Grappling with archival silences: Decolonizing knowledges, Nov. 17

Archival silences

Library and special collections staff across the world are grappling with how to address inherent biases and silences in the archives. At Princeton University, Reference Professional for Special Collections Emma Sarconi and Associate Professor of English and African American Studies Kinohi Nishikawa co-organized the Archival Silences Working Group (ASWG) to foster campus-wide discussions about the limits, freedoms, frustrations, and complications presented by biases inherent in both past and present archival practice.

“The archive is not a neutral space,” explains Sarconi. “It’s a space much like other spaces, steeped and reflective of a history of white, patriarchal society, very often biased toward that demographic.”

These biases often silence the voices of large groups of people. Researchers interested in American slavery, for example, will find that the majority of archival documents are written through the lens of the enslaver. Few documents exist from the perspective of the enslaved. Thus, library collections reflect the oppressive nature of past societies, in this case, one that prevented many members from learning to read and write. 

Of course, archival materials of historically marginalized groups do exist, but bias in cataloging often misrepresents materials.

“You might have a collection that includes manuscripts and diaries of a husband and wife,” says Sarconi, “but it's only described with the husband’s name.” 

Previous catalogers – influenced by their time period’s societal norms – often left out labels, effectively burying the voices of many people within the archive, making it more difficult for researchers to locate and study a diverse set of perspectives.    

As one step forward, Sarconi partnered with Nishikawa and the Humanities Council to launch the ASWG in fall 2019. Last year, the ASWG functioned as a reading group, bridging the gap between academia and the library and archives profession, to discuss papers that raise archival issues and potential solutions.

This year, the ASWG is offering two public webinars per semester, with a variety of speakers discussing their work to engage with or redress archival silences, especially related to the inequalities brought to light by the Covid-19 pandemic, institutional reckonings over structural racism and historical memory, and the violent intersections of policing and militarization.

“I really want us to talk to one another and work together as a community through these problems,” says Sarconi. “If we’re going to move forward to make the archive a more just space, then we have to do so together.”

The ASWG’s next webinar, titled “Decolonizing Knowledge,” will be held November 17 at 4:30 p.m. Four outside speakers will reflect on knowledge hierarchies and how the exclusion of certain forms of expression from institutional archives has produced gaps in our understanding of the past. Register here

Written by Emily Judd, Library Communications Coordinator

Media contact: Barbara Valenza, Director, Library Communications