Digging in Deep: Assemble’s 10-Year Archival Project

My name is Brittney Knotts, and I am currently a fourth-year doctoral candidate in English Critical and Cultural Studies with a focus on children’s studies. Coming from a background in elementary education and afterschool work with elementary-aged children, my work is always heavily influenced by what real children are doing and how theory can be put into practice. Over these four years, my research has developed from a broad interest in media and girlhood to a specific concentration on new media-focused educational movements for girls. This past summer, I launched a dissertation on girls’ coding culture that takes into account national discourses about coding education as well as Pittsburgh-specific educational initiatives. As a part of this work, I am performing ethnographic research at Assemble, a Garfield 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to STEAM (science, tech, engineering, arts, and math) education and social justice. This year, Assemble has graciously worked with me in order to do this research, and the Humanities Engage Immersive Fellowship offered an opportunity to give back to the organization while extending my own understanding of their history. At the same time, this immersive is helping to develop my working knowledge of public organizations and their labor.

2021 marks Assemble’s tenth birthday. This is ten years of afterschool programs, summer camps, adult camps, crafternoons, and other tech and art inspired programming in the Garfield area that is often free to residents. Programs are led by Assemble’s staff of in-house educators as well as local experts, who teach guest lessons and share expertise with students—anything from glass work to building robots. Beyond their brick-and-mortar location on Penn Avenue, they also work extensively with outside partners and provide off-site programming regularly. Much of this has moved online since the start of the pandemic in spring 2020, with donations resulting in Assemble being able to send “virtual Assemble” kits to kids in the area. Undergirding all of this work is Assemble’s mission to empower people through making and to bring diverse neighborhoods together—everyone is welcome at Assemble.

Ten years of existence has accumulated in Assemble’s online archive, a repository of everything from lesson plans to building maintenance documents. Nina Barbuto, the executive director of Assemble, has been there since the beginning, starting the non-profit from the ground up and maintaining the archival history of the organization. For my immersive fellowship, I will be working closely with Nina as well as teachers, board members, and interns in re-conceptualizing the online database. The hope is that this work will make the database easier to navigate for the future. My work with the database will move through several stages starting with general mapping and interviews with users and stakeholders. From there, Nina and I will work together to propose an alternative database organization, present it, and (hopefully) move toward its approval by various users before making alterations. A final part of the project will be creating usable navigation/how-to videos for different stakeholders—this is particularly important since the database is used in multiple ways. Video outputs move beyond the one-time meetings and allow the database to be usable after the duration of this immersive. As a celebratory element of a tenth birthday, we are hopeful that this work can also highlight what Assemble does for the broader Pittsburgh community.

Assemble, as an organization centered on social justice, is already humanistic in its approach to STEAM. My work in their database complements this work as I hope to highlight the stories that live within the database while making it easier for Assemble staff to continue to create stories and build relationships. The teachers, directors, managers, and board members at Assemble have a duty to continue doing the work they have been doing, making it difficult at times to reflect back and spend time on organizing their history. This immersive offers an opportunity for me to step beyond the university and my own research to fill a specific need of a community partner and to support them in a tangible way. As for my own professional development, Assemble is showing me the ways in which I might continue to work at the intersections of academia and public organizations dedicated to children. As Nina Barbuto often reminds me, sometimes there is a benefit to having one foot in academia and one foot in public work.

Brittney Knotts
Department of English
February 2021
Learn about all the 2020-2021 Immersive Fellows and their experiences with their host organizations.