The recent issue of The Public Historian featured an article, “Seeing Yourself in History: Community Archives and the Fight Against Symbolic Annihilation”, by Michelle Caswell. The article looks at the development of the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) and the role the archive has played in preserving the marginalized history of the South Asian American community.
South Asian American history was not being collected by repositories and the history was being left undocumented. The SAADA was established as a grassroots effort to change the profound archival silence around the South Asian community. The SAADA is an excellent example of a community rallying together to preserve its own history and using digitization to increase awareness and access to material.
Caswell argues that “community-based archives serve as an alternative venue for communities to make collective decisions about what is of enduring value to them and to control the means through which stories about their past are constructed.” Community archives have the potential to empower communities, reunite communities with their past, and create a shared history. Like many grassroots archives the SAADA was created in a response to the omission of the ‘official’ historical record. The South Asian community did not see themselves in popular history or in more formal repositories — sparking the creation of their own community archive.
SAADA is also engaging in the documentation of community knowledge. The project facilitates shared authority and participatory archival description, allowing community members to describe the content held by the archive. This practice acknowledges the importance of community knowledge and works toward integrating that knowledge into the archival record. This integration highlights the truly community governed nature of this archive and serves as an excellent example of a marginalized people creating their own archival voice and preserving their history in a way that they sit fit.
Caswell’s article on the SAADA is an example of a community archive that has much success. The first six years of operation saw 1800 digitized records being created and the collection being used by educators, community members, and researchers. The digital only model of the archive is interesting. The SAADA has on public space and it’s collections are purely digital. The original items remain with larger repositories or the community members who own them. The access created by the emphasis on digitization is great. But I wonder about the long term preservation of the community based materials and helping community members preserve those original documents.