Archives and Social Justice

by Guest on November 14, 2012

Verne Harris (right) and Tim O’Grady at the 2012 Archives Society of Alberta conference. Photo courtesy of the Archives Society of Alberta.

By Tim O’Grady

In 1993 Verne Harris, a records management archivist at the South Africa State Archives Service, discovered some junior officials in the transitional Apartheid government had been told by the state’s security secretariat to destroy certain classified records in contravention of the nation’s Archives Act. After official efforts proved fruitless, Verne told a journalist, as well as the NGO Lawyers for Human Rights, and provided them with supporting documentation. Not only was this a breach of professional practice but it broke the Protection of Information Act which carried a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. The South African government was taken to court and admitted violating the Archives Act. As a result the wide-scale destruction of public records ceased, and the saved documents became an important part of South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation process.

This is a dramatic example of where archives and social justice meet, and is a fitting introduction to Verne Harris. In 2001 Verne left the National Archives of South Africa and began working for NGOs. He is currently the head of Memory Programming for the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory.

I got the chance to meet Verne when he facilitated a workshop with Terry Cook and Wendy Duff called “Archives for Social Justice,” a precursor to the Archives Society of Alberta conference in April 2012. The workshop and conference gave me the opportunity to think about the implications of social justice in archives and archival practice.

What is Social Justice?

Before going any further, we should take a minute to talk about social justice. Truth be told, I have yet to come across a straightforward description of what social justice actually looks like. Personally, I find it helpful to think of social justice as a process towards a better, more equitable reality.

If social justice is a journey, then the route we take is debatable: do we create fair processes and hope they yield fair results, or do we tailor the process depending on the community in question to create a fair outcome?

Fair Process

From an archival perspective, fair processes in acquiring material often leads to collecting material that reflects the dominant viewpoint and reaffirm entrenched structures. For example, at the City of Edmonton Archives, where I work, we are far more likely to have only one side of the story from public debates (i.e. the City’s), even though we collect material from private individuals and organizations as well.

Fair processes also under-represent already marginalized voices. Most archives’ collections contain mainly written material, but what about communities like Canada’s First Nations with rich oral traditions? Trust can also be an issue for groups that were or continue to be victims of systemic discrimination, and as a result they may reluctant to give their records to government Archives.

Fair Results

Issues also arise when a fair outcome is sought. At its base is the question of who determines what constitutes a “fair outcome.” As Verne contends, we are all products of our contexts (knowledge, personal experiences, world view etc.) and archivists are no different. Some feel it is inappropriate for archivists to decide which communities are marginalized: we can provide space for their voice but we should not speak for them. Strong relationships with the community are essential. If these don’t exist the actions of the archivist could colour the resulting fonds and collections that are created. Finally, by focusing on some communities and not others archivists can skew the broader record. For example, by promoting the records of certain groups we might generate interest in them at the expense of others (particularly if we are talking about fast-tracking their processing to make them available sooner).

Social Justice at the City of Edmonton Archives

Verne’s workshop on Social Justice and Archives ended with a challenge: what were we going to do differently on Monday morning? Looking at all that Verne has done was both inspiring and discouraging: what could we possibly do that would equal his efforts in South Africa?

After thinking about it for a while I came to a decision. The City of Edmonton Archives unveiled its first online exhibit in last spring, and it seemed like a perfect medium to work towards social justice. We have just finished a new exhibit called “Edmonton’s Hidden Communities,” which focuses on alternative housing communities in Edmonton, from pre-World War I tent cities to squatters’ camps in the 1930s, to large-scale ground-rent situations that lasted until the mid-1980s. The hope is that by telling these stories through archival documents from our collection we will not only educate people about their local history, but also make people think differently about contemporary issues of homelessness. Collaboration took place with the City’s Aboriginal Relations Office, and efforts were made to involve a local non-profit organization that deals with homelessness in the city.

Screenshot of Edmonton’s Lost Communities, a new online exhibit by the City of Edmonton Archives.

Home on Grierson Dump, 1938. City of Edmonton Archives EA-160-325.

We are also actively working on another online exhibit that will profile Aboriginal names in the City, which though present many times remain hidden from popular consciousness. This project will involve collaboration with the local Aboriginal community, and will hopefully be the first step towards building a relationship between the Archives and FNMI groups in Edmonton.

I know that we can’t preserve everyone’s story, but with our online exhibits I like to think that the City of Edmonton Archives is starting on our path to social justice. To quote Verne: “We can never do it all. We can never win, but we should never stop trying. We have to save the ones we can.”

Tim O’Grady is the government records archivist at the City of Edmonton Archives, and holds an MA in Public History from the University of Western Ontario.

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