When one starts an archives, or even starts to read the literature on the topic, one finds the need to suffer through a lot of postmodern theory. Issues of subjectivity, identity, questions of power relations, and claims to “deconstructing” this and that appear on almost every page.
This blog has attempted a more pragmatic approach to the craft of community archives, and for a long time it’s been a lonely place to be.
But there is hope! The new edition of American Archivist (No. 75, Spring/Summer 2012) brings something I haven’t seen in a while: An article so good I had to tell someone about it.
Christine N. Paschild, in an article entitled “Community archives and the Limitations of Identity: Considering Discursive Impact on Material Needs,” argues that the postmodern vocabulary habitually used when discussing community archives serves to marginalize these collections, and distracts from the practical and important goal of fulling their mission. And, further, that this is quite ironic, because those who partake in the vocabulary consider themselves proponents of community archives.
She frames her discussion specifically around the Japanese American National Museum, but argues convincingly that her point is easily generalizable to all types community archives.
“The history,” she writes in the conclusion, that community archives collect,
just like the community of its origin, is not inherently separate from, independent of, or marginal to the broader history of the United States. Nor is it any more or less subjective than the history documented by any other collection in any other archives. This begs the question, then, if the conditional caveat of subjectivity is really necessary for the inclusion of community archives in the landscape of professional theory and practice. And, if a continued focus on identity and subjectivity is imperative to successful archival practice, when will it be applied with equal vigor to all archival endeavors?
By focusing on the subjectivity of archives and issues of identity when — and only when — talking about community archives keeps them at a distance, as though other collections are less subjective, or community archives are somehow different because of their focus.
Paschild’s article is a breath of fresh air in a field often chocked by needless jargon and ill-defined theory.
Want to show you take community archives seriously? Start an archives!
(And in the meantime, check out Paschild’s article, we’re lucky to have it.)