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OU Libraries searches for student activism archives in university history

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Sally Johnson

History department intern Sally Johnson takes a book from the stacks at the Bizzell Memorial Library Nov. 21.

Sally Johnson spent her fall semester on a hunt for the Western History Collections — one that has involved contacting hundreds of student organizations and even driving down to the Texas Hill Country.

Johnson, a peer outreach archivist, is tasked with tracking down and digitizing materials about student activism for the OU Libraries archives. Her job was formed after a survey of the archives this summer showed a glaring problem: They contained almost no materials from students themselves.

“If you were to walk into our archives, it's about what you would expect ... a lot of like, presidential papers,” said Johnson, a history and English junior. “Like I said, kind of like old men talking.”

While OU has a history of activism, often the only traces of it are documents from the administration. 

“The student voices we were looking for just weren't there,” said Bridget Burke, associate dean for special collections at OU Libraries.

Johnson’s role as peer outreach archivist has given her the chance to work with student groups that are underrepresented in the archives, she said.

“I think it's a great project because it really gives student organizations a lot of visibility and a lot of agency on campus because we're giving them access to organizational records, which historically is so important,” Johnson said.

Everything from posters to newspapers to photographs related to student activism will go into the archives, Burke said.

Johnson’s work will contribute to Project STAND, or Student Activism Now Documented, a national consortium of over 40 universities that collects materials related to student activism. OU joined Project STAND in February 2019, in response to racist events on campus, Burke said. 

The library’s goal is to prove that activism is a “normal and a healthy thing” and has a strong history at OU, Burke said.

“It's been kind of one step at a time recognizing the value of activism on campus, recognizing that historically, maybe we haven't been as thorough as we could be in documenting those voices,” she said. “And then this fall ... Sally's effort as peer archivist is trying to figure out what to do about it.”

One of Johnson’s main jobs was to contact activism organizations at OU and work with them to archive their materials. After reaching out to 600 organizations, Johnson only got eight responses – but “the eight that indicated they are interested are really, really wonderful,” she said. 

Gant Roberson is representative and co-founder of the Student Leftist Union, an organization that hosts discussions, reading groups and open mic nights, and participates in volunteering and activism, he said. Roberson is working with Johnson to archive materials from the union, and said he feels the project is especially important for future generations of students. 

“I see it as being important to students going to OU 10 (to) 20 years down the line, because I for one would have loved to have had a pretty thorough student activism archive for me to look at of previous generations of OU students,” Roberson said.

One of the most surprising elements of Johnson’s work was the unexpected history she dug up, she said. For instance, Oklahoma — which is currently a red state — has a rich socialist history, something she wasn’t aware of before starting the project, she said.

Talking to past OU activists also made Johnson realize the project “transcends generational boundaries,” because all ages are part of the activist community, she said.

“Something special about this project is that you're kind of able to remind people about something that they really believed in,” Johnson said.

OU’s collection is coming soon to Project STAND, according to the website. 

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