2020 has laid bare many of the structural inequalities in American society. We have seen COVID-19 expose inequalities of wealth, access to resources, and the value of labor. We have seen systemic racism and violence against Black Americans, violence enacted against the transgender community, human rights violations against immigrants at the US-Mexico border, and threats of healthcare coverage cuts for the disabled community. Although these inequalities and injustices have always existed, in the past nine months many of us have spent more time than ever before thinking about how we as individuals, and the institutions we represent, contribute to systems of oppression and injustice.
Archives are a part of larger systems of injustice and oppression in our society. Archives can be vehicles of white supremacy, and have traditionally served as gatekeepers that maintain colonial structures.1 For example, as memory keepers archives often exclude images and records of violence against marginalized communities and, as such, offer “archival amnesty” and implicitly condone human rights abuses against marginalized groups.2 In order to ensure equitable access to all, we need to actively work to decolonize our collections and our policies. We need to consciously support a social justice agenda, one that rejects the violence perpetuated by the age-old idea that archives can and should be neutral.3
But what role can archives play in working toward social justice?
We asked four University of Maryland Libraries and SCUA staff members what social justice means to them. We asked these questions: 1) what do you do and what are some of your daily responsibilities? and 2) in your position, what does social justice in the archive or library mean to you? Their responses show the wide range of approaches and work that needs to be done in order to make archives more equitable, just, and welcoming spaces.
Your position in the library – what you do and some of your daily responsibilities.
I am the manager of the Digital Programs & Initiatives department for UMD Libraries, in our technology division. Broadly speaking, my group manages our digital repositories, like Digital Collections and DRUM, as well as services like digital preservation, e-Publishing, and research data services. We’re responsible for some big projects, like leading implementation efforts for launching a new media repository platform in 2021 or migrating our digital archive to the cloud, as well as a lot of maintenance work and activities regarding the availability, use, and preservation of the Libraries’ digital assets.
In your position, what does social justice in the archive/library mean to you?
I think about this question with a few different lenses, as a digital librarian by trade. First, I believe that libraries are not neutral, and consequently, our technology and systems are not neutral, either. Digital libraries inherit some of the great aspirations of libraries as social justice organizations, and many of the mission statements of large digital library projects aim to be global repositories of human knowledge, available to anyone on the planet with access to the internet. However, the systems and services we make — and a great deal of digital library technology is made and maintained by cultural heritage employees — inherit many of our biases and privileges, and as a result they can frequently center whiteness and wealth. This manifests in a lot of ways, like what we choose to digitize and why (and preserve and make accessible), what we describe and to what extent, what expertise and institutional investment is required to run local digital libraries and repositories, what algorithms we implement, and what assumptions we make about the abilities and resources available to our end users. I think this needs to be tackled interpersonally, organizationally, and professionally—and there are a lot of ways to get there on every front—but ultimately making intentional choices and changes about what labor, experience, and perspectives count is the way I try to work in this space.
Your position in SCUA – what you do and some of your daily responsibilities
I am the Instruction and Outreach Librarian. I administer our primary source instruction program, website, social media, events, exhibitions, and other outreach. I teach one-shot sessions to help students learn how to use archival items to answer their research questions, to find archival items in ours and others’ collections, and to use archival items responsibly. I help others with their instruction planning. I manage website development and maintenance and advise on development and implementation of web tools, such as our archival databases. I oversee and advise the work in our exhibition program, both in our gallery and in our small exhibit cases inside the reading room. I identify opportunities for events, lead the planning, and execute those events. I created our social media program which is now managed by various social media administrations. I advise at a top level on our SCUA accounts and contribute content occasionally.
In your position, what does social justice in the archive mean?
In regards to instruction, social justice is central to how we teach students to use the archive. Over the past few years, my colleagues and I have worked to focus our instruction around archival ethics and empathy, feature material that represents a wide range of experiences, and expose gaps and absences while encouraging learners to consider how and why those absences exist. We want to ensure that future researchers approach all archives with a critical eye and can more easily. For example, I have had students explore exhibition webpages, like this one, select an item and do a primary source analysis. When they look at what we have, who created the item, and whose viewpoint is represented by these items, it can help them understand issues of archival absences more deeply.
I also try to incorporate social justice into our outreach, especially our exhibition program. Our upcoming exhibition will be about Voting Rights in America. We wanted to feature the history of voting rights over time, and the struggles that people have boldly faced throughout history and into today. We also try to tie one of our annual events to the First Year Book on campus, this year about algorithms and oppression, and we are combing our collections to look for historical items that related to the topics in the book. It has been a fun way to expose the more unexpected aspects of our collection.
Your position in SCUA – what you do and some of your daily responsibilities
My position in SCUA is a dual appointment as a student assistant and a library services assistant in our labor collections, also known as the Meany Labor Archive. My main daily responsibilities are reference and outreach, and assisting with instruction when necessary. My reference responsibilities center around responding to reference questions from a wide variety of patrons around the world. My outreach responsibilities include running our social media accounts on Instagram and Twitter, as well as producing the Cool Things in the Meany Archives podcast, co-producing the weekly Labor History Today podcast, and contributing to the Labor Radio Podcast Network.
In your position, what does social justice in the archive mean?
In my position, I think social justice in the archive means challenging the status quo and working to establish an inclusive environment across the board. I think a lot about the choice historian Howard Zinn offered at the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists in 1970: “to follow the politics of the going order,” and “do our job within the priorities and directions set by the dominant forces of society,” or to “promote those human values of peace, equality, and justice, which our present society denies.” Social justice in the archive in my position is to promote those values, especially in terms of the collection material that we highlight on social media and other forms of outreach.
One thing I try to do in outreach and engagement work is to invoke labor history to shed light on current issues and struggles in the labor movement. Social justice in the archive, in this capacity, also includes a consistent effort to attend rallies, protests, and other labor events and actions to document as much as possible, be present and build strong relationships with folks in the labor movement. For me, this work really started back at the end of 2018 and into 2019, with documenting the federal government shutdown. We attended rallies and protests, collected signs, documented the events, and shared them on social media. I specifically remember when federal workers occupied the Hart building at the Senate, making signs out of paper plates because larger signs were not allowed in the building. After 33 minutes of silent protest, workers collectively raised their fists and chanted “no more food banks! We need paychecks!” And it was such a powerful moment.
Since then, I’ve attended countless rallies organized by the labor movement, including a UFCW rally demanding a fair contract from Safeway, rallies to save the USPS, and more recently, rallies and protests against police brutality. In early June of this year, we attended a Labor for Black Lives Matter rally, organized by IUPAT General President Ken Rigmaiden outside of the AFL-CIO building at the newly designated Black Lives Matter Plaza. Before the rally, outside of the building, with masks on, we interviewed Rigmaiden, who spoke not only about the importance of rallying in support of Black Lives Matter, but also his history of experiencing police brutality in San Jose, California. Our most recent outreach and engagement efforts were attending a candlelight vigil organized by the CLUW on the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, and attending the Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks, organized by Reverend Al Sharpton after the murder of George Floyd, held on the 57th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Ken Rigmaiden, who we interviewed a few months prior, also spoke at the Commitment March. I do a lot of this with the mentality that nobody owes us their history, their records. It is instead up to us to earn that trust and actively seek these stories, and this history, as it happens. To summarize, the goal of my outreach and engagement work is to actively pursue instead of passively collect.
Social justice in the archive, in my opinion, also means expanding our digital collections, especially during a pandemic when the library has been physically closed and everyone is working and/or researching remotely. In addition to the material we’ve collected from documenting rallies, protests, and other labor events that have been shared on social media, we have been increasing our digital collections in other ways. The first has been through YouTube, where we’ve been uploading digitized films and speeches to the Hornbake Library YouTube channel. The digitized films feature “Freedom Ride,” an extremely valuable primary source released shortly after the Freedom Rides ended, narrated by founder James Farmer, featuring footage of the late congressman and Civil Rights icon John Lewis. Also, I recently created several one-image videos of digitized speeches from A. Philip Randolph and Cesar Chavez, and uploaded them to the YouTube channel. The other way I’ve been working to increase digital collections is through digitizing photos focused on labor and social justice movements onto UMD digital collections. Two examples of this are a series of photos from the 1914 Ludlow Massacre in Colorado, and a series of photos highlighting the struggle over voting rights and voter registration.
To conclude, when doing this work I often reframe social justice as anti-oppression, and I think anti-oppression in archives means lifting the voices and the stories of the oppressed to challenge the preexisting oppressive narratives that often exist in mainstream archives. This, in my view, requires active engagement and participation in ongoing struggles, and there is so much work to be done.
- Ashley Farmer, “Archiving While Black,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 22, 2018, https://www.chronicle.com/article/archiving-while-black/. Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor, “From Human Rights to Feminist Ethics: Radical Empathy in the Archives,” Archivaria 81 (Spring 2016); Ricardo Punzalan and Michelle Caswell, “Critical Directions for Archival Approaches to Social Justice,” Library Quarterly 86, no. 1 (2016); Kimberly Christen and Jane Anderson, “Toward Slow Archives,” Archival Science 19 (2019).
- Tonia Sutherland, “Archival Amnesty: In Search of Black American Transitional and Restorative Justice,” Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies 1, no. 2 (2017).
- Jennifer A. Ferretti, “Neutrality is Hostility: The Impact of (False) Neutrality in Academic Librarianship,” Medium, February 13, 2018, https://medium.com/@CityThatReads/neutrality-is-hostility-the-impact-of-false-neutrality-in-academic-librarianship-c0755879fb09.
This blog is part of a two part series. Stay tuned for part two in 2021!
Casey Hughes is a graduate student pursuing her Masters in Library Science. She is a graduate student assistant in University archives at the University of Maryland. She is interested in archival instruction and adding more diverse voices to archival collections.
Sara Ludewig is a graduate student pursuing a Master’s of Library and Information Science and a Master’s of Arts in History. She is graduate student assistant in University Archives at the University of Maryland. She is interested in oral history, creating a more inclusive archival record, and advocacy and outreach in archives.