Seismic Shifts: On Archival Fact and Fictions
Next month I will travel to New Orleans, LA, for the symposium Architecting Sustainable Futures: Exploring Funding Models in Community-Based Archives. In advance of that, symposium organizers invited me to write this short commentary for the first session, which is entitled “The Community is the Archive.” The first sentence of the session description reads:
The local communities where community-based archives are based are essential to their development and survival, and underline the social value of community-based archives.
But let’s shift the statement from a declarative to an inquisitive one: Are local communities essential to the survival of community-based archives? My argument is that archivists must shift their paradigms away from the fictive notions of ‘local’ and ‘community-based’ towards a more radically precise and politically liberatory language.
But before I explain why I am using a community archive symposium to challenge the very premise of community archives, I must confess that my own words (here, here, and here) helped create the problem I am hoping we will address together at the symposium and beyond. I mention my contributions to the community archives landscape not for their volume or value — indeed, Michelle Caswell and Andrew Flinn have been and remain the concept’s foremost theorists — but to signal a stark separation from previous positions I have espoused. Should you find this commentary confounding to read, be assured that I find it even more confounding to write, yet I do so because I believe it to be more truthful than not.
That truth begins, in earnest, with the rejection of two words we in archives have come to know, love, and abuse: ‘local’ and ‘community-based.’ I maintain that these terms offer diminishing analytic (and consequently, actionable) value because they constitute the most common of empirical fictions. So compelling are these fictions that they pushed me, in part, to pursue anthropology as a discipline due to its apparent emphasis on examination of ‘local’ and ‘community-based’ phenomena.
How distressing it was, then, to encounter in a foundational seminar the work of anthropologist James Ferguson, who in this essay deconstructs the dichotomies of local/global and community/state . For Ferguson, these binaries persist because they enable us to think of power and dominion vertically: the local is necessarily ‘down on the ground’ and the global ‘up in the air,’ while the community is likewise a ‘foundation’ and the state a ‘ceiling.’ This view carries damning effects. It further masks and thus entrenches power, rather than revealing and redistributing it. Moreover, it obscures the flows and exchanges between the proximate and approximate, a point underscored more poignantly by the anthropologist Anna Tsing in her article “The Global Situation” .
Archivists who associate themselves and their work with community archives would do well to consider these authors’ arguments and apply it to our own praxis, a reflection that might yield two distinct but compounding conclusions. First, our longing for the local leads us astray and, second, the modifier ‘community’ that precedes ‘archives’ is redundant if not remarkably imprecise. Allow me to elaborate these provocations separately using examples from my experiences as an archivist.
Despite what its name suggests, it would be misleading to characterize A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland as a ‘local’ project. Indeed, it contains first-person voices and views of people in the city of Cleveland, Ohio, who have survived or been directly impacted by police violence. What’s more, the great majority of the incidents happened in Cleveland, as did all of the events to generate the records that populate the archive. Lastly, the archive delivers a mountain of evidence to suggest that the many police agencies in Cleveland function as anti-black and anti-poor terror squads.
However, to bound this project to a locality likewise erases essential facts about the archive’s origins and operations. It emerged, as we have written, from the collaborative brainstorming of more than fifteen people, a small number of whom had never so much as set foot in Cleveland prior. The $1,265 raised through crowdfunding came from thirty-seven people who were then or now living in different countries and regions of North America; from Michigan to Mexico, from California to Canada. The enormous labor costs for transcription, coding, and data entry were likewise given in-kind by volunteers from places so far flung that it would be nearly impossible to say with certainty where some of the contributors reside, much less why they chose to give their time and talents to strangers on the internet. What one can say, certainly, is that the project was and is far from local. It is, in that same breath, certainly not ‘global,’ whatever that term may mean . The shifting ‘where’ of the archive is not incidental but intentional. It very much increases the likelihood that the archive will persist into time and with it the people’s experiences therein reflected.
The only aspect more misleading about community archives than its yearning for the local is the adjective ‘community’ that in many ways convenes the nascent field into a semi-coherent whole. Prefixing ‘community’ or ‘community-based’ to archives implies that an archive could indeed exist otherwise; that perhaps there are archives independent of communities or not based in them. The community archive literature — which, again, I own my stock in proliferating — seemingly qualifies its modifier in contrast, chiefly, to state-run, state-like, and mainstream archives. Yet this is insufficient on many fronts, especially when one considers Max Weber’s pithy (yet contested, surely) definition of the state as:
a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory .
In this light, ‘community’ archives have largely contrasted themselves to…community archives. For instance, in one of the landmark publications of the community archives discourse, Andrew Flinn, Mary Stevens, and Elizabeth Shepherd define community as “any group of people who come together and present themselves as such .” Taking this definition on its own terms, how would one distinguish community archives created by people of an ethnic minority from the state archives that white supremacists and Lost Cause believers created in the Deep South of the United States at the end of the nineteenth century ? This is not a rhetorical question. Indeed, in the latter case, men and women of the former Confederate States of America who lobbied for the establishment of state archives truly believed that their experiences and views risked erasure and obliteration. They, too, qualify as representing a particular community, as do the white supremacist terrorists who marched on Charlottesville, Virginia, in August of 2017 to the chant of “you will not replace us” in reaction to the decision by the Charlottesville city government to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
By any metric of the definition of “community,” one is compelled to characterize literally every archive as a ‘community archive.’ This is the case for the University Archives at which I worked before leaving the archival profession as well as for the State Archives where I worked before library school. Both repositories represent manifestations of a community coming forward to name itself as such. Moreover, that one of them is a private institution does not absolve it of its proximity and intimate relationship with the state, as indeed Princeton University receives millions of dollars every year from municipal, state, and federal governments in the form of grants and tax breaks. Indeed, the very symposium for which I author this commentary is funded by a foundation created and sustained through federal estate tax codes and the abilities of donors to give money that they are then exempt from paying to the federal government. So, for as much as community archives and those who have done the work (myself included) with them in the US like to contrast themselves with the state, we are convening a forum on said community archives under the extended auspices of the state.
To be clear, this is not necessarily an uncommon or undesirable state of affairs. However it does require that we as a group of ‘community archive’ practitioners and scholars begin to name the stakes of our work more candidly and clearly by transitioning to a language of precise political claims and a liberatory lens to accompany it. This includes, I would argue, dropping the ‘community’ and ‘community-based’ modifiers from our vocabulary and lexicon, as it intimates that state-run or state-like archives are acommunal, when in fact they are very much so (visit Princeton Reunions if you disagree). Moreover, this shift requires transitioning beyond static notions of ‘local’ communities where things, people, or ideas are ‘based’ and instead gravitating towards an orientation that envisions the political projects of archives — and, on this point, we must convince ourselves and everyone within earshot — as connections more than places. It is incumbent that we embrace, encourage, and engender archival projects that are intentionally and strategically location-less; or, actually, location-full.
It has been my argument that the field and laborers of ‘community archives’ should radically reframe its orientation to the work and make clear their political projects. This is the true essence of an archive, which, we would do well to remember, originates from the Greek word archon meaning ‘ruler.’ I have no delusion that, suddenly, the majority of the projects that classify themselves as community archives will convene a conference and all agree on their political claims. Actually, it is because I suspect there to be a wide variance of political aspirations amongst community archives that I think it all the more important that we announce our aims. We are not collecting history for history’s sake. In reality, the notion that ‘mainstream’ or ‘state-like’ archives do so might be the biggest fiction of them all. But the fact of the matter is that ‘community’ archives have not fared much better on this front, yet the opportunity exists to embody the seismic shift in paradigms that we want to see in society.
 Ferguson, J. (1998). Transnational Topographies of Power: Beyond “the State” and “Civil Society” in the Study of African Politics. Occasional Paper of the Roskilde University, International Development Studies, (19), 45–71. http://ojs.ruc.dk/index.php/ocpa/article/view/3815.
 Tsing, A. (2000). The Global Situation. Cultural Anthropology, 15(3), 327–360. https://courses.washington.edu/globfut/TsingCA.pdf.
 Cooper, F. (2005). Globalization. In Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (pp. 91–112). Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press.
 Weber, M. (1946). From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press.
 Flinn, A., Stevens, M., & Shepherd, E. (2009). Whose Memories, Whose Archives? Independent Community Archives, Autonomy and the Mainstream. Archival Science, 9(1–2), 71–86.
 Galloway, P. (2006). Archives, Power, and History: Dunbar Rowland and the Beginning of the State Archives of Mississippi (1902–1936). The American Archivist, 69(1), 79–116. https://doi.org/10.17723/aarc.69.1.m462n0564g87jqm0.