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Behind the Scenes: Presenting at Archive/Counter Archive 2020 Symposium

16 Feb 2021 10:00 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Last October, I was invited to present at the Archive/Counter-Archive 2020 Symposium. The theme for the symposium was Black lives and archival histories in Canada. My presentation took place on December 11, 2020, as part of “Panel 1: Place-based/Institutional Engagements with Black Histories.” The organizing committee reached out to me after a former co-worker shared my blog post, “Archiving Hate: Racist Materials in Archives.” They were interested in my perspective on how racism should be addressed in archival training and pedagogy. The issue of racism and oppression in archives was rarely addressed during my studies at McGill University’s School of Information Studies. Regardless, I was aware of how deeply ingrained “neutrality” was in archival education and practice. I decided to focus my presentation on anti-racist and anti-oppressive approaches to archival pedagogy and training in Canada. While these approaches are not new, I argued that they are poorly incorporated into Canadian archival education and training. The research aspect of my presentation was challenging. The prevalence of neutrality in Library and Information Studies (LIS) programs and the archival profession is well known. However, more research studies are needed to understand how critical theory and practices are incorporated into archival education and training in Canada. Despite this, I was able to gather evidence for my presentation.


Archive/Counter Archive 2020 Symposium poster featuring the panelists and the event details

I started my research by gaining a greater understanding of various anti-racist and anti-oppressive theories and how they have been applied in practice. There has been an emergence of scholarship and community-centred archival initiatives that look critically at traditional archival practices. These efforts have led to the creation of several critical approaches to archiving including decolonization, postcolonialism, feminism, queer theory, critical race theory, and deconstructionism. My next step was to research how these critical theories and practices were integrated into archival pedagogy and training.

In terms of examining archival pedagogy, I  reviewed several LIS programs in Canada to find archival course descriptions and syllabi. This was challenging, as some programs published vague course descriptions, outdated syllabi, or there were no syllabi publicly listed. I identified a few programs that included some critical theories and practices in their curriculum. However, when I spoke to a few recent graduates in my network who completed those programs, they had issues with how those critical theories and practices were integrated. In their experience, one former student explained that international examples of critical practices were emphasized over those in the Canadian context. Another former student found that critical perspectives were tokenized rather than included as foundational knowledge. They found that the instructors poorly facilitated conversations around racism and other forms of oppression.

After searching for a more in-depth examination of this issue, I came across two publications: Education for the Common Good: A Student Perspective on Including Social Justice in LIS Education by students from the Master of Library & Information Science (MLIS) program at Western University and "A Report on Diversity and Inclusion Experiences at the Faculty of Information" from various student groups at the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto. These publications addressed the issue of “neutrality” in their programs and made several suggestions for instructors to move towards more anti-oppressive pedagogy. Amongst these suggestions,  it was recommended that instructors receive formal training in facilitating conversations surrounding race, sexuality, gender, and disability.

As I was searching for an example of an archival course with anti-oppressive frameworks, I discovered that the School of Information Studies at McGill University hired Gracen Brilmyer as a new Assistant Professor. Gracen’s website states that their research interests are “located at the intersection of critical archival studies and disability studies.” Gracen also disclosed that they identify as a “disabled and chronically ill white, queer, non-binary person from a middle-class background.” I was excited that the School of Information Studies hired a professional with an under-represented perspective and research interest. Given Gracen’s positionality and research  interests, I wanted to know if they took an anti-oppressive approach to their pedagogy. I contacted Gracen and they agreed to speak with me. Gracen explained that they were hired to redesign the Organization of Information course, which is a required first-year course. They also will be looking at the program’s archive-specific courses and considering how they can be restructured.

Gracen told me that their education included critical perspectives and cultural competency training that was specific to the information studies field. With that background, Gracen said they take a critical and anti-oppressive approach to their pedagogy. The Organization of Information course was redesigned to look at traditional and critical theories and practices together. Perspectives and scholarship from professionals that belong to Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) and other marginalized communities are included as required readings. As Gracen is part of the disabled community, they understand that peer-reviewed journals can be seen as a barrier to marginalized communities looking to publish their content. Peer-reviewed journals may reject a perspective, heavily edit submitted content, or hide publications behind a paywall. To address this issue, Gracen includes a range of content that is produced by professionals that belong to diverse communities. Some examples include a blog post, video, or tweet. The course consists of lectures, guest lectures and workshops from professionals who do radical work, and hands-on, problem-based learning. The assignments and activities ask students to think critically about the impact of organizing systems and practices. Based on my experience with the previous iteration of this course, I think that Gracen made some well-needed changes to the course.

In terms of archival training in Canada, I failed to find a publication or an article that examined how anti-racist or anti-oppressive approaches were integrated.  To get a sense of the archival training offered, I searched the websites of several archival associations and conducted general searches online. There are a few issues with this. It was difficult to see what type of archival training was offered in the past or anticipate what may be offered again in the future. It was also difficult to locate archival training through keyword searches as different terminology may be used to describe the training. I tried different terminologies such as “anti-racist,” “anti-oppression,” “Indigenous,” and “critical.”

Most of the archival training I found provided “neutral” approaches to professional development. For example, I  identified an archival training on Rules for Archival Description (RAD) that did not include anti-racist approaches to description practices. Some archival training opportunities looked at oppression or marginalization. However, when I read the description or contacted the instructor, I realized that  these training opportunities were not intended to guide archivists on how to apply anti-oppressive practices. There are a few informal, participant-driven conversations for archivists to discuss and share their knowledge on anti-oppressive practices. I decided to reach out to my network and spoke to several archivists in Ontario and Quebec who have an understanding of current archival training in Canada. They acknowledged that more archive-specific anti-oppressive training would be beneficial for addressing issues in the archival profession.  Some of them provided me with suggestions for anti-oppressive training. An example that stood out to me was training on how to provide reference services to BIPOC researchers in light of offensive language in legacy finding aids and historic materials. I also performed online research to find examples of anti-oppressive archival training from the United States. I found a few recorded webinars of critical training for librarians and archivists. One webinar offered training on how to critique library policies, procedures, and practices with an anti-racist analysis.

As my research shows, more work is needed for Canadian archival education and training to challenge “neutrality” in the profession. This will help prepare students to work with diverse communities and support archivists in challenging oppressive practices. While there is a lack of best practices, there are resources as well as archive and community-based initiatives that can provide a framework for emerging and practicing archivists to do anti-oppressive work.


Melissa Nelson


Melissa Nelson is a second-generation Jamaican Canadian from Toronto, Ontario. She holds a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in History, with a minor in Sociology, from Carleton University. She also completed a Master of Information Studies at McGill University. Her experience includes working at George Brown College Archives, The Presbyterian Church in Canada Archives, the Law Society of Ontario Archives, and Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections at York University. Melissa currently works freelance as an archival consultant. Melissa conducts research and produces content on history and archive related topics for her website melissajnelson.com.



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