For Dr. Shaundra Walker, libraries are about much more than the books on the shelves.
She sees libraries as community spaces that provided crucial services to the public, particularly marginalized populations.
Her latest project aims to preserve and share local stories, many of which have only recently been unearthed publicly.
“Milledgeville is a very unique and special place, and so I felt like there was a story to be told here,” she said.
This sentiment helped drive Dr. Shaundra Walker, interim director of the Ina Dillard Russell Library at Georgia College, to pursue a large-scale community history preservation project with grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities Common Heritage Program. The Common Heritage grant aims to bring people together in communities to share their experiences and find their commonalities.
Walker knew that there was a dearth of concrete historical materials with regard to Milledgeville’s African American history, and she set forth to use the $12,000 in grant funds to do something about it.
“In conversations with our associate director for Special Collections, I’ve always heard mentioned just the lack of resources in our collection of local history materials about African Americans,” said Walker. “I have personally experienced researchers coming here looking for materials that we just didn’t have. I didn’t think it was that the materials didn’t exist. I think it’s just that they had not been collected.”
Early in the program’s implementation, Walker hosted a workshop where local residents received consultations on how to preserve valuable family and community records. She hosted two History Harvest Day events where residents brought their materials to be digitized. Participants were each given a flash drive with their digitized materials that they could then easily share with their friends and loved ones. Materials brought in for digitization have included family photos and records, church histories, yearbooks and more.
Participants who choose to can also agree to have their digitized materials uploaded to a portal called the Digital Library of Georgia, an online record of various local histories around Georgia. Ultimately, materials collected through Walker’s project will also be available through the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).
“DPLA pulls from the Digital Library of Georgia and so our materials will be pulled from the state collection and pulled into this national collection,” said Walker. “So, when people are doing family research or community research, they’ll be able to discover these materials.”
Materials will be available for free to anyone with internet access.
Walker said one key component of the project has been to make participation in the portal optional. Those wishing to digitize and preserve their materials can decide whether or not they want to share their materials to the portal. Walker said that when it comes to handling people’s important heirlooms, it is crucial to have their trust. She has found, though, that most participants have willingly agreed to share their materials to the project and that people, in general, are enthusiastic about sharing their stories with her.
“As people came and worked with us and had good experiences with us, I felt that it fostered trust,” said Walker. “From those experiences, they were able to pull in other people to participate in the project.”
One of the best aspects of the project Walker has found has been the ability to tap into the knowledge and expertise of local residents. Some of the information she has learned has never been recorded before and has only lived on in oral history. She has enjoyed preserving this information so future generations will have access to it.
“It shows how a lot of this knowledge exists within the communities, so leveraging it and making it available is really important,” said Walker.
Prior to the pandemic, Walker was planning a panel discussion with local historians as part of the program. She hopes to get back to such in-person events when it is safe to do so.
Walker has quite a history herself when it comes to working with libraries. She has been with Georgia College for nine years and has worked in public libraries and libraries at various other universities throughout her career. When she was a graduate student, a professor introduced Walker to the Black Caucus American Library Association (BCALA), an organization that has allowed her to connect to other leaders in the field.
“Living and working in rural Georgia, there aren’t a lot of librarians; certainly not a lot of librarians of color, so it’s been a great resource for me and place where I can get involved and contribute,” said Walker.
Walker recently received the Demco Award from the BCALA for her work with various committees for the caucus over the years, an award she said, “really means a lot.”
With the widespread need for computer and internet access to reach job and educational resources, she says the need for libraries is as great as ever.
Walker hopes to use her work to preserve local African American history as a template for helping other underrepresented populations. For now, she just longs for a safe return to her in-person meetings with people, scanning their important documents and hearing their life stories.
“I really enjoy those dialogues that we’ve been able to have and just hearing people talk about their histories, really diverse experiences, what it was like growing up here in Milledgeville,” said Walker. “It’s just really been a wonderful exchange.”