During one of my recent writing projects I started thinking about the implications of disciplinary silos and the value to reading across disciplines. A lot of my work is grounded in archival theory and public history practice, however it often intersects with the Canadian academic history profession. From an outsider differentiating these three disciplines may seem like splitting hairs, but they really are proudly different in their approaches and literature.
A lot of my recent work has been thinking about archival silences and the power relationships entrenched in colonial archival spaces. This power dynamic and the challenge of doing research about historically marginalized communities is something that intersects across archival practice, public history, and academic history. I started diving into this topic by examining archival theory and literature written by archivists. I then expanded to look at community based perspectives and a more public history take on archival voices. Lastly, after consulting with a couple of colleagues I added a stack of Canadian history books and articles to my to read pile.
This exercise in reading across disciplines was enriching and helped broaden my understanding of the topic it hand. It also highlighted how fields can approach the same topic from very different angles. Many of the archival based works I was reading focused on the role of the archivist in creating or mitigating silence within the historical process. The more public history leaning works focused on communities challenging silence, the right to internal community memory, and ways to build bridges across shared pasts. Conversely, the more academic history reads were really focused on subverting archival silences – reading against the grain, using non-traditional archival sources to expand historical narratives, and how to overcome lack of records. All of these areas of interest had overlapping points and areas of commonality.
These areas of similarity struck me as so important. Archivists and historians need to talk more. Understanding how archives work and the intellectual/emotional/physical labour that goes into making archival records accessible is so important. Historians and media indicating that something was ‘discovered in the archives’ erases the archival labour that went into arranging and describing that material. The archivist knew it was there and did a lot of work so a historian could access that material as part of their research. Historians and archivists have definite overlapping interests and we would be better served by increasing the amount of work we did collaboratively.
What are your strategies for reading across disciplines?
Photo credit: Jared Erondu on Unsplash
Earlier this week Skylee-Storm Hogan and I were invited to speak as part of an ongoing faculty professional development series focusing on collaboration. Our session focused on ways faculty can collaborate with archives, how archives can be brought into the classroom, and using archives across disciplines.
The workshop was relatively informal with Skylee-Storm and I briefly talking about our experience working with archives in classroom spaces, how to engage students with primary source research, and past successful collaborations. The rest of the workshop was spent discussing potential collaboration opportunities, approaches to teaching site and national specific history, and creative engagement possibilities.
One of the things our conversation touched on a number of times was the idea of archives as interdisciplinary and that archival work can be skill building for students across programs. This point is something I’ve talked about before, but I do really believe that the skills that students learn through engagement with archival material can be far reaching. During our presentation Skylee-Storm hogan talked about the development of primary source research skills, community outreach techniques, curatorial skills, writing, and presentation skills that were developed through engagement with archival material. These skills are not tied to a single discipline and are often connected to tangible projects as part of course work or employment.
During the session we also spent a considerable amount of time discussing community engaged research. This involved thinking about how a grassroots community based archives can be used to teach research methods, foster community connections, and how to build classroom examples around the archive.
Overall the conversation was heartening and really reminded me of the uniqueness of the archives that I work in. The Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre archive is deeply connected to a marginalized community. The survivor community has played a fundamental role in the development of programming and holdings since the establishment of the SRSC archive. This Indigenous community led approach to research and collecting is something unique and is something worth talking about. In an era where more and more institutions are looking at ways to integrate Indigenous content and Indigenous voices into the classroom space the holdings of the SRSC are increasingly important when talking about preserving the legacy of residential schools, community based healing, and teaching history from an Indigenous perspective.
The session also reminded me of the ongoing need to educate and advocate for archives. Even internally there is always more work that can be done to raise awareness about the extent of holdings and what services archives offer. That outreach piece is something that often feels like treading water – you might be repeatedly having the same conversation with different people – but eventually it does result in progress and if all goes well increased awareness and use.