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What’s (Not) in a Name: The Insufficiency of Standard Biography

8 Nov 2022 8:00 AM | Anonymous member

By Krista Jamieson

As guest editors of the special issue of Archivaria on person-centred archival theory and praxis, we, Jennifer Douglas, Jessica Lapp and Mya Balin, are pleased to share a series of blog posts that reflect on the nature and enactment of person-centred approaches to archival materials and work. These blog posts complement the articles in the special issue, presenting a variety of perspectives on how centring the person in archival processes happens and why it matters. We're grateful to the authors for sharing their research and experiences!

Let me start with a story. A few years ago, I was doing groceries with my partner. We exchanged a few polite words with the cashier, asking how her day was. When she finished ringing us up, she watched as we exchanged a few words about points cards and our grocery budget. It was probably all a very familiar sight to her, and it was certainly unremarkable from our perspectives. Seeing us act as family in this very mundane way, the cashier asked, “Are you sisters?”

The cashier saw something that seemed familiar (a family grocery trip) and tried to make sense of what she was seeing. Unfortunately (for us), she wildly misinterpreted what was happening. This particular example will likely only be a familiar experience to other queer women (more on the “gal pal” phenomenon in a bit), but most people can relate to what went wrong: a stranger missed a very important contextual clue and as a result made some pretty poor assumptions. Maybe as a kid you wore glasses and people assumed you were a bookworm. Maybe you’ve been misgendered by strangers emailing you. Maybe someone on social media has put words in your mouth because they don’t understand where you’re actually coming from or what you’ve actually experienced in your life.

These moments are unfortunate, but you’re there to correct them. Records in archives are created by, about, and for people during their lives. They are then given to archives for strangers to look at, with no one there to correct the misinterpretations of those strangers. So instead of an awkward laugh and a brief explanation that my partner is, in fact, my partner, this misinterpretation turns into a musing in a book. Or worse, the signal that I am a queer person is completely dismissed, allowing for the assumption that I am straight – a false narrative that all of my records are then contextualized by. And maybe that doesn’t matter in a given context: I’m not sure my being queer is relevant to the work I do on file format characterization for digital preservation. But maybe it is relevant in more subtle ways. Maybe being queer informs how I define the concept of family in metadata standards I write. Maybe being queer informs my response to a pandemic because I relate public health crises to the AIDS crisis. Those things may not be explicit in records because my records are created for my own purposes rather than with a public audience in mind. The friend I’m writing to knows those things about me, so I don’t need to explain them.

The idea that context is important is far from new in archives. In fact, context is king in archives. We know that out of context, some records become meaningless. It is the entire rationale behind the ideas of provenance and original order, two of the fundamental principles of archival arrangement in Canada. We know that the creator is important to understanding a record, and we know that we may only be able to understand a record based on other adjacent records. By keeping records together, maybe we (or someone) can make sense out of nonsense.

At this point I expect more than a few people to be thinking, “Okay, but Krista, we already describe creators! That’s what biographical histories are for!” And you’re not wrong. But I don’t think we always write biographical histories in a way that a) genuinely combats this problem or b) acknowledges the magnitude of how this problem lands differently depending on who people are. Beyond listing a name and some biographical details that a researcher could discover in the records themselves, there aren't very specific details about how a biographical history ought to be written. I would argue that your standard biographical history isn’t particularly useful to understanding the creating context for most records. Unless you have detailed information about how someone’s high school shaped them, knowing what high school they attended doesn’t really help to figure out how the person thought, what influenced them, what they valued, or how they worked. So maybe being able to answer those questions about who someone isis actually what we should focus on in our biographical histories so there is less space for wild misinterpretation at a personal level. One way to write a contextualized description of someone is to provide a social location for them. That is, where does the person sit in society? Where do they fit in with norms and where don’t they? Where can we assume normative things to fill in contextual gaps and where can’t we? What fills in those gaps instead?

Moreover, we name archival fonds for the “creators” of the records, but when we look at the content on the microscale, the supposed creator isn’t the author or the sole author of most of the content (I mean, just look at the copyright clearance necessary if you want to know how many authors the “creator” of a fonds is hiding) and is often not the decision maker for what made it to the archive and what didn’t (Douglas 2018). When we turn to the influences authors have, what they’re writing about, and who they’re writing about, we can also see that no author is an island. No one creates records in a vacuum. Context extends beyond individual authors to the context authors lived and created in. Here is where we get things like Tom Nesmith’s 2006 concept of “societal provenance.” And then we come to a level of complexity around worldview and how that frames the very notion of authorship. Krista McCracken and Skylee-Storm Hogan (2021) trouble the concept of provenance on this ground when they argue for Indigenous communal ownership of information by, for, or about Indigenous peoples, regardless of the supposed provenance of who wrote it down. Archival theory within a Western archival paradigm being what it is (and I am explicitly not making a claim that it is universally appropriate or better than other forms of knowledge and memory keeping), I think one small step we can take to do a little better, to acknowledge the true complexity of provenance and context, to account meaningfully and helpfully for the factors that shape our lives, what we create and what we collect, is to capture some of that complexity in our descriptions.

This lack of real context for who people are also lands differently for some marginalized groups, and I’m going to speak for myself as a queer person and use the "gal-pal" problem to illustrate this, though it applies far beyond this one illustration. I think (hope?) by this point that most people have at least heard of issues where historians, archaeologists, and other researchers have ignored signs of queerness. Sometimes this develops out of a desire to avoid applying modern concepts of identity onto people from different times, places, and cultures (it can be frustrating, but I get it). Sometimes it’s out of a softer homophobia: they don’t want to “offend” the family or their readers (which assumes being queer is inherently offensive). And sometimes it is out of brash homophobic insistence that queer people could not possibly exist, despite all the evidence to the contrary. There are lots of examples of this: Skeletons in burial sites buried as a married couple, called “lovers” until DNA shows they are two men or not a cis man and cis woman. All of a sudden, the "very clear evidence" that this was a couple is rewritten to the pair having been close friends or brothers. Because they’re between people of the same sex, the love letters between historical figures that speak of burning lust and intense emotional attachment take on false interpretation; lust and emotion are treated as a stylistic flourish. There is a history of researchers going out of their way to deny and erase queerness, even when it’s extremely obvious. Coming back to my example, queer women couples have often been referred to as “gal pals” or similar so people can avoid acknowledging that they are in a relationship with one another. It’s a form of intersectional erasure, a kind of invisibility unique to queer women’s relationships (as queer men’s relationships tend to be hyper-visible). And, yes, this continues today when people ask if you are sisters and is something so prevalent that it’s become a bit of a joke among many queer women.

I’m not saying that researchers should label and out every queer person they come across in their research -- that would be taking things too far in the other direction -- but I am saying that getting more personal contextual information from creators themselves while we can (no one is immortal here!) is a good thing to do. It is especially important to get clarity from people who have been historically marginalized and erased so that future researchers don’t repeat the same problematic practices, ultimately to the detriment of their understanding of a person’s life, work, and records.

Specifically, if we want to bring the complicated, messy reality of records creation and knowledge recording to our description, we need to situate the people who contributed to record creation (Haraway 1988). What is the worldview someone is working from? What is the context of their life beyond the superficial? What communities do they belong to? How were they influenced in their life to become the person they were? Where and how can their knowledges be attributed? These things both are and are not individual factors. Some of them are cultural, situational, and demographically systemic. Others are about more personalized family histories and influences such as professional training and mentorship.

This is a very high-level description of something that can be complicated and difficult to conceptualize, let alone implement. But if we really understand that archives are just some of the records left to us by living, breathing, complicated, fallible people and if we care about how those people are represented and that people are not misrepresented or erased by the strangers looking at their records, we have to do more to ensure we’re doing right by them, by all the authors whose works are in the fonds, and the communities and people those records represent.


Douglas, J. (2018). A call to rethink archival creation: Exploring types of creation in personal archives. Archival Science, 18(1), 29-49.

Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), 575-599.

McCracken, K. & Hogan, S.S. (2021). Community First: Indigenous Community-Based Archival Provenance. [Special issue on Unsettling the Archives.] Across the Disciplines, 18(1/2), 23-32.

Nesmith, T. (2006). The concept of societal provenance and records of nineteenth-century Aboriginal-European relations in Western Canada: Implications for archival theory and practice. Archival Science6, 351-360.


Krista Jamieson is a queer archivist living in Hamilton, Ontario. She has an MLIS from McGill University and an MA from the University of Amsterdam in AV archiving. She is currently the Digital Preservation Business Lead for the Bank of Canada and a part-time PhD Candidate in FIMS at Western University. 

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