Post-Custodial Archives and Minority Collections

Last week (July 31, 2018), I had the honor of speaking at CLIR’s (Council on Library and Information Resources) summer seminar for new Postdoctoral Fellows. I was very excited to get the opportunity to meet a new cohort of fellows just as they are beginning their new positions at various institutions. (For more information on CLIR Postdoctoral Fellowships, visit their website! And keep an eye out for the next round of applications this fall/winter.)

Title Slide

My talk centered on the work we do at Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage (aka “Recovery”), the importance of minority archives, and working toward inclusivity. For 27 years, Recovery has dedicated itself to recovering, preserving, and disseminating the lost written legacy of Latinas and Latinos in the United States. US Latina/o collections, like other minority collections, do not traditionally form part of a larger national historical narrative. Herein lies the importance of minority collections: the stories they tell give us a more nuanced understanding of US history and culture.

Let’s take a step back to think about the structure of archives, the inherent issues, and the questions that we—as archivists, scholars, students, and educators—should ask ourselves when engaging with historical collections. Archives help structure knowledge and history. Michel Foucault argues that history “now organizes the document” [with “document” being the archival] “divides it up, distributes it, orders it, arranges it in levels, establishes series, distinguishes between what is relevant and what is not, discovers elements, defines unities, describes relations” (146). Thus history, or perhaps more aptly, what we understand to be or call history, cannot be distinguished from the production and organization of the archive. Furthermore, national archives help to create an authoritative national narrative. The International Council on Archives, for example, describes archives on their webpage as follows:

Archives constitute the memory of nations and societies, shape their identity, and are a cornerstone of the information society. By proving evidence of human actions and transactions, archives support administration and underlie the rights of individuals, organisations and states. By guaranteeing citizens’ rights of access to official information and to knowledge of their history, archives are fundamental to identity, democracy, accountability and good governance.

Given this defined mission of archives, we can think about what archives do or are meant to do; they define:

  • “the nation,”
  • “history,”
  • what is—and what isn’t—considered “important,”
  • “knowledge.”

I write these words in quotation marks to stress that the defining or shaping of such concepts is a construction. In this vein, archives have historically functioned as mechanism of colonialism. They have helped to structure our understanding of history and the nation in a way that also structures our understanding of what we call “civilization” and “barbarism.” In order for colonialism to thrive, imperial powers had to not only take over a physical territory, but they also had to control the shared imaginary. Franz Fanon (1963) emphasizes the total reach of colonialism and its desire to destroy the history of oppressed peoples in The Wretched of the Earth. He writes:

…colonialism is not simply content to impose its rule upon the present and the future of a dominated country…. By a kind of perverse logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts it, disfigures it and destroys it. (210)

As a result of this logic, the colonial model created institutions determined to own and possess history in order to categorize it (using Eurocentric methods of classification). In many cases, history and artifacts were/are appropriated, to the extent of removing sacred items and even bodies (or just body parts) and putting them on display. Think of mummified Egyptian and Indigenous bodies, Sara Baartman (known as the Hottentot Venus), etc. Items stolen from their original communities are often displayed or archived in museums, archives, and libraries. Because of this, it is important to take the moment to reflect when we work on, interact with, curate, and teach archives or the items in them. Here are a few questions to consider:

Chained books on a shelf

  • Who determines what belongs in the archive?
  • Who defined the archive? Who determined what was archivable?
  • Who created the metadata? (Think about the traditional way of organizing things in a library, i.e. using Library of Congress subject headings)
  • Who maintains the archive?
  • Who has access to the archive or the knowledge contained in the archive?
  • Where did the material originate?
Postcustodial archives

Since, as mentioned earlier, archives have historically functioned as an instrument of colonialism, community members with personal collections are often wary of institutional archives. Even today, large, well-known libraries have disposed of or sold collections deemed “unimportant” (usually minority collections) in order to make room for “more important collections.” Moving away from an archive design that requires possession and ownership is a stance that delinks libraries from the colonial model. The postcustodial theory of archives is “the idea that archivists will no longer physically acquire and maintain records, but that they will provide management oversight for records that will remain in the custody of the record creators” (Pearce-Moses). Digital technology allows archivists the ability to return physical collections to the original record keepers and create digital copies that can be housed in an institutional repository. Furthermore, postcustodial practices offer opportunities for community engagement, as Sofía Becerra-Licha (2017) has suggests. Digital technology, she contends,

…presents a significant opportunity for participatory and post-custodial approaches that seek to shift curatorial authority and access to the communities represented. In this model, archivists work side-by-side with community members to actively rectify gaps in historical coverage and proactively document the present day. (n.p.)

Postcustodianship allows us to re-think the institutional structure of the archive and promotes new possibilities for record oversight and knowledge-production. Considering the questions posed earlier and the theory of post-custodial archives, we can begin to restructure archives themselves. Personal and community archives can challenge traditional notions of “the national archive” as both a brick and mortar building and a collection of the “official” history. The goal of post-custodianship is to open up new avenues for creating knowledge. It allows the communities themselves to maintain ownership of their own histories, but also fills in the gaps of the official record by providing minority points of view.

Works cited
Becerra-Licha, Sofía. “Participatory and Post-Custodial Archives as Community Practice.” Educause Review, 23 Oct. 2017, https://er.educause.edu/articles/2017/10/participatory-and-post-custodial-archives-as-community-practice.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Richard Philcox, Grove Press, 2004.

Foucault, Michel. The Archeology of Knowledge. London: Tavistock Publications, 1972.

International Council on Archives. “Mission, Aims and Objectives.” 2016. www.ica.org/en/mission-aim-and-objectives.
Pearce-Moses, Richard. “Postarchival theory of archives.” A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology. Society of American Archivists, 2005. www2.archivists.org/glossary.
Further reading
Battles, Matthew. Library: An Unquiet History. 1 edition, W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.
Lazo, Rodrigo. “Migrant Archives.” States of Emergency: The Object of American Studies, edited by Russ Castronovo and Susan Kay Gillman, 2009, pp. 38–72.
“US Latina/o Digital Humanities Reading List.” Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage. www.zotero.org/groups/1920193/us_latinao_digital_humanities
“What Is An Archives?” Society of American Archivists, 2007. www.archivists.org/archivesmonth/2007WhatIsAnArchives.pdf

Lorena Gauthereau is a CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow at Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage at the University of Houston. Find her online at https://lorenagauthereau.wordpress.com.

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