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Equitable Archival Practice at Kennedy Library

A Change In Perception

The discussion around archival practice has transformed over the years, from an impartial ideology of merely collecting history as it is presented to recognizing the circumstances and biases that come with an archivist preserving materials as they are presented. The work of an archivist was seen as unbiased and impartial; a role designed only to process and preserve. Now, the more common ideology is one of “archiving” understood as an ongoing process. It was people like Howard Zinn (1977) who called into question the supposed impartiality of the archivist as more than just a selector and custodian. As time progressed, we began to recognize how the work of the archivist “perpetuate(s) the political and economic status quo simply by going about his ordinary business” (Zinn 1977: 20). Working within the ivory tower of academia, we as scholars and archivists lose sight of how our own privileges, and our own inherent biases shape the decisions we make. These decisions and how they are discovered, on a micro and macro level, impact the contents of our archive.

Archive vs Archives

Terry Cook, a well-known archival scholar, identifies the differences between an “archive” and “archives” as the former representing the repository that encapsulates the ongoing work of the latter (Cook 2011). More plainly stated, the archive is an institution that is constantly being created by the archival materials preserved within it. Therefore, if you and I are the people helping to make decisions regarding the “archive,” we must be aware of where our thoughts and considerations are coming from.

Critical Archival Studies

What is Critical Archival Studies? Michelle Caswell (2016) defines it as a “combination of critical theory and archival studies” used to analyze the work done within the contemporary archive (p. 2). Critical theory is a framework that enables the critiquing of society and its functions. Archival studies is a discipline focused on the building and curating of archives. The melding of these two schools of thought provides an intersectional lens through which broader connections are made between the relationship of society and archives. Caswell, an educator and scholar of archives, continues her description on behalf of Critical Archival Studies, listing these three descriptors of how this framework functions:

1. Explains what is wrong with the current state of archival and recordkeeping practice and research and identifies who can change it and how.

2. Posits achievable goals for how archives and recordkeeping practice and research in archival studies can and should change.

3. Provides norms and strategies and mechanisms for forming such critique.

With these three descriptors in mind, we see how Critical Archival Studies places the onus on the positionality of power in forming archives and begins to explain how we can better understand how institutions like Special Collections and Archives play a role in perpetuating white supremacy, exclusivity, and oppression in communities and on college campuses. As it calls into question the current state of archiving, it allows us to imagine a way toward an archive where these discriminatory systems are dismantled.

Critical Race Theory Applied to the Archives

Critical Race Theory is a theoretical framework developed by legal scholars and used as a critical approach to engaging in conversations about race and racism. Applied to the archival practice, Critical Race Theory (CRT) takes a critical approach to analyzing the position at which archival decisions are made and provides a reasoning to understand the broader implications of such decisions. CRT, developed by legal scholars in the 1970s to better discuss and comprehend race, most simply states that race is socially constructed and embedded into our societal institutions both explicitly and more subtly (Crenshaw 1995). Race has been used to otherize skin color and ethnicity in an attempt to stratify populations and groups of people for individual gain, through social identification and legislation. The ways that race functions in society are nuanced. In relation to CRT, Kimberlé Crenshaw developed the concept of “intersectionality” to better understand how differing identities overlap and intersect in relation to discrimination and oppression. It is more of an ideological understanding of how dynamics of power function in our lives, rather than an individual action or circumstance. Cho et al. (2013) describes it as:

“…whatever its [intersectionality] iteration, whatever its field or discipline—is its adoption of an intersectional way of thinking about the problem of same-ness and difference and its relation to power. This framing—conceiving of categories not as distinct but as always permeated by other categories, fluid and changing, always in the process of creating and being created by dynamics of power—emphasizes what intersectionality does rather than what intersectionality is.” (p. 800)

When thinking about how this applies to our work in Special Collections and Archives, it is vital that we begin to think about the much broader system in which race, identity, and power function. Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality make us, as scholars and human beings, take a step back and consider what the broader implications of race and power have on the work we do in the Archives. It provides us a lens to think critically about the actions and choices we make in our work. It allows us to critically engage with SC&A materials. From archival scholar Anthony Dunbar (2006), “Thus, in a rhetorical sense, one might suggest that the CRT techniques of evidential rectifying could be useful to archival discourse in terms of broadening notions of what constitutes a record, the role of human subjects documented as co-creators of the record, and assumptions about archives and archivists as neutral third parties in the preservation and use of the record and other forms of historical evidence.”


Caswell, Michelle. 2016. “Owning Critical Archival Studies: A Plea”. UCLA. Retrieved from

Crenshaw, K. W. Critical Race Theory : The Key Writings That Formed the Movement. New York :: New, 1995. Web.

Dunbar, Anthony W. 2006.  "Introducing critical race theory to archival discourse: getting the conversation started.” Archival Science. 6:109-129.

Cho et al. (2013) Toward a Field of Intersectionality Studies: Theory, Applications, and Praxis.

Cook, Terry. 2011. “The Archive(s) Is a Foreign Country: Historians, Archivists, and the Changing Archival Landscape.” The American Archivist 74(2):600–632.

Zinn, H. 1977. “Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest.” The Midwestern Archivist 2(2) 14-26. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from