Highlighting the Expertise of Mary Beth Corrigan (Febuary 22, 2022)

From a conversation between Samantha Smith and Mary Beth Corrigan.

As a graduate student in history who formerly worked as an archivist, one of the many important aspects of the On These Project is that from the beginning, historians, archivists, and librarians collaborated together. More importantly, those position titles and job descriptions do not easily describe the work many of us do for this project or at our home institutions, or get at the varied experiences and expertise that everyone brings to this work. This is perhaps gestured at in other conversations with core team members for On These Grounds, but is especially true of this post that highlights the expertise of Mary Beth Corrigan, Curator of Collections on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation at Georgetown University.

In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic impacting workflows of the On These Grounds project, Corrigan reminds us that it is also taking place during the Black Lives Matter movement and a growing awareness (both inside and outside the academy) about the historical importance and significance of African and African American history and related archival resources. The project covers a lot of ground, Corrigan reminds us, historically, archivally, and as it relates to the lives of enslaved peoples. From a historical perspective, the potential depth and breadth of the On These Grounds project is important to recognize.

With each of phase of testing, and discussions with the core team, testing partners, and advisory board, Corrigan remains hopeful that we are getting a better handle on what is able to described through the Single Class Event Model. For archivists, Corrigan says it is important to recognize that the Single Class Event Model does not replace the utility of other ways of getting at the experiences and lives of enslaved and free black peoples. Every description reflects the creator; and for Corrigan and the team at Georgetown University, they are establishing the part of the slaveholder and the role of slaveholding in the creation of records and the histories they relate to. This is a function that's been overlooked she says, and it needs to be remediated. The description used by the On The Grounds project in the Single Class Event Model can be a source of data, and that is very important. Thus, Corrigan and the team at Georgetown are considering how the Single Class Event Model can function as a database for archivists and librarians, descendants, historians, researchers, students, and teachers.

Corrigan received her PhD in History from the University of Maryland, where she studied with the late Ira Berlin. She came of age at time when people studying the history of slavery were interested in the lives and experiences of enslaved peoples. Although there is a long thread in the historiography of wanting to center the lives and experiences of enslaved peoples, the questions have changed. The long Civil Rights Movement, the before and after of the Obama administration, and the Black Lives Matter movement all lead to the generation of new questions.

Through the work of the On These Grounds project, we are asked to confront multiple forms of violence, Corrigan says, and develop descriptive tools that can help. This is a huge responsibility, and the testing process is an imperative stage. If this is done well, records at various universities will be able to speak to each other, and tell a larger, global story about the history of enslavement, as well as the lives of enslaved and free black peoples. This work fights against the canon of US history. The more people you include in historical scholarship, she says the more diverse and accessible it becomes.

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