Archival Activism: from House of Amnesia to House of Memory

This post was also published on the NiCHE website
I am a new arrival to Kingston, Ontario. I have been tossed into the ‘gown’ tribe, mingling with the many curious and creative folks at Queen’s University. Every day I walk from my home on the ‘north’ side, across the central town artery known as Princess Street, to the university campus. My head is often down and the pace is quick, as I am struggling to develop new strategies as a fresh doctoral student confronted by a rigorous schedule. I have been wondering how and when I will find the time to get to know this town, and the vibrant current of community movements and grassroots initiatives that course through it. In several ways, I walk a ‘town-gown’ divide daily yet still do not really know what is underfoot. And I have been curious.

I finally did find some people to tell me more about this town and this university. They did so by suggesting ingenious ways to make connections between institution and community, between orthodox histories and radical story telling, between fireside reading and social activism. It can be done through archives. A group of people gathered on the last Saturday of October to participate in an archival activism workshop led by Jamie Linton and sponsored by the Network in Canadian History and Environment. It turned out to be, very simply, three hours of meaningful and constructive conversation.

Sean Haberle, coordinator at OPIRG Kingston, delivered a metaphorical take on Queen’s that resonated with meaning. He referred to Queen’s as a “house of amnesia”, that in the time he spent studying here he was struck by the absence of memory of past struggles, injustices, protests, victories and losses that are inscribed upon Queen’s yet fail to be marked by the people who inhabit it. One task of archival activism is to re-invest places with memory, to be cognizant of the social struggles that have made them, thereby creating a kind of living archives of place. Such was the effect of Madeleine’s radical history walking tour of Kingston, one of three case studies presented at the workshop. The other two were presented by Sean on OPIRG and the People’s History Project and by Jamie on archives, community engagement and Richardson Beach.

We also attempted to outline what archival activism means, and to identify the various interpretations it involves. Jamie ventured to describe it as a two-sided coin: “The first side considers how archival resources can be useful to activists by providing stories, evidence, facts and arguments to further social and environmental causes and campaigns. The second side considers how the practice of archiving itself might itself help to further such causes and campaigns. Far from being a neutral exercise, archiving is an inherently political endeavor.” Throughout the presentations and the discussions that followed, archives were injected with new energies and new possibilities. The group came to describe archives as potent materials and archiving as a powerful political process. We came to suggest that archival activism can:

• document a history of social justice work
• translate sensory experience (the joy of the archiving adventure!) into social justice policy
• recognize the political nature of archival endeavors
• conduct oral interviews and document radical histories
• recognize the importance of producing community history that is not attached to institutions
• pose photographs as strong rhetorical arguments
• instigate long-term commitments to communities
• present images and texts that foster a strong and most necessary connection to place
• connect archives to living memory
• learn activist tactics from past movements
• engage in the record collecting process, social history, and ‘gonzo’ research

All of these activities are, of course, applicable to issues concerning the environment, exemplified persuasively by Jamie’s work on the historical geography of public access to water. The intent was to use the workshop as a launching pad for web based resources on archival activism to be hosted on the NiCHE website. We concluded the session by outlining a general framework that can be used to design such an online resource, with the goal of spreading the seed of archival activism to communities throughout Canada.

I have come to acknowledge that as I arrive in an unfamiliar place to create a new home, I must also work hard to familiarize myself with an unknown history. As was the case during the workshop, if I surround myself by those who look long and hard at how the ‘houses’ of Kingston and Queen’s University were built, and continue to be constructed, I may find ways to reproach the house of amnesia and fill it with memory.

We welcome any stories or suggestions that can be used to carry the momentum of this workshop forward. Do you know of any interesting cases where archival materials have been used as resources to further environmental or social justice causes? Or where alternative forms of archives have been developed in association with such causes? If so, please contact Jamie Linton Matthew Hoult or myself, Sinead Earley . I would like to thank Matt for his immaculate note-taking skills during the workshop, and their valuable contribution in the writing of this report.

Sinead Earley is a PhD student in the Department of Geography, Queen’s University

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