Interview with Stacey Lavender, May 21, 2021 (July 13, 2021)

Sam Smith
July 13, 2021

Stacey Lavender works as the Project Processing Archivist at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia. Samantha Smith, who works as a research assistant for the On These Grounds project, sat down with Lavender virtually near the end of May to discuss her work on the On These Grounds project and how it relates to her role and responsibilities as an archivist. This blog post is a prose-style transliteration of their interview style conversation, written from the perspective of Smith listening to Lavender’s responses. Words in quotation marks are Lavender’s, taken from Smith’s notes. Phrases in italics denote specific questions posed during the discussion.

Like many things within the past fifteen months, our conversation started with the pandemic, and in particular the question, how has the pandemic impacted work on the On These Grounds Project?

For Lavender, the pandemic initially made the project more difficult in part because she started her position at the University of Virginia’s Small Special Collections in February of 2020, immediately before the onset of pandemic conditions and resulting quarantines. She did not have much time to handle physical materials related to the data testing for the On These Grounds project. Thankfully, so much of the often invisible archival labor was done by those who came before her. Archival and manuscript documents about the history of enslavement, such as proctor ledgers, faculty journals, and meeting minutes, had been transcribed, and so she was able to use them as she worked from home.

At first, Lavender thought that she could not do this work from home, but she could and she did. “I stand on the shoulders of those before me,” Lavender said, and it is “easier because so much is transcribed.”

Along with her work for the On These Ground project, she simultaneously processed an archival collection. She did end up going into the library to take photographs of the materials, which aided in the processing of the collection remotely. Starting in September 2020, Lavender and her colleagues began to go into the library for ½ days, which helped her manage her projects.

At the University of Virginia there is a lot of reparative work going on, not only within the University at large, but within the libraries. Reparative description, such as changing and updating finding aids, is a part of Lavender’s archival responsibilities. Her familiarity and commitment to reparative, archival and historical work ties into the On These Grounds project.

Previously, she worked with a lot of Civil War materials as a Special Collections Librarian at Ohio University. Digitizing and transcribing collection materials, and making the digital formats and transcriptions accessible meant she worked at the item level. Even though she worked at the item level as a Special Collections Librarian, the goals of doing such work did not include a reparative focus. “One reason I applied to the job at UVA,” Lavender remarked, “was to do reparative work.”

Lavender’s work with the On These Grounds project this past academic year, emphasizes how important and difficult this work is. Enslaved people are infrequently named in records related to the history of enslavement at the University of Virginia, and often there is hardly any description about them. Thus, Lavender says, “when we can do it,” meaning naming an enslaved person, or being able to describe them or the event they are involved in, it is “much more vital that we do.”

The documents Lavender worked with this past academic year are painful. As an archivist then, she often considers, “what would be the experience of the researcher?” Secondary trauma, she says, is something that archivists and librarians need to think about more.

Lavender mentioned that this is new for her, coming at the work of the On These Grounds project, as an archivist because it is a more active  role. “The historical instruction archivists get is often so focused on neutrality,” Lavender said and continued, “for me anytime I interpret the meanings behind materials [it] [is] scarier for me than I expected.” She described this work as “more interpretive than usual” because it is about the “information in materials, not just [the] materials themselves.” She went on to say that this is “more of a shift than I thought.” The shift for Lavender involves developing new skills for archival description, because this work is about “information in materials, not just [the] materials.”

Landing on the subject of archival description, labor, and responsibilities, why did Lavender want to become an archivist? She received a BA in history, then worked for a law firm. During her time at a think tank in Houston she developed a digital archive. She enjoyed the work a lot --- digitizing materials, creating metadata. But, there was a lot that she did not know about, and so she asked, “what would I need to do to do this right? Library school.”

Our conversation then picked up on some of the conversational threads from earlier, as Lavender responded to the question, how do the lives of individuals, families, and communities come through in an event centered model? “Connecting [a] series of events about a person,” Lavender said, “reveals a lot about a person and life.” An event centered data model also enhances people driven data models such as, and vice-versa. Ultimately, an event centered data model offers researchers different approaches to the history of enslavement at colleges and universities because of the questions they can ask such as Lavender says, “What was the experience of enslaved people broadly at universities,” or, at “different universities [throughout] the country?”

Thinking about the future research On These Grounds supports, leads us to the question, what are some highlights of the project so far? Lavender is delighted every time she sees a person’s full name because “someone may be able to identify them.” It is the first time she’s been a part of organizing, structuring, and creating an ontology, so she’s “learned so much about vocabularies [and] linked open data.” Lavender said that being able to “see that process [of] how [ontologies] are developed [is] fascinating,” and she added, “I would search for opportunities to do this work again. […] [I] care about [the] materials and the process. I thought I would like [the] materials more, but the process of creating the ontology was just as interesting.”

So, what challenges and opportunities arise in thinking about data models through the lens of events? For Lavender, figuring out how to best record feedback during the first round of testing was challenging, and she erred on the side of “these are my thoughts.” “Learning as you go” reflected her experience in “figuring out what to focus on” in the creation of the data model in part because she gave feedback in many areas where she was not an expert.

The On These Grounds project team includes “different areas of strengths and expertise,” and Lavender said that this “felt intentionally put together.” She continued, “So cool, I learned so much.” In part this is because it is a “healthy team to work in, it is possible.”

Lavender is looking forward to the second year of testing and going to the office more “working directly with materials – what I love about archives.” In the second year of testing she is excited to work with additional testing partners and see what materials they bring to the testing and creation of the data model.

To learn more about Lavender and her work as a project processing archivist, please read her interview with “Notes from the Under Grounds” the blog of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia, published on October 22, 2020.