We are thrilled to introduce Kimber Thomas, who recently joined the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative (CCDI) as a Senior Innovation Specialist. In her role on the CCDI team, Kimber will collaborate with teams across the Library on digital strategy and work closely with CCDI grantees to support the technical aspects of their work.
We interviewed Kimber to learn more about her new role, how technology and storytelling methods can help engage audiences in community histories, and how imaginative uses of Library materials can foster deeper connections with the communities represented in those collections.
Welcome, Kimber! We’re so excited that you’ve joined the CCDI team. What is your role with the initiative?
Thank you, I’m so excited to be a part of the team and the Library! As a Senior Innovation Specialist, my work will involve providing technical support to CCDI grantees and assisting with the design and development of their projects. I’ll also collaborate with teams across the Library to explore new ways of reusing, remixing, and expanding access to digital materials related to communities of color.
Why were you interested in working with CCDI?
The goal of CCDI resonated with my personal work of using and developing digital technologies to explore and preserve the stories and histories of the people and communities we have historically heard far too little from. I was excited about the opportunity to experiment creatively with digital collections and to collaborate with grantees on projects that are meaningful to them.
Your academic work explores the ways that the “social, cultural, and historical experiences of Black southern women have been represented materially.” Tell us a bit more about your research. How does that research connect to your work on CCDI?
I grew up in Mississippi, and spent my time between Jackson, where I was born, and a small community in Utica—which we call “the Crossroads”—where my mother was born, and where my grandmother lived. Storytelling was a big part of our culture and community, whether in the lyrics of a blues song or in the content of a sermon. I interviewed my grandmother for an oral history seminar while in graduate school and she started telling me these stories about how she navigated life in the rural, Jim Crow South; how she would take Prince Albert tobacco tins and cut them up to make hair rollers, repurpose old flour sacks into dresses, and use Sears Roebuck catalogs to decorate the walls of her house. As I interviewed other black women in the community, I realized that they all centered their stories around “we took this and made that,” how “we made a way out of no way,” how “we survived,” “how we made do,” in their life histories. Their stories stuck out to me because they were less visible to and present in the archival record, but they were the most central to the lived experiences of the women who lived and worked in this community. Their stories also cast new light on unexplored aspects of everyday life in the rural, black South, and it was the making and the makeshifting that served as quiet ways for these women to reclaim a measure of control over their lives and to display their artistry and creativity despite the economic conditions of sharecropping and the social conditions of Jim Crow.
As the project grew, people became interested in not only listening to the interviews but also adding to the conversation. I started developing a mobile storytelling application that could function as both an interview streaming platform and an interview recording device, enabling users to listen to interviews from a particular project or collection, and to record, upload, transcribe, and share their own, right from their smartphones or tablets. It was my personal research that encouraged me to think about how we could use, create, and repurpose technology to tell new stories, to connect communities, and to create digital archives of community and family history.
What is the potential for pairing technology with creative storytelling approaches that center Black, Indigenous, Hispanic or Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and/or other communities of color?
As an experimental project, I used the oral histories I collected about life in the Jim Crow South to create a virtual, 3-D reconstruction of a house one of my interviewees remembered living in during the 1930s and 40s. I worked with an architect to create an architectural rendering of the house using 3D modeling software, which came equipped with a pre-programmed catalog of furniture models that could be dropped and dragged into renderings. However, in their oral histories, the women I interviewed had described furnishings and objects that were outside the scope of what the software provided. So, to accurately render the project, we had to design our own catalog of furnishings and decorations, which included hand-building objects and scanning in wallpaper from a 1945 Sears Roebuck catalog. Visualizing the house using technology solidified the idea that the women I interviewed–and their memories–had helped shape a new prototype. When we pair technology with creative storytelling approaches that center communities of color, we might encounter information that is “outside” of the archive, or outside of the conventional methods of conveying visual ideas. I’m interested in how this information can help us think more expansively and imaginatively about how technologies should be conceptualized, designed, and built. I’m also looking forward to using technology to empower these communities as the experts and keepers of their histories to tell their own stories through my work with CCDI.
What are you hoping to learn, or what skills are you hoping to develop, in your work here?
I’m hoping to learn more about digital strategy and cross-disciplinary collaboration in libraries and about the types of capabilities and infrastructure necessary to do that work. I’m looking forward to refining my skills in that area through my work with CCDI and with teams across the Library.
What else are you passionate about? Do you have any hobbies or interests you’d like to share?
I love to cook! I enjoy experimenting with new recipes, spices, and kitchen gadgets. I love architecture, furniture, and interior design. I also enjoy traveling and sightseeing. A perfect day for me is when I can gas the car up, let the windows down, and listen to some good music while riding around looking at houses or aimlessly exploring a new place.
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 other communities of color. Learn more about CCDI here.