By Katherine Schlesinger
As guest editors of the special issue of Archivaria on person-centred archival theory and praxis, we, Jennifer Douglas, Jessica Lapp and Mya Ballin, are pleased to share a series of blog posts that reflect on the nature and enactment of person-centred approaches to archival materials and work. These blog posts complement the articles in the special issue, presenting a variety of perspectives on how centring the person in archival processes happens and why it matters. We're grateful to the authors for sharing their research and experiences!
It is fitting that on the 100-year anniversary of the birth of Howard Zinn, the “People’s Historian,” archivists are purposively centring people in their own work, most notably in the service of formerly marginalized and silenced communities. Zinn was a fierce advocate for the oppressed, and an opponent of the notion of “neutrality” in the archives. In a paper presented to the Society of American Archivists in 1970, Zinn characterized the archival profession as an “inevitably political craft” whose biases privileged the records and stories of powerful people and institutions over those of ordinary people and equated archival claims of neutrality with passive complicity (Zinn, 1977). One can draw a line from Zinn’s work to current people-centred, social justice-focused archival projects addressing reconciliation, repatriation, reparations, redescription, and gaps about the lives of those previously misrepresented or excluded from the archives. Moreover, Zinn’s rejection of the notion of archival neutrality opened the door to the recognition of affect and emotion in the archive, which are vital aspects of people-centred archival praxis, in all their wonderful and terrible manifestations.
While most Library Information Science (LIS) students read and discuss the views of Howard Zinn, fewer are advised of the potential connection between social justice archival work and the emotional risks inherent in such endeavors for archivists and users of the archive, including the risk of trauma. This begs the question, is archival education sufficiently preparing the newest generation of archival professionals?
Trauma is medically defined as “an emotional reaction to incidents of death, physical or sexual violence,” or to “extreme or repeated exposure to aversive details of traumatic events which only applies to workers who encounter the consequences of traumatic events as part of their professional responsibilities,” (Pai, North & Suris, 2017, p.3). It is the latter part of this description, a phenomenon also termed secondary or vicarious trauma, that puts archivists at risk while either working directly with aversive materials, or interacting with the people described in the records, or their survivors.
Archives are full of traumatic materials, records describing the ordeals suffered by individuals, families, or communities, at times the direct relatives or ancestors of the very patrons wanting to access these records. What is considered aversive materials is subjective in the context of both cultural and personal terms. However, they are most often associated with collections of documents about police violence, state-sponsored terrorism, or systematic societal abuses of power, such as slavery and forced family separations. As communities begin to demand accountability for such actions, archivists are called upon to engage with these archival documents as evidence of past wrongdoings, for the purposes of reconciliation, reparations, or healing. Repeated engagement with materials that document trauma can elicit a powerful emotional response from the archivist and the user, leading to serious mental stress disorders, including trauma.
In the past, the archival profession suppressed the notion of emotional response, a shadow that still lingers over the profession and is compounded by society’s stigma surrounding mental health disorders or needs. However, archivists can embrace their humanity and acknowledge their emotional response to archival material while balancing the important work of people-centred, social-justice-focused archiving.
To their credit, archivists and archival educators have recently initiated open and supportive discussions about archival trauma and recognize the need to create supportive environments and mindsets to care for those impacted by archival trauma. The profession is in the early stages of developing training and resources, mostly geared towards working professionals. Pilot programs for trauma-informed archival management have met success most notably in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.
However, is the archival community overlooking the necessity and the opportunity to educate its newest members? Knowledge about the risk of trauma in the archive and training in trauma-informed archival management should ideally be provided at the LIS graduate student level, to prepare the next generation of people-centered archivists before they encounter traumatic materials in their first internship or job. As new archival literature is published on archival trauma and management, and workshops are more readily available online, it’s time to begin to extend this knowledge and training to LIS students. Newly minted archivists are eager to take up the call for social justice archival work. Trauma-informed training can only enhance their ability to approach such projects in a safe, effective, and truly people-centred manner.
Pai, A., North, C. & Suris, A. (2017). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in the DSM-5: Controversy, Change, and Conceptual Considerations [Review of the book Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed.; American Psychiatric Association: Arlington, VA, USA, 2013]. Behavioral Sciences 7(1); doi:10.3390/bs7010007. Retrieved from https://www.mdpi.com/2076-328X/7/1/7/htm
Zinn, H. (1977). Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest. The Midwestern Archivist, 2(2), 14-26. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41101382.
Katherine Schlesinger is a Master of Library Science candidate at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Her academic interest is in emotion and affect in the archive. She is a member of Trauma-Informed Archives: A Community of Practice.
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