Order of Multitudes

In what ways are voices silenced and underrepresented in the archive?

Photo by Oleg Laptev on Unsplash

Archives are not neutral. The history and ongoing legacy of archives in the United States is such that they enforce, and continue to exist in, systems of oppression. They are documentary warehouses that attest to the history of white supremacy and privilege in this country. Many of the records and papers that are housed in archival institutions—such as the National Archives in Washington D.C., local and state libraries, public libraries and local history archives, as well as academic institutions—document the wealthy and/or privileged.

This legacy of documenting power is maintained by archival practices. Take, for instance, the issue of how things end up in archives. Professional practice dictates that archivists should create a collecting policy that outlines their scope—what they will take in and what they will not. Archivists, through their collecting policies and other biased and subjective collecting decisions, get to make decisions not only about what kinds of materials in what kinds of formats to preserve, but also about which histories are worthwhile, and which are not. Archival practice in the United States is steeped in Western ways of knowing and remembering. Such collecting practices, at the hands of archivists, ignore or de-value how many cultures, peoples, and families remember and preserve their history. They are the histories that “fall out of scope.”

One can imagine looking at the contents of an archive, full of records that detail the “great” deeds and people of history—usually wealthy cis-gendered heterosexual white Christian men—and conclude that the archive has no interest in the everyday lived experiences of those without titles, accolades, and known names. It would seem that archivists do not care about queer history, or Black lives, or women, and that there is no place in the archives for neurodiversity, diversity of physical abilities, or people for whom English is not a first language. What does it mean when archives, seen as consecrated sites for the preservation of the past, reject or willfully ignore these histories? For many, it means not just that their histories are unwelcome, but that their identities and lives are unworthy of being seen, of inclusion, of preservation, and, in very real contexts, of existence.

For these communities who come to the archives and only see this absence, it is no wonder that they believe that they do not belong in archives. Having been silenced for so long, those that exist beyond the archival scope have been given so little reason to trust that that their voices, their own records, their own perspectives would be welcomed by archives and the archivists who maintain them. Moreover, they have been given little reason to trust that archivists could accurately, fairly, or empathetically steward their history.   

Archives, often seen as impartial authorities of the historical record, act as biased arbiters of historical and cultural importance. Their contents convey what is important, who is important, and what kinds of history are important—in other words, they are built within systems that perpetuate existing power hierarchies and continue to disenfranchise those that exist beyond that scope. Archives are comprised of people who have biases and practices that reflect those biases. 

But there is hope. Increasingly, communities that have been traditionally excluded or marginalized by archival practices are creating more inclusive and welcoming spaces that honor a range of perspectives and lived experiences. Community archives, created by and for community members, document, preserve, and make available their own history. They not only center and amplify their own voices, but also capture and appreciate a variety of ways of knowing and remembering.

Many archival institutions, too, have been reckoning with their own histories, especially in the harm and suppression of peoples, cultures, and identities. Over the last few decades, archivists have sought to expand their collecting scopes to document underrepresented communities. More recently, some archivists have started implementing re-description projects that seek to remediate the silences, omissions, and neglect of the past. For example, some are starting to incorporate anti-oppressive language through the usage of taxonomies developed by community members to describe themselves, such as the Digital Transgender Archive’s glossary. Other archivists are redirecting their collecting focus to fill the gaps in their holdings, choosing to only accept collections by Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), for instance.

These are but a few steps towards a more equitable, just, and representative archive. This future will not only welcome a cacophony of daring and loud voices that complicate the very notion of history, but will also recognize the humanity that exists within a single voice. 

Author(s)

Michelle M. Peralta

Archivist, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University

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Michelle M. Peralta

Michelle Peralta is an archivist in Yale University Library’s Manuscripts and Archives, located in Sterling Memorial Library. She is responsible for arranging, describing, and making available archival collections from across Yale University Library’s special collection repositories, including the Divinity, Music, Medical Historical, and Arts libraries.

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