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Hello! I’m Jenna (she/her) and I’m currently working as a doctoral extern on the State Records team at the Library of Virginia. During my externship, I’ll be working to connect the Library’s resources with non-historical researchers, policymakers, and laypeople and to make clear the relevance of historical records to our present day lives. I’m looking forward to sharing several blog posts that demonstrate how I’m using the archives in my research.

I am a third-year PhD student in the School of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University. I’m interested in how young disabled people develop a political identity in the context of racial capitalism’s influence on public schooling, which is to say I want to understand how disabled students come to understand their disability as a political identity. I’m curious about what students learn about themselves based on how teachers, schools, districts, and communities address (or don’t address) disability day-to-day. School practices and policies which inform these interactions (as well as the individual beliefs of administrators and teachers) are shaped by public discourse and by the ways that society has understood disability throughout history.

My research questions live at the intersection of those ideological beliefs and their material effects. I am specifically interested in the experiences of disabled students of color, who are disproportionately represented in subjective disability categories like intellectual, emotional, or behavioral disabilities, and who are among the least likely to be taught in integrated classrooms alongside students without disabilities. I look at how special education laws, particularly the federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act passed in 1974 (and now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), created the conditions for sustaining environments of racial segregation in post-Brown, post-Massive Resistance Virginia.

I am not a historian by training and prior to beginning my externship I had no experience working in archival collections. I arrived at historical research because I like questions. It was this yearning that brought me to the Library of Virginia. The second year of VCU’s doctoral program is typically the time when students begin their dissertation research, so learning different research methods is especially important. Last spring in a planning conversation with my advisor, I expressed a desire to understand how public perceptions of disability had been shaped over time.

I proposed to my advisor the possibility of completing my externship in an archive and cold-emailed several Library of Virginia staff members, including the interim State Archivist, Kathy Jordan. Kathy enthusiastically responded, putting me in touch with the Senior State Records Archivist, Roger Christman.

To be honest, I’m not sure I knew enough about the Library of Virginia at the time to be intimidated by the thought of proposing an externship. They were so excited by the idea that it never occurred to me to be nervous by the depths of what I didn’t know. Roger wanted to better understand my research questions and sent me photos from gubernatorial collections to spark my curiosity before we’d even had our first call. Still, walking up the stone steps and into the bright lobby of the Library of Virginia reminded me of the collective knowledge held in these collections and how unprepared I was to mine it. Stepping off the elevator and into the 4th floor shelves that span an entire city block overwhelmed me. How could I possibly begin to make sense of what I was seeing? Where would I begin in looking for relevant information? I understood how to search a library catalog for books and journal articles, but I had no idea how to make sense of finding aids for archival collections.

Roger and Kathy’s support was critical. Early in my externship, the three of us sat down for a reference interview, in which they asked me questions about my research interests so that they could suggest avenues to pursue within the Library of Virginia collection. Archives can’t be organized to align with any one researchers’ interests (there isn’t, for example, a series of shelves on the historical policies that effect disabled students of color, much to my dismay), but an archivist who is familiar with the collection as a whole can help a researcher find what they need in the collections to answer their questions.

In my case, the reference interview helped to clarify my specific questions and to chart an approach through the state records. One question I am exploring is the context in which key special education legislation was passed. Roger pointed me to the finding aids for the executive papers of Governors Holton, Godwin, and Dalton, which contain folders of correspondence and reports. He showed me that the online catalog entry would link me to the finding aid and he explained that finding aids usually begin with an overview of the collection, including relevant historical information, as well as a box-by-box description of what is in the collection.

My research touches on how Massive Resistance shaped the history of integrated schooling, so one of the collections I pulled the finding aid for was the records of the Pupil Placement Board. More broadly, I am asking questions about how disabled people have been supported in Virginia and about the material effects of language. In the time periods I am curious about, the language for describing people with disabilities was different; we searched the catalog using terms like “mental retardation” (a term that became “intellectual disability”) and “handicapped” (a term which now is simply outdated; rather we might say “disabled person” or “individuals with disabilities”). We noticed how documents about “mental retardation” have appeared in gubernatorial collections, state agency collections such as the Departments of Education and Public Health, and the General Assembly. We looked at newspapers that featured stories about teachers, and at state reports on services for handicapped citizens. The collections contain letters from parents, correspondence between state legislators, meeting minutes, formal reports, and, of course, the legislative language in the policies themselves. It’s easy to see how one could follow a thread and stay in the archives for years.

With Kathy and Roger’s help, I articulated three broad lines of inquiry that, taken together, lay a foundation for the specific question I hope to ask about racial segregation under the auspices of special education supports.

  1. Discourses of disability: How has the language used when discussing disability in Virginia evolved? What does it indicate about the beliefs about disability held by Virginia policymakers and their constituents?
  2. The History of Special Education in the Commonwealth: When and how did schools in Virginia begin educating children with disabilities? What advocacy efforts contributed to the passage of education laws for children with disabilities? How/did Virginia laws shift with the passage of IDEA in 1974?
  3. Intersections with the History of Racial Segregation in Virginia: How do efforts at advocacy for racial progress mirror or diverge from similar efforts for disability rights? How do race and disability intersect throughout Virginia’s education history?

I returned from the meeting with an extensive list of catalog citations, which became a lengthy spreadsheet of requests and links to finding aids, which became an even lengthier spreadsheet listing information about individual boxes from archival collections I thought might be useful. Each day I’m onsite at the Library, Roger and I pull more boxes from the 4th floor for me to review. Some contain nothing relevant, many contain letters and newspaper clippings I scan and pore over, and even more contain documents that prompt me to return to the catalog with a new search term, report, or date to reference.

I expected my externship would teach me how to do historical research and that I would leave at the end of the semester with a story about methodological questions answered and usable information I could fold into my dissertation planning. I am certainly learning a great deal already, but now I think perhaps this will be a story about a rabbit hole, about questions that lead to more questions. A story that will pause for observations, uncover evidence, and shape theories, but one that might never arrive at a simple answer or clean ending. A story about how throughout history (and the present), people are complicated and their complexities influence the policies they enact. Those policies shape society, creating a context that in turn complicates people who then make policy…and so on and so on.

Jenna Gabriel

Government Records Services Extern

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