Desiree Alaniz 2017-07-11 15:59:57
Archivists have a lot of work to do. Immediately following the 2016 presidential election, professional organizations in a variety of disciplines were pushed to respond, and the Society of American Archivists, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the American Library Association all issued statements reaffirming core values, particularly those related to diversity and inclusion. Librarian John Overholt developed a blog, The Profession Responds, to document statements from these and other organizations “representing librarians, archivists, and other cultural heritage organizations.” Individual groups of librarians and archivists were also quick to act, developing projects like the #LibrariesResist resource list and the Concerned Archivists Alliance that more directly address the possibilities of libraries and archives as spaces for and practices of resistance. One frequent cry in the aftermath of the election was the need for greater information literacy, particularly given the role of so-called “fake news” in the election cycle. But the problem isn’t really about people simply being misinformed or unable to discern biases or inaccurate information. Our culture determines what information is privileged, in both content and form, and the way we think about information literacy is embedded in larger cultural ideas about what bodies and lives are seen and valued in our society. This same culture also shapes our professional and personal identities. To successfully re-evaluate our foundational principles of access and use in this moment, we must recognize the elasticity of our work as archivists and what limitations and creative vision we bring to it. Form, Content, and Context The recently adopted Information Literacy Standards from the Association of College and Research Libraries describes information literacy as “the set of integrated abilities encompassing the reflective discovery of information, the understanding of how information is produced and valued, and the use of information in creating new knowledge and participating ethically in communities of learning.” The framework stresses the role of critical self-reflection (meta-reflection) combined with meta-literacy, “an overarching set of abilities in which students are consumers and creators of information who can participate successfully in collaborative spaces.” Central to this is one’s understanding of the varying contexts for the creation and circulation of information. In a December 2016 blog post on https://hapgood.us, educational technologist Mike Caulfield also connected these larger information contexts, noting that “most literacies are heavily domain-dependent, and based not on skills, but on a body of knowledge that comes from mindful immersion in a context.” Put another way, our domain knowledge is limited if we do not acknowledge larger cultural systems which interact with and shape it. One example of this is the language of “state’s rights” used by segregationists during the Civil Rights movement (and to this day) as a way to provide legal justification for segregation, which ultimately obfuscated the core issue of race in these conversations. This connection is obvious to those who are erased by such language; those with the privilege of not living these experiences must gain a critical understanding of the messenger, the message, and the intended audience. This is what information literacy needs to address. Failure or resistance to acknowledge this context only validates the role of language and information in perpetuating racism and sexism. One way that we can re-imagine information literacy is by adding a critical analysis of what information does as well as how it is created, shared, and used. Information can embolden white supremacists to open violence; it can also connect and rally communities in resistance. Combined with an understanding of inequities in our institutions, information literacy can provide a set of critical conceptual tools for connecting to the communities most in need of our expertise—and reshape our field in the process. Beyond Traditional Archives Information workers and archivists are uniquely positioned to contribute our skills to activist movements both in the field and in the culture at large. First, it’s important to learn about the work that activists and marginalized communities are currently doing, even if it deviates from what we have historically recognized as formal archives. Projects such as WITNESS Archiving educates activists on how to properly document and archive such events as immigration raids and abuses of human rights. The Xfer (read as transfer) Collective partners with non-archivists to lower barriers to preserving analog audiovisual media of “unseen, unheard, or marginalized works.” The People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland is a community-centered archives documenting police violence against local communities of color. These are only three examples of a growing number of projects that expand our vision for what archivists can do. Our practice also has much to gain from collaborations like these, projects that ask us to listen to the needs of the users we seek to attract to our repositories. Resources such as the #LibrariesResist project give us much-needed perspectives on issues of race, sexuality, and ability. We will not be able to effectively contribute to reshaping our own organizational cultures without a thorough understanding of how these cultures are connected to larger social and political conversations. One way of changing our domain knowledge so that we can change archival practices is to rethink curriculum and professional training. We must add nuance and complexity to issues of “access” and “use” in contemporary and future communities. Independently of professional organizations, archivists and LIS practitioners are developing an extensive body of scholarly work and community projects directly addressing power dynamics inherent in our profession, yet these critical perspectives are rarely included in curriculum outside the context of “diversity and inclusion.” As a student active in conversations about how archives interact with and reproduce systems of power, I urge practitioners and educators to create space in your classes and institutions for addressing the role of archives in anti-oppression work and to invite students to contribute to the process. We must continue to question and educate ourselves on the barriers and exclusions impacting the communities we don’t see in our profession, collections, and reading rooms. Changing the Conversation In a 1978 essay, activist, author, and former librarian Audre Lorde wrote that in order to transition from the culture we are in to the culture we want to be in, “it is vitally necessary for each one of us to establish or examine her function in that transformation and to recognize her role as vital within that transformation.” Our professional identities as archivists are only one of many we each hold, and there are many among us who hold other identities that experience violence and oppression in our communities. We cannot advocate for the value of our profession if we cannot advocate for our full selves within the profession. Expanding our understanding of our individual roles and making the effort to educate ourselves on the work that people outside of archives are doing is essential to being able to meet the ongoing challenges of this political climate. And our positional privilege as preservers of culture requires that we learn from people in parallel projects working toward similar ends. It’s also important to remember that although the political climate may feel threatening now, it’s never been “safe” to be a person of color, an LGBTQ person, or an immigrant in our society. It should not take the possibility of IMLS and NEH defunding to force us to acknowledge the fragility of “neutrality,” when the majority of our users and professional communities face violence and erasure in our institutions and our larger culture. As I was completing a draft of this essay, archivist Jarrett Drake published an important piece on Medium about his decision to leave the archival profession. Drake argued that the types of transformative social justice work necessary in this world are not possible within “professions” as they currently exist. This remains a significant question for how we think about archival work going forward. It’s not about abandoning neutrality as a professional stance, but about being proactive in recognizing how we recreate oppressive spaces for users and archivists when we don’t address racism, homophobia, and ableism. Archivists must move toward integrating the linked concepts of equity and social justice to our foundational principles of access and use. This effort is not only for ourselves as practitioners, but also for the many other communities to which we belong and for a society that needs us to reconsider our investment in our work.
Published by Society of American Archivists. View All Articles.