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Archival activism?

september 2, 2013

This post is a follow-up to a discussion with a colleague on Twitter this week:

C: What the world needs, and I say this without a shred of irony, is more archival activists. I’m volunteering.

I : I agree. And I know there are some good initiatives going on. Problem is how to connect them

C: What would be the main problem there? Means? Priority? Network?

I: Network. People don’t know (about) each other. Maybe I should write a piece on depotdrengen?

My colleague agreed.

So – what is archival activism?

There’s no definite definition, of course. Archival activism may be several kinds of actions that archivists or other «memory workers» undertake to collect and preserve archives (in the broadest sense)  that are normally not preserved by the established archival institutions.

Archival activism is necessary for several reasons. In most countries, public archival institutions in practice hold a monopoly on societal documentation. The institutions are organised and funded by the state, or by regional or municipal authorities, and they employ the great majority of the world’s archivists. The archivists» main task has been, and still is, to appraise, describe, preserve and make available the archives created by state, regional or local government.

So, the archives that are preserved in public archival institutions represent a selective societal documentation, partly because of their provenance (they are public records) and partly because of their bias (they reflect their creators» view of society and their exercise of power, privileging and marginalization). Non-public archives  are preserved more or less by chance due to institutional policies and/or lack of resources (and I suspect that the great majority of those that are preserved were created by «great men», influential organisations and big corporations).

To me, archival activism is about creating a democratic and just societal archival record. Everybody should have the right to participate in creation of such an archival record. But this is not so; the power to archive is not equally distributed in any country. And therefore any society needs archival activists, to create archives for justice.

I am quite sure that there are hundreds and thousands such actions and projects going on, in countries all over the world. But as long as we don’t know (about) each other, we cannot learn from each other’s work and experiences. And we remain isolated, dispersed, and weak.

We should build a network of and for archival activists. So please, leave a comment, share a link in the field below this post!

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