PACSCL Spotlight: Amplifying BIPOC Voices in the Field
An interview with Allison Mills
What is your role?
College Archivist, Bryn Mawr College
How did you get into the field?
I attended library school at the University of British Columbia while Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was wrapping up its work. I originally thought I’d end up becoming a children’s librarian—my mom was a teacher-librarian, and I’m a children’s book writer. But the emphasis in my archival classes and in the collective consciousness of Canadian archivists on records relating to residential schools pulled me into the archival field. My family, like most Indigenous families, was forced to attend residential school. My grandfather’s generation was not allowed to speak Cree or practice their culture. Children at residential schools were often abused—and even if they hadn’t been, forcibly removing children from their homes was still wrong. These schools were an attempt to eliminate Indigenous peoples and cultures through assimilation and control. In my family, they were hardly ever talked about because of the sense of shame residential school survivors felt. Being able to find records related to my family—records that included testimonials from my great-grandmother about the mistreatment my great-uncles suffered at school—convinced me that there was meaningful, reparative work to be done in archives, and I switched career tracks.
What is your favorite collection item at your institution? What’s the most surprising thing you’ve come across while working in GLAM institutions?
I have a lot of favorite collection items (our oral histories, for example!), but currently I’m very excited about the collection of political buttons we recently catalogued from Bryn Mawr College alum, social worker, and activist Bertha Waters. The most surprising thing I’ve come across working in a GLAM institution is probably the kākahu—a woven Māori cloak—we found in a box of donated books and papers at my last workplace, UBC’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, mostly because we weren’t expecting to receive clothing along with the usual paper records!
Tell us about your experience in the library field?
I’ve been working in the library field for about seven years now. I started out working at the small, Indigenous-centered branch library within a large university library system, which really got me invested in reference working and public services because it required specialized search strategies. Indigenous Studies is extremely interdisciplinary, and I loved it! From there, I moved to working at UBC’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre. Although I liked working with my own community, as an Indigenous archivist, working with records of trauma can weigh on you after a couple years. I am now at Bryn Mawr College, where I’m able to participate in projects related to BIPOC history without necessarily being overwhelmed with stories of trauma and abuse every day, plus I’m back to doing a lot more work with students, which I really enjoy.
Please highlight any projects related to BIPOC art, history, and culture that you are working on.
I’m currently working on a number of projects related to BIPOC history. Bryn Mawr College has an ongoing effort to address its white supremacist past and present by funding projects related to the history of the college, both those that explore marginalized histories and those that are calling explicit attention to racism at the college. As the archivist, I get to enable a lot of the research that goes into those projects! Currently, I’m working with students and staff on the Perry House Oral Histories project, where students interview alum, faculty, and staff associated with Perry House, the former Black student residence on campus. I’m also involved in the ongoing Who Built Bryn Mawr? program, which is aimed at creating exhibitions that highlight people whose contributions to the college aren’t often highlighted. The second exhibition in that program, created by students in summer 2021, goes up this fall and is about students and the influence of the Civil Rights movement on campus in the 1960s.
Outside of research-based projects, our department is also launching a program this year to talk about confronting the legacies of racism and colonialism in our collections—description, acquisition, exhibitions, etc. We’ve spent the better part of a year creating a document that explores the history of our department and talks about what we’re doing/going to do to address the problems internally. That document and our practices are going to be the focus of several discussions this academic year. We’re firmly of the belief that this is a part of our professional responsibility. I’m excited to see what comes out of those discussions!
How do you think your experience as BIPOC influences your work as GLAM professional?
This is a big question! In some ways it’s hard to answer because I’ve never not been an Indigenous person. I think I’m more aware of the harm poor description can do, and definitely more knowledgeable about just how poorly served Indigenous peoples are by LOC Subject Headings and call numbers than most people—even cataloguers. It’s given me a deeper understanding of how to work around institutions like LOC and made me very good at finding things that seem like they don’t exist at first. But being hyper-aware of racism around you all the time can get exhausting too!
If you weren’t a librarian or archivist what would you want to be?
Well, I’m also a children’s writer. My first novel, The Ghost Collector, came out in 2019 and is about a Cree girl from a family of ghost hunters. Generally, I write speculative fiction—fantasy and horror, for the most part—and I just guest-edited the October 2021 Indigenous Futurists edition of Apex Magazine, a popular speculative fiction literary magazine. If I could make more money off writing and editing, that would be great! But if I was just replacing the “archivist” part of my job with something else, I would probably be a teacher. I really like working with students!
What do you wish more people knew about your job?
Archivists don’t just throw things in boxes and forget about them! We keep things organized! Pop culture has done us dirty.
If you could give advice to emerging professionals, what would it be?
Try to keep up with theoretical discussions happening around archives, but don’t worry too much about the archives you’re managing meeting the golden archival standard perfectly. Every institution is different, and although there are some things—acid-free folders and boxes and some level of intellectual control over materials, for example—that you definitely should be doing, the real world is often messier than library/archival school prepares you for. Stay in touch with your friends and colleagues from school if you can, because having a network is great as you’re job hunting, and is especially important if you’re BIPOC in a predominantly white profession like ours. Mutual support from people who understand what you’re going through is great for navigating the day-to-day life of an archivist of color.
What are you currently reading or listening to?
I’m currently reading Return of the Trickster by Eden Robinson and listening to a lot of BTS.
What is your personal philosophy?
I’m not sure I have one! “Don’t get too caught up on the small stuff” and “nobody is as worried as you are about what you’re doing” are probably the closest.
What are three things you enjoy outside of work?
Outside of work, I enjoy writing! I just finished guest-editing a special Indigenous Futurists issue of the speculative fiction-focused Apex Magazine, coming out in October 2021. I’m also an avid knitter. I especially enjoy doing lacework. I have pretty recently become super interested in the history of 19th and 20th-century glass production, particularly in vaseline and uranium glass, and have been slowly accumulating a collection of glass and books on glass. (It glows under UV light! It’s very cool!)
Where would you like to go on a dream vacation?
After 18 months of not really being able to see friends, I would love to go on a trip just about anywhere with them, regardless of location! The last big trip I went on was to Seoul and Tokyo with friends from college (one of whom is Seoul-based). It would be great to do another similar trip and mix it up a little by doing Jeju and Kyoto this time around.
What have you always wanted to try but never have?
Unfortunately, getting my full driver’s license.
You’re happiest when…
I have good food and good people around me!