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Equitable Archival Practice at Kennedy Library


This section is a series of quotations from Michell Caswell’s paper “Toward a survivor-centered approach to records documenting human rights abuse: lessons from community archives.” Caswell has identified five principles of community archive discourse and I have listed them and provided excerpts from her work discussing these principles and their application to the archival practice. While not explicitly stated by me, her words provide many actionable examples of community-based archival work that, with brainstorming and collaborating, can be made real within our unit.

Michelle Caswell’s five key principles of community archive discourse:


In community-based discourses, archives are not led by outsiders imposing their views on communities, but instead are grassroots efforts from within. In collaborations between community archives and government or university repositories, the role of professional archivist shifts from selector of materials to facilitator of memory work (Cook 2013), from all-knowing authority to expert among experts.” (p. 311).

“Across these configurations, decision makers are a part of the community they are helping to document, be that community based on ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, political orientation, shared history, or geographic location. The notion of self-representation is key; the rallying cry of ‘‘nothing about us, without us’’ unites many community-based archival projects,” (p. 311)

Shared stewardship

“...several community-based archives have entered into formal stewardship agreements with mainstream institutions in which the community archives maintain some degree of intellectual control over the materials, while the mainstream repository provides space, infrastructure, and other resources. As Stevens et al. note (2010), partnerships between community-based archives and more mainstream repositories have generally taken the form of shared responsibility for custody, collection, curation, dissemination, or mutual advice and consultancy.” (p. 312)

“Community-based memory organizations and their governing structures do not merely take custody of the records they acquire (if they take physical custody of any records at all); they steward these records for the communities from which they originated. This ongoing stewardship reflects an enduring commitment to representing community values even as those values shift over time. In this stewardship model, archives (regardless of type) are ultimately responsible to the community, and not to an individual donor, a larger parent organization, or an elite board of trustees.” (p. 312).


“Unconstrained by traditional professional definitions of records that are biased toward the written word, community archives often collect a much more diverse range of formats than mainstream repositories (Flinn et al. 2009; Wakimoto et al. 2013). These materials may include ephemera, artifactual objects, cassette tapes, pamphlets, flyers, videos, zines, blogs, and websites. Furthermore, in many community archives settings, volunteers break the traditional (but admittedly eroding) archival boundary between records creator and archivist by actively documenting their communities through oral history, photography, and video projects. This openness to multiple formats reflects an attention to cultural difference that many mainstream repositories have historically ignored; by recognizing oral, visual, and kinetic ways of knowing, community archives reflect the culture, epistemologies, and values of their communities.” (p. 313)

“While this is certainly not the case for all community-based archives, the most vibrant and sustainable provide a platform for a messy cacophony of previously marginalized or silenced voices to be heard without flattening them into a monotone or requiring them to synchronize. In this way, community archives may reflect fundamental disagreements about the boundaries of the community, its past, and its future.” (p. 313)

Archival Activism

“Flinn and Stevens (2009) position community archives as parts of larger social and political movements whereby groups who have been ignored, misrepresented or marginalized by mainstream archival repositories launch their own archival projects as means of self-representation, identity construction, and empowerment.” (p. 313-314)

“ archives practitioners have dispensed with outdated notions of archival objectivity and neutrality that still plague many mainstream archival endeavors and are quite vocal about the political motivation for memory work. For community archives, memory work is a tool for political liberation.” (p. 314)


“As Lau et al. (2012) note, self-reflection is an integral component of successful grassroots memory work. The positionality of the practitioner, his or her shifting relationship to the community where memory work is located, and the ever-changing political, social, and professional context of archival labor all contribute to the imperative for critical self-reflection. As Wakimoto et al. (2013) argue, self-reflection allows community-based archives practitioners to see and react to the multiple, sometimes contradictory, ways that the archive is constructed and viewed, the competing priorities that are embodied in collection policies, and the shifting nature of the categories used to describe records. In such reflection, problems are identified, solutions proposed, and successes are celebrated. Such sustained critical self-reflection may take the form of journaling, of formal and informal conversation with other practitioners and community members both within and across organizations, and an ongoing commitment to reading and reflecting on relevant scholarship. However, reflexivity does not end with internal engagement, but rather must result in a mutually beneficial dialog with community members to ensure that needs are being met, problems are addressed, and priorities are aligned. Personal reflexivity feeds into community reflexivity so that internal and external climates are continuously evaluated.” (p. 314)


Caswell, Michelle. 2014. “Seeing Yourself in History: Community Archives and the Fight Against Symbolic Annihilation.” The Public Historian 36(4):26–37. doi: 10.1525/tph.2014.36.4.26.