Becoming a university’s living, breathing history book is no easy task. Lae’l Hughes-Watkins is taking it on as the new university archivist at Maryland, whether visiting the home of the founding president or digging through decades-old yearbooks.

But the real attraction for her was the changing nature of the field—particularly a new emphasis on documenting social transformation through the activities of students and other groups who might not have figured as prominently in archival materials of decades ago.

“It’s not just processing papers anymore—even though I like that stuff,” she said. “Now, you might be asked to go to a protest and document it.”

Hughes-Watkins showed a passion for activism and humanitarianism early, creating lunches for displaced people while growing up in West Philadelphia. After receiving bachelor’s degrees in journalism and political science and a master’s in English from Youngstown State, she studied library information science at Kent State University, where she was named the archivist in 2013.

There, she spearheaded projects such as the Black Campus Movement Project, which highlights the importance of preserving records of underrepresented groups at Kent State, and Project STAND, which creates a centralized digital location for the documentation of student dissent. She’s hoping to establish something similar here at Maryland.

Hughes-Watkins spoke with Maryland Today about that goal, what else she hopes to accomplish here and her time on campus so far:

It’s a big university. Where do you even start?
What I’m hoping to do is really connect and build community with the student organizations here and help them preserve their histories, because 10 to 20 years later, to say that an organization did these amazing things and was a part of helping change XYZ on campus, then that information is available for generations. I really want to take a holistic approach, because there’s no way just myself and our wonderful staff can hit up all 900 organizations on campus.  We are looking forward to strengthening our relationships in the Stamp Student Union and learning how we can work together to document these histories of our students and privileging their voices in the archives. I also think digital records is a huge concern, and that's just not a UMD thing. That's everywhere. I feel like a lot of institutions are trying to figure out, “How do we archive digital records and make them accessible long-term?” because we're not doing analog, we're not doing paper at a lot of the offices anymore.

What’s involved in your day-to-day role?
I’ve already had my toe in everything, from giving a response to the blackface in (old) yearbooks in The Baltimore Sun, to helping put together blog posts, to prepping for guest lectures—I had the opportunity to speak to a digital histories class to figure out how to merge Project STAND with the priorities here in University Archives and at UMD overall—to building relationships with donors. That’s one thing that I think is great about archives, is that your day is not the same every day.

In your time here so far, have you encountered anything interesting that you think the campus community doesn’t really know about?
The collections here are massive, and I don’t know if everyone knows about all the cool stuff that we have in Archives—although I feel like (Archivist Emerita) Anne Turkos has been awesome. Everywhere I went on campus, everyone knows Anne, and that’s a testament to how much work she’s already done. But I’m impressed with the breadth of topics that are covered within Special Collections and University Archives, specifically the labor archives, AFL-CIO and our work with  MITH.

What are you most looking forward to at UMD?
I have to go back to the student life piece because just in general, there's been a failure in the profession to not do our due diligence with documenting the role of our students in making our institutions great and challenging us to be our best selves. That's extremely important to me, celebrating narratives that may have been overlooked in the past and bringing those marginalized voices to the forefront.