Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Archival Interactions

The current issue of InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies. Vol. 5, Issue 1, Article 1 (2009), , includes an array of essays bringing together “scholars from philosophy, American studies, folklore studies, and information studies to link archival studies to larger social and political contexts” (as well as two other essays on archival education, including one by me). These essays derive from the conference, Memoria, voz y patrimonio: The First Conference on Latino/Hispanic Film, Print and Sound Archives and Sixth Institute of the Trejo Foster Foundation for Hispanic Library Education, held at UCLA in 2003. It is an issue anyone interested in archives and its relationship to community, especially underrepresented groups, will want to read.

Here are some interesting morsels to chew over. Clara Chu, Rebecca Dean, and Patrick Keilty, in considering the future of Latina/o archival and memory practice, research, and education, notes this about the current SAA graduate education guidelines: it “makes no reference to “cultural diversity,” “race,” or “ethnicity” but rather diversity of disciplinary base (history or LIS) and diversity of institutions and institutional homes and diversity of specialties in order to provide students with a diversity of options within a common core of archival education. This broad interpretation of “diversity” provides little guidance and no institutional mandate for reconfiguring archival education in the United States that will concern itself with Latina/o archives.” Like so much in the realm of archival education, SAA provides a common denominator approach, little in the way of leadership or vision, leaving it up to individual graduate programs and educators to be innovative.

Mario Ramírez, considering issues of appraisal and documentation, writes, “For the Latino/a archivist, this role is heightened precisely because she or he is often faced with the task of documenting communities that have been rendered historically ephemeral through, among other things, racism, classism, and xenophobia. Therefore, the process of archiving for the Latino/a archivist takes on the seminal and politically charged role of re-inscribing Latino lives into existing historical narratives and of retrieving previously existent notions of self and community.” Later, he states, “For when faced with a human phenomenon that is the site of rampant syncretisms,hybridizations, and cultural and racial mixing, sometimes before it even reaches North American shores, the Latino/a archivist would do well to engage with the radically empirical nature of the Latino populace, rather than resort to a documenting model that fulfills some honorific trope of “saving community
history” that rejects and obscures narrative deviations for positive representations.” As someone who has wrestled a lot with the nature and practice of archival appraisal, I concur completely; however, when I think of the challenge of archival appraisal is mostly settles into the realm of getting archivists even to think conceptually about it, let alone do it. For Ramírez, of course, the problem is even greater, namely that the “task of the Latino/a archivist is fraught with a set of problems not fully articulated in current archival theory or practice. Discourses among archivists about the determination of historical content within archives, and about particular practices such as appraisal and collection development, rarely speak to the problems and challenges involved in the attempt to identify, preserve, and effectively archive the contributions of historically marginalized groups.” Since so few archivists actually ascribe to, at least in any meaningful fashion, archival appraisal theory, maybe we can retool and re-engineer our approaches much more readily than if they were fully invested.

Anne Gilliland and Kelvin White continue this thread with their essay on archival professional education and pedagogy, writing that “although debates over the locus of archival education and core knowledge and skill requirements have recurred globally over the past 200 years, the role and prevailing methods of archival education have never been examined in terms of how they might promote more reflexive and inclusive archival theory and practice.“ True enough. Some of us have tried to introduce other cultural and theoretical perspectives into our reading assignments and teaching, but it is often drowned out by students wanting basic practice advice and experience (see my own essay, “Teaching Unpleasant Things,” for some personal observations about such matters). They add to this another observation: “The sense that there are right and wrong knowledge and practices, that certain methodologies are more rigorous or valid, that learning should take place in particular environments using particular pedagogies, or that more developed nations can help less developed nations by teaching them to conduct themselves in similar ways all contribute to the hegemonic effect. While these views are slowly changing within what is still a Western and elite-dominated academy, the effect is arguably further exacerbated today by English-language dominated information dissemination and delivery systems such as the Internet, and trans-community and trans-national distance education that is often delivered by such means.” In other words, we have a lot of challenges in expanding our educational vista and making it more relevant to an increasingly complex society.

This is a set of essays worth some reading and reflection, especially by those teaching archivists.