Recently, I was listening to a podcast, a favorite of mine. The host is witty, funny, and not afraid to address difficult topics. In this particular episode, the host interviewed a fairly well-known YouTube chef and celebrity. While their conversation centered around food, the topic of race and racism played a major role in their discussion. Because the interviewee had recently released a statement on the racism she faced within her own work environment, the topic could hardly be avoided. When asked to give advice for people experiencing casual racism or sexism in their respective industries, the interviewee replied,

“Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to change something that’s been a problem for hundreds of years. Do what you can…”

I replayed this statement over and over in my mind. While shockingly simple, her words spoke to me. At this moment, I thought of the work I have recently been engaged in, especially regarding redescription of archival materials. I have been plagued by stress and anxiety, as I’m sure many have, given what we have witnessed in the last year, but the work I want so desperately to accomplish within the archive has contributed a great deal to this feeling. At times, I lose myself in the end goal of trying to solve the totality of social inequity and oppression. Other times, I see the work I want to do as antithetical to traditional archival practice because it requires far more complexity and nuance than can be offered with current descriptive practices, taxonomies, and systems of classification. So, when the interviewee made this statement, (brace yourself for a cliché) I had a personal epiphany.

I see this statement as holding meaning for our work in archives in two ways.

  1. We as archivists are not going to be able to change the world with our efforts at redescription. We won’t solve systemic racism and the oppression of minority groups with finding aids, collections, and digital objects that replace pejorative terms with something more politically correct or culturally appropriate. We must not put the weight of such an endeavor on our shoulders. It is futile.
  2. However, it has been proven there is power in the archive, and I believe there are many things we can do, but first, we must open our minds to new definitions of archival theory and practice. We can change current archival praxis to better suit the needs of social justice and liberatory memory work, however, we must allow ourselves to do so.

What Can Be Done? 

We can create a documentary record that values the perspectives of many. We can open our minds to counter-narratives. We can create thoughtful, caring spaces that reflect the true diversity of our society. We can highlight the stories of underrepresented and oppressed communities and illustrate the many ways they contribute to the beauty, innovation, and success of our nation. We can stop normalizing whiteness and othering everything else. We can center and engage with communities to make archives a site of social justice. And maybe, with all of these actions, we can change minds. But we must stop thinking we will change something as insidious and deeply entrenched in our nation, as systemic racism. I believe this type of thinking leads to paralyzing fear and overwhelming anxiety. In fact, I have experienced it first-hand. When the weight of the world rests on your shoulders, it becomes impossible to move.

I hope I don’t sound insensitive or apathetic to groups facing oppression, hatred, violence, and discrimination, because believe me, it is quite the contrary. I care. I care with every fiber of my being. I see the wrongs that exist in our world, in our communities, and within my own profession and I want to correct them. So much so that the fear of failing someone consumes my thoughts. It is for this reason, I argue we, as archivists, should not attempt to shoulder the weight of combating the totality of systemic racism, hatred, and oppression, but we should focus on doing what we can. Historically, archives have worked for the dominant group of society; White, cishet men of a certain social class. When any other individual has made it into the archive, it has been an aberration, a fluke. Or, they have made it into the archive intentionally, but only through the lens of this dominant group, with no authority of their own. Take, for example, the records relating to the enslaved or Indigenous Americans. They are recorded, commodified, objectified, and dehumanized in their current archival capacity. The records and subsequent description does not reflect their perspectives, lives, or humanity, but speaks of them. Little is done to inform our understanding of these individuals and their role in the development of our society and culture. They are stripped of any acknowledgment and recognition. In this way, the archive has been largely voyeuristic. It views these lives from the outside, watches them from a distance, and inflicts historical trauma in recording them as obscured, unidentified, and passive entities only knowable through the thoughts and perspectives of others.

However, archivists (under the leadership of communities), have the power to change this. And largely, I think we are doing so. Especially given the recent work of many. But there are still some who are anxious about the changes needed in the profession to make this type of work happen. Questions such as, “What is the correct methodology,” “What are the right standards,” and “How does this fit into existing definitions of how to do the work” surface. And while these questions and anxieties are understandable, they are restricting the profession and the work we can do. We have to be okay with not knowing exactly how things will take shape, and okay with making mistakes, and okay with being uncomfortable, and okay with trying new things and exploring new ways of doing our jobs. We must do all of this, without thinking that one misstep might plunge our profession into oblivion.

Changing Archival Praxis

The methods of conducting, what many are now calling liberatory memory work, are varied. The archival profession has yet to adopt new content standards, vocabularies, and guides to tell archivists how they should be doing this work. And a part of me wonders whether it should. Why must there be one singular way of conducting liberatory memory work? Given the complexity of records, their relations to various communities, and the complexity of those communities themselves, why do we think there can be one definitive model to inform our appraisal, accessioning, (re)description, and long-term care? Why must there be one methodology to rule them all?

I believe some of this desire to set objective guidelines and descriptive standards stems from an antiquated idea of “professional” and “legitimate” historical work. An attempt to emphasize the science in archival science. This is most obvious in the archivists’ argument for the objective and factual nature of the archival record. While many have denounced such a position, we still find ourselves relying on tools that attempt to flatten the complicated nature of archival records. What are systems of classification and overly general standards and guides, if not an attempt to form something akin to a mathematical equation or scientific formula? These take predefined constants and produce the same. The practice is systematic and reliable. But as the last two decades have increasingly shown, the archival record does not fit neatly into boxes (although, our stacks may suggest otherwise).

The collections we maintain are embedded with layers of truth and perspectives. Archivists have primarily engaged with the topmost layer. This is the most obvious, and the easiest to describe and arrange. To all appearances, this layer is the most “trustworthy” and “factual.” It can be easily reduced to the archival equation.

This is the collection of “c.” The documentary (we’ll call variable “a”) and photographic (we’ll call variable “b”) materials contained within this collection add up to reveal the life “c.”

A + B = C. Simple. Reliable.

This collection begins at year y and ends at year z. Factual. Trustworthy.

While there is no denying this layer, what of the others? What of the individuals and the communities that intersected, interacted, maintained relationships with, influenced or, even, belonged to “c”? Are their lives not also, albeit much more faintly, inscribed in this documentary evidence? Do they not deserve to be considered and consulted when we construct the collection resources and access points? Do their lives not matter? Do their lives matter only when they tell us something of the “original” creator or subject? This is but one fault of our reliance on descriptive standards. They constrict the definitions of “creator” and attempt to prioritize one over another. They dictate that authoritative names must be maintained, rather than names with meaning and value to the individual or community. Take DACS 2.6 for example. The opening statement informs the reader that “for archival materials, the creator is typically the corporate body, person, or family responsible for an entire body of materials.” Operating under this narrow definition of creator and authorship, archivists are led to exalt those who maintain prominence in the archival record and are not challenged to think of the deeper connections, the other layers, the unheard voices.

And while a documentary record may end and begin with definitive dates, the experiences and thoughts that allowed for the existence of collection materials cannot be marked by a beginning, nor an end. The thought and experience that led to the act of recording, which led to the document now extant in the archive, may have occurred quite some time before recordation took place. Yet do they not have a significant bearing on the document itself? This type of temporal understanding requires the archivist to do a bit of contextualization. It requires that the information specialist look past the dates defined within the archival documents, to consider the social and cultural eras in which they (and their creators) were birthed. We must then provide some bit of insight into this temporal element. Not to justify the records or potentially abusive and harmful language, but to understand them more intimately. However, our current standards only suggest we take into account the dates of creation, collection, and publication. All of which are activities that favor the standard notion of “record creator.” This primary level of the archival record is the easiest to see, yes, but it is often the most deceitful. In relying on this one narrative, so much goes unnoticed, so many voices are not heard.

We must acknowledge how the individuals and communities represented in the archival record, even in a very suppressed way, are varied and have their own community-based knowledge structures and systems. In order to value community knowledge, we must be willing to introduce new terms, taxonomies, and descriptive standards. We have to be willing to value community definitions and uses of archival materials over our desires to create consistency. While I understand the thinking behind predefined and set taxonomies, I think they are a sham. They beguile our hopes of creating an easily accessible, predictable, and “linkable” record. They tell us that if we stick to these classifications, then the totality of this historical subject, topic, or genre will be available at the click of a link. Yet, this promise has failed to come to fruition. I also realize that there are many working to update these systems of classification, but my point is, there will never be a singular way of defining identities and collective memories.

All of this is to say, the archival record is messy and inchoate, despite our best efforts to force the information into neat collections, series, and subseries, taxonomies, and subject headings. Our descriptive efforts and methods should reflect their complexity and embrace the imperfect. They should take into consideration the many layers of perspective and authority. They should seek to illuminate narrative and counter-narrative. They should actively dispel power structures enacted in the creation of the record.

To do any of this though, archival practice requires a bit more fluidity than can be achieved with a singular, definitive methodology. I recognize this may sound like heresy to some. Controlled vocabularies, well-defined methods, and descriptive standards mean consistency. Consistency means predictability. Some argue predictability means accessibility. Yet, I find myself questioning this. Who does this make archival records accessible for? Scholars and researchers? Okay, fine. Well-versed users and genealogists, maybe. But why aren’t we seeking to make records easily accessible to the communities represented and emotionally invested in the records? For example, do we really believe that the average Black American will search our collections for terms such as “slave,” “mulatto,” “negro,” and even worst, to find archival materials related to themselves and their history? Does one actively search for records related to themselves and their communities using terms they do not personally identify with? And if they do think to use such terms, what harm are we reinscribing? What damage and degradation do we allow to persist? Memory work, liberatory memory work, and redescription should all serve the same purpose: to serve the community. To do so, we need to have the room and professional license to explore, to deviate from the standard, and, at times, to fail.

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