Reading: Critical Archival Studies

The most recent issue of the Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies is a special issue focusing on critical archival studies.  The issue is edited by Michelle Caswell, Ricardo Punzalan, and T-Kay Sangwand and it is completely open access.

The journal issue tackles the ways in which “records and archives serve as tools for both oppression and liberation.”  Many of the articles discuss archives in the context of social justice, community activism, and human rights. The introduction defines critical archival studies as:

those approaches that (1) explain what is unjust with the current state of archival research and practice, (2) posit practical goals for how such research and practice can and should change, and/or (3) provide the norms for such critique. In this way, critical archival studies, like critical theory, is emancipatory in nature, with the ultimate goal of transforming archival practice and society writ large. As an academic field and profession, critical archival studies broadens the field’s scope beyond an inward, practice-centered orientation and builds a critical stance regarding the role of archives in the production of knowledge and different types of narratives, as well as identity construction. (p.2)

The application of critical theory has the potential to change the shape of archival practice and highlight the politics and power relationships involved in archival collecting.  The articles in the issue are largely focused on the work of archivists engaged with marginalized communities. I’m still working my way through the issue but so far Anne J. Gilland’s article of “A Matter of Life or Death: A Critical Examination of the Role of Records and Archives in Supporting the Agency of the Forcibly Displaced” and Jamie Anne Lee’s “A Queer/ed Archival Methodology: Archival Bodies as Nomadic Subjects” have both been excellent reads.

Social Justice in the Archives

The 2013 Fall/Winter issue of The American Archivist opens with two articles focusing on social justice within the archival profession.  The first “A Critique of Social Justice as an Archival Imperative: What Is It We’re Doing That’s All That Important” by Mark A. Greene.  This piece challenges the idea that “to be an ethical archivists, one must pursue ‘social justice’ in all phases of archival practice” (p. 303) Green maintains that the archivists role is primarily to serve it’s patrons and that “It isn’t the job of the archivist to lead the social justice crusade.  But it is his or her job to pursue, acquire, and make available the records that will, among other things, allow social justice crusaders to show that injustice has occurred” (p. 328).

The second article, “Archivists and Social Responsibility: A Response to Mark Greene”, is a rebuttal by Randall C. Jimerson.  This piece focuses on Green’s criticisms of Jimerson’s previous work and clarifies Jimerson’s stance on social action, politicizing the archival profession and societal roles.

Both articles are well worth reading and provide an interesting look into the social implications of archival practice.  Greene and Jimerson both highlight the importance of archives to public and private institutions and the impact archives can have on society and the historical record. 

I work in an archive that has a long history of social justice advocacy or at the very least is entangled in a social justice issue.  The legacy of residential schools is something that is still being addressed and struggled with in Canada.  During the implementation of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) the archives I work in were used frequently by Survivors to legitimate their claims and challenge legal decisions. 

The very nature of the records in an archives which focuses on Residential Schools is challenging.  Most records and photographs relating to residential schools were created and kept by school staff or government agencies.  But it is the former students who are pictured, written about and who find importance in these records today.  This particular archive is governed by a Survivor based organization and a large portion of resources are dedicated to serving survivors and their descendents.

But, archives staff have also worked closely with religious organizations and groups who were involved in the operation of residential schools.  These working relationships and partnerships have resulted in the many of donations that Survivors have subsequently found so invaluable.  It is only through maintaining a balanced cross-cultural approach that the development of collections and programming in the archives has been so successful.

Archives have the potential to deeply impact peoples lives and archivists play a crucial role in how the historical record is preserved and accessed.