Why a Socio-political Lens is Crucial for Archive Users

“So, I realized that actually to decide to gather information, organize information, and preserve information to disseminate it was a political act.” – Alda Terracciano, 2009 [1]

Last year I took it upon myself to act as my family’s genealogist. Prompted by my brother finding my Great-grandparent’s marriage license in the basement of my family’s home, I immediately purchased an ancestry.com subscription and began searching, starting with my paternal grandparents. Looking through the 1935 census, I found my grandfather’s name listed on the 2200 block of 13th St. NW. It didn’t take long before I noticed “W” marked in the “Race” column for not only my grandfather but also his mother, brother, and sister-in-law, who all lived with him at the time. His fair skin and thin wavy hair did not make him any less black, nor did it change the fact that he was relegated to a segregated all-black firehouse for his entire career as a DC firefighter. The census must have made a mistake. Weeks had passed, but this new discovery stayed fresh on my mind. During a family dinner with my 97-year-old grandmother, I couldn't wait to tell her that from 1935 – 1937 her husband was listed as white.

My grandmother suspects this mistake was largely due to how the census was gathered during the early 1900’s. Traditionally surveyors would go door-to-door and ask brief demographic questions, write their recordings, then move to the next house. Rarely did a household complete the census documents themselves. Was the surveyor in a rush? How did the surveyor come to the conclusion that my grandfather was white? Nonetheless, a large assumption was made when the surveyor saw my grandfather and his family.

“The archivist . . . tends to be scrupulous about his neutrality, and to see his job as a technical job, free from the nasty world of political interest: a job of collecting, sorting, preserving, making available, the records of the society. But . . . the archivist, in subtle ways, tends to perpetuate the political and economic status quo simply by going about his ordinary business.
His supposed neutrality is, in other words, a fake.” – Howard Zinn, 1970 [2]

From the very moment, objects are deemed artifacts, biases are almost unavoidably inserted. It starts with what an individual, community, organization, government or archivist decides to save or preserve. For example, a family estate removing unfavorable documents (i.e. love letters from a mistress etc.) before submitting their materials into a collection. The choice to preserve or discard, acquire or forfeit materials nullifies objectivity and therefore affects the social memory of a collective.[3] Though archivists try to be as impartial as possible it’s inevitable for some decisions to contend with objectivity. Whether it is a bureaucratic institution that reflects systems of power and privilege or a small human error on a census document, we have to come to a collective awareness that these circumstances have larger impacts and objectivity should not be assumed.  

As contextualities shift and complex social and cultural issues of today continually inform our perspective on the past, archivists have a very difficult job with the classification of records. Not only is there the obvious challenge of creating neutral descriptions and classification that do not reflect an ideological or political bias, but also working within a bureaucratic process does not always lend itself to the contemporary social and political paradigms. For instance, Dorothy Berry, the digitization, and metadata lead for Umbra Search African American History at the University of Minnesota, found a “collection within a collection” while parsing through the Kautz Family YMCA Archives.[4] Within the Student Work Records, Berry found materials from a Historically Black University. With no added context of HBCU’s within this description, users that are new to archives or perhaps unfamiliar with the U.S educational system could have issues accessing these particular records. To create ease of searchability and therefore accessibility, Berry decided to selectively digitize the records of HBCUs, craft metadata that describes the Student Work Movement, while writing in plain language “this folder specifically includes materials from Grambling State, a Historically Black College/University.”[5] This small but generous action demonstrates how despite working within the systems of institutional archives, archivists have the power to re-contextualize and adjust the barriers and access to information.

“archivist as activist"

Recognizing this power, archivists are figuring out ways to actively address the issues of access, bias, and injustice within the record. This births the “archivist as activist,” a phrase that completely contradicts the assumed position of neutrality.[6] Rather than being passive, archivists are acknowledging institutional power structures that inherently influence the archival record. By starting or volunteering for community archives[7], collecting materials that reflect the fullest possible range of social interests and actors, or by correcting/balancing the record with the use of tags and descriptions, archivists are adjusting their practice rather than feigning impartiality.[7]

Until archival institutions fully adapt to the current realities, where a nuanced understanding of the many systems of oppression actively inserted into the archival bureaucratic practice, users should engage the archive with a critical socio-political lens. While some archivists take on the role of activist, it's imperative that archive users also question the presented narratives as it will only result in a more complete and authentic collective memory.


[1]Terracciano, Alda. Activism & Heritage. 2013. http://aldaterra.com/activism-heritage/ (accessed August 28, 2017).

[2]Maher, William J. "Stepping out from the Shadows: Is Impartial Decision-making in Archives a Myth?" Septmeber 10, 2010.

[3] Cox, Richard J., and David A. Wallace. Archives and the Public Good: Accountability and Records in Modern Society. Westport, CT: Quorum Books, 2002.

[4]Berry, Dorothy. "Hide and Seek Organizing Hidden Collections for Umbra Search African American History." Los Angeles Archivist Collective. 2017. http://www.laacollective.org/work/hide-and-seek-organizing-hidden-collections-for-umbra-search-african-american-history/

[5]Berry, Dorothy. "Hide and Seek Organizing Hidden Collections for Umbra Search African American History." Los Angeles Archivist Collective. 2017. http://www.laacollective.org/work/hide-and-seek-organizing-hidden-collections-for-umbra-search-african-american-history/

[6]Blouin, Francis X., and William G. Rosenberg. Processing the past: contesting authorities in history and the archives. New York ; Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2013.

[7]Community archives are defined as “"collections of material gathered primarily by members of a given community and over whose use community members exercise some level of control” (Flinn, Stevens and Shepard, Whose memories, whose archives: Independent community archives, autonomy and the mainstream 2009)

“Dissecting the Archive” is a seven-part piece commissioned by Common Field for the 2017 Field Perspectives as part of the Annual Convening in LA. Read all seven pieces here.