USC

Students organize special collection to archive recent protest signs

After protests against sexual assault erupted on campus, two students are working to preserve this moment in campus history.

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Content warning: This article contains mention of sexual assault.

Bright, handmade posters that read “Abolish Greek Life,” “Believe Women,” “No means no” and “Justice for survivors,” among many others, have flashed across USC’s campus and Greek Row in the last few weeks as students and faculty have protested reports of drugging and sexual assault at fraternities, demanding transparency and accountability.

As the protests continue, Olivia Ellegard, a senior majoring in communication and psychology, wanted to start a Special Collections archive at Doheny Library showcasing the posters from these protests to conserve the material for future students.

“Going to the archives, you realize how important it is to preserve history,” Ellegard said. “At the protests, there was a lot of concern of this being swept under the rug because there’s a tendency for sexual assault survivors to be discounted or questioned. Having a place where it’s preserved helps it maintain importance in the USC community.”

Inspired by a visit to Doheny Library’s Special Collections, Ellegard saw an archived accumulation of posters from the 2017 Women’s March in Los Angeles. She contacted the staff at the Doheny Library to ask if she could create a similar project with the ongoing protests on campus.

Ellegard and her partner in this effort, Samantha Scheinfeld, a senior majoring in art history and psychology, said they were surprised when the library agreed to collect these handmade signs.

“The fact they even agreed to have an archive is huge because it doesn’t put USC in the best light, so it’s good that they’re willing to recognize their faults,” Ellegard said. “That’s the only way you can grow is by having these conversations.”

But for Claude Zachary, a university archivist and manuscript librarian, archiving protest signs seemed like a great opportunity to document campus history.

“The real scope of the archives is not to whitewash the university,” Zachary said. “It’s supposed to be a resource for research to actually see what is going on throughout the years, the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Michaela Ullmann, an exile studies librarian at the USC Libraries Special Collections, said that in the last few years, more archivists and special collections departments are “collecting in the moment,” especially for large-scale events like protests and crises like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s not a curated collection or something that happens in hindsight,” Ullmann said. “It’s something where people are aware that this is a moment that should be documented but materials will probably end up in the trash once they are used and not be preserved. But they need to be preserved for future generations.”

This is not the first time in USC’s history that sexual assault allegations, particularly related to fraternities on campus, have sparked outrage from students and faculty. Ellegard and Scheinfeld felt that preserving these conversations and calls for change could keep the discussion going and bring about change.

“By archiving and saving these conversations that have been happening, that’s a good way to preserve the momentum and keep people aware of what’s going on,” Scheinfeld said. “So four years down the line when everyone who was here right now is gone, we will have people aware of how campus culture used to be. And hopefully, it will have changed. If not, they can keep working to change it.”

Scheinfeld, who is part of the Student Coalition Against Sexual Violence and is the administrative director of Women and Youth Supporting Each Other, said she has always cared about issues surrounding women and safety.

“To see so many people show up for the marches was incredible and to see all the posters was amazing,” she said.

She felt the posters varied in message, as did the actions students called for at different protests. Some groups have called for an end to Greek life and the dissolution of fraternities and sororities, while others want the university to improve its reporting processes for sexual assaults.

“Everyone had a very different sentiment about the whole situation of sexual assault on campus and everyone had their own feelings about it,” Scheinfeld said. “And that can really be seen in the posters. It’s super important to capture the breadth of emotions and arguments that are surrounding these issues because everyone wants to see different kinds of change.”

Scheinfeld is now working with other groups within the Student Coalition Against Sexual Violence to set up collection booths at future meetings to make it easier for protesters to archive their signs.

Ultimately, Ullmann hopes that looking back on previous cultural uprisings can inspire the future.

“It’s motivating others to see that people didn’t just stand by and do nothing,” Ullmann said. “They protested, they took action. People fighting back can be encouraging and instill a little bit of agency in yourself to see that maybe I can change things or contribute to change.”

In the meantime, Ullmann and Zachary encourage other students to be involved in the archiving process to document student life.

“These are important moments in time and, hopefully, it will make a difference,” Zachary said.

If students would like to donate their protest signs, they can drop them off at the Doheny Library Reference Desk during the week or contact Claude Zachary at czachary@usc.edu.