Archiving with Care: A Conversation with Zakiya Collier

By Megan Williams
Director of Programming, Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York
& Zakiya Collier
Digital Archivist, The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Zakiya Collier speaking at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, 2020. Courtesy the author

The theme of this Metropolitan Archivist issue is “Invisible City,” which had me thinking about the Audre Lorde article: Silence into Action. Lorde writes, “Within this country where racial difference creates a constant, if unspoken, distortion of vision, Black women have on one hand always been highly visible, and so, on the other hand, have been rendered invisible through the depersonalization of racism.” The invisible and hyper-visible duality of blackness can be understood as an ongoing cycle. Black suffering is largely ignored by society, but there are times, like this summer, when it becomes hyper-visible, only to be rendered invisible again when the moment has passed. But throughout, we remain always visible to ourselves, doing the work we deem necessary, highlighting, preserving, and making accessible the material and digital artifacts of black life.

What follows is a conversation, which has been edited for clarity and brevity, between myself and my friend and colleague, Zakiya Collier about the statement they authored this summer: “Call to Action: Archiving State-Sanctioned Violence Against Black People.” Collier is a black memory worker and digital archivist at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

MW: What was the inspiration behind the call to action that you wrote this summer in response to the uprisings and the pandemic? I read your statement at a time when a lot of institutions were releasing statements of solidarity, which varied in tone and sincerity. But I received yours with relief. I thought it was an impassioned reminder of why we do this work.

ZC: As the pandemic was ensuing in the early months, it was a little wild for all of us, but I found it particularly chaotic professionally as a digital archivist. Because everything is now remote and digital and the show is on me. Any other time it’s sexy to be digital and it’s cool, and I’m mostly left alone. At this moment it’s like “What are you doing about this, how is this gonna go?”

Very early on I became interested in expanding the Schomburg Center web archive collection to include information about Covid and how it was affecting communities in the African diaspora. But I found it to be a bit overwhelming, like where do we even start, there’s so much information, so many people being affected, so many people dying. It was a lot to live that and try to adjust to this new environment. I was escaping New York, I couldn’t be here for my own health. It was a very chaotic moment.

In trying to envision what this web archive would look like, there were things I felt I had to think about. Other collections were springing up at the time. Those collections didn’t have to think about some of the same things because this collection was specifically dealing with black people. It was just this need to be extra careful, in order to make sure this was an ethical project. I was thinking about how people are experiencing this right now, and how to be collecting information about it, about how people will feel, how it will be received. And unfortunately, how it will possibly be used against us or used to harm black people.

So I reached out to colleagues, Cheryl Beredo, Makiba Foster and Bergis Jules, in order to answer and ask these questions in community with people who are also thinking about these things all the time. I asked, “how do we do it while living it?” Bergis suggested we take it slow because this rush to gather everything and make it public in many ways can be harmful since we don’t know how it’s going to be used. He generously advised that we strategize around the different ways people are being affected right now.

We thought about what we were doing and expanding it to more black memory workers. The Schomburg doesn’t have to do everything, and it cannot be our expectation that one institution should do all this work. There’s many of us with multiple talents and resources. We’re also not a monolith, so what I might be interested in documenting, you might not.

Long story, short: these conversations were in, I believe, late April to early May, and then boom June hits, and it’s George Floyd. We’re seeing lots of other deaths come to light. I shouldn’t say deaths, killings. In addition to Covid and the way it’s continuing to disproportionately affect black and brown communities. At the same time, we’re seeing multiple archives and libraries putting out statements and they’ve got their Covid collections, which they shift to protest and Covid collections. But no one is talking about protecting black people, and no one is talking about a world where these things don’t happen. Do you care about black people, or did you put out a statement because everyone else is?

So Cheryl, Makiba, Bergis and I got on a call with about twenty black memory workers to discuss putting out a statement saying where we’re coming from as black memory workers. We’re sick of seeing black people die and seeing the people we work alongside be in a rush to get the most popular collection. We really wanted to say something about how these moments when black communities are hurting are not moments to take advantage and try to extract more from them by collecting their stories and not really thinking about ending the harm or protecting and actually caring about the experience of that moment.

MW: How did your own work and collecting strategies change, or how were they impacted by the upheavals of this monumental year? It sounds like your work was shifting, and you had all these questions which is what led you to the call to action.

ZC: Before I was focusing on preserving Schomburg websites and the #Syllabus movement of black educational materials that have come out of social movements in the past six years. That was my main focus, which is such gratifying work, to contextualize and share resources. So I was going along and then Covid happened. My work picked up tremendously. Even my social and personal time became part of my work. I’m seeing things about business owners creating masks, the Verzuz battles, DJ sessions on Instagram live. There was so much happening and it became overwhelming. Right now I think I have three hundred something sites [in the COVID collection]. But I can’t be putting that pressure on myself to feel like I have to get everything. We don’t have everything for any other large event, movement or pandemic. So that was probably the biggest shift, just more work.

MW: I like that your gut reaction was to be in community with other black archivists, librarians, memory workers, and to reach out to them to create this statement that centered on protecting black life within our profession. I signed my name and saw the names of many other colleagues and friends on that list too. What was the initial feedback you received once it was published on Medium?

ZC: After publishing, the next step was to share it on social media. So I put out a very general tweet announcing a call to action for memory workers broadly, but a call for black memory workers to come together and think about these things and take a lead on these efforts. There were lots of retweets and people eager to sign on. I think the call resonated with a lot of people, a lot of different people. There are so many people who signed who do not identify as black memory workers, they were allies. It was really impactful to see that many people support it. I’m not a vanguard or anything like that, people have been saying these things in different pockets. So it was really great to have a space where people are agreeing and putting their name next to it, personally identifying with the statement, outside of their professional affiliations. It was a lot of overwhelmingly positive support, nothing negative.

Pinback button stating “Black Lives Matter Everyday”, 2015. From Million Man March 20th Anniversary. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

MW: That is so encouraging. I’m pleased to hear there was no negativity. It’s important to call for community beyond the borders of our institutions, and have that call met. As we know there is power in memory work and to have any kind of say over what will get preserved is a privilege since these objects have the ability to shape how the future will see and interpret right now. So much of this work is done within institutions, but how can we as archivists stand in solidarity with one another and do this work beyond our professional affiliations?

ZC: I recently shared with a class at NYU that ethical memory work, to me, is not just archival labor, it’s also your approach to everyday life. Keeping black people alive is memory work, because then those black people are here to remember their families, their personal stories. I think one part of that is any effort aimed at keeping black and brown people out of harm’s way, out of the way of state-sanctioned violence. Covid-19 is state-sanctioned violence in the neglect that so many leaders have shown towards their states and locales. So advocating for safety in that sense, and being safe yourself (wear ya mask!) is part of this.

We also have to be educated around what black people want for their collections. If there’s an opportunity for a collection to go to an institution that takes it away from its communities, maybe take a moment to step outside of the institution. Because institutions cannot care for people, they don’t care for anybody, black, brown, white… As an archivist, you have the ability to refer someone to someplace else that might better suit the collection. Some of this work can be done without putting more labor on black memory workers, you should follow their lead on the work they’re doing. And support those efforts that give black memory workers the space and resources to do that work. Even if it looks different than what you would organically want it to, trust that black memory workers know their communities and know how they want to see themselves in their collections. Building trust with your black colleagues is just as important. Don’t just offer support on a surface level in order to help you get more black collections. I heard the term “curatorial blackface” recently [from Tamar Evangelestia-Dougherty at Cornell University] to describe when a black archivist is used to secure specific collections for PWIs. So, not like that, but genuinely support and try to become familiar with what’s important to black memory workers. If you can’t be genuine, don’t do it.

MW: I hear you emphasizing bringing our personal politics into our work. What other advice can you give to radical and social justice-minded archivists working within more conservative institutional structures?

ZC: I think community is so important. Be in community with people who are similarly social-justice minded in the profession — those are your people! We can be so siloed and disconnected in this profession, even in the same building. I feel that this is the project of conservatism, of oppression, of anti-blackness, of patriarchy. These are the masters’ tools, Audre Lorde (to invoke her again) has talked about: separation and difference keep us from talking to one another about our situations. Community and holding space for one another is the best thing. And I’m all about — as long as you can do so safely without putting yourself [and others] in a more precarious situation — just do what you want to do, and ask for forgiveness later.

MW: That alone is a great succinct solution to the problem of dealing with conservative institutions.

ZC: Ask for forgiveness (not permission).

MW: You mentioned before about the potential risks that might exist in trying to preserve black lives through our archival practices. Does the act of archiving itself pose risks to the subject that we need to be aware of? I’m thinking here about how in June we were talking about how to ethically document the protests.

ZC: There is actually a quote from Sadiya Hartman’s most recent book, Wayward Lives Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals…

MW: Highly recommend!

ZC: Yes, highly recommend. She says, “To be visible was to be targeted for uplift or punishment, confinement or violence.” I think that is particularly applicable when we’re talking about archiving the contemporary moment. For example, in my work, someone might write a blog post, and I preserve it and make it accessible through the Schomburg Center’s Archive-It. Let’s say hypothetically you write that to get through this moment you have to take naps in the middle of the day. But if someone were to record and preserve that and then a supervisor sees it a couple months down the line, they might say you were stealing time, and now you’re in an HR situation. This is particularly dangerous when we’re talking about black people because there is always some sort of targeted violence, whether it’s professional or physical, there’s always something.

MW: Archiving is closely related to surveillance, a dangerous element inherent to the profession.

ZC: Yes, archiving is in some ways creating or preserving more material that can be surveilled. The Blackivists, which is a group of black memory workers out of Chicago, put together a number of resources and have spoken about this throughout the summer and fall, about ways people who are photographing or using photographs from protests can protect organizers and participants so that material doesn’t come back to haunt them. We want to preserve a record of what’s happening but, speaking for myself, it’s much more important to protect black people. I want to protect black life more than I want to preserve a photograph.

So to answer your question, yes, archiving without being intentional and caring for the subjects no matter who they are, does pose risks. We always have to think about those risks.

MW: I was struck by your use of the word “care” in the call to action. What does it mean for you, besides mitigating potential risks, to provide care in an archival setting?

ZC: Care, for me, is being thoughtful, which is in some ways a synonym. Being “full of thought” about all the particulars of a thing we’re preserving. Many of our colleagues have talked about radical empathy in the archive, and I think that is one aspect of it. Imagining yourself in this person’s shoes, which can be difficult, is a worthwhile exercise to really think about the overall environment, and about anti-blackness, colonial practices, indigenous peoples… You should be full of thought as much as you’re doing the physical processing, imagining all the different ways this collection or that item can live in the world now, five years from now. Which is how we care for people in our lives. Before we make certain decisions, we think about how this would affect this particular person. Being full of thought at some point probably leads you towards waiting to speak to others, to figure out how they think and feel and want to be represented or not be represented. Also considering the right to be forgotten, that’s another form of care as well.

MW: it seems accountability is a crucial component of making sure care is offered in the archive. How can we ensure that we, and the institutions we work for, are remaining accountable to black people and communities whose collections we hold or are working with? How do we hold ourselves accountable as memory workers?

ZC: Going back to my comments about being in community and conversation. Communities can hold you accountable and challenge you to be better and lead you to think of things you never would have thought about before. At any point, if you’re in a room full of people that all agree with you, you need more people in that room. There need to be challenges, not complete disagreement, but a multitude of voices and experiences. Intentionally being active in your community is what holds you accountable.

As for institutions, I think we can tell which institutions do not have a community around them, because they make questionable decisions. We have to think about who institutions are accountable to, because it’s often not us, us as in black people, us as in archivists.

MW: It’s rarely the communities from which we’re taking collections that have an ability to hold us accountable.

ZC: Exactly. They’re accountable to funders, to stakeholders, and to their reputation. It takes a lot of continuous work to hold institutions accountable, but I think first and foremost, you hold yourself accountable. An archives community are the people that have already donated as well as future donors, the institution, the location, all the people involved. They are all affected by the decisions that are made. Accountability only works in community. Isolation breeds all types of things, bad decision making especially.

MW: Can you share with us any collaborations or projects that have been developed or have found greater support in response to the call?

ZC: There has definitely been a spark of interest within the archival community of people thinking about expanding their collecting practices and the people they’re in conversation with, and trying to be really intentional about the work they’re doing. People have reached out to me to talk about this thing or that thing, but I don’t want to be a spokesperson. I’m just one person and the way this whole thing got started was by me wanting to be in community. I’ve said throughout this conversation: talk to your people, that is the answer here. The thing I am most excited about that has come out of this is the community of black memory workers that have come together and which is much more expansive than just those in the profession, which I really love. There are PhD students from a number of disciplines, people who identify as memory workers but aren’t formally trained… and I’m like, “Come on! Come to the meeting!”

Thinking through these things together and trying to support each other to do ethical memory work in our respective institutions and our respective consulting work and in projects on social media. We all benefit from being in conversation in an informal way. These are my people and we want to talk about how we can hold our profession accountable, hold ourselves accountable and support each other for the greater good of having black collections that are created with black people in mind and that represent a care ethic for black people. It’s been really fruitful and inspiring.

MW: I find it encouraging that your call has fostered connection and collaboration between professional archivists and librarians and also folks who might not have an MLIS or an archives certification but are still doing similar and relevant work. Because we know that our profession has its issues with diversity and inclusion, and this seems like a space to address that. What do you see as the future of black archivists in the profession and the future of archival collections related to black life?

ZC: I see there being more black people in the profession. I know so many people interested in library school or who are already in library school, or people who aren’t even interested in library school but who will or already identify as archivists. I affirm them because I don’t think this work is tied 100% to a certification or degree. There will be more of us, there already are more of us. More of us doing different kinds of memory work. I see lots of work outside of institutions, which is beautiful. There is value to collections being in an institution and there is value to black collections being elsewhere. I see black collections having more expansive description and format types, more web archives, more digital humanities projects. I see expansiveness and intention and care.

Zakiya Collier is the Digital Archivist at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture where she uses web archiving tools to expand the nature of Black archival collections to reflect 21st-century Black life and experiences. As a memory worker, her community work and research draws on digital cultural studies, Black studies, and critical archival studies to interrogate the archives’ historically exclusionary relationship with communities of color, and also to study the self-curated, collaborative, digital and physical archival practices that have developed in resistance to and in spite of that antagonistic relationship. She recently received an MA in Media, Culture, and Communication from NYU and an MS in Library and Information Science from Long Island University. She also holds a BA in Anthropology from the University of South Carolina.

Megan Williams is an independent researcher, archivist, and librarian working in NYC and LA. She earned a joint MSLS/MA Art History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has previously held positions in the Frick Art Reference Library, MoMA Library, and the Photographs and Prints Division at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL.

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Metropolitan Archivist

Metropolitan Archivist

A publication of The Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York, Inc. (ART).