, and Morris Brown College.

“We have a charge to collect the history of the college and stories of women in the African diaspora, particularly in the areas of black feminist theory, civil rights, and social justice,” says Smith of the collection. “Our focus is unapologetically on black women,” says Smith. “Institutions have not documented the experiences of black women, whether through benign neglect or intentional erasure. These rich collections document the diverse, complex lived experiences of black women.”

Two of the most heavily used special collections are the papers of noted lesbian feminist-poet Audre Lorde and cultural worker-writer Toni Cade Bambara. “People have traveled from South Africa, Spain, and England for Audre Lorde’s papers,” Smith notes.

For several years, Spelman offered an upper-level interdisciplinary course focused on Lorde’s papers. At the Toni Cade Bambara Scholars/Writers/Activists Program 2019 conference, Smith participated in the panel discussion, “The Archive of Black Women’s Memory,” with two colleagues from Spelman’s Museum of Fine Art. “It was a rich discussion about the various ways black women and communities tell our stories, from different angles and disciplines.”

All are welcome to the archive — amateur genealogists, students doing research for the first time, as well as seasoned researchers. “I feel particularly excited when students can see their lived experiences in the university archives and student organizational records we have here. I want to ensure that every researcher feels empowered and able to come through the doors of the Spelman Archives, no matter their interest or research experience.”

Her advice to current students? “Don’t be afraid to communicate with people who might have positions in libraries or archives or museums that you are interested in. I’ve found that people are overwhelming receptive and kind when I’ve reached out to them.”

She encourages students to order business cards (especially if their school offers that benefit) and take advantage of getting involved in professional organizations while in the program. Also, taking a risk can pay off: Smith applied to her current position with only five years of experience, and may not have done so without the encouragement of her colleagues. “I have always had a love and passion for African American history and black women’s history,” a perfect complement to the work of the WRRC and Spelman Archives.

In light of the Coronavirus pandemic, the Spelman Archives has been closed to the public for research since March 16. Since then, Smith and her colleague are providing virtual reference services for patrons, as well as online course instruction.

“We are all working under modified conditions in an unprecedented historical moment,” says Smith. “I am grateful to be safe and to still have the support of colleagues, friends, and family. I am sending love and light to everyone during this difficult time.”

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