Archival inspiration

In the spirit of celebration of having made it through my first semester of archival studies, I thought I would share some archives that inspire me!

This fall, I was disappointed to find that my classes were predominantly dedicated to learning about the history of bureaucracy in western Europe, the archival system of settler colonial Canada, and records management in large government bodies or corporations.

I learned many new things and got a much more comprehensive sense of the invasive and oppressive ways that record-keeping and archives affect people’s lives. But this isn’t really what made me excited about studying archives in the first place…

Along the way I have also encountered a few examples of awesome projects and people who are doing inspiring work. Let’s take a moment to appreciate them, and if you have other examples to share please do add them in the comments! I have included the territories that these archives are located on in my descriptions, based either on their own territorial acknowledgements or on information from Native Land. This site includes data from a variety of sources.

  • Interference Archive is based in Brooklyn, New York on Canarsie and Lenape territory and is completely volunteer-run. Their mission “is to explore the relationship between cultural production and social movements. This work manifests in an open stacks archival collection, publications, a study center, and public programs including exhibitions, workshops, talks, and screenings, all of which encourage critical and creative engagement with the rich history of social movements.” It’s my dream that something similar could exist in Canada – I think that contemporary community organizers can learn a lot from the past. I also just started listening to their podcast this week and am thoroughly enjoying it!
  • The Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs Library & Archives is located on the territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw, and Tsleil-Waututh nations and the Sto:lo Treaty Association in Vancouver, BC. In their own words, they are “a specialized research library and archives focusing on BC land rights research. We serve all researchers who have a Band Council Resolution (BCR) to conduct research on behalf of a First Nation.  Researchers are always welcome, but please call ahead so reference staff and equipment times can be booked for you. Scholars, students, and other researchers may also use the Resource Centre with permission and after agreeing to abide by our Ethical Research Policy.  We are a non-lending library, except for UBCIC staff and by special agreement.” I have had the pleasure of volunteering at the UBCIC Library & Archives this fall helping them with their office move and am really inspired by the work they do and the clear ethical expectations they have of their users.
  • The Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre is located in Métis and Anishinabek territory in Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario. Their work is highly collaborative and they work with a number of nations and partner organizations to:
    • “research, collect, preserve and display the history of Residential Schools across Canada;
    • develop and deliver projects of “sharing, healing and learning” in relation to the impacts of the Schools, and of individual and community restoration; and
    • accomplish “the true realization of Chief Shingwauk’s Vision.”
  • I became familiar with their work through reading the blog and academic work of Krista McCracken, which I wrote about this semester for one of my classes. As I wrote there, the SRSC is “an example of a community-based archive that exemplifies the healing process and positive outcomes that can emerge through collaboration between an archival institution and Indigenous communities.”
  • The South Asian American Digital Archive is an online project with an office based in Philadelphia, on Lenape territory. SAADA’s mission is to “[create] a more inclusive society by giving voice to South Asian Americans through documenting, preserving, and sharing stories that represent their unique and diverse experiences.” I learned about them in one of my class readings this semester by co-founder Michelle Caswell, who writes, “rather than partner with a mainstream repository where South Asian American materials might be undervalued, get delayed in a backlog, or misinterpreted, we formed an independent nonprofit organization whose mission would be to document and preserve the long history of South Asians in the United States” (p 28 of Caswell, Michelle. 2014. Seeing yourself in history: Community archives and the fight against symbolic annihilation. The Public Historian 36 (4): 26-37.) They have some really cool projects to not only collect and preserve existing records, but also support people in creating records of their experiences, such as their First Days Project.
  • A friend shared The Making of an Archive Project with me this fall, which partnered with the Grunt Gallery in Vancouver, BC, on the unceded territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw, and Tsleil-Waututh nations and the Sto:lo Treaty Association. The project is in some ways similar to SAADA’s First Days Project. It “aims to record the everyday life and civic engagements by immigrants and amateur photographers. The photographs are digitized and their accompanying narratives are recorded, thereby preserving records of personal histories in order to address the absent representation of multiculturalism in official archives.” Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn, who leads the project, is explicit about the political implications of this work, stating her objective “to create a new archive that seeks to represent the fractured ideology of multiculturalism from the bottom up where forms of civic engagement within a structure of kinship or even in solidarity with other communities can be observed.”

As you can see, there are a number of archives out there doing awesome work! But, not so many of them have been shared or discussed in our classes. I think as a result we are really missing out on learning from some of the most inspiring and innovative archival work happening.

Most of these archives are what would be called “community archives”, defined by Andrew Flinn as ““grassroots activities of documenting, recording and exploring community heritage in which community participation, control and ownership of the project is essential” (p 153 of Flinn, A. (2007). Community Histories, Community Archives: Some Opportunities and Challenges. Journal of the Society of Archivists, 28(2), 151–176. https://doi.org/10.1080/00379810701611936). Right now, UBC’s Archival Studies program does not have a single class focused on community archives, despite the fact that this is a growing area of interest for students in the program, and the profession as a whole.

Anyhow, I am getting off track from the inspiring theme. Suffice to say for now that I think this is a really interesting area of the field, with lots of potential for collaborative, community-lead work. I hope that I will have opportunities in other classes to explore these themes and chances in my co-op placements or experiential learning courses to learn directly from the folks doing this great work.

If you want to hire a student for your community archive for the summer, or are looking for a volunteer to help with a project like this, let me know 😉

The featured image for this post shows the interior of the Interference Archive in October 2016, with a large poster introducing their “We Are What We Archive” exhibit, and a wall full of posters in different colours, sizes, and formats. The photo was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons, taken by Aloha Jon, and shared under a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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