Learnings from the ARCH Program: Archives, Objectivity, and New Skills
By Etana Laing, Lincoln University
This summer I had the privilege of participating in the ARCH program. Coming into this experience I had a very surface-level understanding of archives; little did I know I was uncovering just the tip of the iceberg. On my journey, I made important connections between manifestations of white supremacy and academia. The program served as a conduit for a deepened understanding of hegemony and my budding passion for archives. We engaged in meaningful discussions that invited critical thinking and taught the basic tenets of archives with a framework that recognized their white supremacist foundation.
In our weekly synchronous sessions, we discussed the building blocks of archives through a critical lens. We participated in conversations that fostered open, honest dialogue around issues of white supremacy, patriarchy, and hegemony, which is essential for being able to grow and create new best practices that reflect intersectional values. The ARCH program provided a counterpoint to the typical classroom setting where one is lectured to (the banking method of education to use Freirean terms). Students and Princeton staff co-created spaces of learning in office hours and group sessions. Learning in an environment that openly named the oppressive structures which are at play was paramount to my educational process. Reading Medium pieces like “Expanding #ArchivesForBlackLives to Traditional Archival Repositories” by Jarrett Drake and “We Already Are” by Yusef Omowale gave me the language to understand the complexity of archives and ways to utilize them for liberation. This experience allowed me to both learn the basics of archival research and the praxis to apply these lessons in a transformative classroom.
I have connected my learnings from the ARCH program to my current course load. Specifically, within my historical methods course, we are exploring different historical theories; this week we are discussing empiricism. Orthodox proponents of this methodology believe that researchers are capable of presenting a clear cut history not muddled by human perspective. I’ve found that similar to historians, many archivists in the field subscribe to the false notion of an objective truth or unbiased recording of history. The historian J. B. Bury stated, “There was indeed no historian since the beginning of things who did not profess that his sole aim was to present to his readers untainted and unpainted truth.” This concept of “the untainted truth” also shows up in archives. In reality, it is an example of how hegemony presents itself as being neutral. The white cishet man’s perspective is the only one afforded the term “objective.” Before starting the ARCH program, I thought a lot about the myth of objectivity, but this program gave me a place to explore that idea and see what it looks like when applied to higher education. When we ignore the fact that all people come to any situation or conversation with a set of values and ideologies, we invite uncritical modes of reflection and subsequently, white supremacy (because it is the default ideology). Hegemony is overwhelmingly pervasive in the idea of an empirical truth. We are not objective beings and by ignoring this fact we ignore the ways that racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. show up in academia as a whole.
As I continue my journey to becoming an archivist, these reflections will stick with me and help guide what I want my work to look like. It was extremely important for me to have a chance to talk about some of my ideas with other HBCU students and the Princeton library staff. I learned so much this summer and I am so excited to pursue a career in archives armed with this information.
My 2020 ARCH Experience
By Sierra Phillips, Tougaloo College
This summer was like none other for me—especially as it relates to acquiring summer opportunities. Going into the summer, I thought I would participate in one summer program, but a few weeks after my initial summer program ended, I was presented with another exciting opportunity: The Archives, Research and Collaborative History program with Princeton University Library. I was excited for this because I wanted to gain more insight on archives and research. Participating in the online version of the program was engaging and informative. Of course, I would have loved for it to have been in person, but I still enjoyed the experience. The staff was very organized and involved, and because of this, I got the most out of what the online version had to offer.
A particular session over the 4 weeks of the program that stood out to me was when we discussed digital archiving.I did not realize how important digital archiving is—especially as it relates to research. I learned how important it is to label folders and files to easily access needed information in the future. I also learned how websites such as Google Drive can discontinue, so it is important to save your files in multiple places to have a backup.
One of the readings I enjoyed the most was David Levy’s “Meditation on a Receipt.” It allowed me to think more broadly about what everyday items could be considered a primary source. The activity that asked us to find a primary source in my home was my favorite activity. I enjoyed this because it helped me realize that there are primary sources all around my home, but I did not stop to consider them a primary source or even a part of my history because I often look at history as something that happened a very long time ago. This activity helped me look at my life and my history and the primary sources such as family pictures that come along with it.
Ultimately, the ARCH program has exposed me to the archival profession and if it is something I would consider pursuing. I also learned also how to navigate an archive for research, especially digitally. Before this program, I have always been interested in the archival profession. I would be better able to evaluate my aptitude for this career if I had hands-on experience or shadowed someone in this field.
To learn more about 2020’s virtual Archives Research and Collaborative History program, please visit the feature story on the Princeton University Library website.