Making MLIS Classrooms Open Source: Activism, Service Learning, and Building Digital Community Archives

Accepted Session
Short Form
Scheduled: Wednesday, June 21, 2017 from 1:30 – 2:15pm in B301


This presentation explores an ongoing project to incorporate digital repository building for community archives within a master's level library and information sciences classroom. The class taught under the pedagogical methods of service learning highlighted (and continues to highlight) the complex relationship between proprietary technology and archival 'best practices.' By reimagining this relationship, students were able to look at how open source tools and technologies better accomplished their desired outcomes to build a small-scale repository for their community partner, one whose narratives and materials were representative of feminist activism in the American South.


The current methods of teaching within MLIS programs emphasize the necessity of acquiring theoretical ‘best practices’ that can be used by degree recipients within their eventual job environments. When evoked, such best practices rarely receive any degree of hands-on experience for students and when available are often within the confines of unpaid internships, whose lack of financial incentive are only occasionally countered with course credit alternatives. Furthermore, students within such internships often find themselves placed within larger traditional, institutional archival repositories, with solidified ways of creating content and building digital ingestion models. If lucky, such students may take on work in new projects, helping to manage and create digital repositories, but due to internal structures of technology management the mobility to experiment and push traditional practices is severely hindered. Ultimately, traditional archives hold emphatically onto technologies that are proprietary and established and expect newly emerging students to immediately replicate knowledge of these technologies upon entering their job. However, this proves to rarely occur and students are left to make sense of complex, and often contradictory, methods of organizational structure that hardly reflect the best practices they learned on site.

Incidentally, community archives face problems of understaffing, lack of access to proprietary technology, and degrees of knowledge that allow for scalable digital repositories to emerge. Repeatedly dismissed by archival traditionalist, community archives cannot attain standards of ‘best practice’ quality that reflect their more institutionalized counterparts. The resulting effect is that community archive work is not considered ‘valid’ work when students enter into their job markets, especially since it does not allow them to speak to the needed knowledges latent in repository technologies. Nonetheless, community archives need this work and represent spaces where radical and new opportunities to build digital repositories can, and will, emerge.

Accordingly, this presentation centers on an experience using a Service Learning course at the University of South Carolina’s School of Library and Information Sciences to build a digital repository for a burgeoning community archive. The project, tentatively titled Archiving South Carolina Women works to chronicle and make available a digital history for the work of women activists in the state and, more broadly, nationally. The class, traditionally focused on design and management of digital images, previously worked to teach the theories of digital image management. Leaning, unsurprisingly, on best practices theory in the past, by moving towards actually building a digital repository from the ground up, discussion on scalability, feasibility, and transferability long term changed the students’ understandings of how truly feasible ‘best practices’ become within their work and potentially on the job full scale. By incorporating more generally open source spaces like Wordpress, students were able to make use of creative new ways to display, distribute, and organize digital archival holdings, noting how the content (feminist in nature) required open opposition to standardized ways of doing archival work within traditional repositories. Examples of this included learning to censure revealing materials or images lacking consent of non-donors and breaking metadata logics to work within smaller ingestion or to respect names and representational issues not often considered ‘worthy of consideration’ in more established standards. Similarly, because the repository is housed on a small server, the degree to which archival quality could be achieved for scanned images was severely lessened, which invited alternative options for scanning practices and new moments to explore open source technologies to create digital manifestations of materials. Ultimately, students came to realize that regardless of how much theory they might receive about repository ‘best practices,’ such definitions were in flux and always negotiated. Students learned to evoke a mantra of beneficence, in so much as they sought to create options for content management that were feasible long term, not just for the digital longevity of the materials, but for how folks in the future might pick up the project and make sense on how to further build on the work. Central to this mantra was the idea that tools and methods must be transparent, accessible, and alterable when needed. This meant using nearly singularly open source technologies for such ends.

Finally, because this is an exploration of service learning classrooms, it is crucial to note how teaching itself required the instructors to imagine how the classroom could function as an open source space. How does teaching the building of community archives from the ground up require us to think about scalability and replicability of this project to different spaces and contexts. In what ways was the teaching within an academic structure both a liberating and hindering force in the work done. Further, because the classroom in this context is about community and student mutual benefits, can the evocation of open source resources return to the community in meaningful ways that do not then rely on a repeated return to students from an MLIS program for long term success. The project remains a work in progress and one that is planned to be repeated both within undergraduate courses and in online MLIS courses, asking how this will change the reliance on open source resources, if at all, and how it continually deploys tangible skills to students across various spaces.


pedagogy; service learning; open source classrooms; community archives

Speaking experience

Travis has presented research on this project and many others related to the ethics of information organization and community representations (often specifically focused on LGBTQIA+ persons). Highlights of presentations include: South Eastern Women's Studies Association Annual Conference 2017 (Atlanta, GA); International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions World Library and Information Congress 2016 (Columbus, OH); Association of Moving Image Archivists 2016 (Pittsburgh, PA); Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies Colloquium (Vancouver, BC); Conference on Inclusion and Diversity in Library and Information Sciences 2015 (College Park; MA) and the South Carolina Library Associations Annual Conference 2014 (Columbia, SC).

Travis has given talks about this project, but none have yet to focus directly on the open source component of the work directly.


  • Elise Lewis

    University of South Carolina


    Elise teaches in a variety of areas including information literacy, technology, cultural institutions, and foundations of information science field at the University of South Carolina. She teaches courses to undergraduate, masters, and doctoral students in the School of Library and Information Science. Regardless of the topic, delivery format, or content she strives to provide an interactive experience that betters students understanding of their community. She also aims to make sure the students leave the classroom with a skillset required to be a life-long learner, and have some fun in the process.


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    Travis Wagner

    University of South Carolina


    Travis holds a B.A. In History from Augusta State University (GA) and an MLIS from the
    University of South Carolina (USC), where he is currently pursing a PhD in Library and Information Sciences. He has also earned a Graduate Certificate in Women’s and Gender Studies at USC and is still a teaching assistant and lecturer within that program. Travis works as a consultant to multiple Columbia-based community archives, specifically honing in on preserving and digitizing fragile audio-visual materials. His research interests relate to the role that language-based access plays concerning content creation and distribution within moving image archives, giving specific consideration for how this affects context and interpretations of gender within visual information.