Archives and Knowledge Management

Introducing Re:source: the Rockefeller Archive Center’s new effort to bring the History of Philanthropy to a Wider Audience

Editors’ Note: Rachel Wimpee and Elizabeth Berkowitz, historians in the Research & Education division of the Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), introduce the RAC’s latest project, Re:source, a new digital storytelling platform focused on philanthropic history. We at HistPhil give Re:source a hearty welcome (its initial postings have been superb) and encourage our readers to check it out. Those who want to sign up to receive Re:source posts can do so here.

We’re doing things a little differently in the Research and Education program of the Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), the archival repository for some three dozen foundations and nonprofits, including the Hewlett, Ford, Luce, Rockefeller, and Russell Sage Foundations, the Social Science Research Council, and many other institutions. Over a year ago, under the leadership of our new director Barbara Shubinski, our team of historians, educators, and archivists began to brainstorm how we might engage new audiences in the history of philanthropy. Working with foundation and nonprofit archives, we observe and analyze the worldwide and everyday effects of philanthropic endeavor, and yet these stories remain largely unknown to many in the public. With a commitment to access – one of the tenets of archival ethics – the Rockefeller Archive Center hopes to communicate the stories from our vaults to foster transparency within the third sector. To do this, we have recently launched a new digital storytelling platform, RE:source. We are hoping to reach four target audiences: philanthropic practitioners, educators, scholars, and interested thought leaders.

Our team has long worked in public history – in the sense that we have been “doing history” outside of the academy. And we have been working in the digital space for nearly a decade, carrying out public history projects and working with philanthropic practitioners to help history inform current practice. With archival holdings from more than forty foundations and not-for-profit organizations, along with a commitment to transparency and access, we felt that the RAC would be uniquely positioned to shed light on the role organized philanthropy has played in shaping the world we live in.

The stories embedded within RAC collections touch upon nearly every aspect of global life in the modern era – from cultural and economic development to health care and innovation, to education, immigration, and more. Drawing on the work we do in these fields internally at the Archive Center and with our depositing organizations, we hoped that a digital platform would help us engage a broad public to foster dialogue, debate, and transparency.

To begin, we hired a WordPress web developer who shared the RAC’s open-source values. After a year of audience research, technological development, archival research, and lots of writing, we recently went live.

Our archival holdings document episodes that affect or influence our key audiences, and we view our job as illuminating that significance to all of them. Therein lies our biggest challenge: conveying archival content in ways that spark engagement and scholarly interest but are not themselves overly burdened by the tone and format of traditional scholarship.

To accomplish this, we produce historical content in a journalistic style and in several story formats, including timelines, photo essays, “in brief” pieces, as well as long-form analytical essays. We have decided to connect our research to relevant contemporary issues wherever possible, and we put as much thought into the tone, design, imagery, and story format as we do the archival research itself. Research streams include the civil rights and environmental movements, public health and medicine, agricultural development, international affairs, and arts and culture.

For example, amidst the current scandals and debates about the price of life-saving insulin, RE:source features a piece about John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s 1923 donation that funded the distribution of newly discovered insulin and insulin administration education throughout North America. In another example, as tensions mount between the United States and China, RE:source tells the story of “ping pong diplomacy” and the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries in the early 1970s.

For RE:source to connect philanthropic history to broader audiences in the digital space, we needed to pay attention to more than our narrative framing. This is where our team’s shared expertise came into play. In the last two years, we have added two newly minted humanities PhDs (Barry Goldberg and Elizabeth Berkowitz) and a visual editor, Liesel Vink, to join Rachel Wimpee and our team as we develop this public history work. Furthermore, our archivist and educator Marissa Vassari has built a program working in a few local “lab school” classrooms to develop teaching modules of primary source-based curricula, which are all available on the site via open source licensing.

Departing from some of our previous projects, such as our Rockefeller Foundation history website, we chose not to design RE:source as a digital library of scanned archival documents. That work more appropriately lies with the RAC’s separate digital archival team, who is building the technological infrastructure to ingest, process, and make available digital archival records from our collections. For our part, we viewed our team’s skills in narrative, document analysis, and the storytelling craft as our value added. Because the archival materials form the basis of our work, we developed a robust footnoting function that integrates with the RAC’s online finding aids, for those readers that would like to delve into the archives. It is a core element of our institutional values that we lay a trail for others to re-examine the materials and documentation we write about.

In another departure from previous work, we have decided to use photographs and illustrations from outside repositories where necessary, enabling us to tell important stories that may not have robust visuals in the files. While vast, our photographic holdings do not necessarily cover all of the stories we hope to share, and yet one of our central conceptual and design decisions has been to treat visuals as a narrative element in themselves.

We have made these decisions in order to engage in conversations across a spectrum from professional to public. Through RE:source, we can collaborate and interact with other platforms, like HistPhil, that have related but different functions. For instance, although we do make editorial decisions about story ideas based on resonance with current events, we do not host ongoing, active discussions about current issues in the field as HistPhil so skillfully does. Rather, our stories and materials present episodes from the archives that contribute to discussions within the sector and beyond. Many people have not realized the impact philanthropy has had on everyday life – in ways big and small, for better or worse, in the US and globally. RE:source is one way to explore that impact.

-Rachel Wimpee and Elizabeth Berkowitz

Rachel Wimpee is a historian and project director in the Research & Education division of the Rockefeller Archive Center. She holds an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in French and French Studies from New York University, with research interests in gender, cultural representation, and the role private giving plays in social change.

Elizabeth Berkowitz is currently a Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow at the Rockefeller Archive Center, where she works as the Outreach Program Manager for the department of Research and Education. She holds a PhD in Art History from the Graduate Center, City University of New York, where her research emphasis was twentieth-century European modernism and modern art historiography.

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