In graduate school I studied the state of audiovisual archiving in the US, and I didn’t fit in. My family and much of my personal identity hails from industrial cities in the US Mid-Atlantic region: Harrisburg, Wilkes-Barre, Carteret, Baltimore. Lots of steel, coal, railroads, and bootlegging. I didn’t see these places’ stories represented in the influential archives, museums, and libraries, and I definitely got the message that they were not worth spending precious resources on, not worthwhile enough to be curated and preserved. Even with regional archives, there was a lot of focus on collecting from the local rich, powerful white families who had lived in the same area for generations. Both sides of my white working class family were very fresh immigrants from all over Europe. I didn’t see myself in audiovisual archives, and I certainly didn’t see many of the other amazing people and communities of color, gender, and sexual identity that make the Mid-Atlantic so wonderful. I always intended MARMIA to be more than an archive that collects from or about people: I hope for it to be a model for others to see that their history is important and that they can preserve it themselves.

In 2018 I started working at the DC Public Library on the Memory Lab Network, helping to bring personal archiving to the US people through public libraries. This only fueled my passion to inspire the archival profession to stop gatekeeping their expertise and resources, to democratize and freely disseminate preservation skills and knowledge among all people. Shortly after I started at DCPL, I met one of my absolute favorite people in the world: Biljana Milenković, known as “B”. B immediately understood and connected with the concept and values of the Memory Lab Network and is just an absolute joy to spend time  with. We worked together happily for a few years on the Memory Lab, and now have both moved on to different organizations. But the personal and community archiving needs of the world are still so vast. 

In the fall of 2021, B came back to work from her first visit to Serbia since the pandemic began, and told me about her home city of Zaječar. I immediately fell in love with Zaječar – it reminded me so much of Baltimore! Zaječar is one of the Timok Valley region’s largest cities and an Eastern European industrial, cultural, economic, and urban center since the early 20th century. Similarly, for more than 300 years, the Port of Baltimore has been the center of industry for the state of Maryland as well as a major shipping and manufacturing center for the whole US. But years of racist policies, laws, chronic underfunding of schools and city infrastructure, the fall of the US steel industry, among other factors has caused an increase in crime, poverty, and depopulation in Baltimore City. The scarce local archival resources go to preserve the rich and famous one percenters, and it has been an extremely grassroots, uphill effort to document and preserve the voices of historically underrepresented people who make the greatest city in America so great. The collapse of the former Yugoslavia and years of violent wars decimated all of Zaječar’s industry in the early 1990s. Factory after factory closed, tens of thousands left their livelihoods and, within weeks, decades of the city’s development and growth were erased. Like Baltimore, it is difficult to imagine now that just a few years before, the city was a powerhouse of industry and community. Zaječar’s  population is getting older, poorer, and less educated. The collective memory of this once powerhouse city of industry is being forgotten. 

Photo courtesy of Skver Magazin

But of course there’s hope! While home, B caught up with high school friends Vesna and Mikica. Mikica Andrejić is a photographer and Vesna Madžoski is a theoretician, curator and professor of critical theory. During the pandemic the two started a citizen-led initiative, Skver Magazin, to digitize and freely share online a collection of unique archival newspapers and photographs documenting Zaječar history. “Skver” in English means a “square”, where individuals congregate together. The group aimed to create a digital community square, where people could safely gather and communicate during the pandemic. The orphaned newspapers and slides were found in abandoned factories, evidence of a vastly different city than Zaječar is today. 

The response was overwhelmingly positive. It has become clear that Zaječar residents want to know more about their city and recognize the value in seeing more of themselves in history books. Within months, a number of similar citizen-led initiatives from all over the Timok Valley reached out to Skver Magazine, and thus, an informal network of self-taught preservationists and archivists was formed. 

Grampy with my Aunt Tina and a box full of puppies on Reel Street in Harrisburg, before my mom Carol arrived on the scene. Circa 1952.

When B brought news of this network back to the US, I wanted to help for many reasons, and like I’ve said, they were all very personal. First was the connection between Zaječar and Baltimore, of course. Then came my family history: my mom’s beloved Grampy, Jova Ničić, was ethnically Serbian and emigrated to Harrisburg, PA (another city close to my heart that reminds me of Zaječar). He traveled from Felnac, Romania in 1907 at the age of 20. My grandma, his daughter, always told me that his family sent him to America because they were afraid that all of their sons would die in war, so they sponsored the youngest to carry the Ničić name across the world. Chicago was the epicenter for the Serbian diaspora in America, but in the Mid-Atlantic there were large Serbian immigrant populations who settled in Pittsburgh, PA and New York City. Harrisburg doesn’t seem to make the list according to Wikipedia, but there was enough that there’s a Serb Park and a Serbian Orthodox Church still going strong in nearby Steelton.

One of my absolute favorite Serbian-Americans was Baltimorean Helen Delich Bentley. Bentley was a politician, journalist, and most importantly to me, a big fan of industry and television: she was a broadcasting pioneer, having produced and hosted the 1950s-1960s local maritime news program, “The Port That Built a City and State”. The digitization of this program is currently underway from her collection at the Baltimore Museum of Industry.

My personal excitement in taking preservation skills to Serbia was shared when friend and fellow community archiving colleague Marie Lascu became a part of the group. Not only do Marie’s parents live in nearby Romania, she has also been instrumental in two groundbreaking organizations that aim to bring preservation to the people, the Association of Moving Image Archivists’ Community Archiving Workshop (AMIA’s CAW) and the XFR Collective. Marie brought further contributions from CAW through the amazing archivist activist Moriah Ulinskas, and now we are all dedicated to helping boost the goals of the memory workers of Zaječar as best we can.

Over the past three years, the Skver Magazin group has worked on an extremely shoestring budget, realizing quickly that passion and good intentions are not enough. To sustain the effort and continue the work of preserving the history of their region, they need training, equipment, space, and a radical yet sustainable model of operation. The first step is complete: incorporating as a non-profit organization in Serbia! Their long term goal is to create Timok Digital, located in Zaječar’s first movie theater building. This project of Skver will serve both as a regional museum of industry and a free educational center for all generations to learn about how to preserve and share the region’s important cultural heritage. An immediate goal is to facilitate training and acquire equipment necessary to build on the work already done.  

Our global group is arranging a weeklong intensive train-the trainer preservation and archiving workshop in Zaječar in August 2023. Preservation experts from Baltimore, Virginia, and New York will travel to Zaječar to train a group of local preservationists from the Timok Valley in established models for scaling preservation best practices through grassroots community efforts. This is the first in a series of on-going training and professional development events, the foundation upon which we plan to build a strong community of practice among archivists and memory workers across the Timok Valley. We believe this will be the beginning of long-lasting relationships with local and international networks of community archivists. We have a solid group of inspiring experts and community members who are passionate about this project – now we need the funding! In support of our spiritual sister archive, Skver Magazin, MARMIA is launching…what else?! A T-shirt campaign! 100% of proceeds will fund sending equipment and expert trainers from the Mid-Atlantic to Serbia for seven days this upcoming August.

Like Baltimore with steel, Zaječar was a leader in specific industries. The tradition of glassmaking in Zaječar began in 1923 when citizens and local entrepreneurs created the Industry & Trade Cooperative, deciding to use the nearby quartz sand mine. Krystal-Zaječar started in 1974 to produce lead crystal in an automatic and semi-automatic manner, which at the time was unique in Yugoslavia. Western design, high quality and affordable prices were the formula for success, and in the next decades most of the products were directly sold from the production lines. The crystal from Zaječar was exported in both the USA, Western and Eastern Europe, as well as the USSR. The success of the factory was abruptly halted with the breakdown of the socialist system in the early 1990s. After the replacement of the factory management, imposed sanctions and bans on exports, years of wars, inflation, bombardment, isolation…the factory was eventually privatized and has been abandoned ever since. Skver Magazin saved the abandoned archive of Krystal-Zaječar – portraits of workers, factory sponsored sports teams, holiday parties…fragile recorded memories literally broken and fading in the haunting factory’s shell. When you buy this T-shirt emblazoned with the now defunct Krystal-Zaječar retro logo, you will wear your support for a global network of personal, community, and regional archivists. Lighter colored T-shirts and hoodies are available for purchase here, and darker colored T-shirts and hoodies are available here.