Lizeth Zepeda is a Diversity Resident Librarian and Research Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee. She was formally an Outreach Archivist and Librarian at the Arizona Historical Society in Tucson, Arizona.
Lizeth holds a Master of Library and Information Science with an emphasis in Archival Studies from the University of Arizona’s School of Information as a Knowledge River Scholar. She holds two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Psychology and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from California State University, Long Beach.
Her research and archival interests include working with traditionally under-documented communities, outreach programming, Spanish-language materials, and queer(ing) archives. Contact: Lzepeda@utk.edu.
Can you please describe your research interests and goals?
“So my friends and I got super inspired and went to the archive and in that moment, I felt totally seen.”
I always want to start at the beginning and give context for why I do what I do and who I am. I am a first-generation college student, and when I went to Cal State Long Beach in California, I was a Women’s Studies and a Psychology major. I felt like in my classes I wasn’t learning a lot about myself, beyond that one week on women or people of color. I took a Latina studies class, and we learned about this group called Las Hijas de Cuauhtemoc. They wrote one of the first Chicana feminist newspapers and the first Chicana feminist journal. So I was learning about this local history of student organizers in Long Beach, as a student organizer myself, and I thought it was just wonderful.
My professor had mentioned that there was an archive on campus with their stuff and I had no idea what an archive was. So my friends and I got super inspired and went to the archive and in that moment, I felt totally seen. It felt like a spiritual experience to see this work. I knew then I wanted to work with archives and to engage my community that haven’t traditionally seen archives.
My research interests and my own life interests are to try and get folks who haven’t traditionally been to archives into archives; to use the archive and to see archives in their lives. When I worked at the Arizona Historical Society, I would see that a lot of documents were completely in Spanish but the control files were in English. I was frustrated because there was no way to access these materials unless you knew how to read English, but every single document in the collection was in Spanish. I’m really interested in Spanish-English and other multi-language access points and re-envisioning what those could look like. I’m also very interested in looking at queer(ing) pedagogy for instruction and examining ways that we can disrupt how we teach library and information science.
In your recent article, “Queering the Archive: Transforming the Archival Process,” you discuss how you processed the Sarah S. Valencia archival collection using a queer of color lens. Can you explain what that means to you and how it influences your research?
One of the beautiful things about our profession is that we borrow so many things from other fields to add to our knowledge systems. When I was in graduate school, I took a class where we read Aberrations in Black: Towards a Queer of Color Critique by Roderick Ferguson. He describes ‘queer of color analysis,’ “[as interrogating] the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, and class, with particular interest in how those formations correspond with and diverge from nationalist ideals and practices” (149). I really loved the way that he introduced that whole book, talking about this one photograph that he saw at the National Archives of four men during the Jim Crow era in Georgia. He notes there is national memory of what this place and time looked like and questions who‘s missing from this representation, stating, “I know as well that there are subjects missing who would be accounted for – the transgender man who worked at Levi’s and wore a baseball cap and chewed tobacco; the men with long permed hair who tickled pianos; the sissies, and bulldaggers who taught the neighborhood children to say their speeches on Easter Sunday morning” (viii).
I know as archivists, we are not supposed to provide a ton of context into the work, but often times there are hidden elements of materials that have a whole lot of information. In my article, I talk about using this queer of color analysis, which is very much centered in intersectional feminism and questions how it works for and against the nationalist ideals and practices. Queerness shakes up heterosexuality, and this analytic can really shake up how we as archivists or researchers look at the world.
For example, the Valencia collection in my article, I received it with no context. The people that accessioned it no longer worked at my institution and I had very little contextual information. There were boxes and boxes of photographs, letters, and books that spanned the time period of her life. I read so many letters and separated out photographs and I took the time to really get to know Sarah. Within the collection, I came across instances and photographs that read very much as queer. I think that part of the power of this theory is recognizing those instances can be read as queer. Even if she wasn’t queer, recognizing that this is a very queer moment. Paying attention to those little moments of context is so important.(Check out the Sarah S. Valencia Collection at the Arizona Historical Society!)
You point out that traditional standards and best practices often conflict with efforts to highlight underrepresented narratives within the archives. What would you like to see in the future of archival processing? How can these procedures be adapted to promote inclusivity and the celebration of other identities?
“Address why these wounds exist and ask yourself, what are you doing to mitigate the damage to the relationship between the community and the institution?”
We often talk about how neutrality doesn’t exist and how it doesn’t make sense for our field. I want to go beyond that conversation and take into account the human parts of ourselves when it comes to collection materials, the act of collecting, and the act of preservation. Often times, negative interactions between the community and the archive that have happened in the past can really impact the collections that are donated. So how can we make the community feel welcome in the archive? Address why these wounds exist and ask yourself, what are you doing to mitigate the damage to the relationship between the community and the institution? What are you as an archivist doing now to build these relationships, demonstrate humility, and practice empathy?
As archivists, we need to practice genuine relationship building. It is really beautiful to get to know your donor because they can provide a wealth of knowledge about what the materials are and the context in which they were produced, as well as identify people featured within the materials. Now we have all these budget cuts and often times we don’t have time to build these relationships. But for these collections, for those communities who are underrepresented in the archive, it’s important to reflect on how we are interacting with people and not just be like, “oh I’m neutral, I’m just here to process this and move on with my life.”
A lot of our materials and the future of our profession are digital and we need to examine if are we really allowing folks to participate in the knowledge making of these collections. One beautiful way to do so is having people self-identify. Like social tagging but within the catalog record, so these tags would be shared with the public. I would love to see a participatory collective processing that involves the community. I think that is the future.
What advice do you have for researchers working with archival materials to elevate queer narratives?
“I think that if you are doing archival research, you need to really question who is missing from these narratives and think about where could these people be hiding based on the surrounding histories…”
So much! I’m really into elevating context. Researchers really need to look at the context of the materials that they are examining and explore related subcultures. For example, so if you are looking at women being arrested for wearing pants or men’s clothing, asking what did transgression look like during that time and other things like that. Also, one of the things that researchers do is find gaps in the knowledge. I think that if you are doing archival research, you need to really question who is missing from these narratives and think about where could these people be hiding based on the surrounding histories, just like the Roderick Ferguson example. Oral histories are also very beautiful in that they can take you to places and show you experiences that otherwise would not be available in the archival record.
Also, archival research is super messy! If you want to look for something, ask an archivist because that institutional memory is really valuable. They know their collections better than anyone else, they might know if they have something relevant that is unprocessed and they might know if another institution has something relevant. Always talk to your archivist!
What are other ways you see that researchers are disrupting the notion of neutrality both in the archive and in the library?
“As librarians and archivists, we need to advocate for those changes of language because they are the unifiers for our field and they hold a lot of weight (even though they shouldn’t).”
From my experience with working with researchers in the archive, they are the ones really disrupting this concept of neutrality, questioning things that are done, and writing the radical work that are getting us to really rethink our own field. I also really like the ways that researchers are thinking about terminology and using new terminologies to encompass more communities. So for example, the term Latinx, that came from Tumblr, but academics have really used it heavily and there needs to be critical thought about what it means to use that word. Are we really embedding queer identities within this word or are we using this term as a catch-all and not really using it to disrupt that notion of gender and heterosexuality norms. People’s language changes so much faster than the library does. As librarians and archivists, we need to advocate for those changes of language because they are the unifiers for our field and they hold a lot of weight (even though they shouldn’t).
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