The Connecting Communities Digital Initiative (CCDI) Advisory Board advises CCDI staff on program administration, supports initiative outreach activities, and helps the Library imagine ways that it can deepen connections with Black, Indigenous, Hispanic or Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and other communities of color. Its members include nine professionals ranging from senior scholars to leading librarians, archivists, and early-career professionals in Libraries, Archives, and Museums.
Samip Mallick is the co-founder and executive director of the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA).
In this interview post, Samip shares how he created SAADA, highlights the significance of preserving and sharing South Asian American stories, and offers tips on researching your South Asian American family history.
You’re a member of our first Advisory Board for CCDI. What made you want to get involved in this effort?
It is an honor to serve on the inaugural advisory board for the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative. What made me want to serve is the recognition of how powerful it is to see your stories reflected in our country’s institutions. As one SAADA community member put it, to see yourself reflected is “to suddenly discover yourself existing.” My hope is that the work being done through the CCDI initiative will help more Americans feel that their stories, experiences, and perspectives matter.
As the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA), you’ve helped build the largest publicly accessible archive of South Asian American stories. How did your background in computer science enable you to create this repository?
We founded SAADA nearly fifteen years ago with the recognition that South Asian American stories were not being systematically collected and preserved by mainstream cultural heritage institutions. Through our work, SAADA has created a place of belonging for South Asian Americans. SAADA’s archive, our storytelling projects, artistic partnerships, walking tours, lesson plans, films, books, and everything we do, is, one step at a time, creating a future where South Asian Americans are recognized as an essential part of the American story. The digital medium provides a powerful channel for connecting with our community, particularly the more than 5.4 million South Asian Americans that live all across the U.S., in all fifty states and in cities, suburbs, and rural parts of the country.
My backgrounds in computer science, library science, non-profits, and education were essential when, in SAADA’s early days, I was our sole staff member. I was able to utilize my personal passions, interests, and experiences to help the organization grow. Now, with strong support from our community and investments from the Mellon Foundation, IMLS, and others, we are fortunate that SAADA is blossoming. We now have a full-time staff of five, a dedicated board of directors, and thousands of volunteers and supporters across the country.
You’ve shared that SAADA’s users aren’t just South Asian Americans but visitors from India, Pakistan, Nepal, and other parts of South Asia. Why do you think this archive has captured the attention of the South Asian community around the world?
While social media and other digital technologies have certainly accelerated our ability to connect across the world, what SAADA’s archive has shown me is how interconnected and transnational our histories have always been. The Ghadar Party, for example, was an organization founded in the U.S. in 1913 and based in San Francisco, that was working for India’s independence from British colonial rule. Ghadar Party members printed publications that were distributed around the world, wrote letters to family members back home in South Asia, and eventually hoped to lead an armed revolution to overthrow the British. It is natural that, just as the Ghadar Party was transnational in its nature, that the materials in SAADA’s archive by and about the Ghadar Party would be of interest to those across the world.
Documenting family history can be challenging, particularly for South Asian Americans who have physically relocated their lives over the years. What is your advice to people who want to start preserving stories from their own families?
In 2020, SAADA hosted an online event titled “Family Album,” which introduced attendees on how to preserve their family stories, photographs, documents, and other materials. More than 500 people attended, a clear indication of the strong interest that so many of us have in preserving our own family stories. My best advice would be to just get started. Too often we find ourselves waiting for the perfect moment or the perfect question to ask and find that we missed our opportunity. So, as seemingly simple as it sounds, I’ve found the most difficult thing to do is to just get started. And my advice would be to put that aside and just begin.
You’ve written about how SAADA supports the idea of a “digital participatory microhistory project.” Can you tell us what that is and how you feel this type of work can broaden our understanding of historical archives?
SAADA’s First Days Project is one example of a digital microhistory project, one that captures the intimate details of arriving in the United States for the very first time. Through the First Days Project, we have recorded nearly 600 stories from immigrants and refugees about their very first day in the U.S. Regardless of whether their first day in the country was five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty (or even more) years ago, it is a day that most immigrants remember very vividly. A first day can be full of excitement, nervousness, loss, humor, sadness, adventure, confusion, and a mixture of many other emotions. A first day often both encapsulates what came before and anticipates what will come after. Yet, despite its importance to many immigrants’ lives, their first day stories were not being collected on a large scale.
Another example is SAADA’s Road Trips Project, where we share photographs and stories of South Asians traveling across the country as a way of reframing the great American tradition of the road trip. The First Days Project, Road Trips Project, and other microhistory projects, share the everyday, yet meaningful, experiences from the lives of individuals in order to tell a larger story of the American immigrant experience.
CCDI is part of the Library’s Mellon-funded Of the People: Widening the Path initiative. This four-year program provides grants to individuals, organizations and institutions to create projects using the Library’s digital collections and that center one or more of the following groups: Black, Indigenous, Hispanic or Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and/or other communities of color. Learn more about CCDI here.