What steps can archivists take to address historical inequities?

History is written by the victors – or so the popular saying goes. As archivists, we see things differently. We know that history is more than a singular narrative. Traces of the past are recovered, revisited, and reinterpreted all the time. Historians, whether professional academics or just enthusiastic members of the public, are becoming increasingly diverse and representative of the populations they study. And in the middle are the archivists, mediating interactions between historians and the documents they study. And try as we might to be neutral, our choices have an impact on the way history is studied and understood. What steps can archivists take to address historical inequities? This project, and the organization that sponsored it, are committed to acknowledging this reality and working towards justice.

Archivists make decisions about what to keep. What factors influence these decisions?

People who are educated and in power – often rich, white, men – create the most records and their records are most likely to end up in traditional archives. Archivists can be more proactive in pursuing representation as a goal in and of itself, and particularly documentation produced by or from the perspective of folks who are traditionally underrepresented in archives – Black, Indigenous, and people of color; women; intersex, trans, and gender non-conforming folx; people with disabilities; religious minorities; immigrants; incarcerated or institutionalized people; etc.

Archivists should be aware that because many of their institutions have historically ignored or exploited the archival records of marginalized folks in the past, these communities today may be hesitant to donate their precious documents to traditional archives, and may instead prefer to keep them in private hands or community organizations. Rather than insisting upon records donation, archivists should consider non-custodial strategies for supporting archival preservation access, through such means as advice, digital surrogacy, or outright financial support.

The In Her Own Right project acknowledges these realities and attempts to highlight materials documenting underrepresented communities that are stored in community-based archives. Our goal is not just to expose the stories in these collections to greater research use, but also to build capacity in small repositories in such areas as digitization, description, and/or physical control, through individual training and/or participation in the metadata enhancement events. Visit our Inclusive Archives Resource Guide to learn more about our partnerships and explore collections and materials about historically underrepresented communities.

Archivists help you find resources. What resources do they focus on?

Even after a collection is in an archives, archivists have a lot of decisions to make. Collections must be sorted, rehoused for preservation, and cataloged so that researchers can locate items of interest within them. With limited resources and scarce staff time, archivists must prioritize some collections for swift processing while others may wait for months or years before they are accessible to the public. A small percentage of materials may be digitized and posted online.

Some collections receive more time and focus than others. If an archivist reads a document carefully, they may “read between the lines” and notice traces of a story of a marginalized person – for example, a letter written by an enslaver may mention the names and activities of people enslaved by him. The archivist does not always catch such a reference; if they do notice it, they may decide it is important enough to highlight in the description or cataloging, or not.

The In Her Own Right project is dedicated to digitizing historical documents written by women, in order to diversify the historical record in a period that is dominated by men’s voices (1820-1920). Additional effort has been put into seeking out records of underrepresented women, locating their stories where they are buried “between the lines,” and highlighting them in our cataloging.

Archivists choose words. Do those words reinforce or acknowledge historical oppressions?

The words people choose to describe others can range from respectful to hurtful. The impact of these words, no matter the intention behind them, changes over time. Therefore, we recognize that many of the words in this database, more commonly used in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, may now be painful to read and experience.

As archivists, we make choices about what words to use to describe historical documents. We recognize that we do not always make the right choices. In most contexts, we strive to be respectful and use words that reflect the preferences of communities today. However, there are circumstances in which the user may still encounter potentially harmful language: (1) when the archivist is quoting from an historical text or using the name of an historical organization; (2) when the archivist re-uses the wording of creators or previous owners of the collection, because it provides important context and/or is more efficient than re-cataloging the materials; (3) in Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), which utilize outdated terminology, but which are standardized across library catalogs and serve an important function in facilitating better searching across systems; (4) when the catalog record itself was written by archivists years or decades ago, using terminology that was appropriate at the time, and archivists today have not had a chance to update it.

If you encounter language in the In Her Own Right website database that you find offensive or harmful, we sincerely apologize, and we would be grateful for your feedback. Please email inhor@pacscl.org including the words, exhibits/pages, and/or catalog records that are offensive or harmful so that we can review and update them.