Melissa J. Nelson
Melissa J. Nelson, Archivist, Archives of Ontario, Toronto
1) What is your profession and what are the specific dimensions of your work?
I work as an Archivist for the Archives of Ontario. I am also a researcher, writer, and educator. My work and research interests include the preservation of Black cultural heritage and ethics of care in the preservation of harmful archival materials. I offer the workshop, Description and Access for Anti-Black Archival Materials to heritage professionals. This workshop is designed to address anti-Black racism in archival records by providing methods on how to create inclusive descriptions and how to provide access to these materials while minimizing harm. This workshop asks participants to think critically about the impact of descriptive and access practices for racist archival records.
2) How did you come to this type of career?
My mother always had a passion for history and storytelling. This was passed down to me and I earned a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in History with a minor in Sociology from Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada). After completing my degree, I was interested in working with tangible heritage. I was introduced to the field of Information Studies by a friend and archival science appealed to me. This is how I entered the profession.
3) Tell us something about your process of study and formal and/or informal education and the nature of your degrees and/or training. When, where, and how did you become educated and qualified to do what you do?
I received a Master of Information Studies from McGill University. This is a 2-year program that offers “areas of interest” for different aspects of the field rather than concentrations. I utilized that to focus my studies on archival science. As part of my study, McGill School of Information Studies offered practicums and independent studies. I completed a practicum at Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections at York University. There, I processed the Toronto Jazz Society fonds, which contained 4.7m of textual records, 11 posters, 17 DVDs, 43 Betamax video cassettes, 11 U-matic video cassettes, 24 VHS video cassettes, and 2 analog audio recordings. Working with these records was a great learning experience. I also completed 2 independent studies — “Family portrait: A Digital Archive of my Heritage” where I created a digital archive of family photographs and Audio Digitization Project where I digitized a collection of recorded interviews on audio cassettes for the Presbyterian Church in Canada Archives. During my time at McGill, I also volunteered at the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS) and McGill University Health Centre (MUHC). There, I learned digitization and indexing. All of these experiences helped prepare me for a career as an archivist.
4) What were the greatest obstacles that you had to overcome to achieve the success that you now experience? What challenges have you experienced and how have you overcome them? What goals do you have left to accomplish?
I felt that my program’s curriculum was outdated. Current issues, perspectives and tools in the archival field were rarely addressed. The program did not highlight BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) experiences in the archival profession. My Master’s program was predominantly white. The field itself struggles to attract BIPOC archivists. It was challenging going through the program as I felt alone. In my second year, I took a course at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information. While I was there, I joined a student association called the Diversity Working Group. The group had several BIPOC students and at the time the group was pushing for their professors to diversify their reading materials by incorporating more BIPOC perspectives. It was interesting to be a part of that group and see the changes they were trying to make. Networking with BIPOC students and professionals helped me to feel less alone.
While I was in Toronto, I went to a presentation at the Toronto Public Library called “What can we do with blackface and other racist materials in Canadian archives?” by Dr. Cheryl Thompson and Emilie Jabouin. I was interested in learning about racist materials in archives since I came across a record with blackface while working at an archive internship. This presentation addressed how to locate racist materials in digital archives and how archival description can hinder discoverability. This presentation inspired me to do research on best practices and recommendations for the appraisal, description, and accessibility of racist materials. After finishing my research, I published “Archiving Hate: Racist Materials in Archives” on my blog. This post has been referenced by collecting institutions in their commitment to equity practices, including, the University of Waterloo Special Collections & Archives in “Language in Archival Descriptions Changes,” The United Church of Canada Archives in “United Church of Canada Archives Equity Statement,” and Baker Library of Harvard Business School in “Guiding Principles for Conscious and Inclusive Description.” More professionals were finding my blog post which led to invitations to present at two symposiums. I presented “Archiving Hate: Legacy Descriptions and Offensive Materials in Archives’ at the Institutional Development Committee Members’ Symposium for the Archives Association of Ontario. In this presentation, I looked more specifically at recommendations for the description and redescription of offensive records. I also presented “Critical Archival Thought: Integrating Anti-Racist and Anti-Oppressive Pedagogy and Training” for Archive/Counter-Archive. In this presentation, I advocated for anti-racist and anti-oppressive frameworks to archival education and training in Canada. After this presentation, I connected with a professor from McGill School of Information Studies. They attended my presentation and were interested in working with me to update the archives curriculum. At that time, I had lost my job with the Law Society of Ontario due to COVID-19. McGill School of Information Studies hired me as a Research Assistant in Equity and Diversity to spearhead the study “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at McGill School of Information Studies” to understand and address the experiences of marginalized students, faculty, lecturers, and staff within the department. This study addresses some of the issues I experienced during my time at McGill School of Information Studies.
5) Did you have any role models or mentors either in your domains of entrepreneurship, work, research, and creation or outside of them? Who were they and how were they instrumental in shaping you as a person and as a professional?
Since my studies at McGill, I have had 3 mentors. My first mentor was John Richan, who is the Digital Archivist for the Records Management and Archives Department at Concordia University. I met him in the second year of my studies at McGill School of Information Studies after I told a professor that I wanted to learn more about digital archiving. This professor connected me to John, who is a McGill Alumnus. I met with John, and we had a great conversation. I decided that I wanted to meet with him again so I asked if he would like to mentor me. John happily agreed and we met several times during my studies. Through my mentorship, I learned more about his time at McGill, his position as a Digital Archivist, and the experiences that led to his employment. John also sent me employment opportunities, suggested volunteer opportunities, and supervised me for the independent study, “Family portrait: A Digital Archive of my Heritage.” This project was a hands-on experience that helped me secure employment.
While I was in Toronto, I did a tour of the University of Toronto Archives & Records Management Services (UTARMS). At UTARMS, I connected with Tys Klumpenhouwer, who is the University Archivist and lecturer for the Faculty of Information. At the time, I was enrolled in a course at the Faculty of Information as a graduate exchange student. I was interested in speaking further with Tys. I contacted him to ask if he would like to mentor me and Tys happily agreed. Amongst other things, Tys gave me advice on how to succeed in my course, spoke to me about his career, introduced me to several professionals, and gave me tours. Through Tys, I was connected to other archivists, and I secured a practicum position at The Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections at York University.
Most recently, I connected with Rebecca Hankins, who is an Archivist for Texas A&M University Libraries. I wrote Rebecca an email to discuss her presentation “Capturing Controversy and Digitizing Racism: Yearbooks at Texas A&M University.” Since our initial conversation, we have developed a professional relationship. Rebecca has supported me in several ways, including providing me with suggestions for my resume and cover letter, reviewing a workshop proposal, and providing resources for my presentations. Rebecca has also given me insight into what it is like to be Black in archives.
6) What does your daily work routine look like? Where is your place of business/production and how do you stay focused and productive?
As an Archivist for the Archives of Ontario, I am tasked with processing, arranging, describing, and redescribing archival materials, amongst other things. I stay focused and productive by listening to music or a podcast while I work.
7) What are your guiding principles? What informs how you do your work and how you engage with your co-workers, clients, customers, or consumers?
I am guided by what Michelle Caswell and Marina Clifford referred to as “radical empathy.” They encourage archivists to use radical empathy at every point of the archival process. They define “radical empathy” as the ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings and experiences. (p. 25) They explain that empathy is radical in the archival realm “if we allow it to define archival interactions even when our own visceral affective responses are steeped in fear, disgust, or anger.” (p. 25) Radical empathy informs how I engage with my co-workers, donors, and archival materials.
8) What are you working on now and when and how will it be shared?
I launched a podcast called Archives & Things in January 2022. It was born out of my networking efforts and the insightful conversations that came from it. In my podcast, I interview members of my network about their experiences. I was inspired to start recording my conversations so they may be shared with a wider audience. My intended audience is archivists, and anyone interested in cultural heritage. Some topics covered include archives relationship building with Black communities, working with racist archival materials, and documenting forgotten and abandoned Black burial grounds. It is available on Spotify and Apple Podcast.
9) What are you proudest of in your career?
I am proud of my workshop, Description and Access for Anti-Black Archival Materials. This was my first workshop, and it was launched at the Association of Canadian Archivists Annual Conference. I am proud of the fact that the workshop was made accessible to archivists from all over the country and it was well received. The workshop fills a gap and meets the needs of archivists.
10) What are you proudest of in your life?
I am proud of the fact that I earned my Master of Information Studies from McGill University. I am the first person in my family to earn a Masters degree.
11) What fiction or non-fiction book should be essential reading? (provide full citation and weblink)
Robyn Maynard, “Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present.” (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2017)
12) What TV show or film should be essential viewing? (provide full citation and weblink)
Ava DuVernay (Director), 13th, Kandoo Films, 2016.
13) How do you relax and take care of yourself?
I like to practice self-care by going for long walks, listening to music, and meditating. It’s nice to slow down.
14) What’s next?
I enjoy delivering my workshop Description and Access for Anti-Black Archival Materials. I am interested in being a lecturer and teaching a course in the Information Studies field at the graduate level. I would love to teach students how to write inclusive descriptions and deal with common issues such as working with racist folder titles, slave records, and legacy descriptions. The Society of American Archivists defines inclusive description as “description which recognizes that no archival function is neutral, including description, but that actions can be taken to remediate and avoid bias and harmful language in finding aids, catalog records, and other description.” I would also like to explore vicarious trauma and trauma-informed practice in archival work to help prepare students to work in the field. These topics are under-explored in archival education. I am interested in doing this within the next 5 years.
Melissa J. Nelson is an archivist, researcher, writer, and educator who is based in Toronto, Ontario. Her work and research interests include the preservation of Black cultural heritage and ethics of care in the preservation of harmful archival materials. Melissa explores her interest in history and archives in her blog melissajnelson.com. She is the author of “Archiving Hate: Racist Materials in Archives.” This blog post has been referenced by collecting institutions in their commitment to equity practices, including, the University of Waterloo Special Collections & Archives in “Language in Archival Descriptions Changes,” The United Church of Canada Archives in “United Church of Canada Archives Equity Statement,” and Baker Library of Harvard Business School in “Guiding Principles for Conscious and Inclusive Description.” Melissa is currently an Archivist for the Archives of Ontario. Prior to this, she held archival positions and placements at George Brown College Archives, The Presbyterian Church in Canada Archives, the Law Society of Ontario Archives, and Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections at York University. Melissa holds a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) from Carleton University and a Master of Information Studies from McGill University.
Nelson, M., Hilburger, C., & Langille, D. (2021). Learning Beyond the Classroom: Collaboration Between Information Studies Students and GLAMs. Digital Studies/Le champ numérique, 11(1), https://www.digitalstudies.org/articles/10.16995/dscn.377/#
Archives & Things Podcast, on Spotify and Apple Podcasts/ workshop: “Description and Access for Anti-Black Archival Materials” contact here