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Equitable Archival Practice at Kennedy Library

What is the ultimate goal?

Is there some final destination that we reach in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion in the archival space? While it is nice to consider there to be a definitive end at some point down the line, the fight for social equity is never finished. As Fredrick Douglass notably said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will. If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” We can always push to be more considerate, kind, and caring in both our professional practice and personal life.


Walidah Imarisha gave an impassioned speech regarding liberation in an institutional archive. Many quotes can be drawn out of her words, but this passage is especially pertinent to the work we do at Special Collections and Archives:

(5:34) “I love the word "subversion" when dealing with existing institutions, and I think that--it makes me kind of feel like a spy, first of all. [Audience laughter.] It also acknowledges these institutions were not created for us, we're not pretending they were created for us, we're not gonna pretend that we can just switch them over with some superficial changes, but instead we can find ways to burrow in and to get what we need out of these institutions, even though those institutions may be fighting us all the way. But I think it's also important, the "yes, and," to say how do we dream community-based archives as well? How do we say, how do we deal with what already exists, but how do we also say "What do we want? What would be the vision for what a truly liberated archive created by the people who are directly impacted, held by the people that are directly impacted, and used for the liberation and freedom of people who are directly impacted (and therefore for all of us), what would that look like?"

The link to her full keynote is listed in the resources below.

A Reparative Archive

Lae’l Hughes-Watkins is an archivist at the University of Maryland. She has identified the concept of a reparative archive to navigate how collegiate archives might go about recognizing their shortcomings and working toward change.

Reparative archival work does not pretend to ignore the imperialist, racist, homophobic, sexist, ableist, and other discriminatory traditions of mainstream archives, but instead acknowledges these failures and engages in conscious actions toward a wholeness that may seem to be an exercise in futility but in actuality is an ethical imperative for all within traditional archival spaces. – Lae’l Hughes-Watkins

This quote served as a foundation for the development of this guide. When beginning this project, it was hard to conceptualize what could be contributed to the conversation of DE&I on Cal Poly’s campus in the way of archival function. The same question of whether we are able to right the wrongs of history came to mind and deterred me from the work. But, Hughes-Watkins’ words provide a new way of viewing social justice work within the archival space. It is not about correcting the shortcomings of the past. What is done has been done. It is about how we handle those shortcomings and how we learn from the past to create a better future. By recognizing our past, we are one step closer to change.

In the case of an institution like Special Collections and Archives, taking positive action in an attempt to create real, transformational change often seems unfeasible. There are simply too many hoops to jump through, too many people above you, and too few of you to feel like the work being done is actually leading somewhere of note. But, that can’t get in the way of the work that we do every day. Change does not come in an instant; it is a gradual, growing action that requires diligence and care. As the people in charge of preserving the memory of Cal Poly and much of the Central Coast, we have the chance to make a lasting impact on Special Collections and Archives. It is important for us, as archival arbiters and scholars, to always remember that positive change, no matter how big or small, is always a step in the right direction.


Roe, Kathleen D. 2016. “Why Archives?” The American Archivist 79(1):6–13.

Flinn, A., Stevens, M., & Shepherd, E. (2009). “Whose memories, whose archives? Independent community archives, autonomy and the mainstream.” Archival Science, 9: 71-86.

Hughes-Watkins, Lae’l. 2018. “Moving Toward a Reparative Archive: A Roadmap for a Holistic Approach to Disrupting Homogenous Histories in Academic Repositories and Creating Inclusive Spaces for Marginalized Voices.” Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies: 5(6):1-17.

Imarisha, Walida.