Diversifying the Archives

In the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among many others, and in the spirit of protest that followed, the archival community began an earnest conversation about what it could do to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in our field. This has led to a heightened attention in the creation and/or prioritization of initiatives and projects related to this matter across institutions throughout the country, including Princeton University. 

One initiative being implemented in several archival repositories is that of enhancement and redescription work. At Princeton University Library Special Collections, the “Inclusive Description Working Group” has been engaged in archival redescription efforts since its formation in May 2019. Our primary goal is tackling the complex issue of cultural sensitivity in archival description, and to critically rethink our role as archivists in order to create description that is respectful to the individuals and communities who create, use, and are represented in the archival collections we manage. Last year we completed an automated description audit with the goal of identifying existing collections that need work, and our team has been able to work on some redescription projects. One such significant project was undertaken last fall by archival resident Carolina Meneses, who worked under the guidance of Chloe Pfendler on a project to identify and enhance access to the names of women who had previously only been identified by their husbands’ names or as anonymous wives, mothers, and daughters in our Latin American collections. For more information about this project, see here. For more detailed information about this working group, see the following blog post

Additionally, a newly formed working group within Special Collections, the “Uplifting Silenced Narratives Working Group,” was charged with focusing on uplifting the narratives of marginalized communities in our collections, making them more accessible to researchers, and making our patrons and the campus community more aware of them, as well as seeking to elevate the narratives of marginalized groups and communities that are present in our university and surrounding community. The working group has been meeting bi-weekly since last November, and as we moved forward, it became clear that it was necessary to shift course and depart slightly from the focus laid out in the charge, which will be clearly outlined in the report currently being drafted and to be delivered to the Special Collections Leadership Team next month. The group decided on a new approach whereby we will draft a narrative report with high-level recommendations in three particular areas within the department: Collecting Practices; Archival Processes; and Outreach and Teaching. It will also include the suggestion of a permanent mechanism for staff and patrons to be able to report silenced narratives as they are encountered in our collections.

One way of diversifying the archives is through the collection of oral histories, which provides an effective method of increasing inclusivity and more diverse representations by generating first-hand documentation from traditionally underrepresented groups and communities in the historical record. Additionally, it encourages the community to get involved in the archival process. As Michelle Caswell points out, “These projects also let community members know that archives are not just interested in famous people from the past, but in everyday people in the present.” (1) One commendable oral history project is being led by our own, Valencia Johnson, Annalise Berdini, and Amanda Ferrara, the My Princeton Oral History Project, which aims to create, “…a space for Princeton students who feel left out of the dominant Princeton narrative by capturing and sharing their unique experience.” 

Another initiative that has the potential of significantly diversifying the archives is through the engagement in community archiving practices, which introduces a wider selection of historical materials through collaborations with nontraditional archival institutions. (2) As opposed to uplifting voices of marginalized groups and communities in collections where the creators are predominantly white, one clear advantage of community archiving is that it elevates the voices of those marginalized groups and communities because of their immediate connection as creators of the records, and those who are represented in them. Furthermore, community archives challenge traditional ideas about whose history is important, and redirects the focus of collecting and preserving towards records of ordinary people, instead of simply collecting records of prominent organizations and individuals. As Randal C. Jimerson points out in the article, Archives for All: Professional Responsibility and Social Justice, “It is important to note that while marginalized communities have often lacked representation in the institutional archive, these communities have been actively preserving their own cultures and history outside of the institution.” (3) Working with communities will require changing traditional collecting methods and priorities. As the model created by the UNC Southern Historical Collection’s Community-Driven Archives project illustrates, it will require a shift from a top-down traditional model to a community-driven model. (4)

Furthermore, engagement in community archiving can lead to building a robust post-custodial program. Post-custodial models have been gaining ground in the archival community, and one prominent example is the work being done at the University of Texas Libraries, with projects such as, Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional (AHPN), Human Rights Documentation Initiative (HRDI), and the Genocide Archive of Rwanda. In a post-custodial model, creators retain custody of their records, consequently shifting ownership and access to the communities represented, rather than being handed over to larger and wealthier institutions. Post-custodial models are rooted in close collaborations and trusting partnerships, which are guided by equality between the parties, as Lopez Matthews, a librarian at Howard University, notes in the article written by Cynthia Greenlee, Inheritance: The Lost-and-Found History of the Dorsey Scrapbooks, “We came together as equals with a shared goal. That’s not the case with all partnerships. We always ask if we will benefit from them. It’s easier to say that with a smaller, focused partnership … But we don’t need to give our resources to other people to tell our history.” (5) The aforementioned article also accentuates the unfortunate precarious nature of many of these materials, making them highly susceptible to being lost forever. However, advances in digital technology offer larger and wealthier institutions the opportunity to harness technology to establish collaborative and mutual partnerships with community archives. As Sofía Becerra-Licha (2017) notes, “… [technology] presents a significant opportunity for participatory and post-custodial approaches that seek to shift curatorial authority and access to the communities represented.” (6) 

A post-custodial approach can also provide an alternative solution to the inevitable issue of limited storage space in archival repositories. The “Storage Space Data Working Group” was charged with formally evaluating the realities of collection growth, and Jen Meyer, on behalf of the group, gave an informative presentation in the Special Collections staff meeting pointing out the growth and capacity projections for the stacks located within the department. As was noted in the presentation, there are various shelf sizes that are close to reaching full capacity, at some point between 2021 and 2024. These include record cartons, Hollinger-size boxes, and oversize flat boxes, the predominant type of boxes used by archivists. 

It is encouraging to see the momentum building around issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in academic institutions across the country. But these initiatives are labor intensive, requiring considerable time, effort, and dedication, which will require a reassessment of existing frameworks of collection development policies and acquisition practices. Yet, it is this current environment, in which the leadership within these institutions is receptive and committed in their pursuit of a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive community, that has presented us with a significant opportunity to prioritize initiatives and projects which can address the long-overdue issue of diversifying the archives in a meaningful and sustainable manner.