Friday, October 2, 2015

The Power of Archives

This past week, our classmates took the floor to discuss various topics in the archives world that pertained to our particular interests. I noticed that the nature of the archival focus was split between the class. While half of us focused on individual archives, others spoke about local archival institutions or an online archival presence. About half of us spoke about federal records site, which was an intriguing opening to a conversation about the inherent power of the archives. 

The focus on U.S. government-owned archives is not surprising. It often has the most visibility, as it documents a "grand sweep - type" history of the United States. It is one of the biggest sources of historical power. As Mark Greene explained in "The Power of Archives", the power of the archives and the archivist comes, in part, from "shaping the historical record." (Greene 20). As the visibility of government archives is often more apparent than private ones for its roots in authority, it seems to represent those who are powerful and neglects the powerless.

So, how do you represent groups that are all but absent from the archives? Keith brought up in last week's class some of the readings that we had consulted our first year of graduate school that delved into this issue. The historian Saidiya Hartman, in "Venus in Two Acts" wrestled with properly documenting the experiences of enslaved women in the Atlantic world. Hartman articulates the ultimate struggle, "Is it possible to construct a story from “the locus of impossible speech” or resurrect lives from the ruins? Can beauty provide an antidote to dishonor, and love a way to “exhume buried cries” and reanimate the dead?" (Hartman 2).

Historians can't transcend what does exist in the historical record. That would violate the virtues of our profession and some semblance of truth that exists. Even so, archives hold all sorts of documents that can lead us to historically oppressed groups, but it sometimes takes being a little creative. I've had friends tell me they search all kinds of archives for store registries for purchases made by women, or journals, and any other number of ways to document the experiences of those silenced by the archives. Government archives hold power, but local archives do, too. It just takes a little bit of searching. 

No comments:

Post a Comment