Fellow Reflection: Christopher Sawula

Christopher SawulaThis post was written by Christopher Sawula, who received a GLAM Cross-Pollinator Fellowship to attend this year’s DLF Forum.

Christopher is the Visual Resources Librarian in the Art History Department at Emory University. He received his PhD in History in 2014 and his scholarly work examines the origins of laboring identity in early America. In his capacity supporting spatial art history projects, he focuses on digital publishing, GIS mapping, and data visualization, archival data curation. He can be found on Twitter at @csawula.  


As one of this year’s GLAM Cross-Pollinator fellows, I was lucky enough to travel to Tampa and participate in this year’s forum. In my position in the Art History Department at Emory University, I serve as the Visual Resources and Spatial Art History Librarian. As the title suggests, my role encompasses both the image management and data curation of a visual resources librarian and the digital methods and tools of a spatial art history project manager. I valued the opportunity to speak with both archivists and digital scholarship librarians about the dual aspects of my position and to learn from their experiences.

The theme that drew my attention throughout the conference was the commitment to interrogating and decolonizing archival materials and practices. In her opening keynote, Marisa Duarte reminded us that libraries and archives are inherently political institutions that collect and preserve material based on embedded ideologies. She argued that “if conquerors write the history, then librarians and archivists should expose the records of their crimes.” In doing so, the oppressed will be able to find within archives “the seeds of their liberation.”

This call to action was mirrored in several panels, particularly “Digital Humanities + Decolonization.” The panelists discussed how archivists have a responsibility to uncover and make known the absences where marginalized voices are left out of the historical record. In my own work, I am grappling with this problem with two of the spatial art history projects undertaken by our department. The two projects, Atlanta Housing Interplay and Mapping Senufo, explore the historical record of public housing in the United States and the contours of artistic style and identity in West Africa, respectively. In both projects, most of the archival material we have to work with was created by state institutions or agents of colonial powers.

In Mapping Senufo, for instance, there is a significant amount of extant material about the European missionaries and anthropologists who helped define Senufo as an art style for an international audience, but very little about the West African artists who created the objects. As we collect and compile this information into a database, we continually seek ways to recover the African voices that are missing from the archive and to place them at the center of the project. It is admittedly difficult at times to not only read sources “against the grain,” but then to codify that information as metadata. At the same time, we know that this is necessary work that ultimately will allow for new interpretations of Senufo as an art style and as an identity.

Overall, I found the DLF Forum to be a wonderful and energizing experience. The conference fosters a welcoming environment that brings together a diverse group of people who are always willing to share their knowledge. I greatly benefited from being able to speak with archivists and librarians engaged in similar work and I hope to return in the future.