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Where are the Children? A Question of Care for the International Archival Community

15 Nov 2022 8:00 AM | Anonymous member

By Itza A. Carbajal

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!

At first glance the child appears insignificant in archival practice - not yet a finalized preservation-worthy version of itself, full of unknowns and unfulfilled potential. Or the child appears as the part of a whole, with children as study subjects representing bountiful sources of information for research or scholarly advancement. But where is the child as a member of our community, one that contributes their own learned experiences, hurdles, and growth for other children to lean on? For this ACA blog post, I ask the archival community what it would mean to include the child as a person into the archive. To see the child as a person means to view the child not only as a mere subject for analysis, but also as a creator whose work is worth preserving and as a user whose participation merits attention, resources, and inclusion. This inclusion, like many others of underrepresented and neglected populations, asks the archival community to abandon previous principles such as exceptionality, rarity, or order in hopes of centering the needs of the child subject, user, and creator - no matter how messy, incomplete, or insignificant their stories might seem. Like other epistemological shifts where attention moves away from the objects (i.e. records) to the people behind or within the object, this post calls for concern for how and why the archival field should pay attention to its literal future.

I begin with a brief exploratory review of existing archival literature on children available through one of the longer standing American archival academic journals, the American Archivist. Then I will assess the types of records currently found in the country’s prominent archival institution, the National Records and Archives Administration (NARA). The combination of literature and available collections, while limited to only two institutions, helps situate the current conditions of child visibility in the American archival context. For purposes of this post, I define children or the child as a human being under the US legal age of 18 years old. Child then also refers to babies as well as adolescents with the precaution that generalization across ages (and other demographic markers) should be avoided as children exist as a diverse population of people from various backgrounds, abilities, races or ethnicities, and other demographics. The grouping of all these youth categories under the age of 18 as children rests on the assumption that archivists take different classification approaches when describing or discussing a young person or young people. When searching for literature or collections and materials, the following list of terms were used: child, children, kid, kids, youth, adolescent, adolescents, baby, babies, toddler, toddlers, teen, teens, boy, boys, girl, and girls. These terms themselves denote the constantly changing perception of childhood and adolescence as well as the complexities of describing people of multiple ever shifting identities.

The Child as Subject

As an archival subject, the child can be found in family portraits or as part of news stories and artistic sketches. We might find the child frolicking in the background of a home movie or noted as a dependent in some government form. Children might be found in school yearbooks or as study participants mentioned in a published book. In the National Archives and Records Administration catalog, children appeared in roughly 15, 927 photographs or other graphic materials. These ranged from photos of children with animals, children in school, children with adults, or children in promotional materials. Textual materials on the other hand showed children as evidence of atrocities or historical events from Native boarding schools and programs for impoverished children to children’s discussions with President Nixon or efforts to establish child labor laws (McCracken, 2015). Like other objectified people, children can be commonly found as subjects of research, from photographs of deceased children to those with medical conditions serving as at times unwilling participants (Jordan, 1960; Mifflin and Pugh, 2011). Children also show up as members of other marginalized groups such as those of early immigrant communities, incarcerated youth, and survivors of violent acts. (Daniel, 2010; Farley and Willey, 2015; Holden and Roeschley, 2020). These children as subjects remain part of a larger whole of ignored or harmed populations such as women and domestic abuse survivors. Rarely do we see the child expressing their lives, their accomplishments, their valuable memories as simply a child contributing their knowledge rather than as an object in need of study. In most cases, we tend to encounter the child through an adult self, recounting what they now see as memorable through the lens of their adult perspectives. 

Figure 1: Letters from Children re: Nuclear Bombs

The Child as Creator

It may then come as little surprise that the child as an archival creator does not get a chance to appear as an active subject when archival institutions still heavily rely on adult donors. Few instances exist where an archival collection boasts of its young creator, with even the most famous of children waiting until adulthood to find merit in sharing their life stories. The instances where the child creator emerges may be part of an art project intentionally using child artists or as unwilling contributors producing objects and records for or with adults. For example, in the NARA catalog, children appeared in materials such as letters detailing their reactions to nuclear bombs or as signatories to a scroll pledging allegiance to George Washington as part of the US Constitution Bicentennial commission (Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, ca. 1987; President Reagan, 1982 – 1983). Given NARA’s focus on government records, many records created by children are those directed towards presidents such as the letters on nuclear bombs to Reagan or the drawings sent to Ford (President Ford, 8/1974 - 1/1977). Few records created by children exist within this archival institution’s collection, likely a result of both children’s resource restrictions such as a lack of owning documentation equipment like cameras and lack of consideration of the child as an active contributing citizen. Luckily, as technological use and access increases, more children now gain access to creating records from photographs to videos and social media posts. 

Figure 2: Letters from Children re: Nuclear Bombs

The Child as User

Overall, the child has received a relative amount of attention as a user given the field’s increased concern for diversifying their user base beyond the traditional historical scholar. As an archival user, the child normally exists as a student, part of a larger group of children first corralled by the ever-watchful eye of an educator and then by the archivist. Given the age limitation for children noted in this post, this section did not consider articles primarily focused on college students despite its dominance in discussing the topic of student users. More generally, archival literature looks at student users, specifically those in grades K-12, in relation to increased incorporation of primary sources into educational instruction and teaching standards (Gilliland-Swetland, 1998; Hendry, 2007; Garcia, 2017). Despite the lack of records about children by children, institutions like NARA provide many archival materials that aid in the advancement of the child as a student. For example, by creating supplemental teaching units archival institutions encourage younger users to explore archival materials when needing to accomplish educational goals (Corbett, 1991). Exploration has also extended to children, especially high school students, to explore personal and family history through archival materials (Culbert, 1975). Sadly, unlike libraries, archival spaces do not provide safe kid or teen spaces, oftentimes forcing the child to act more like an adult than is necessary. This has limited the expansion of the archival child user since current expectations of users may require subject expertise, specific cognitive or tactile skills, as well as resources like mobility or technology access, all assumed characteristics of the established adult user. 

Figure 3: Letters from Children re: Nuclear Bombs 

Ultimately, the child remains to be included fully in archival practices and in archival scholarship as a subject, creator, and user. But a word of caution must be said  before we proceed to rush these people into this field. As childhood studies warns us and feminist thought has reminded us, the child cannot be treated as a mere object of passive, patronizing care. Rather the child, in order to avoid ongoing victimization, objectification, and marginalization, must be welcomed as an active agent seen as capable of contributing, critiquing, and questioning the very field that wishes for their participation. Otherwise, the care we claim to afford others remains merely a care for our own image and sake. 


Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. (ca. 1987). Scroll. Records Relating to Publications, Reports, and Meetings, 1985 – 1991Record Group 220: Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and Boards, 1893 – 2008 (6850912), National Archives and Records Administration, United States.

Corbett, K. (1991). From File Folder to the Classroom: Recent Primary Source Curriculum Projects. The American Archivist, 54(2), 296–300. 

Culbert, D. (1975). Family History Projects: The Scholarly Value of the Informal Sample. The American Archivist, 38(4), 533–541. 

Daniel, Dominique. 2010. “Documenting the Immigrant and Ethnic Experience in American Archives.” The American Archivist 73 (1): 82–104.

Farley, L., & Willey, E. (2015). Wisconsin School for Girls Inmate Record Books: A Case Study of Redacted Digitization. The American Archivist, 78(2), 452–469. 

Garcia, P. (2017). Accessing Archives: Teaching with Primary Sources in K–12 Classrooms. The American Archivist, 80(1), 189–212. 

Gilliland-Swetland, A. (1998). An Exploration of K-12 User Needs for Digital Primary Source Materials. The American Archivist, 61(1), 136–157. 

Hendry, J. (2007). Primary Sources in K-12 Education: Opportunities for Archives. The American Archivist, 70(1), 114–129. 

Holden, J., & Roeschley, A. (2020). Privacy and Access in the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Records. The American Archivist, 83(1), 77–90. 

Jordan, Philip D. 1960. “The Challenge of Medical Records.” The American Archivist, 143–51. 

Juliani, R. (1976). The Use of Archives in the Study of Immigration and Ethnicity. The American Archivist, 39(4), 469–477. 

McCracken, K. (2015). Community Archival Practice: Indigenous Grassroots Collaboration at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre. The American Archivist, 78(1), 181–191.

Mifflin, Jeffrey. 2011. “‘Visible Memory, Visual Method’: Objectivity and the Photographic Archives of Science.” Edited by Mary Pugh. The American Archivist 74 (1): 323–41. 

President (1974-1977 : Ford). (8/1974 - 1/1977). AR 4: Paintings – Drawings. White House Central Files Subject Files on Arts, 8/1974 - 1/1977Collection: White House Central Files Subject Files (Ford Administration), 8/9/1974 - 1/20/1977 (4504963), National Archives and Records Administration, United States. 

President (1981-1989 : Reagan). (1982 – 1983).[Letters from Children re: Nuclear Bombs]. William P. Barr's Office Files, 1982 – 1983Collection: Records of the White House Office of Policy Development (Reagan Administration), 1/20/1981 - 1/20/1989 (135838336), National Archives and Records Administration, United States.

Yaco, S. (2010). Balancing Privacy and Access in School Desegregation Collections: A Case Study. The American Archivist, 73(2), 637–668. 


Itza A. Carbajal is an American doctoral student at the University of Washington Information School focusing on children and their records. Carbajal’s proposed dissertation analyzes how records embody childhood trauma and whether archival records may provide release or relief from traumatic memories. She is also on the board of the Children’s Photography Archive (

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