This post was written by Arabeth Balasko, who was selected to be one of this year’s virtual DLF Forum Community Journalists.
Arabeth Balasko (she/her) is an archivist and historian dedicated to public service and proactive stewardship. As a professional archivist, her overarching goals are to curate collections that follow a shared standardization practice, are user-centric, and are searchable and accessible to all via physical and digital platforms.
She believes that an archive should be a welcoming place for all people and should be an inclusive environment which advocates to collect, preserve, and make accessible the stories and histories of diverse voices. By getting individuals involved in telling THEIR story and making THEIR history part of the ever-growing story of humanity, we all win!
The Dawn of the Great Archival Shift
Over centuries, archives and archivists have been heralded as the keepers, the stewards of records, stories, and collective memory. However, at times this stewardship has come from a place of exclusion, centered heavily around white, English-speaking experiences. Countless stories, memories, and events have been omitted from the larger historical narrative or have been rewritten from a skewed perspective.
Now (and unfortunately for centuries) racism and police brutality has permeated our country’s history. Lack of racial equity has led to whitewashed and white supremacy-based collection policies that are geared towards uplifting and showcasing one-sided narratives, while often overlooking, overwriting, and suppressing contributions and accolades of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.
So many times, it is easier for folks in the GLAM sectors to claim neutrality, to leave it to the next generation, to look the other way, and focus only on the past and occasionally, the present. From being overworked, under-supported, and oftentimes misunderstood, archivists have grown tired, and with tiredness comes apathy. Other times it is simply not knowing what to do and/or not having the “authority” to make actual changes in an organization. This too leads to burnout, turnover, and once again, apathy. The humanities profession’s lack of diversity and equity has engrained a culture of dysfunction in several of the GLAM organizations across the country.
During the 2020 DLF Forum, it was apparent that I was not the only person who felt this way. Several of the sessions focused on how to become a more proactive, mindful, and accountable steward, while also taking care of your own mental health and well-being. From practicing mindfulness and relaxation techniques, to reflecting upon language choices in metadata and/or finding aids, to reviewing your institution’s digitally available content for equity and inclusiveness; this conference truly spoke to my soul in many different ways. However, during the conference, one overarching question that I continued asking myself was – “How can I, as an archivist, ensure that all folks feel represented in an archive? Is this possible?” Upon a week’s reflection and allowing myself some time to digest the rich information and ideas posed during these diverse sessions, I came to reframe my question as, “What can we as archivists do to support the fight for archival equity?”
In my opinion, one big step archival repositories and the archivists in those repositories can take is to not promote the idea of neutrality. Oftentimes, archives can shy away from hard histories, hard conversations – they can minimize hurts, and maximize virtues, but I feel that is a misstep. History is ugly, sad, beautiful, heartwarming, heartbreaking, and real. It happened. You cannot change that. BUT you can work to showcase how it happened, why it happened, and help reshape it for today’s generation through modernized lenses. By uplifting the stories and voices of BIPOC folks, which have traditionally been omitted from the collected narrative for centuries, and reinterpreting and reclaiming the stories of those lost, overwritten, and marginalized throughout history, archival repositories can truly become beacons of change throughout the GLAM sectors.
Many folks, especially those who identify as BIPOC, feel they are not represented in an archive – or if they are, their stories and experiences have been retold without their voice, their input, or their permission. As an archivist it is so important to work to build relationships and connections with communities and foster and tend to those relationships over the years. So many times, archival organizations take on collections, sign deeds of gift, and then the relationship ends. I think this is a huge misstep for any archival repository. By investing in communities – communities will invest in you. With each new generation comes new opportunities to promote equity and accountability throughout archival repositories. Each generation of archivists should be reflecting and reevaluating how stories are (and traditionally have been) collected, maintained, presented, and made (or not made) accessible.
I cannot tell you how many times I have worked with patrons, students, and volunteers, who have expressed to me that they feel that they are not represented, they are not “seen” amongst the archival collections they are exploring. It truly breaks my heart, and it means that we, as archival professionals are falling short, and we need to do better and be better for ALL users. I feel that inclusivity is key to create a well-rounded narrative, where users/patrons/researchers/etc. can “see themselves” reflected in the archives and collections.
It has been my experience that when someone feels invested in and has input to how they are being represented, there is a higher propensity for folks to champion for the survival and continuation of an archive. By getting community members and groups invested in telling their story, identifying themselves in their own way and own language/words, and by not leaving it up to the archivist to make assumptions, collections that are taken in become more authentic and personal.
During this conference, I also reflected a lot on the right to be remembered and the right to be forgotten. Nobody owes anyone their story. It is so important for archivists (including myself) to remember that. Some stories are too painful for folks to share, some are not ready (and may never be), and some are willing to share it all! No user/donor/patron is alike, and as an archivist, it is important that you do not assign a “predetermined scenario” to each interaction. By creating meaningful relationships, where you are invested in more than just acquiring the “stuff” from the donor, you really can create life-long partnerships, camaraderie, and friendships with users of your repository!
Archives are not neutral – and they never should be. There is a lot of repair work that needs to be done, and it can be done, it just takes folks who are dedicated to making fundamental changes. I was honestly inspired to find like-minded souls at this conference, and for that, I am hopeful that a great archival shift is on the horizon. It is truly great to see archivists and other humanities professionals in action advocating for change and demanding equity checks and re-evaluation of how things “have always been.”
I reflected on the fact that there really are some great opportunities to make proactive changes and create an archive that is more equitable and accessible for all users – an archive of the future. For me, it is all connected – by investing in equity you invest in accessibility – when you invest in communities you have the chance to grow your repository’s stories and collection scope!
The archives truly are for EVERYONE! And, as the great Tupac Shakur says, “You see the old way wasn’t working, so it’s on us to do what we gotta do, to survive.” My hope is that archivists work to make any and all fundamental changes needed, to ensure that an equitable, inclusive, and diverse narrative survives for the future generations to come.