Reflections of a Summer at the Avery Research Center by Veer Mehta, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC)
Passion is the emotion evoked by the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture. During my time here, I became enthralled with the culture, activism, and education produced by this institution. Not only did I become more well-versed in the mission of civil equality, but additionally developed a drive to use educational techniques that conserve the ephemeral history held within these walls.
Diligence and efficiency: Two core principles when working in an archival setting. With guidance from my hiring manager and Avery’s lead archivist, Ms. Aaisha Haykal, I had the opportunity to practice preservation skills involving the rehousing of a segment of Avery’s extensive George G. Lee photograph collection as well as inputting the Avery Photograph collection titles into ArchivesSpace, an archival collection management system, to make it more accessible and searchable for researchers. I also began to process oral history cassette tapes relating to South Carolina’s civil rights movement, identified and located documents for visiting researchers, assisted in overall collection management and co-led a specialized tour of Avery for Uni Nickelson (pictured on the left), a community organizer interested in establishing grassroots libraries and archives in Liberia.
Although working in archives and media preservation are the aspects of library systems that I have the most experience in, I was even more excited to work at Avery because of its cultural influence and mission of activism. Public outreach is one of the most crucial agendas for every Avery employee. The City of Charleston, where Avery is located, struggles with foundational issues like civil rights, gentrification, social disconnect, poverty, and information literacy, all stemming from the continuing effects of systemic racism. This was not only an eye-opening experience for me, but a heartbreaking one. The leadership and delegation of Avery’s Executive Director, Dr. Tamara Butler, and Facility Manager and Public Programming and Outreach Coordinator, Mr. Daron Lee Calhoun, II allows Avery to function smoothly and sustainably. Concerning the aforementioned fundamental issues that hinder the city, Dr. Butler and Mr. Calhoun facilitate events and community programs which address these discrepancies.
Additionally, other grassroots community organizations are working to address racial disparities. For example, the Lowcountry Action Committee (LAC), led in part by Avery’s Research Archivist and Interpretation Coordinator, Ms. Erica Veal, services a food drive once per month on the third Saturday. Avery allows community members to drop off food and other donations so that LAC members and volunteers can bag the items and deliver them to community members in need across the Tri-County area. It was an absolute privilege to witness and support community efforts like this one as a volunteer, and I hope to pursue this degree of activism in my future endeavors.
When visiting the Avery Research Center, one will feel the spiritual presence of history.
Rooted in this generational building is a pillar upon which the City of Charleston sits. For the students and faculty who participated in and mirrored Avery’s institutional beliefs, their legacy demands continuing admiration and promulgation. Most sincerely, I am honored to be a part of the Avery team. It is an experience I will treasure for the rest of my life, and a portion of who I am will forever be a reflection of this landmark institution.