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In the Field:  The ACA Blog

Contemporary archivists are engaged in a broad range of work within the field of archives. Whether through their work environment; through initiatives in the digital realm; through their involvement with communities to document, preserve, and provide access to their records; and through other outreach endeavours, archivists are involved in a variety of spaces. In the Field is a place for discussion about the wide range of issues encountered and raised in these spaces related to archives, archival education, and archival interventions. 
For more information on proposing or submitting a blog post please read and complete the submission form We look forward to reading your contribution! 
Catherine Barnwell, In the Field Editor 
The ACA Communications Committee

  • 17 Jan 2023 12:00 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    By J.J. Ghaddar (1)

    This post (Part II of II) is based on presentations I delivered over the last year virtually, in Rome and in Accra. See Part I for more details.

    For over a decade, I have been tracing the roots of archival studies in western imperialism and white supremacy, with a focus on settler colonial and apartheid state formations. I share with you this journey by telling you about my excavations of three histories: that of the modern archival profession; of archiving in settler Canada; and of the Vienna Convention on Property, Archives and Debt (1983). In the process, I outline the importance of thinking about place in relation to the provenance of archives and records in colonial contexts, as part of amplifying the struggles of indigenous peoples to reclaim colonized lands and histories, and to overcome the archival legacies of colonialism.

    From Archival Fictions to Repatriation: Third World Decolonization & the Vienna Convention (2)

    After tracing the archival fictions we tell ourselves about the history of the modern archival profession in Europe and Canada (see Part I), I shifted my interrogations to the history of the global debate over archival repatriation and displaced archives during the era of Third World decolonization in the 20th century, when newly independent states and anticolonial movements spent decades working to repatriate and protect archives and other material heritage from the First World. These efforts were part of an all-sided offensive to end western imperialism and decolonize the global order, including through diplomatic initiatives like the Vienna Convention. Third World actors from the eminent Algerian jurist and diplomat, Dr. Mohamed Bedjaoui, to formations like the Non-Aligned Movement were at the centre of crafting the Convention in international sites that included the UN, the International Law Commission, UNESCO and the International Council on Archives (ICA). Liberation movements from Algeria to Namibia were also involved. All of them consistently articulated a fundamental connection between archival decolonization, cultural and heritage preservation, communication and information equity, economic sovereignty, and anti-imperialism. It is impossible then to disconnect the Convention from Third World instruments on cultural heritage or from political proposals at the UN like the New International Economic Order and the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO). While the latter calls for equity in the global flows of information, the former calls for people-centred development. Hence, the Convention brings togethers archives as well as property and debt into a single framework and instrument. It calls for the repatriation of both property and archives from the colonizing state to the newly decolonized state, as well as for the cancellation of the debts of newly decolonized states from the colonial era.

    Image 2: UNESCO headquarters in Paris where I conducted archival research on the Vienna Convention in the summer of 2018. Source: UNESCO/Wikipedia (April 2010).

    These efforts and initiatives unfolded at a time when bloody struggles for decolonization and liberation were taking place globally, when the martyrs and prisoners of the Third World Project were counted in the millions, and when liberation movements that were not state actors had special status within the UN system. It was also a time when the Third World Bloc enshrined in international law the right of all peoples to live free from foreign interference and to resist colonialism. The Bloc also lobbied for status and recognition within the UN for national liberation movements that were not state actors, including the African National Congress and South West Africa People’s Organisation (Namibia) then struggling against apartheid South Africa’s bid for regional domination, as well as the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). Significantly, national liberation movements recognized by the Arab League and the Organization of African Unity had status at the 1983 conference where the Convention was adopted, as did the UN Council for Namibia. The accordance of special status to Third World liberation movements is one example amongst many of the tension between the aspirations and visions of decolonization within the Third World Project, and the reality of the western nation state model and global system of nation states that those aspirations and visions would be increasingly constrained by and neutralized through. Ultimately defeated by the neoliberal counterassault, the Third World Project failed to end imperialism, constrain Global South elites, ward off the power of finance capital, or realize the full promise of the national liberation movements and their call for unity. It succeeded, however, in ending direct colonial rule in many countries and territories. It also succeeded in what Angela Davis refers to, when speaking of the civil rights era in the ‘60s and ‘70s, as “chang[ing] the terrain of struggle [… and …] reconfiguring the landscape on which we now try to increase the measure of freedom all communities enjoy.” (3) It succeeded in galvanizing hundreds of millions of people over decades across all the continents of the world to work to different degrees in varied arenas with diverse visions to realize an end to colonial rule and imperial domination. Such visions, as Sajed aptly put its, “function as latent ideals of the unfulfilled potential of Third Worldism, which are still worth keeping in mind and striving towards.” (4)

    Image 3: Picture of Mr. Amadou Mahtar M'Bow of Senegal, Director-General of UNESCO from 1974 to 1987. He was the first Black African to head a United Nations agency and remains to this day the only Director-General of UNESCO not representing a Global North state. M’Bow is an important figure of the Third World Bloc at the UN, which supported his election to UNESCO. Source UNESCO/Wikipedia (Nov. 1974).

    The Vienna Convention is itself a latent ideal and unfulfilled promise, a legal instrument that has yet to come into force but one that provides what is likely the most radical vision of global archival repatriation ever debated on such a grand scale. It is a vision that is still worth keeping in mind as we continue discussing displaced archives today in the wake of Third World political decolonization. Let us consider the text of the Vienna Convention in more detail to illustrate this point further:

    • The Convention begins in the preamble with the statement: “Considering the profound transformation of the international community brought about by the decolonization process,” and firmly situates the question of archives in relation to decolonization and self-determination.
    • Throughout, the Convention also makes distinctions between newly independent states and other instances of state succession, which reflects Third Worldism’s insistence that there are unique needs when western colonialism and occupation have been a factor.
    • Article 21 states that “The passing of State archives of the predecessor State entails the extinction of the rights of that State and the arising of the rights of the successor State to the State archives which pass to the successor State, subject to the provisions of the articles in the present Part.” (5) This transfer of archives to the successor state is to take place without compensation, as per Articles 22 and 23.
    • For decolonized states specifically, Article 28.1 stipulates that all archives by or about a territory be transferred to the new state from the preceding state’s national repository, including archives that had once belonged to the territory that were incorporated into the colonial archives and those created within the colonial archives about the territory. Article 28.4 also calls on the former colonizer to assist with the in-gathering of archives that are not in its national repository but were dispersed in the colonial era. Furthermore, the Convention insists in Article 28.7 that with formerly colonized states, agreements on archives “between the predecessor State and the newly independent State […] shall not infringe the right of the peoples of those States to development, to information about their history, and to their cultural heritage.”

    Overall, Article 28, which is focused on newly decolonized states, is undergirded by the principle of territoriality, that is of territorial pertinence, provenance or origins. It is also undergirded by the principles of retroactive sovereignty and of functional pertinence. Territorial pertinence is defined by the Society of American Archivists (SAA) as “[t]he practice of placing documents with content relevant to a region in a repository within the region. […] For example, under territorial pertinence, records relating to a newly formed country would be transferred to the new country.” This principle is related to that of retroactive sovereignty, which “means that the archives produced by administrations and institutions in charge of managing the business of the territory that has become a newly independent state are devolved to the new state.” (6) The Society of American Archivists also distinguishes territorial pertinence from that of territorial provenance, whereby “the records would remain with the agency that created them.” In line with territorial pertinence, the Convention calls for records that belonged to the formerly colonized territory to be returned there if they had been incorporated into the colonial state’s archives. This is related to the principle of territorial origin, “according to which the archives produced by the territory before it became dependent, and then incorporated in the archives of the annexing or supervising state, are bound to the successor state.” (7) The Convention also states that whatever records the colonizer had created originally in its national archives should be transferred to the newly independent state when they are vital to its ability to operate. As Kecskeméti explains, “[t]he functional pertinence principle […] means that the transfer of power and responsibilities must be accompanied by the transfer of archives that are necessary for administrative continuity to be ensured.” (8) 

    At the same time, the Convention does not foreclose the possibility of acknowledging and incorporating into agreements the claims and perspectives of others depicted in the records. For example, Article 28.7 outlines that agreements on archives between the former colonizing state and the newly decolonized state “shall not infringe the right of the peoples of those States to development, to information about their history, and to their cultural heritage.” I read this provision as making room for the needs of people living outside of the decolonized state (e.g. Algeria, Ghana, Benin, Trinidad & Tobago) within the boundaries of the state that colonized it (e.g. France, Britain, Spain). They can serve as the basis for negotiating resolutions that incorporate the needs and perspectives of people residing in the latter, while still facilitating repatriation. When colonialism is involved, joint or shared heritage, or reproduction, are solutions that should be framed in a way that addresses the core of the problem, namely how archival colonial legacies help perpetuate the power imbalance between North and South. A decolonized reframing of joint/shared heritage also has the potential to help work out solutions in cases where there are multiple claims over records, including when there are competing claims by Global South communities, movements and societies.     

    While I cannot give these principles the extensive treatment they deserve today, I will point out that the Convention centres land and place insofar as archives by or about a colonized territory belong to that territory even when not created in it, even when not in the custody of its governing authority, and even when located elsewhere. It calls for “repatriating the power of the knowledge held in archives” (9) by reconstituting memory, history and collectivity through an in-gathering of records pertaining to a place, as part of de-fragmenting the knowledge, people and sovereignties which were dispersed through many repositories, archives, custodians and states by colonial violence. I term this framework provenance in place, insofar as archives are to be kept together based on the place they pertain to and in that place, rather than solely arranged by creator. The Convention’s call (particularly in Article 28) for global archival decolonization seeks to operationalize the principle of self-determination in archives by connecting archival ownership and custody to the issue of whose land has been or is colonized by whom. These are powerful ideas even if the Vienna Convention never received the requisite 15 state signatories to come into force largely due to the political opposition and machinations of western states and archivists. Due to the global dynamics of power between North and South, the Convention and the Third World voices behind it have been given too little consideration, if not misrepresented and erased, in archival studies. The Convention’s history has generally been written by the white men who opposed it. Nonetheless, the Association of Commonwealth Archivists & Records Managers took a firm position about the return of displaced archives from Britain to Third World decolonized states in part by referencing the Convention, noting that the Convention “has continued to inform thinking about archives within the international archival community.”

    A committee of western archival experts called together by the ICA in 1995 criticized the Convention for adopting territorial pertinence because it violates the dominant creator-centric conception of provenance: “The ownership of archives cannot be determined by or on the basis of the information contained in them, but only by their provenance.” (10) This statement evidences the tendency to conflate or collapse ownership and provenance, which is why reconceptualizing provenance is often at the core of arguments for archival repatriation. More recently, Kecskeméti, who opposed the Convention for political reasons, considers the principles of territorial origin, retroactive sovereignty and functional pertinence to be “based on provenance.” (11) Indeed, much has changed between the ICA’s 1995 criticism of the Convention for being in violation of provenance and 2017, when Kecskeméti wrote about the principles undergirding the Convention based on a more expansive understanding of provenance. Since the turn of the last century, a range of archival scholars from Bastian and Nesmith to Hurley and Drake have been thinking more expansively of provenance, about how to locate the pluralistic histories and dynamic relationships of records, or whether to discard the notion altogether, as captured in concepts like societal provenance, parallel provenance and community of records. Nonetheless, the fundamental theoretical validity of the western theory of provenance continues to be accepted almost universally. This more expansive yet still creator-centric understanding of provenance is reflected in major descriptive standards like the ICA’s ISAD(G): General International Standard Archival Description and the Canadian Rules for Archival Description.

    Building on that more expansive thinking about provenance, however, my research into the Vienna Convention invites us to consider the possibility of reconceptualizing provenance partly by centring place as context and origin even when that means de-coupling provenance from respect des fonds. Of course, place is not the only important aspect of the provenance of archives, but it is one that is too often disregarded, minimized or elided altogether. This tendency to elide place is a common colonial move, one that frames place as simply backdrop, or abstractly as timeless and decontextualized space, to divert attention away from the question of who is occupying and controlling whose land. This tendency has led indigenous and anticolonial thinkers around the world to highlight the importance of centring place in challenging and dislodging colonial and imperial projects, all of which require the remaking of political geography. The Vienna Convention reflects this anticolonial ethos albeit within a restrictive statist framework. The extensive archival and documentary trail of the debates and activities associated with its crafting can enrich our thinking about displaced archives and our dominant archival paradigm beyond the horizon of the west and its legal traditions. Given its statist focus, however, it is important to consider how we can bring contemporary theories, frameworks and practices about community archiving, diasporic archives and Indigenous Data Sovereignty to bear on these discussions and our interpretations of the Convention. 

    Future Directions: Rethinking Provenance in Archivy

    This text has traversed vast historical periods, and physical and conceptual terrain, from the archival fictions produced about archives and archivists to forge white nationalist states like France and Canada, to the insurgent histories of the Third World Project and the decolonizing ethos of the Vienna Convention. My singular goal has been to unearth hidden histories and produce critical knowledge that can aid in the project of creating a more liberatory archival landscape and world. My anticolonial rethinking of place and archives, which I gloss under the term provenance in place, asks us to attend to the relationship between records, their place and the people of that place. This intellectual intervention serves as a strategic move whereby an understanding of provenance that takes place as seriously as creator, if not more, supports claims that archives removed from a place by colonizers through colonial violences should be returned to that place (as origin and context). Provenance in place is about creating archival regimes and infrastructures that begin by asking, what land(s) do the archives pertain to? What people and nations are connected to that land historically and today? And among them who, if any, has been or is dispossessed or colonized, and by whom? Most importantly, it is to ask, how can the archives support efforts to end that dispossession and colonization today, and to undo the archival legacies of such colonization in the past?

    (1) This text is based on research outlined in the following publications: J.J. Ghaddar (2022) “Provenance in Place: Crafting the Vienna Convention for Global Decolonization and Archival Repatriation,” in James Lowry, ed., Disputed Archival Heritage, Volume II (New York: Routledge); Ghaddar (2021) Provenance in Place: Archives, Settler Colonialism and the Making of a Global Order. Thesis (University of Toronto); and Ghaddar (2020) Total Archives for Land, Law and Sovereignty in Settler Canada. Archival Science 21(1): 59-82.  

    (2) This section is based on Ghaddar, "Provenance in Place: Crafting the Vienna Convention."

    (3) Angela Davis (2008) Angela Davis: How Does Change Happen? University of California Television, around 39 to 44 minutes.

    (4) Alina Sajed (2019) Re-remembering Third Worldism: An Affirmative Critique of National Liberation in Algeria. Middle East Critique 28(3): 243–60, 16.

    (5) Article 25 provides the caveat that, “Nothing in the present Part shall be considered as prejudging in any respect any question that might arise by reason of the preservation of the integral character of groups of State archives of the predecessor State.”

    (6) Charles Kecskeméti (2017) “Archives Seizures: The Evolution of International Law,” in James Lowry, ed., Displaced Archives (London, New York: Routledge), 14. Emphasis in original.

    (7) Ibid.

    (8) Ibid.

    (9) Evelyn Wareham (2001) “Our Own Identity, Our Own Taonga, Our Own Self Coming Back": Indigenous Voices in New Zealand Record-Keeping. Archivaria 52: 26-46, 46.

    (10) ICA, Committee on Legal Matters (1995) Reference Dossier on Archival Claims. Compiled by Hervé Bastien, Committee Member, for the Council of Europe, 53.

    (11) Kecskeméti, “Archives Seizures”, 14.

  • 10 Jan 2023 9:30 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    By J.J. Ghaddar (1)

    This post (Part I of II) is based on presentations I delivered between March and November 2022 at the Provenance in Place: A Symposium co-hosted virtually by CUNY’s Archival Technologies Lab and Dalhousie University’s School of Information Management; at the International Council on Archives 9th Annual Meeting in Rome; and at From Archival Pasts to Archival Futures Interdisciplinary Workshop hosted at the University of Ghana’s African Studies Institute in Accra. Many thanks to Nadia Caidi, Eve Tuck, Raymond Frogner, James Lowry, and Mariam Karim for their encouragement and conversations over the years that helped shape this work. I am also grateful to the feedback of the respondents, panelists and audience members at the various events. Any mistakes or omissions are solely my responsibility.

    For over a decade, I have been tracing the roots of archival studies in western imperialism and white supremacy, with a focus on settler colonial and apartheid state formations with their segregationist and annihilative drives. I have also been thinking about whether and how we can disentangle the field from these oppressive systems and structures. Here, I share with you this ten-year journey by telling you about my excavations of three parallel and overlapping histories: One is the history of the modern archival profession, or at least the story we tell ourselves about this history. Another is the history of archiving in settler Canada and the struggle for land at its core. The last is about the Third World Project, insurgent histories, and the struggle for liberatory archives and futures captured to some extent in the United Nation’s Vienna Convention on Property, Archives and Debt (1983). In the process, I outline the importance of thinking about place in relation to the provenance of archives and records in colonial contexts as part of amplifying struggles of indigenous peoples to reclaim colonized lands and histories, and to overcome the archival legacies of colonialism.

    Archival fictions from the French Revolution to the Fifth Republic (2)

    Image 1: Picture of the Musée des Archives nationales I took during my doctoral fieldwork in Paris. The museum is run by the official state repository, the Archives nationales. It is part of the French state machinery that fabricates an innocent white history for the nation. Source: J.J. Ghaddar (May 2018).

    First, I began tracing the history of archival studies and the emergence of our dominant creator-centric understanding of provenance as others have done—from when it is said to originate since the French Revolution and its codification in the Dutch Manual in 1898, to the first International Congress of Archivists & Librarians in Brussels in 1910 and the subsequent globalization of provenance along with the nation state archives model with Third World political decolonization over the last century. The difference is that I brought into the story some of the many racialized and colonized peoples and spaces within and beyond Europe that are usually erased in how we talk about our professional history. This allowed me to demonstrate the crucial role of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) and Algerian Revolution (1954-1962) in the creation of archival studies, western modernity and the French Republic from its first to its current fifth iterations. Doing this research made painfully obvious the role of not just western archives but also archivists in the fabrication of archival fictions, that is the creation and mobilization of archives to fabricate innocent histories for white nationalist projects like modern France and, significantly, for archival studies itself. The fabrication of innocent histories for nation, archives and archivist where none exist requires at a fundamental level erasing and remaking the places of colonized and racialized people and collectivities. It also requires the simultaneous erasure of the colonized and racialized from the places and spaces claimed for white nationalism, which entails a disavowal of the history and afterlife of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  By interrogating this history, I learned how white archivists, in privileging creators, facilitated the expansion of western empires along with the establishment of white nationalist state formations in Europe and globally. I also learned that the Eurocentric stories we tell ourselves about this history allows us to whitewash or sanitize the methods and practices of our field, as if it is just technical, natural and right that we do things this way. In fact, the dominant way of doing things was explicitly developed to serve the political projects of white supremacist states. Archival methods and principles like our creator-centric paradigm of provenance have always been pragmatic; the ends, and not the means, are the point.

    Archival fictions from Canadian Confederation to total archives (3)

    Second, I traced the history of British North America, which becomes Canada in 1867, uncovering the settler colonial structuring of Canada’s state archives, and of the Canadian archival profession and its total archives tradition. From the era of Confederation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to our contemporary period when the Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) had to take Canada to court multiple times over records and archives—across this historical trajectory, I demonstrate the archival fictions that facilitated the reconstitution of a colonial frontier (British North America) into a settler nation state (Canada). By archival fictions, I refer to how Canadian archivists fabricated both archives and history at the service of a genocidal white nationalist project. Archival fictions facilitate the erasure of Indigenous nations from their lands so these can be claimed for settlement, as well as the Anglo imperialism and racialism required to make Canada. They also work to remove all those not deemed white from national historiography and consciousness, including people of African descent as part of erasing the history of slavery and whitening, in the national imagination, the labor and population that built the country. Hence, today we still have this myth of the pioneer—hardworking, stalwart, brave and, invariably, white. For whoever works the land, liberal western thinking tells us, can claim the land. It is a lie of course and a very convenient one. Those who have shaped, cared for, and worked the land over the last few centuries, if not millennia, are usually the last to have legal or political claim to it.

    Archival fictions also refer to the process of professional mythmaking and history writing that started in the 1970s reframing the varied practices employed over decades at the explicit service of settler colonialism as the foundations of a continuous tradition of Canadian archiving known as total archives. This tradition, it is often said, creates a more inclusive and democratic national documentary heritage. This archival fiction provides a sanitized way of talking about the history of our profession in Canada. Significantly, the fabrication of a national archival heritage and national history where none existed required generations of Canadian archivists to gather records according to subject. Concretely, they copied and gathered in Ottawa any record or document pertaining to the European settlement of what became Canada. Most of these records, notably, were created before Canada or much of its settler population was in existence. So what exactly is national or Canadian about them? The prevalent legislative framework for archives from 1912 to 1987 emphasized the historical rather than administrative value of records, their content over their function. It deemed material as archival by virtue of its acquisition regardless of the nature or method of its creation, whether its creator was a public or private entity, or if it was original or a copy. Generally, records were acquired with little regard for the coherence of collections or the need to maintain the records of a single creator together or in their original order. These ideas were anathema to the emerging consensus in Europe codified in the canonical Dutch Manual of 1898, which required archives of the same creator to be maintained together.Yet long after the International Congress of Archivists & Librarians adopted in 1910 a definition of provenance in line with the Dutch Manual,Canada’s state archivists were reclassifying acquisitions from their original systems within repositories like Britain’s Public Record Office and the Archives nationales de France so that “individual documents and even entire fonds were grouped together in large thematic, alpha-numeric classes.”(4)

    Table 1: Summary of key milestones in the development of total archives and the Canadian national archival system.

    Tracing this history reinforced the point to me that Canadian archival practices and laws have been driven by the pragmatic imperative to archive in whatever way serves settler colonialism. For the first few generations after Confederation, that meant archiving by subject as territory since there was no such thing as a Canada until then. Hence, an archival heritage had to be retroactively invented alongside a nation and history. Once the Canadian state and its archives had been cohered circa the 1970s and ‘80s, there was a shift to archiving within a creator-centric provenance paradigm as a more effective way of maintaining the state and its functioning. Evidently, then, to forge a new nation and collectivity, it can be helpful to archive by place or territory, rather than creator. I began to think if that is the case when you are making up a country like Canada, then would it not be even more so when you are attempting to recohere long established nations and native collectivities in the wake of colonialism, to revitalize cultures and reaffirm sovereignties? At least in such cases, the population is already established with a long history on the land, usually long before the records are created or gathered. In sum, I began to think of the ethical imperative to decenter creator in provenance and to consider place as crucial when land occupation and colonialism is or has been central to the context of the creation, use, acquisition and displacement of records. To elaborate these ideas, I turn to the Vienna Convention, and the Third World Project from which it emerges, in Part II of this blog post.

    (1) This text is based on research outlined in the following publications: J.J. Ghaddar (2022) “Provenance in Place: Crafting the Vienna Convention for Global Decolonization and Archival Repatriation,” in James Lowry, ed., Disputed Archival Heritage, Volume II (New York: Routledge); Ghaddar (2021) Provenance in Place: Archives, Settler Colonialism and the Making of a Global Order. Thesis (University of Toronto); and Ghaddar (2020) Total Archives for Land, Law and Sovereignty in Settler Canada. Archival Science 21(1): 59-82. 

    (2) This section is based on the introduction of my doctoral thesis, J.J. Ghaddar (2021) Provenance in Place: Archives, Settler Colonialism and the Making of a Global Order. Thesis, University of Toronto; and Ghaddar (2021/2020) Total Archives for Land, Law and Sovereignty in Settler Canada. Archival Science 21(1): 59-82. 

    (3) This section is based on Ghaddar, Provenance in Place: Archives, Settler Colonialism and the Making of a Global Order; and Ghaddar, Total Archives for Land, Law and Sovereignty.

    (4) Danielle Lacasse and Antonio Lechasseur (1997) The National Archives of Canada 1872-1997 (The Canadian Historical Association Historical Booklet No. 58 (Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association), 5.

  • 6 Dec 2022 10:00 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    By Katherine Schlesinger

    As guest editors of the special issue of Archivaria on person-centred archival theory and praxis, we, Jennifer Douglas, Jessica Lapp and Mya Ballin, 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! 

    It is fitting that on the 100-year anniversary of the birth of Howard Zinn, the “People’s Historian,” archivists are purposively centring people in their own work, most notably in the service of formerly marginalized and silenced communities. Zinn was a fierce advocate for the oppressed, and an opponent of the notion of “neutrality” in the archives. In a paper presented to the Society of American Archivists in 1970, Zinn characterized the archival profession as an “inevitably political craft” whose biases privileged the records and stories of powerful people and institutions over those of ordinary people and equated archival claims of neutrality with passive complicity (Zinn, 1977).  One can draw a line from Zinn’s work to current people-centred, social justice-focused archival projects addressing reconciliation, repatriation, reparations, redescription, and gaps about the lives of those previously misrepresented or excluded from the archives. Moreover, Zinn’s rejection of the notion of archival neutrality opened the door to the recognition of affect and emotion in the archive, which are vital aspects of people-centred archival praxis, in all their wonderful and terrible manifestations.  

    While most Library Information Science (LIS) students read and discuss the views of Howard Zinn, fewer are advised of the potential connection between social justice archival work and the emotional risks inherent in such endeavors for archivists and users of the archive, including the risk of trauma. This begs the question, is archival education sufficiently preparing the newest generation of archival professionals?  

    Trauma is medically defined as “an emotional reaction to incidents of death, physical or sexual violence,” or to “extreme or repeated exposure to aversive details of traumatic events which only applies to workers who encounter the consequences of traumatic events as part of their professional responsibilities,” (Pai, North & Suris, 2017, p.3). It is the latter part of this description, a phenomenon also termed secondary or vicarious trauma, that puts archivists at risk while either working directly with aversive materials, or interacting with the people described in the records, or their survivors.  

    Archives are full of traumatic materials, records describing the ordeals suffered by individuals, families, or communities, at times the direct relatives or ancestors of the very patrons wanting to access these records. What is considered aversive materials is subjective in the context of both cultural and personal terms.  However, they are most often associated with collections of documents about police violence, state-sponsored terrorism, or systematic societal abuses of power, such as slavery and forced family separations.  As communities begin to demand accountability for such actions, archivists are called upon to engage with these archival documents as evidence of past wrongdoings, for the purposes of reconciliation, reparations, or healing.  Repeated engagement with materials that document trauma can elicit a powerful emotional response from the archivist and the user, leading to serious mental stress disorders, including trauma.  

    In the past, the archival profession suppressed the notion of emotional response, a shadow that still lingers over the profession and is compounded by society’s stigma surrounding mental health disorders or needs. However, archivists can embrace their humanity and acknowledge their emotional response to archival material while balancing the important work of people-centred, social-justice-focused archiving.   

    To their credit, archivists and archival educators have recently initiated open and supportive discussions about archival trauma and recognize the need to create supportive environments and mindsets to care for those impacted by archival trauma. The profession is in the early stages of developing training and resources, mostly geared towards working professionals. Pilot programs for trauma-informed archival management have met success most notably in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.   

    However, is the archival community overlooking the necessity and the opportunity to educate its newest members? Knowledge about the risk of trauma in the archive and training in trauma-informed archival management should ideally be provided at the LIS graduate student level, to prepare the next generation of people-centered archivists before they encounter traumatic materials in their first internship or job. As new archival literature is published on archival trauma and management, and workshops are more readily available online, it’s time to begin to extend this knowledge and training to LIS students. Newly minted archivists are eager to take up the call for social justice archival work. Trauma-informed training can only enhance their ability to approach such projects in a safe, effective, and truly people-centred manner. 


    Pai, A., North, C. & Suris, A. (2017). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in the DSM-5: Controversy, Change, and Conceptual Considerations [Review of the book Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed.; American Psychiatric Association: Arlington, VA, USA, 2013]. Behavioral Sciences 7(1); doi:10.3390/bs7010007. Retrieved from 

    Zinn, H. (1977). Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest. The Midwestern Archivist, 2(2), 14-26. Retrieved from 


    Katherine Schlesinger is a Master of Library Science candidate at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Her academic interest is in emotion and affect in the archive. She is a member of Trauma-Informed Archives: A Community of Practice. 

  • 29 Nov 2022 8:00 AM | Anonymous

    By Siham Alaoui

    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!

    Current technological developments have changed the way heritage institutions are conducting their activities. Those institutions are undertaking new strategies to involve citizens in the description and enrichment of cultural heritage. This is particularly the case in archival institutions, where citizens are invited to donate their archival materials such as personal diaries, manuscripts, photographs, and videos, to document the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on social, economic, and cultural levels. This contribution sheds light on the various manifestations of the collective documentation of the COVID-19 pandemic and describes how the archivist’s role is to be reinvented for a better citizen archives management. We also identify and describe the key challenges relating to this person-centred archival praxis, and how archivists can play simultaneous roles as stewards, mediators, and participants in this context.

    Collective documentation of the COVID-19 pandemic: an enrichment of common documentary heritage

    The collective documentation of the pandemic is viewed as a response to the statements published in April 2020 by UNESCO and the International Council on Archives (ICA), inviting policy makers, health authorities, managers, research institutions, and citizens to transform the COVID-19 threat into an opportunity to enrich the documentary heritage of nations (ICA, 2020; UNESCO, 2020). Since then, many citizens have been involved in those collective initiatives, that is, by sharing their personal archives with heritage institutions in the aim of describing how they are living their quarantine and illustrating their experiences and emotions. Examples of those institutions are several, chief of which are the Civilisation Museum in Quebec (Musée de la civilisation) and the Association of Belgium French-speaking archivists (Association des archivistes francophones de la Belgique), which have established collaborative approaches to collect, manage, and disseminate COVID-19 pandemic citizens’ personal archives. The virtual exhibitions on their respective websites show the diversity of content generated by citizens, including letters, diaries, and photographs. All those archives reflect citizens’ thoughts, emotions, and even memories, describing how the pandemic affected their everyday life. To take part in those initiatives, citizens were invited to log on to the platform and upload their personal archives. The latter should be described using various metadata such as the document type, its topic, and release date. Furthermore, archival material should be accompanied with a relevant description reflecting how the donated objects can help document the social, cultural, and economic impacts of the pandemic on citizens.   

    Figure The Civilisation Museum: collective documentation of the COVID-19 pandemic 

    The donated archival material contributes to the enrichment of the documentary heritage these institutions are responsible for. To do so, citizens are to be involved in the description of their personal archives, as they are the actors able to enhance their intelligibility and highlight their archival value. In that sense, as creators, citizens are in the best position to describe their own archives and determine their value, whether it is emotional, informational, or evidential. Thus, considering the central role played by citizens in archives description, the collective documentation of the pandemic is viewed as a person-centred archival practice that can also be positioned between participatory archives and community archives. While the first one aims to solicit citizens to describe archives via an online platform (Huvilla, 2008; Theimer, 2011), the second illustrates the autonomous archival practices of sociocultural groups sharing common interests, ideologies, or identity traits (Iacovino, 2015). In both cases, citizens have more autonomy in describing archival materials, as they upload the latter according to their personal perceptions, generating heterogenous archival outcomes. Moreover, these actors have various sociodemographic backgrounds, which may influence their interests, needs, and power relations over personal archives. Henceforth, this collective practice might generate a series of challenges that are to be tackled by archivists to establish a balance between cultural institutions’ strategic objectives and citizens’ needs.

    The collective documentation of the COVID-19 pandemic: what roles for the archivist?

    The collective documentation of the COVID-19 pandemic raises a series of issues at the ethical, archival, social, and cultural levels. To tackle them, archivists must play several roles qualifying these actors as nomads: they can be viewed as stewards, participants, or mediators. Each role helps address specific challenges and, thus, requires different archival, social, managerial, and digital abilities.  

    Figure 3 The archivist as a nomad 

    On the ethical level, some citizens may not agree to get their photographs used by a third party in a different context and may want to claim their exclusive use by archival institutions. It is therefore important to be aware of the ethical aspects related to personal archives use. In this context, archivists play an institutional role as stewards, since they are concerned with regulatory requirements surrounding the dissemination of archives on digital platforms, particularly with respect to existing copyright laws. They ought to increase awareness about the legal considerations regarding personal archives use.

    Moreover, from an archival perspective, donated personal archives should be described by citizens, as they are in the best position to express their thoughts and emotions in the most accurate way. Yet, while citizens are given more autonomy to describe their personal archives, it is also important to assess archival outputs’ compliance with recognized best practices. In this context, archivists are viewed as participants, since they are involved in the participatory description of citizens’ personal archives, with the aim of respecting the accurate description of the emotional, affective, historical, and artifactual values those objects may have. Thus, archivists are to engage in a continuous dialogue with citizens to ensure a better archival description of the donated material.

    Furthermore, archivists can also play a role of mediators. This is particularly the case when it comes to helping citizens improve their digital and archival skills, as they might not have the same required abilities to use digital platforms to donate their own archives. Archivists should help users identify and describe their personal archives through the establishment of some guidelines regarding, for instance, recommended metadata, file formats and sizes, as well as the required details to be added to archives to enhance their discoverability and intelligibility.

    Last but not least, considering the limited financial resources heritage institutions have, archivists are to play a mediation role while selecting archives to publish online. It is vital to establish a balance between both the strategic objectives of those institutions and social expectations regarding the pandemic collective documentation. Archivists should develop opportunities for a better understanding of citizens’ needs regarding the dissemination of pandemic personal archives. They may conduct periodical surveys with users to assess the quality of the donated material made online and adjust, if necessary, the prioritization process after getting the approval of their institution’s top management.


    In light of what has been said above, the collective documentation of the COVID-19 pandemic is viewed as a person-centred archival praxis that makes archivists revisit their roles in the digital universe. From stewards to mediators, archivists are to develop multiple collaborative opportunities with citizens, who are nowadays more involved in the enrichment of common documentary heritage, thanks to web 2.0 features. It is legitimate to wonder to what extent archivists will have to control the heterogenous archival outputs generated by citizens, as those actors are getting more involved in heritage institutions’ collaborative projects.


    Association des archivistes francophones de Belgique (2020). Archives de quarantaine: l’exposition virtuelle. Retrieved from: 

    Eveleigh, A. (2017). Participatory archives. In H. McNeil and T. Eastwood (eds.), Currents of archival thinking, (2nded.). Santa Barbara, CA Libraries Unlimited, 299-325. 

    Huvila, I. (2008). Participatory archive: Towards decentralised curation, radical user orientation and broader contextualisation of records management. Archival Science, 8(1), 15-36. Retrieved from: 

    Iacovino, L. (2015). Shaping and reshaping cultural identity and memory: maximising human rights through a participatory archives. Archives and Manuscripts, 43(1), 29-41, DOI: 10.1080/01576895.2014.961491 

    International Council on Archives (2020). COVID-19: the duty to document does not cease in a crisis, it becomes more essential. Retrieved from: 

    Musée de la civilisation (2020). Documentez la pandémie. Retrieved from: 

    Theimer, K. (2011). A different kind of Web: new connections between archives and our users. Chicago, IL: Society of American Archivists. 

    United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (2020). Turning the threat of COVID-19 into an opportunity for greater support to documentary heritage. Retrieved from:   


    Siham Alaoui, MLIS, is a PhD candidate in archival science and public communication and a sessional lecturer at Université Laval, Québec, Canada. She is interested in digital documentary mediation and citizen participation in heritage institutions’ projects.

  • 22 Nov 2022 8:00 AM | Anonymous

    By Catherine Barnwell & Jacinthe Pepin

    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!

    Catherine: When I attended the Association of Canadian Archivists [ACA] Conference for the first time in 2021, I had been working in the field for about a year and a half. I participated in a panel session focused on “Acknowledging Emotions in Archival Education,” led by Elizabeth Bassett, Ted Lee, Christina Mantey, and Jennifer Douglas. Though I was still unfamiliar with much of archival theory, acknowledging the emotional aspect of archival work seemed like a novel approach that helped me make sense of some of the realities I experienced (and still experience) in my daily work on the reference desk.

    It seemed that there were parallels to be drawn between this perspective of archival work and the health field, but more specifically with nursing practice and theory. The concept of care is primordial to the discipline of nursing – and has been used in recent years by some thinkers to describe the affective relationships that are at the heart of archival work (Caswell & Cifor, 2016). This led me to ask what archivists could learn from research in nursing regarding person-centred care. Consulting existing frameworks for person-centred care from the field of nursing, and opening a dialogue with our colleagues in that discipline, could be the firsts steps in identifying the building blocks of a person-centred framework for archivists.

    First, Jacinthe, can you tell me a bit about yourself and your field of research?  

    Jacinthe: Early in my academic career, I was asked to reflect and write on the nature of nursing. With colleagues, we gathered responses given by nurse scholars and theorists in both French and English. A recurrent answer to the question was that nursing is both an art and a science, a relational and scientific practice, and that “le soin” [care] is the main focus of the nursing discipline together with the person and family’s health experiences (Pepin et al., 2017). Person-centred care/nursing and family-centred care/nursing are among the well-known frameworks guiding the clinical nursing practice.

    C: How would you define care in the field of nursing? And what is person-centred care?

    J: Many definitions of care can be found in the nursing literature but invariably, the patients and families and their health are at the centre of what we mean by care: listening to patients describing their specific health situations and contexts, evaluating patients’ health and their health projects or suggested treatments with them in relation with their values, beliefs, and habits, and joining reflection and knowledge to action in life transitions and life-threatening situations. McCormack and McCance (2006) were among the first authors to propose a person-centred nursing framework, whose processes include “engagement, sharing decision-making, having sympathetic presence, providing for physical needs, and working with the patients’ beliefs and values” (p. 476). What the authors call the care environment includes power-sharing and the potential for innovation and risk-taking.

    Further, in their Clinical Best Practice Guidelines, the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario [RNAO] (2015) raised the ethical perspective where health-care providers demonstrate “person-centred-care attitudes and behaviours that are respectful of the whole person and their preferences, are culturally sensitive, and involve the sharing of power within a therapeutic alliance to improve clinical outcomes and satisfaction” (p. 7). With events such as the death of the Atikamekw woman Joyce Echaquan in a health care milieu in Quebec, cultural safety and cultural humility are now at the forefront of what we mean by patient- and family-centred care. How do you envision the place that care occupies in the field of archives?

    C: It strikes me that these definitions, though they emerge from an entirely different field of research and practice, resonate with the Reconciliation Framework for Canadian archives in response to the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC] (The Steering Committee on Canada’s Archives, 2022). Among the strategies proposed for improving professional archival practice, the framework includes “providing First Nations-, Inuit-, and Métis-led cultural competency training” for archival staff (p. 35) and ensuring that reference archivists are trained to provide trauma-informed services to researchers consulting “emotionally distressing archival material” (p. 38).

    When I think of the place that care occupies in archival work, I think first and foremost of my interactions with researchers in my role as a reference archivist at The Archive of the Jesuits in Canada. Of course, care is not limited to the relationship between archivist and researcher: it extends to all types of interpersonal relationships that form the fabric of our work. As Marika Cifor and Michelle Caswell (2016) write, archivists have “affective responsibilities” towards creators and donors of archival material, users of archival material, the people who are documented within the records, as well as broader communities (p. 24-25). For example, at The Archive of the Jesuits, I work with many researchers looking for genealogical information. Notably, The Archive holds material that speaks to encounters between Jesuits and various Indigenous communities across North America since the 17th century, including materials regarding the residential school operated by the Jesuits in Ontario. Ensuring that these archival documents are made accessible to Indigenous researchers and communities, and ensuring that researchers feel safe and welcomed in the reading room, is a priority.

    Are culturally competent care and person-centred care currently being integrated into nursing curricula? If so, how are they being taught?

    J: In nursing, actions are gradually being implemented throughout Canada to meet health-related recommendations of the TRC: 22 (integration of Indigenous healing practices into nursing care), 23 (recruitment and inclusion of Indigenous professionals and cultural safety education for all health professionals) and 24 (requirement for all to learn about Aboriginal health issues, including the history and legacy of residential schools, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples). At the last national day for Truth and Reconciliation, the Faculty of Nursing at Université de Montréal, together with the Centre intégré universitaire de santé et de services sociaux [CIUSSS] Centre-Sud-de-Montréal, held a Cercle de parole with Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants to share health experiences in the hope of regaining trust; this was an event open to our students and to all nurses and health professionals. Our planning committee included Indigenous and non-Indigenous members of the Faculty and the CIUSSS. Only through collaboration and power-sharing can we create authentic learning activities.

    In proposing a person-centred care framework for nursing as well as for archives, one key concept would be cultural safety, which includes cultural humility.

    C: It’s interesting that the Cercle de parole event brought together students, academic researchers, and nurses who practise in different clinical environments.

    In addition to my position at The Archive of the Jesuits, I worked as a research assistant under the supervision of Anne Klein at Université Laval in 2021-2022. This project, focusing on the archives of the Québécoise playwright Pol Pelletier, entailed taking stock of her documents and compiling an inventory, with a view to assembling her fonds and preparing it for donation. Since I was unfamiliar with the history of theatre in Quebec, we decided to survey the documents together so I could better understand their context and meaning. Our method of working evolved as Pol began to understand the how and why of archival practice, and as I began to understand her artistic career and the makeup of her archive. Some days we had the stamina to go through many files; other days, one of us would be tired, or had something else on our mind. Some files also touched upon heavier topics that demanded more mental and emotional energy. The nature of this project required that I be attuned to Pol and to her needs and wants. This experience speaks to Caswell and Cifor’s (2016) proposition to rethink the archivist’s role as that of a caregiver.

    J: It seems that the relationship you are developing with Pol is one of true presence, of journeying with her as you go through her files: it reflects engagement from both of you towards the same goal. McCormack and McCance (2006) wrote that engagement is a marker of the quality of the nurse-patient relationship and is one of the patient-centred care processes. Nurses often find it hard to not be able to spend as much time with their patients and families as they see would be required. It could even lead nurses to lose some of the meaning they find in their work, since care is so ingrained in nursing.

    C: Engagement could be a second building block for a framework of person-centred archival practice. This would inevitably look different in different working contexts. In the case of the project with Pol Pelletier, we had no hard deadlines. Building upon the work of Christian Hottin (2003), who considers that the acquisition process can be viewed as the establishment of an interpersonal relationship, we were able to first spend time getting to know each other, which then facilitated the process of working through her archives together. However, I am conscious that archivists working within institutional settings would have to balance engagement with donors or researchers with the myriad of other tasks they have to accomplish within their work hours.

    Another interesting aspect of the project surrounding Pol Pelletier’s archives has been the possibility of integrating Pol’s own ideas about her archives into my way of working. When I began to compile the inventory, the archival decisions I made were not based on institutional policies, but rather were rooted in my conversations with Pol and reflected the particularities of this work environment. Together, we brainstormed what the “final product” of this project would look like: for instance, where she would like her archives to be kept and what type of researchers would use them – historians, but also artists and the general public. We have not yet arrived at the final stages of transferring the fonds to a repository, but these discussions between Pol and myself have been vital to the development of the project and of my own archival practice.

    J: Interesting. In her Strengths-based approach to nursing and health care, in which person-centredness is a pillar, Gottlieb (2013) insists on collaborative partnership where knowledge and decision-making are shared. It requires that partners set goals jointly and work together to determine a course of action that is right for the patient or family. Sharing decision-making almost inevitably leads to patients’ and families’ satisfaction with care, involvement with their own care, feeling of well-being, and feeling culturally secure, all of which are person-centred outcomes (McCormack and McCance, 2006). Equally important is the context in which the nursing practice takes place; a care environment that supports person-centred practice is one that allows for risk-taking and innovation together with patients and families. We mentioned earlier that cultural safety is essential to person-centred nursing as well as archival practice. I would add that by learning cultural safety with Indigenous communities, we are also enriching the person-centred practices that we adopt with all people and with other diverse communities.

    C: In addition to cultural safety and engagement, sharing decision-making to work towards person-centred outcomes is a third building block that archivists could borrow from nursing frameworks.

    In the ACA 2021 panel session mentioned earlier, one of the key points that emerged was that archivists sometimes feel unprepared to deal with difficult or emotionally charged situations. This aspect of archival work, as Jennifer Douglas and her research team highlighted, is not necessarily approached in archival education, though there are now concerted efforts to integrate trauma-informed practice, for example, into archival work (The Steering Committee on Canada’s Archives, 2022; Wright & Laurent, 2021). As culturally competent care and person-centred care have been integrated into nursing education, the concepts of person-centred archival practice that we have begun to draft here could become part of a more holistic and humanistic archival science curriculum. 

    Thank you for sharing your theoretical knowledge of person-centred care frameworks, Jacinthe. It seems we have only begun to touch upon the possibilities for dialogue between our two fields of research and practice. As you said earlier about nursing, archival practice is not a “hard science”: it is a relational practice that is inevitably shaped by the people who create, use, and are documented within records, and the relationships among them.


    Caswell, M. & Cifor, M. (2016). From Human Rights to Feminist Ethics: Radical Empathy in the Archives. Archivaria, 81, 23-43.

    Gottlieb, L. N. (2013). Strengths-Based Nursing care: Health and healing for person and family. Springer Publishing.

    Hottin, C. (2003). Collecte d’archives, histoire de soi et construction de l’identité : autour de deux fonds d’archives de femmes. Histoire et Sociétés, 6, 99-109.

    McCormack, B. & McCance, T.V. (2006). Development of a framework for person-centred nursing.

    Journal of Advanced Nursing, 56(5), 472–479.

    Pepin, J., Ducharme, F., Kérouac, S. (2017). La pensée infirmière (4e édition). Chenelière éducation.

    Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario. (2015). Person- and Family-Centred Care. Toronto, ON: Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario. 

    The Steering Committee on Canada’s Archives. (2022). Reconciliation Framework: The Response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Taskforce. 

    Wright, K. & Laurent, N. (2021). Safety, Collaboration, and Empowerment: Trauma-Informed Archival Practice. Archivaria, 91, 38-73.


    Catherine Barnwell is an archivist at The Archive of the Jesuits in Canada. She has also worked as a research assistant with professor Anne Klein at Université Laval, focusing on acquisition and donor-archivist relations through a case study of the archives of Québécoise playwright Pol Pelletier.

    Jacinthe Pepin is a professor at Université de Montréal’s Faculty of Nursing who was until recently the scientific leader of an interdisciplinary research team funded by the Fonds de recherche du Québec, Société et culture (FRQSC, 2013-2025) that focused on health care professionals’ learning. She also happens to be Catherine’s mother.

  • 15 Nov 2022 8:00 AM | Anonymous

    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 (

  • 8 Nov 2022 8:00 AM | Anonymous

    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. 

  • 1 Nov 2022 8:00 AM | Anonymous

    By Lexy deGraffenreid and Ben Mitchell

    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!

    Introduction & Background

    Adopting a person-centred archival praxis that privileges the language, culture, and preferences of those represented within collections has been a priority for Special Collections at Penn State since mid-2019. We aim to utilize an ethic of care, in which archivists prioritize the voices of those documented by and within records over traditional practices that prioritize documents themselves as well as the paradigms of predominantly white collectors and institutions. However, developing and implementing a more person-centred praxis is ongoing and has been evolving over a series of years. Due to the COVID-19 shift to remote work, Special Collections undertook a high-level audit of finding aids to evaluate completeness and to assess the presence of offensive language. This audit identified a broad array of obfuscating or offensive descriptive practices, which decreased the discoverability of archival records and perpetuated silences surrounding marginalized communities within our collections. This audit further identified that additional assessment was needed to understand the depth and breadth of these concerns.

    Before further assessment, archivists determined that we needed to reconsider legacy archival practices and recentre the practice of archival description onto the perspectives and preferences of marginalized records creators and/or subjects. Our premise was that archival description should be accessible to and discoverable by the people and communities whose experiences are reflected within our collections. Moving towards a person-centred praxis required both self-reflection and adopting external expertise. As we do not have a community advisory group, it was necessary to take the time to research and pull in community-driven expertise and resources to better inform our descriptive practices. In summer 2020, in order to research more inclusive practices, we launched the Inclusive Description Working Group, which ultimately decided to author a style guide and resource guide for inclusive description. During summer and fall 2020, the working group began to compile resources such as community-driven thesauri, toolkits, and current projects to build an in-depth resource guide to ground the intended style guide in existing recommended practices and to be used as a learning resource. At the outset of the project, due to competing priorities and limited staffing, the working group decided to recruit an archival studies graduate student, Ben Mitchell, to conduct research and help draft the guide. In this next section, we will discuss developing and authoring the style guide as a working group after recruiting our graduate student to help develop the guide.

    Developing the Guide

    The project began with an extensive literature review. The literature review consisted of three major components. First, the working group worked independently to collect resources for review. These resources largely consisted of policy statements and style guides from similarly sized institutions, controlled vocabularies, active communities, and academic articles. These resources were compiled into a spreadsheet and served as the base for the literature review. In the following weeks, Ben reviewed the resource guide, selected a limited number of resources, and began to construct the literature review. The literature review was primarily structured around Archives for Black Lives’ guidelines. The group decided to focus on six general guidelines: 

    1. Language, Power, and Politics

    2. Accessibility and Audience 

    3. Voice, Tone, and Expertise 

    4. Cultural Humility, Identity, and Naming 

    5. Violence, Oppression, and Challenging Content 

    6. Archival interventions (choosing mediation or not) 

    These guidelines would go on to form the backbone of the style guide, with additional, more technical categories for punctuation, formatting, etc. The working group examined the selected resources through these six lenses to inform the style guide. Most of the writing was done by Ben, but the group met weekly to make edits and discuss the findings.  After final edits were made, the group began drafting the style guide itself. The writing process for the style guide followed the process for the literature review. Again, Ben did the majority of the writing, with continuous feedback and edits from the rest of the group. Each week, Ben drafted one to two guidelines for the style guide from the literature review. This work largely consisted of summarizing and transitioning the academic language of the literature review into the more technical language of the style guide. The style guide was designed to be easily understood, quick to reference, and to have minimal jargon.

    In addition to meeting as a group for edits, Ben also met with individual group members to assist with the writing process. The group recognized the individual strengths and competencies of specific members and decided they would lend these skills to the writing process. For example, one member of the group had experience with controlled vocabularies, one member had experience with standardizing grammar, and so on. This way, the perspectives of the whole group could be included while retaining a singular voice for consistency.

    After this process was repeated for each section of the style guide, the entire group met one more time for final review and edits. The process was designed to be highly iterative with editing done consistently throughout each stage. Furthermore, the style guide was specifically designed to be updated and edited based on evolving social conditions and changing archival standards. 
    Adoption & Implementation 
    The ultimate purpose of both the style guide and resource guide is to embed more inclusive practices programmatically into description workflows. The adoption of the guide’s practices happened alongside its drafting. Several collections requiring reparative redescription were prioritized as a result of the audit and served as useful test cases for researching and adapting people-first description methods. The guides formally launched in summer 2021 when Ben Mitchell presented them to all employees at a Special Collections employee meeting. The Interim Co-Head of Collection Services then implemented the guide across the Collections Services Team (a subset of the overall Special Collections Library charged with overseeing collection ingest, accessioning, description, and management) by introducing it in trainings alongside the local accessioning manual and processing manual. The expectation is set team-wide to consult the guide and implement more person-focused, inclusive practices for any accessioning or processing projects which document a marginalized person or group. 

    Implementing the guides has had positive impacts across the Collection Services Team’s work. It is employed from the point of accessioning as a way to use more inclusive language in all parts of the collections services workflow to ensure that our minimally processed finding aids are person-centred in the potentially years-long interim between accessioning and processing. This care is especially necessary because our extensible accessioning guidelines indicate that collections under five linear feet are considered completed at the point of accessioning and many of the recently acquired collections documenting Black life or the LGBTQIA+ experience are small collections of less than five feet. For collections documenting marginalized persons or communities, the priority is to centre the voice of that community rather than to accession collections rapidly but insufficiently. This prioritization allows for a fuller, more robust minimal finding aid which is hoped to be more discoverable to researchers. Adopting this people-centred approach to extensible accessioning and processing forces archivists to recentre their praxis onto an ethic of care which prioritizes elevating the voices of marginalized creators and records subjects over traditional archival practices that minimized or excluded them through insufficient or obfuscating description.  

    Ultimately, the adoption of the style guide will have an impact beyond Special Collections. The University Libraries’ most recent strategic plan includes the charge to “ensure equity of access by evaluating current descriptive access points within library catalog records, digital collections metadata, and archival description; create a plan to perform remediation on legacy descriptive practices; and identify and utilize alternative authority sources and a local style guide/thesaurus.” Members of the Inclusive Description Working Group form part of the action team assigned to this charge and the Guide is being used to inform broader projects around assessment and remediation across the library’s access points to create libraries-wide description that is more responsive and inclusive of marginalized voices. Recentring archival description on the experiences and preferences of people and their communities is not a single project. It requires an ongoing, iterative, and sustained program that is adaptable to the stated needs of the people whose voices we hope to centre. By creating and implementing this Style Guide to Inclusive Description and associated resource guide, and by adopting its recommendations in practice, we hope to build the scaffolding of a more diverse, people-centred repository that represents the diverse experiences of our community.


    Lexy deGraffenreid is the Head of Collection Services at Penn State University’s Eberly Family Special Collections Library. Ben Mitchell is a STEM Librarian at the University of Rochester, but previously served as the Special Collections Discovery Assistant at Penn State.

  • 25 Oct 2022 8:00 AM | Anonymous

    by Rebecca Murray with Renée Belliveau

    I’ve had the pleasure of sharing a virtual table with Renée over the past two years on the ACA Communications Committee, but we didn’t start talking about her books and writing until this summer. It’s been a unique pleasure to work with Renée professionally and to read her writing. I had the opportunity to ask her a few questions after reading her most recent novel, The Sound of Fire, this summer.

    Rebecca: Your novel, The Sound of Fire, is a beautiful blend of historical fact and creativity. You’ve written a really strong account of the tragic fire that raged on the Mount Allison University campus in December 1941. You show many perspectives including that of the fire (which we’ll get to), but I’m curious what elements or perspectives, if any, were missing from the narratives found in the archival or published record?

    Renée: There were many perspectives missing from the archival holdings at Mount Allison University, which were understandably focused on students and faculty. I unfortunately did not have access to accounts by physicians and nurses who attended to the wounded, or by parents and community members. However, I was able to imagine what they might have experienced that harrowing night.

    This is one way in which the fictionalization of the story was helpful. Rather than focus solely on the perspectives for which we did have archival records, I was able to include others who were affected by this tragedy. Usually there were records that gave me flashes of inspiration, such as the many telegrams sent by frantic parents eager for news of their sons, or newspaper mentions of the medical professionals who cared for injured students at the Amherst, NS hospital. My job was simply to breathe life into them.

    Mount Allison campus, ca. 1904. Mount Allison University Archives -- 2007.07/51

    Rebecca: I’ve read a lot of Canadian literature recently and the elements and the landscape really prove themselves to be pivotal characters in our country’s stories, time and again. Sackville, New Brunswick is, in my mind, known for its proximity to the marshlands and of course any story set in the east conjures up some imagery of water or shorelines no matter the setting’s proximity to the coast. Your focus on the fire is of course apt and points to danger (an obvious one in this case) in the otherwise idyllic landscape. How did you go about incorporating this perspective into the story, and what kind of mood or zone did you have to get into to do this? I presume the writing process was different from the other perspectives you wrote.

    Renée: The voice of the fire came to me unexpectedly near the end of my first draft. I had not intended to anthropomorphize the fire itself, but as soon as I wrote the words down, I knew I had found the central thread that would allow me to bring so many disparate perspectives together.

    I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I was inspired by novels like Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, which is narrated by Death. I remembered Zusak saying in an interview that he endeavoured not to make Death sound malicious. I had the same intention when writing from the perspective of the fire. I wanted it to be more of an observer than a villain.

    While the book is in third-person narration, when the voice of the fire appeared, it was in first-person. It was also much more poetic, so I did have to put myself in a different mindset to expand that perspective (usually by reading poetry). But I had spent the entire novel shifting perspectives and adopting different voices, and Fire was simply an extension of that.

    Mount Allison men’s residence fire, 16 December 1941. Mount Allison University Archives – 2007.07/962.

    Rebecca: You’ve chosen to highlight so many voices rather than just focus on a select few. You also chose to come back to some voices time and again, whereas others seem to have their moment and we don’t necessarily hear from them again. How did you make these choices? How many narrators or perspectives is too many? I think many readers are used to a duo or perhaps trio of narrators, especially in current historical fiction, but you’ve surpassed that — without causing confusion. How have readers responded to this and is it something you think you could take on again?

    Renée: I’m so glad to hear you didn’t find it confusing! Not every reader agrees, but this narrative structure was inspired by the archival records themselves. There were so many voices speaking to me from the archives that I never imagined writing it any other way. The book intentionally lacks in depth in favour of breadth. I wanted to show how many people had been impacted by this fire, and how it had affected them in different ways.

    As with all historical research, there were contradictory accounts in the archives, which, to me, is as important as the story itself. By including all these voices, I was able to dive deep into the nature of truth.

    I did initially compile a list of all the perspectives I wanted to include in the book, but writing was a much more fluid experience. From one day to the next, I got to choose which voice I wanted to embody. It was a very intuitive process. I didn’t focus on the number, but my editor and I did eventually cut or combine a few of them for the sake of clarity.

    There is a long tradition of writers using this interconnected format in short story collections, and I would gladly take up the challenge again in that medium.

    Rebecca: As archivists, we know records are not neutral: there’s bias in the historical record, there’s bias in the published record (for example newspapers). And certainly, for the characters in your novel, they have their own personal biases and perspectives as the tragedy unfolds. How did you balance your professional training, your creative spirit and your (presumed) desire to tell an honest account of what transpired during that horrific night?

    Renée: Throughout my research I was faced with contradictory accounts of what happened that night, and I also encountered recollections that were refuted by the records themselves. That, I think, was the most interesting part of this project.

    There is a slogan pinned to the wall of the Mount Allison University Archives which reads, “The truth is in here somewhere.” It is part of our job as archivists to find the “truth”— but truth is malleable, and memory is fallible. The experience of writing this book really made that clear for me, and fiction enabled me to play on that a bit.

    Spoiler alert: I was recently asked why I did not make up a cause for the fire, which was deemed accidental. I was not willing to take so much creative license. There is always room for interpretation, but as an archivist, I wanted to remain faithful to the written record.

    Rebecca: Do you think that being an archivist helps or hinders the historical fiction writing process?

    Renée: I think it helps, especially with the research process. Not only are our technical and research skills invaluable, but as an archivist, I approach the records with so much respect for the individuals depicted in them.

    Archivists are not supposed to interpret records, but I see my writing as an extension of my work as an archivist. By writing about history in an approachable way, I am doing outreach and inviting readers in.

    Rebecca: Do you have other projects on the go that you’d like to share?

    Renée: My current novel-in-progress was also inspired by voices I encountered in the archives, but I’m approaching it differently. Although I fictionalized the characters in The Sound of Fire, I was surprised by how many readers were able to correctly identify the real individuals who inspired them. This time, I’m writing about a larger historical event and supplementing my archival research with plenty of literature so that I can draw on the experiences of many rather than a few and envision new characters entirely.

    I’m also continuing to focus on Canadian history. Archivists throughout the country know how many fascinating stories are hidden in our collections!

    Rebecca: Do you have advice for any other aspiring authors in the archival or information science world?

    Renée: The magic is in the details, and archival records are full of details that are glossed over in history books. Take note of what sparks and sustains your interest!


    Renée Belliveau is a writer and archivist from Sackville in the Siknikt district of Mi’kma’ki (New Brunswick). She is the author of The Sound of Fire, a novel based on the true story of the devastating 1941 fire at Mount Allison University, and a memoir about her father’s battle with cancer entitled Les étoiles à l’aube. She holds degrees from Mount Allison University, the University of Waterloo, and the University of Toronto. Follow her on Instagram: @reneecbelliveau

    Rebecca Murray is a Senior Reference Archivist at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, Ontario. She is an avid reader and Editor of the In the Field blog.

  • 11 Oct 2022 8:00 AM | Anonymous

    Emma Metcalfe Hurst is in the final year of her MASLIS the UBC iSchool. Her areas of interest include community and artist archives, intellectual property rights, and public programming. She currently works as an archivist at VIVO Media Arts Centre and Karen Jamieson Dance. 

    Item E-04633 - Alert Bay. BC Archives. [ca. 1917].

    This post is a continuation of
    Archival Research, Indigenous Protocols, and Documentary Filmmaking: A Case Study of British Columbia – An Untold History, a two-part blog post that reflects on my experience as an archival researcher for the documentary TV series, British Columbia – An Untold History, and the three key steps – education, relationship-building, and identification – that led to the creation and implementation of an Indigenous Protocol in the production of the series. This post concludes by sharing some individual observations that point to some challenges, setbacks, and changes that arose in doing this work in hopes of using it as a guide for future consideration and improvement in documentary filmmaking practices.

    Read Part 1 here.


    One of our first undertakings as a team was to look for existing literature on using Indigenous archival materials, and more specifically within film and media contexts
    . The On-Screen Protocols and Pathways: A Media Production Guide to Working with First Nations, Métis and Inuit Communities, Cultures, Concepts and Storiesserved as our foundation, specifically Chapter 5. Working with Archival Materials,which was written by Marcia Nickerson with contributions from Alanis Obomsawin, Loretta Todd, Jesse Wente, Lisa Jackson, Gregory Younging, Hank White, Jean Francois Obomsawin, Stephan Agluvak Puskas, and Alethea Arnaquq-Baril (amongst others), as a commission for imagineNATIVE, the world's largest Indigenous Film and Media Arts Festival. The guide is intended to be used by “screen-storytellers and production companies wishing to feature First Nations, Métis or Inuit people, content or concepts (traditional or contemporary cultures, knowledge or intellectual property) in their films, television programs and digital media content” (Nickerson, 2019, p.6) to:  

    • Provide decision-making guidelines for communities, content creators, funding bodies, and industry partners; 

    • Share best practices developed by Indigenous screen storytellers; 

    • Educatescreen content creators, production companies and gatekeepers about Indigenous worldviews, cultural and property rights, and the protection of Indigenous cultural practices; and finally, 

    • Encourage informed, respectful dialogue between communities, content creators, and production companies (Nickerson, 2019, p.6).  

    Other related resources that were consulted were shared in the course syllabi of FNEL 480A: Endangered Language Documentation and Revitalization with Dr. Candace Kaleimamoowahinekapu Galla and ARST 585: Information Practice and Protocol in Support of Indigenous Initiatives with Dr. Tricia Logan, offered through UBC’s iSchool and First Nations and Endangered Languages (FNEL) Program. These texts include: 

    The Series Producer, Leena Minifie, also hosted a mandatory Indigenous Protocol training session to review the protocols and procedures laid out by imagineNATIVE’sguide, and expanded on the concepts by educating on local Indigenous cultural protocols, storytelling practices, consent processes, and governing structures. Conversations around anti-discrimination and anti-oppression within archival research were also part of the training. The session was not only attended by the team of archival researchers, but also by the producers and editors to ensure knowledge and resources were being equally distributed to the filmmaking team at large to build awareness, understanding, and compliance across all levels of the production.


    The colossal task of contacting First Nations groups and individual community members in BC was originally initiated by the Series Producer, Leena Minifie, and Lead Researcher, Jennifer Chiu, to begin relationship-building and to determine who (if any one individual person or a group) has the authority within the community to give consent to the use of archival materials that depict members and ancestors of their Nation. This work occurred prior to my arrival as an archival researcher, but my understanding is that once the archival materials had been selected for use in the final cut, a dialogue began again with the Nations / individuals to clear permissions for use if they contained “Indigenous Content” and / or were designated as “Culturally Sensitive Materials,” based on the definitions listed above. Efforts to consult with the Repatriation department at the Royal BC Museum (RBCM) and the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre to discuss protocols for access and dissemination of culturally sensitive archival materials were ongoing at the time of my departure. A consultation meeting with Lou-ann Neel, Acting Head of Indigenous Collections & Repatriation Department and Curator of Indigenous Collections at the RBCM at the time, also took place to discuss, compare, exchange, and identify gaps in our methodologies.


    It was imperative that the archival researchers included descriptive metadata for all of the archival materials entered in the internal database system in order to identify and retrieve all of the Indigenous materials selected for the series. This process followed a high-level to low-level identification strategy. After retrieving all of the Indigenous materials from the database, myself, the licensing and permissions specialists, and the series producer developed and applied a classification system that determined the “cultural sensitivity” of an item based on how much metadata (specifically date, location, and Nation) was available to identify and describe it,3 as well as other visual indicators (to the best of our knowledge) that would fall under the definition of “Culturally Sensitive Materials,” meaning: images that depict Indigenous masks and carvings, traditional regalia, sacred ceremonies (such as potlatch), places (such as gravesites), and the institutionalization of Indigenous peoples including hospitals and Indian Residential Schools and students – with particular attention paid to the date of the creation in respect to survivors. We identified three classifications of images in this process: those that were “complete” and included all of the associated metadata that we needed for context and to seek consent from the Nation or authoritative consenting figure; those that were “incomplete” due to missing some essential information and which required further research and consultation; and those that were “exempt” and completely unusable due to a lack of attainable information (commonly referred to as “orphan images” in the field of archives) and the high cultural sensitivity of the content. This classification system was included in the metadata of each individual item in the database and informed next steps for clearing licensing and permissions, as well as the final selection of archival materials for the series. 


    Item : CVA 137-2 - [Indigenous fisher]4 catching salmon in the Fraser Canyon. City of Vancouver Archives. [ca. 1893].

    Typically, resources such as labour and time to take on a project of this scale are often extremely limited. Institutions generally don’t have employees who can devote sustained attention to and assistance with a multi-part project of this size, and most documentary film projects don’t have a whole team of twelve archivists to work with. Imbalances of labour were also present in that BIPOC employees were often tasked with performing extra emotional labour through relationship- and trust-building with Indigenous communities, educating others, imparting information as designated authorities with specialized cultural knowledge, in addition to their regular responsibilities. The fast pace and quick turnover demands of the film industry also felt at odds at times with archival research and consent processes, which asks for sensitivity, self-reflexivity, and meaningful relationship-building; all of which takes (and should take!) time.5 More conversations and consideration in the early stages of the project for Indigenizing description, such as incorporating Indigenous languages into descriptive metadata, would have also been welcomed. Indigenizing description would have also provided an opportunity to subvert the racist and bigoted language that we often found used to describe and locate archival materials and documents. Overall, the main hindrance of the project was time (always at a premium) and labour (always restricted by budgets).

    While the clearance work was still ongoing when I left the production, I believe the success of the project was in its refusal to accept current industry standards in documentary film production; the efforts made towards rethinking “best practices” in documentary filmmaking which is primarily concerned with intellectual property rights and ownership (copyright and fair use) by instead seeking consent directly from the Nation communities represented in the archival materials; and the implementation of new strategies and educational opportunities with the support of the Director and Producers which sought to remediate harmful practices of the past. By challenging industry standards in documentary film production through the development and implementation of an Indigenous Protocol, this archival research process has laid the foundation for others to reference and to carry on. In the future, I would encourage directors, producers, and archival researchers to consider how this framework of direct community consent and cultural sensitivity may also be applied to other racialized groups (under)represented in archives and historical documentary contexts.6

    Thank you to Hans Ongsansoy and Leena Minifie for the editorial feedback and support on the original paper.

    End Notes

    3 - After my work with the series was complete, I came across the CFLA-FCAB’s Indigenous Matters Committee’s Red Team-Joint Working Group on Classification and Subject Headings and the National Indigenous Knowledge and Language Alliance (NIKLA)’sFirst Nations, Métis, and Inuit Indigenous Ontology Google Doc Spreadsheet (2020) which would have been a useful resource to consult for this work.

    4 - Title changed to address outdated and racist language in the original title.

    5 - Kimberly Christen’s article “Towards Slow Archives” (2019) puts forth the idea and practice of “the slow archives” as a decolonizing approach which creates a temporal disruption to make space for listening, critical reflection, relationship-building, and intentional acts.

    6 - Over the last decade, archival literature has addressed the concept of permission and consent, specifically in the areas of community archives and Indigenous archives. See for example: “Archival Consent” (2018) by Julie Botnick; “The Role of Participatory Archives in Furthering Human Rights, Reconciliation and Recovery” (2014) by Anne J. Gilliland and Sue McKemmish; and “Come Correct or Don’t Come at All:” Building More Equitable Relationships Between Archival Studies Scholars and Community Archives” (2021) by Michelle Caswell et al.

    Sources Cited

    Local Contexts. “About.” Last modified 2022.

    Local Contexts. “TK Labels – TK Culturally Sensitive.” Last modified 2022.

    Museum of Anthropology. “The Collections.” Last modified 2022.

    Museum of Anthropology. “Guidelines for the Management of Culturally Sensitive Materials.” 2020.

    Nickerson, Maria. ON-SCREEN PROTOCOLS & PATHWAYS: A Media Production Guide to Working with First Nations, Métis and Inuit Communities, Cultures, Concepts and Stories, May 15, 2019.

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