Ten Resources to Contextualize Archives and Archival Labour

An office in the Dominion Archives of Canada, Sussex Street, Ottawa, Ontario

An office in the Dominion Archives of Canada, circa 1910. Source: Library and Archives Canada, C-034009.

To encourage further engagement of the issues presented throughout the archives theme week we have compiled ten resources to contextualize archival practice, archival labour, and the work archivists do.

There are many colleagues both within Canadian archives and beyond who have been writing and speaking about the challenges of counteracting the ‘why isn’t it already digitized’ question, directly confronting the erasure of archival labour in popular and academic discourse, and discussing the responsibility for archivists to confront our own failures to care for the legacies of marginalized communities and the overwhelming whiteness of our profession.

Rather than repeat the words of others, we would encourage Active History readers to follow the work of Melissa Adams, Michelle Caswell, Marika Cifor, Jarrett M. Drake, Raymond Frogner, Anne Gilliland, Rebecca Goldman, Myron Groover, Verne Harris, Bergis Jules, Analú López, Jesse Loyer, Mark Matienzo, Allison Mills, Tara Robertson, Nick Ruest, Rebecka Sheffield, Ariel Schudson, Ed Summers, Eira Tansey, Kate Theimer, Samantha Thompson, Stacie Williams and Sam Winn.

As a starting point the resources listed below provide insight into the archival profession and showcase some of the scholarly work being done by archival professionals. This list is in no particular order and is by no means conclusive. We encourage readers to add their own resource suggestions in the comment section.

Samantha Thompson, “The Archives FAQs and Fact Series”,  Archives@PAMA, 2015-2017.

This series of blog posts is designed to expose new users to the basics of how archives work. Unsure of how archives are organized? Or what archivists actually do all day? This series is a great place to start to learn the basics behind archival practice.

The most recent post in the series focuses on the question of “Why Don’t Archivists Digitize Everything?” and provides insight into the time consuming nature of digitizing archival material that is in numerous formats, varying states of conditions and held under a variety of privacy and copyright legislation.

Stacie Williams , “Implications of Archival Labor: If we want respect for our labour, we need to value it more”, On Archivy, April 11, 2016.

Williams’ work gets to the heart of the implications associated with devaluing archival labour and raises awareness around why it is important for those accessing archives to understand the work that goes into organizing them. Williams also takes a hard look at problems within the archival profession – there is often a reluctance to talk about the fiscal value of archival work. Increasingly students or volunteers are being used to engage in work that should be done by trained professionals, and the archival field faces diversity and gender related challenges.

This post came out of a panel discussion on “Leading Together: Archivists and Historians Shaping the Digital Archive” at the Organization of American Historians annual conference in 2016.  Panel participants included S. Williams, Emily Drabinski, Cathy Moran Hojo, Juliette Levy, Michelle Moravec, and Bergis Jules.  It is a great starting point for anyone interested in learning more about the value of archival work and those wishing to think critically of the future of the archival profession.

Bergis Jules, “Confronting Our Failure of Care Around the Legacies of Marginalized People in the Archives,” On Archivy, November 11, 2016.

In this piece Bergis notes that “The politics of what we’ve traditionally preserved means the archive is filled with silences, absences, and distortions, mostly affecting the legacies of the less privileged, including black women, LGBTQ people, immigrants, poor people, and victims of police violence, to name a few. In the name of neutrality, we’re erasing people, communities and their humanity from the historical record.”  The archival record is not neutral and colonial narratives have had a drastic impact on what records exist within institutional archives.

Erasure of marginalized people in the historical record was done intentionally in some cases and through willful neglect. Archivists are increasingly aware of the silences found in archives and the need to confront the history of how these collections and historical narratives were privileged. The profession is beginning to look at archives and “determine how they silence, erase, and distort the legacies of marginalized people.” This distortion of historical narratives and erasure of marginalized communities is something that is crucial for both the archival profession and historians to understand.

Archives Association of British Columbia, AABC Archivists Toolkit, November 2016.

This toolkit aggregates open source resources relating to a range of archival functions and processes.  If you are looking to learn more about preservation, acquisitions, digitization or other forms of archival work this is a good place to start.  This toolkit can also serve as a primer for introducing students into how archives function and are fundamentally different from libraries.

Eira Tansey, “Archives Without Archivists,” Reconstruction: studies in contemporary culture (2015): 16, no. 1

Tansey’s article directly ties the future of archives to the future role of archivists.  Archives have been chronically underfunded for decades. Tansey argues, “People understand the importance of the records, yet few understand how archivists continue to identify, select, preserve and make accessible records of importance to all peoples.” The work of archivists has been continually marginalized and that marginalization has a direct impact on access and the availability of archival content.

This article also tackles the myths of “hidden collections”, the commodification of archives and the essential archival functions and why they matter.  Tansey makes a passionate case for the value of professional archival work and notes “An archive without archivists may be simply a heap of records, not usable by others.” This important piece for putting in context the impact of funding cuts and the chronic devaluing of archival work.

Catherine A. Bailey, “Past Imperfect? Reflections on the Evolution of Canadian Federal Government Records Appraisal,” Archivaria 75 (Spring 2013): 5-47.

This article looks at the role archivists play in acquisition and determining which government records will be preserved permanently. Bailey discusses the history of archival accountability in Canada and the evolution of the federal government record keeping system in Canada.

Bailey’s work provides a foundational understanding of the complexities of records management, archival dispositions, and the legislation surrounding record keeping in Canada.  This article is a good place to start for historians who are curious about how and why material is deposited in Library and Archives Canada.

Crystal Fraser and Zoe Todd, “Decolonial Sensibilities: Indigenous Research and Engaging with Archives in Contemporary Colonial Canada, L’Internationale.

This is one of the clearest primers on archives, colonialism, and the preservation of the legacy of residential schools. Fraser and Todd examine the colonial roots of archival holdings and archival institutions. The colonial nature of archives and their collections is something many archivists and archival spaces are struggling to address.

Fraser and Todd suggest “applying a historically-informed critical decolonial sensibility in our engagement with the archives.” Their article makes a strong case for the role archives play in forming historical narratives and the need to create archival spaces that acknowledge settler colonialism.

Rodney G.S. Carter, “Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, and Power in Silence,” Archivaria 61 (Spring 2006): 215-233

Carter’s work examines the role of silence in the archives and how archival silence can affect our ability to tell the history of marginalized communities. Carter notes, “it is now undeniable that archives are spaces of power. Archival power is, in part, the power to allow voices to be heard. It consists of highlighting certain narratives and of including certain types of records created by certain groups.” (216) Archives are not neutral and the records they hold impact societal memory, historical narratives, and the ability of marginalized groups to speak to their history.

In addition to discussing the nature of archival silence, Carter offers suggestions of how marginalized groups can invoke silence to change narratives, arguing that “the naming of the silence subverts it, draws attention to it.” (222)  There are ways that archival gaps can be filled in and that marginalized communities can maintain their history outside of the archive. Carter’s work provides a solid starting point for anyone interested in learning more about the impact of archives of marginalized communities as well as the impact of archives on memory.

Terry Eastwood, “What is Archival Theory and Why is it Important?,” Archivaria 37 (1994):  122-130.

This article provides a look into the nature of archival theory, its origins, and the role of theory in informing archival decisions.  Eastwood’s article challenges the claim that archivists simply “save what is historically valuable.” His work connects archives to their broader legal and administrative roots and discusses the complexity of archival work.

Archival theory goes beyond exploring the historical nature of records to discuss matters such as how archives are created, how they are preserved, and how they are described.  Understanding the theory underpinning the structure and function of archives is crucial to realizing the nature of archival labour and acknowledging the professional nature of the work of archivists.  Eastwood’s work provides an entry point to those interested in archival theory and the history of archives.

Laura Miller, “Touchstones: Considering the Relationship between Memory and Archives,” Archivaria 61 (Spring 2006) : 105-126.

Miller’s article relates the perception of memory to our comprehension of the creation and use of archives.  Memory of the past is something that is often discussed in relation to archives. This article argues that archival records are not memories rather they are touchstones from which memories can be connected or retrieved.

Miller’s work connects archival records to concepts of both individual and community memory, “just as we capture, store, and retrieve memories, we acquire, preserve, and make available archives.” (111)  Records and memory are deeply connected but it is crucial that archivists and historians critically examine this connection and the implications archives have on the formulation of memory.

Many thanks to the theme week contributors for their work and their suggestions in compiling this resource list.  We encourage everyone to add their own resource suggestions in the comments.

Krista McCracken is an Archives Supervisor at Algoma University’s Arthur A. Wishart Library and Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre.  She is an editor at Active History.  Krista lives and works in Robinson-Huron Treaty territory on the traditional lands of the Anishinaabe and Métis people.

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