Active History Archives Theme Week

Archives Venn DiagramI’m overjoyed by how the Active History Archives Theme Week has come together.  This week emerged after the ‘secret archives’ new story and the subsequent response from the archival community.  The goal of the theme week is to foster discussion between archivists and historians.  Posts in the week tackle issues of archival labour, how private records end up in archives, the legacy of colonial collecting practices, collaboration within archives, and archival outreach.

The theme week includes the following posts: (I’ll update with hyperlinks to the posts once they are live on Active History)

Many thanks to all of the fantastic archivists who contributed to this series.

Volunteer Labour in Archives

A researcher working with delicate resource at The National Archives.  Wikimedia Commons.

A researcher working with delicate resource at The National Archives. Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the implications of volunteer labour in the archival profession and the challenges faced by archives that are completely volunteer run.  If you haven’t already go read “Implications of Archival Labor” by Stacie Williams. Williams’ work clearly outlines the problems wTith invisible labour in archives, the need for archives to advocate more effectively, and the need for us to talk openly about time and money.  Jarrett Drake, and Eira Tansey, and Allana Mayer have also addressed the cultural bias, volunteerism and privilege that is embedded in the archival profession.  We need to be having these discussions about precarious employment and the real costs of archival labour.

In the case of completely volunteer run archives – many of which have been operating on volunteer labour for their entire existence – how do you make the case that this labour need to be paid?  And how do you create a succession plan for the retirement of a volunteer archivist? The common answer is “document everything!” As Danielle Robichaud pointed out on twitter documentation is often lauded as a way to standardize practices but it is also often used as a way to continue with under funding and poorly resourced archives. Documenting everything doesn’t fix the problem of volunteer labour and at times it can actually work toward devaluing archival work – eg. “Well it’s all really documented in that binder so that any one could do it.”  Archival work is specialized and we need to acknowledge the fact that training (which can come in many shapes) matters.  The idea that archivists do their jobs because of a deep love for history/preservation makes me uncomfortable.  Many people do love their jobs and profession – but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be paid for their labour.

Volunteer and unpaid labour is also hugely problematic when talking about diversity with in the archival profession.  The profession is overwhelmingly white and is largely female.  When volunteering and unpaid internships are a core part of gaining professional experience and entry into the field you limit growth opportunities to those who can afford to volunteer.  Volunteerism and unpaid work is often tied to privilege and has a huge impact on limiting the field to those who can afford to work for little or no money.  Recently someone told me that they thought the best way to encourage more Indigenous people to enter the archival professional was to create volunteer positions specifically geared at Indigenous folks looking to gain experience.  If this is your strategy for increasing diversity you are doing it wrong and ignoring much larger systematic problems.

This post is more of a thoughts in progress post than anything.  The practices and circumstances in the archival profession continue to remind me of the advocacy work that needs to be ongoing.