Archives as Sites of Resistance, Liberation and Creativity
Following is the text of a talk I delivered at The Word is Action: Engaging the Bible and Social Justice in memory of Walter Wink, a conference celebrating the fifth anniversary of The Center and Library for the Bible and Social Justice. As I was writing this talk, my colleague Jarrett Drake delivered a co-keynote address at a Community Archives Forum hosted at UCLA. His talk covers all that I wanted to say and more, and is far more direct, eloquent and insightful than I anything I could ever hope to write. The text of his talk is available on Medium, and I’d encourage you all to read and absorb it.
What archives are and what they do
I wanted to talk about what archives are, but also what I believe they can be. This presentation was (perhaps unintentionally) inspired by Norman, who made a remark in passing that archives seemed somewhat peripheral to the concerns of CLBSJ and of this gathering. Everyone is self-interested and wants to believe their work is important, but I think I have some good reasons to make the case that, in fact, archives are of central importance both to the experiment that is CLBSJ, as well as to movements that seek to create a more just, equitable and humane world.
Usually when we talk about archives we say they do something like “acquire, preserve and make accessible records of historic significance.”
If we dig into that seemingly mundane language though, a question might occur to us: what are these records of historical significance, and what can be done with them?
What are records?
I am often reminded of this Ani Difranco lyric when thinking about records.
People used to make records
As in a record of an event
The event of people playing music in a room
For me, it lays out what records are and do: they are about people, people in relationships, the kinds of creativity that come from those relationships, about time and space.
It also gets at some of the important questions that archivists deal with on a regular basis. Who is an authoritative source? Who gets to say what? Who is silent and why? Who is part of the record, and who is excluded? And there are deeper and more fundamental questions as well. What is the point of keeping a record? Why do we document, why do we save?
When I talk about what records and archives do, I am of course really talking about what people can do in those spaces and with those things. So when I talk about records and archives I’m really talking about the traces of human lives which are fixed onto something with materiality.
Let me lay my cards on the table: as an archivist, I want to create spaces that are creative, liberative, and support work that challenges the dominant culture. Spaces with many doors and windows to facilitate movement in and out, furniture that can be moved around easily to suit multiple purposes, and that foster genuine human connections that incite transformative conversations.
All too often, archives are places where oppression is legitimized and normalized, where exclusion is reinforced, where erasures are made permanent. But I believe they can and must also be places where the work of resistance, liberation and creativity can happen. That is why I am an archivist.
To make my point, I wanted to tell you all a little about my journey to becoming an archivist, along the way laying out how I think archives can participate in the work of justice.
I got my start in archives as an undergraduate student at Hunter College when I interned at the Woody Guthrie Archives. For those of you that don’t know, Woody Guthrie was a folk musician and activist who is an incredibly influential figure in American music, a direct precursor to people like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, who left behind a collection of diaries, notebooks, scrapbooks and song lyrics. His family took the radical step of opening up this very personal collection to the public, despite the complex and sometimes less-than-flattering portrait they painted of their husband and father. Not only that, but in addition to welcoming others in, they partnered with musicians and artists of all stripes to take fragments of song lyrics, drawings, journal entries and reuse and remix them as new songs, artwork, soundtracks and so on. In other words, they didn’t want people just to come and see, observing from a remote distance, but they wanted people to come and touch, understand, be challenged and ultimately to create something.
Conceptualizing archives as places of creativity - and maybe this idea extends beyond just archives - de-centers authority, because it allows marginalized voices to express themselves in new ways. I’d also argue that dominant narratives have often immunized themselves pretty well against more conventional expressions (like scholarly journal articles or even mass demonstrations), so it’s often necessary to use new tools in order to break into the master’s house and bind the strong man. The axis tilts and wobbles, cracks are revealed, we catch a glimpse of the man behind the curtain.
My interest in the potential of archives as places to formulate and enact resistance continued through my graduate studies. That often starts with the historical legal accountability that archives can provide. For example, I’d point you to Verne Harris’ work on the role that archives played in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, The Guatemalan National Police Archive which documents many of the human rights abuses perpetrated in that country, and discussions of the Stasi archives, including Timothy Garton Ash’s book The File, which traces his personal connection to records in that archive.
I also began to understand archives as texts. Like many others at this conference will tell you, texts are contextually situated, and you cannot fully understand them until you understand the socioeconomic context in which they were created. In addition, they can be read against the grain, bent to purposes their creators never intended or foresaw. You can see some great examples of this in the work of archivists like Tim Sherratt, who use technologies like facial recognition software to detect and crop the faces of itinerant Asian and Pacific Island laborers from Australian customs records created with the purpose of surveilling and excluding those individuals. So these records contain the potential to be turned back on themselves, to center and lift up the very individuals they sought to exclude.
For a number of years now I’ve been working with technology in archives. Although we often talk about the liberatory potential of technology (particularly social media), and how it can help build and amplify social movements, I’ve become keenly aware of how much work it takes to keep things running. This is work that’s usually pretty invisible and doesn’t get the awards, fancy job titles, or top dollars that go to people who invent new things. Although this is certainly true in other industries, it’s very obvious in technology work that we privilege innovators and disruptors rather than the maintainers - the people that keep all those new inventions working. Unsurprisingly, maintenance work is often gendered and racialized, a characteristic that artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles noted in her Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969.
In The Real World of Technology, Canadian scientist, educator and Quaker Ursula Franklin describes technology as fundamentally social phenomenon that is shaped by (and also shapes) the humans who create it, use it, and maintain it. So, if our liberation is going to happen, it’s going to happen through other people, not technology. Specifically, I think that liberation is going to come through the maintainers of the world; the modern-day equivalent of fishermen, carpenters and tax collectors.
This emphasis on lifting up the invisible and amplifying the voices that have been silenced connects with some recent trends in archives as well. A number of my archivist colleagues, including Michele Caswell and Marika Cifor, have written comprehensively on ways in which archives can participate in anti-oppression work and serve as agents of liberation. Employing feminist care ethics, they argue for a practice of “radical empathy” in archives. This coincides with a growing interest in the profession in community archives - in fact just yesterday there was a well-attended forum at UCLA on the topic - which are independent archives that collect material on and serve a particular community. I’d argue that CLBSJ is a sort of community archive, even though we don’t have the word “archive” in our name. The agenda of these community archives is explicitly one of liberation, of erasing the work of “symbolic annihilation” through “representational belonging.” For members of a community to discover that their experiences are documented in an archive is to discover that they themselves exist, and that their experiences are both valid and situated in a body of similar experiences.
But if we want to make archives - and perhaps other spaces like our library here - liberatory spaces, we have some work to do. My friend and archivist colleague Jarrett Drake issued a two-pronged challenge to archivists who want to create more liberatory spaces. I think maybe all of us can take these to heart, regardless of our profession. First, he says, we need to confront our complicity in upholding patriarchy, white supremacy, and other structural inequalities. Second, we need to build trust with marginalized people, communities, and organizations through the practice of allyship. I’ll also acknowledge that, as a white cishet guy, the onus is on me to do this work.
In wrapping up, I want to go back to where I started, to the idea that archives are not places of death, dust and silence, but places where humans can connect with each other across borders of time and space. Places where we can understand our own lives through the lives of those who have come before us, where together we can work out our liberation through the practice of creative resistance, where we can transcend death.