Imagine my surprise when the cartoon above popped up on my Facebook feed this morning. I've often referred to appraisal as the “archival superpower” – the ability to determine who is or is not reflected in the historical record – and in its funny way this cartoon really drives home the extent of the power we wield. (Thanks to
All three presenters are still graduate students at Simmons College, two of them were presenting at a conference for the first time, and all of them gave polished presentations that adhered scrupulously to the session's time limits. Some of my more seasoned colleagues could take a lesson from these rising archivists.
Noting that archivists often link their work to social justice issues but don't define “social justice” with any precision, Erin Faulder asserted that archivists need to move beyond their usual focus on human rights and governmental accountability and think of social justice as an everyday archival concern. Citing the work of philosopher Iris Marion Young, whose theory of social justice moves beyond issues of equal access to and distribution of resources and asserts that the profession would benefit from examining the work of philosphers and political scientists who have attempted to define social justice. Drawing upon the work of Axel Honneth, who asserts that recognition of an individual's dignity is a prerequisite of social justice and that injustice is the withholding of this recognition, she noted that archivists are the keepers of materials documenting this recognition (or lack thereof) and that our collecting efforts in and of themselves help to legitimize individual identity Faulder also asserted that archivists should look to the work of Iris Marion Young, who moved beyond issues of equitable access to and distribution of economic resources and asserted "social justice concerns the degree to which a society contains and support the institution for the realization of these values: (1) developing and expressing one's experiences, and (2) participating in determining one's actions and the conditions of one's actions." Young stressed that oppression is always contextual and that it often takes the form of myriad small actions, and Faulder noted that the processes of oppression that Young identified – economic exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism and violence – almost always leave records behind.
Faulder ended with a provocative question: what if we sought to document the social forms of oppression, not identities, and started pointing out to political scientists and philosophers that our records support their theories?
Amanda Strauss focused on the work of Chilean archivists who have sought to document the extrajudicial killings, torture, and other human rights violations that took place during the seventeen-year dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet and its broader implications for archival practice. As Strauss noted, the Chilean archivists engaged in this work recognize that it is inherently political -- some Chileans still are still ardent defenders of the Pinochet regime -- and many of them are actively involved in the Chilean human rights movement, which has placed great emphasis upon documenting the regime's abuses. Noting that social justice is based upon the premise that every person has inalienable rights (among them the right to be recognized as a person before the law, not to be tortured or punished unjustly, and to be free in thought and worship), Strauss offered her own definition of social justice. Drawing upon Norwegian archivist Goodman Valderhag's assertion archivists can collect the records that enable courts, tribunals, and legislatures to pursue social justice, James O'Toole's conception of a moral theology of archives, Latin American liberation theologians, she asserted that for archivists, social justice means service to the society one documents.
As a concrete example of this sort of service, she cited the Museum of Memory in Santiago, Chile, which actively seeks to collect materials that shed light upon the people who actively committed abuses, those whose quiet consent allowed the regime to keep operating, and those who suffered at the hands of the regime. In an effort to ensure that all Chileans have access to its holdings, the museum has created numerous traveling exhibits that bring documents out of the stacks and into spaces in which a wide array of people can access them. Strauss argues that this practice challenges “the archival temple” and makes it plain that these documents are owned not by the archives but by the Chilean people themselves and that the acquisition of human rights archives is, in the final analysis, not about the archives but about the men, women, and children whose rights were violated by the regime. Strauss concluded that the call of justice requires that archives be open, and although I can think of more than a few instances in which withholding specific records would better protect the rights of individuals, I generally agree with her. I'm also heartened by her closing assertion concerning the nature of archival power: if social justice requires that the archivist serve the community, allowing the community to create the archives allows for the sharing of power between the two. Archives should be places for discussion and the finding of common ground, not remote temples staffed by people oblivious to the ways in which their collecting activities may reinforce or subvert existing inequalities.
Jasmine Jones focused on the development of community-based North American archives documenting the Ukrainian famine of 1931-1932, which are spaces for debating – on the Ukrainian emigrant community's own terms – the contours of their experiences and fostering transgenerational memory of what transpired. These archives were established because of the archival silence that surrounded the famine: the Soviet government, which pursued agricultural policies that caused the famine, actively sought to obscure its role in causing the famine and restricted access to archival records documenting its policies and their impact upon the Ukrainian people. Even after the Soviet Union collapsed and its archives were opened, the continued silence of the Russian government has prompted Ukrainian emigrants living in the United States and Canada to continue documenting the experiences of famine victims and survivors.
Jones emphasized that the Soviet conception of multiculturalism required that one identify as primarily Soviet – and that doing so required that one suppress one's past and normalize one's conception of self so that it matched that articulated by the state. However, one does not forget trauma, tragedy, or the details of one's struggle to survive, and the men and women who started gathering materials documenting the famine were trying to take back their own sense of self-direction by rejecting Soviet conceptions of culture and self and claiming their status as survivors.
As Jones pointed out, the Soviet regime was able to keep the true causes of the famine under wraps until the 1970s. As a result, the community-based archives established by Ukrainians living in North America were for decades the only repositories that contained substantial bodies of material documenting the famine and its impact. Moreover, these archives also collected records and other materials that documented life in Ukraine before the famine; some mainstream repositories collected a few Ukrainian materials, but only the community-based archives reflected the multiplicity of Ukrainian voices and experiences. The Soviet Union's collapse led to the opening of some Soviet archives, but large quantities of records are still off-limits to researchers. As a result, the community-based North American archives remain an essential source of information about one of the greatest human rights abuses of the 20th century; the predominance of oral histories and eyewitness testimonies within their collections may pose some methodological problems, but the fact remains that these materials played a key role in shaping discourses that countered the official Soviet explanation of the famine's causes.
Jones concluded by citing David Wallace, who has stressed the need for archivists to be aware of the conditions under which knowledge is produced and to reach out to community-based archives.
I'm of two minds about community-based archives. In some respects, I see the emergence of community-based repositories as a sign that the archival profession has failed to serve a segment of the community to which it is answerable. Community-based archives documenting the lives of LGBTQ people dot the landscape because until very recently, mainstream repositories either didn't want to collect materials documenting the lives of “those people” or were afraid that donors or other stakeholders would object. The emergence of community-based archives documenting the Ukrainian emigre community is a sign that mainstream archives weren't paying attention to the emerging emigre communities in their midst – in no small part because their staff lacked the language skills needed to do so.
At the same time, I'm always awed by the passion and commitment that community-based archives display. The LGBTQ people who established community-based archives were convinced that LGBTQ people had worth and a history that was worth documenting, and the Ukrainian emigres in Canada and the United States established their own archives in part because they were not willing to allow the Soviet Union to define their sense of self or paper over their experiences. For community-based archives, gathering the historical record isn't a workaday activity but a political, psychological, and moral imperative. Moreover, community-based archives help to broaden the reach of archival knowledge. Most of the volunteers who start community-based archives aren't professional archivists, but, at least in my experience, most of them want to care for their holdings properly and actively seek out advice and those that don't may have good reasons for not doing so. I also know several top-notch archivists who were pursuing other careers when they began volunteering in community-based repositories, realized that they had a real passion for archival work, and ended up getting graduate degrees in history or library/information science.
During the question-and answer segment, a couple of interesting issues came to the fore. The first centered upon how to avoid coming from a place of privilege, and all of the participants emphasized the need to be aware of how one's own background shapes one's experiences and the need to respect differing experiences and perspectives. Moderator Terry Cook made what I thought was a particularly important point: some communities may experience our ways of acquiring, preserving, describing, and providing access to records as small actions that contribute to their oppression, and we ignore this possibility at our peril. Another hot issue: how do archivists help people come to grips with their mixed histories of both being oppressed and actively oppressing others? Faulder suggested that Young's focus on the processes of oppression may help us stay focused on the records documenting these processes and remind us that we cannot pick a “side” and that we should document people's experiences as broadly as possible. Jones emphasized that we need to promote the idea that our repositories are home to a multiplicity of voices.
Terry Cook followed up this question by asking the panelists whether we should document the lives of neo-Nazis, homophobes, murderers, and the like. Jones concluded that we should focus on documenting all voices, refraining from telling people what to think, and give people the tools to make their own choices. I'm not perfectly happy with this answer. I have no problem, in select circumstances, with archivists asserting that they document some governments, organizations, or individuals precisely because these governments, organizations, or individuals were, in an explicit and sustained manner, actively committed to engaging in the processes of oppression. However, this is an argument that should be deployed with great care and restraint; for example, it's an appropriate approach for documenting Pinochet-era Chile but not for, whatever its failings, the present-day Chilean government. I think that, in most cases, Jones's position is the prudent one.
I'll end this post with Terry Cook's provocative closing statement. When Chilean human rights activist Ariel Dorfman gave the 2010 Nelson Mandela Lecture, he asserted that communities give themselves the chronicles they need and that nations whose stories depend upon the suppression of some voices are building their foundations upon sand. We need to start thinking about archival documentation in the same way.