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Chapter 6: Capturing the voices of the “voiceless populations,” pp. 298-309 February 22, 2010

Posted by Kate T. in Chapter 6.

I’m skipping over pages 295-298 (“Accepting Professional Responsibilities”) although I think they are a very strong statement about the goals of the book. I almost wish that this section had been the kick off for this chapter, because it provides such a good summation of Jimerson’s aims.

But the next three sections seem to form a natural grouping around the question: what can be done to ensure archives are including in their collections the materials necessary to document people or organizations who have traditionally been under-represented? Jimerson provides several possible approaches for this:

  • reconsider the principal of provenance in light of unequal power relationships (299)
  • seek to hire archivists from the culture(s) that are under-represented (300)
  • take into consideration the issues raised by documents such as the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials (however, see caveat below)
  • “seek opportunities to preserve records of those often overlooked by their collecting strategies and recognize the broader concept of provenance for an entire community” (300, and 301-302)
  • consider going beyond our “custodial role to fill in the gaps, to ensure that documentation is created where it is missing” (303)
  • recognize the value of “oral transmission” by both recognizing the “primacy of oral tradition in some cultures,” and seeking to add to the completeness of the archival record by proactively creating oral histories (303-306)
  • seeking to ensure a more diverse archival profession. (306-308)

While I support his aims, I was glad to see Jimerson apply cautions or caveats in two places in this section:

However, concern for the rights of less powerful societal groups should not obscure the troubling questions arising from outside professionals intruding in these communities, nor the potential for over-compensation. [. . .] Professional observers who participate in these documentary processes must also remain alert to the dangers of overly romanticizing “the other,” and thereby either further aleinating and drawing cultural boundaries around them, or uncritically privileging their voices as more authentic or valuable than those of other societal groups. (300-301)

Institutional archivists will not be expected to overturn their legitimate emphasis on the needs of the parent organization-whether government, business, academic, or another type of institution–but there is room to broaden the perspective, to open up the criteria for archival selection, to review appraisal criteria, and to ensure that diversity becomes a deliberate consideration in writing finding aids, providing reference service, and conducting outreach initiatives. (pp. 308-309)

What did you think of the specific strategies Jimerson describes? Can you think of others? Did you find his arguments persuasive?



1. terryx - February 23, 2010

I find all but two persuasive. The idea of finding ways to increase documentation of underrepresented groups, increasing professional diversity, expanding what constitutes “archives”, modifying definitions of provenance, and examining the roles of power relationships (cf protocols) are all useful in insuring that when we talk about culture/history/memory/etc that all voices are getting a listen.

I’m less excited about the idea of *only* building professional diversity through hiring archivists from under-represented cultures. And I’m pretty opposed to archivists “creating” a diverse record by generating archives/sources.

Creating diversity is a tricky endeavor. In some ways, it seems doomed to failure because it reinforces a power structure that sees one way of looking at documentation/cultural transmission/memory/history as superior and seeks to plug other ways into that structure. I think that diversity in the “record” requires *seeing* things differently and *accepting* those differences as valuable, not in making those different things more familiar to us.

In that vein, I believe we should spend more time trying to understand oral cultures, storytellers, artists, craftspeople, etc. with the idea of seeing how we can understand the disparate methods of linking culture from generation to generation in relationship to each other. And seeing them as *equally* valid methods.

I’ll shut up for now. This is just to jumpstart the conversation.

2. Kate T. - February 23, 2010

Hey Terry,

I don’t think Rand was suggesting that we only try to generate diversity by hiring from traditionally underrepresented groups–my recollection of that area was that they were trying to recruit people from those classes into the profession. (Which is no different from what SAA is trying to do with the new scholarship program, I think. Although that’s not really trying to pull people in. It’s really more of making it easier for them after they have made their choice, as I recall how it’s structured.)

Yes, it’s a tricky business. Which is why I was pleased to see him acknowledge that you have to careful that you don’t then create the opposite problem by over-representing or mis-representing in an attempt to correct the problem.

One thing that I don’t recall him mentioning here was the creation of separate archives or organizations managed by communities themselves, rather than having an outsider attempt to incorporate the community’s collections in an established repository. That is not always a good solution, but it has many advantages. Haven’t there been some presentations about this at recent conferences? Often these communities are documenting themselves in their own way, but it’s not our way. Or am I not recollecting clearly?

But, to your point Terry, if you are trying to “understand’ oral cultures, etc., would you then not also try to document them? Or at least capture some information about them for preservation? You’re ok with oral histories, or capturing craftspeople on video, or stuff like that, aren’t you? Or should we leave that to anthropologists?

See, you were successful in jumpstarting a conversation with me!

3. Lincoln Cushing - February 23, 2010

The call for more oral (and other non-standardized format) histories is certainly a legitimate one, but I suggest that it’s outside the scope of archival duties. Few archivists are trained to conduct interviews and oral histories. But we can certainly encourage them (back to my earlier comment about building on our activist users for support) and offer a safe and accessible home for that content.

Kate’s right that the role of independent community-based archives needs much more discussion. In many ways, these are the richest sources of material that defy the standard narrative. My guess is that not many of these are represented within SAA, and that many archival practitioners at the margins just don’t have time, resources, or even interest in engaging with a professional organization.

Rand - February 25, 2010


Thanks for continuing a very interesting discussion. I know that traditional archival theory stated that archivists should not create documentation such as oral histories. But that just reinforces the image that we are passive caretakers of documentation created by others. I am not saying that all archivists should become oral historians, but that it is OK when they do take on this role. Having done some oral hsitory interviews myself, I know that this is not an easy thing to do well! In many cases, archivists should continue to encourage other groups to do their own oral histories and document their own communities. But sometimes I think that we need to consider taking a more active role in this process.

4. Alison Stankrauff - February 24, 2010

I indeed found Jimerson’s arguments persuasive…

I noted, in particular, his note about what institutional archivists like me can do – though I did know this, and attempt to do it in my own work at my institution, it’s nice to have it re-affirmed:
“… even within institutional archives archivists could also recognize the historical value of records documenting workers, community relations, and other aspects of corporate or organizational activities beyond the legal, fiscal, and administrative requirements.” (Page 300)

I also gravitated towards the section on archivists doing/participating in oral history projects. As is noted on page 305: “Participating in oral history projects takes the archivist into a different relationship to the archival record. No longer a custodian of documentation created by others, the archivist accepts personal – and professional – responsibility for ensuring adequate documentation of subjects, events, and people that might otherwise remain unrecorded.”

I do oral histories at my Archives – in partnership with our campus’ Civil Rights Heritage Center ( http://www.iusb.edu/~civilrts/index.shtml ) … We’ve been documenting the voices and experiences of local people who have been active in civil rights efforts and struggles here in our South Bend (Indiana)/St. Joseph River Valley area. We currently have over 100 oral histories collected, recorded, and available: http://library.iusb.edu/archives/inventory/OralHistory.shtml . We’re in the process of collecting more – and writing and applying for grants to digitize them…

I guess my point in inserting all that “blah blah blah” about me and my shop is – I think I might disagree with you Lincoln – I think that oral history is (I think) very much in the scope of archival duties… And, as is pointed in the book, I think it helps us to become at once activists and connected to the communities that we work with and serve. I’d argue that it helps us to connect with those communities in ways that archivists have not traditionally done…I think perhaps the smaller the institution, the more that an archivist might be called on to do oral history…

5. terryx - February 24, 2010

@Kate – on the creating diversity in the profession, I was getting at (unclearly!) that we often see diversifying the profession in terms of group quotas. While a rough representation of the broader society is the first step in creating a diverse organization, it is pretty rudimentary. In my mind, a diverse profession would bring a variety of attitudes, skills, mindsets, representations, etc. I think this mix allows groups to evolve.

As far as the documentation goes, I don’t believe archivists should be in the business of creating documentation. We should help others if needed, we should encourage broad documentation, we should collect widely, and we should make it all as easy to find and use as possible. But some things are meant to be ephemeral. Some of the issues that we struggle with in terms of doc’s liek the protocols relate to the purposeful (sometimes unethical, sometimes not) documentation of things that probably should not have been documented. Getting back to your point, encouraging groups (religious, ethnic, racial, politicals, etc) to document their own “history”, in their own way, and then collaborating with them regarding archival practices may be a good way to more fully document the world.

What this really cuts to is the heart of RJ’s book and one of its “flaws” (I say that gently, because I believe this to be one of the more important additions to our literature in awhile). The book is really about “archivists” power. As I’ve said before, the records have no intrinsic value (or power). They are only valuable/powerful within a human context. The power in archives is mostly in the archivists hands.

The problem with RJ’s book is that he only focuses on the “good” use of power by arhivists. It’s sort of like Star Wars. RJ provides this book as a way of guiding all us little Luke’s in the proper way of using the archival force. But we shouldn’t forget that there’s also Annikin’s out there. RJ does not talk much about the purposeful misuses of power by archivists. My mentor, Roy Turnbaugh, talked about this at SAA 2006 — the idea that since people inherently trust archives and archivists, the latter have the power to use (and “create”) documentation as a means of legitimizing bad behavior.

Again – way to too much for conversation. Sorry for going on an on.

Rand - February 25, 2010

Lincoln, You raise several key points here. You all have seen my ideas and I don’t need to repeat myself here–except to say that I do not argue that archivists MUST conduct oral history or other means of creating records (where documentary gaps exist), only that they MAY do so without sacrificing their professional credibility. This is an argument that Gerry Ham made in 1975.

Interesting that you mention Roy’s 2006 talk in which he blasted NARA, in particular, for some of its policies. You may remember that I was the other speaker at that session, which Brien Brothman (who chaired it) put together to challenge my “overely optimistic” talk in 2005 (the basis of my current book’s Introduction). As I said then and continue to believe, the need for archivists to use “the Force” (which I cited in my 2005 talk) for good is that too often, past practice has been in the other direction. (See for example, Chapter 2 of “Archives Power,” as a well as some of the examples in Chapter 5. Luciana Duranti made a point similar to that of you, Brien, and Roy a couple of weeks ago when I presented some of the ideas in Chapter 6 at a special forum at Univ. of British Columbia.

I still think that focusing on the “good” use of archives is appropriate. I hope it will encourage other archivists to engage in these issues and to strive for something greater than being “handmaidens” to history.

As to whether my book should be called “Archivists Power” rather than “Archives Power,” I think this is a bit of chicken-and-egg argumentation. Archivists have no power at all without the archival records. And, yes, the records have no power except in a human context. That’s pretty much a given assumption for any form of human power, though, isn’t it? What I hope archivists will figure out is how to use the (often latent) power in the archival record to achieve positive benefits for society. This may require (at least I think it does) that we grab our light sabers with both hands and trust our instincts to combat evil. Well, enough with the Star Wars metaphors…..

Thanks for continuing a very stimulating discussion!

Rand - February 25, 2010

Oops. Typing too fast, and I said Lincoln when I meant Terry …

6. terryx - February 24, 2010

Hmmm. Obi-Wan Jimerson. I like it . . .

Rand - February 25, 2010

Oh yeah, Terry. Thanks for making a guy feel really really old … !

7. Elena Danielson - February 24, 2010

I like this section very much. One thing that comes to mind is how rewarding it is to discover some of these so-called marginal groups. Creativity and change come from the edges of a society, not from the power elites. The very early beginnings of cultural trends can be ephemeral. That is where archivists can help. The WPA recordings of black music are an American national treasure. One of my colleagues went to Berlin as the wall came down in 1989 and photographed graffiti, another photographed political messages on walls in Ireland during the Troubles. These messages from the people in times of change are now painted over, and many are gone forever, except for photographic evidence.

8. Lincoln Cushing - February 24, 2010

There’s a range – terryx makes the provocative statement that “some things are meant to be ephemeral” and doesn’t think archivists should be in the business of documentation, and Alison is encouraging us to take the microphones to the people! I’d suggest that we all have some way to contribute to advancing social engagement in archives, and we need to pick our battles based on our skills and settings. I developed a high-volume, low-cost approach to digitizing posters because nobody else has, and it needs to be done (talk about ephemeral documents!). Working directly with the document producers, as terry describes, is a great way to help authentic voices capture the rich, multilayered community documentation that archives need to “keep it real.”

And is “The Force” really just another manifestation of AACR2? Inquiring minds want to know.

9. Alison - February 24, 2010

I love the “back and forth” discussion here – it’s great to engage with you all on these points…

I should clarify:
While I (personally) think that archivists have a place in doing oral history, that in *no* way precludes us from encouraging those who are not archivists – read: those from under-represented/previously silenced groups/segments of population from doing their own – and collecting and preserving their own – oral histories…

I agree with Terry’s statement: “We should help others if needed, we should encourage broad documentation, we should collect widely, and we should make it all as easy to find and use as possible.”

10. Brien - March 5, 2010

Hello all:

I have just tripped over this web site and was fascinated by the engagment and dialogue..Since my name came up a few times, I’d like to jump in with a few comments – some of which others have already made in their own fashion.

Rand, I very much enjoyed your book. It will – or at least should – form an essential part of any archivists’s reading. Archival materials possess the latent power to do much good, serve the cause of justice, accountability, reconcilaition and so on. But, of course, I can’t just leave it at that. Archival materials posess other powers as well.

I believe that too many archivists for too long have lived under the aura of a Mabillon-like civic virtue – what we used to call attitude of neutrality (which, BTW, Mabillon himself, though arguably objective methodologically, never was politically.) and beneficence. These days, I am coming to the conclusion that archival scholars need to incorporate a more consequentialist perspective into their narrative expositions of the archival/slash information keeping phenomenon. I can’t go into much detail here, but I’ll try to sum it up. Regardless of the benevolent intentions of archival instutions, the social/state accumulation of information can be radioactive: Over the course of history the seemingly salutary cultural desire to record/document – today “complete”, comprehensive” and in a “trustworthy” manner – is not an entirely unmixed blessing. For example, what lies beneath the very basic, now naturalized, individual and social drive to document and accumulate information about “the information society” – even to capture certain human actions – “performances” – whose essential property and communal value has resided precisely in their transience and social reliance on other means to transmit memory/tradition,” to breathe new life into customs and beliefs, and to perpetuates mental predispositions and physical habits. The urge to document is not always or necessarily an innocent, culturally adaptive drive. Thus To Preserve can = To Destroy

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