Archivists without Archives: A Labor Day Reflection

Coloring Book cover art. Found here.

I got up with freedom on my mind today. Actually, I get up with freedom on my mind almost every day. After I thank my God for waking me, I begin to plot freedom.

This morning that plot led me to Michelle Caswell’s book chapter “Inventing New Archival Imaginaries: Theoretical Foundations for Identity-Based Community Archives” in the edited volume Identity Palimpsests: Archiving Ethnicity in the U.S. and Canada. This is a dope chapter for more reasons than I can state here — suffice it to say, read it as soon as you can — but I want to expand on a tweet a posted about it this morning. The tweet read:

The reason I called this chapter a “gospel song” is because the emotions I felt while reading it and thinking of its possibilities made me think of one of my favorite artists, Chance the Rapper, and how his Coloring Book mixtape is basically a gospel record. This view of his mixtape is not unique in any way; plenty others have said this. But the rhetoric Michelle employs at the end of this chapter connects beautifully to a line from the track “Blessings” from Chance’s mixtape, when he says:

I don’t make songs for free, I make em for freedom.

That line is everything for all of the reasons, but one of those reasons is due to Chance’s approach (which other artists have tried, with mixed results) to making and distributing his art, described briefly in this Business Insider article published on Monday. Essentially, Chance has chosen to remain free of a major label so that he can: 1) own his labor, 2) use his labor to make amazing art about freedom, and 3) distribute his freedom-driven art to the public to access free of charge for their usage. Let me rewrite that sentence for the field of archives. Archivists who give a damn about freedom (like really give a damn, and not just freedom for your personal self) should consider remaining free of an archive so that you can: 1) own your labor, 2) use your labor to make archives about freedom, and 3) distribute freedom-driven archives to the public to access free of charge.

To the first point of owning your labor, I don’t have any unique thoughts to share that haven’t already been said my sisters Stacie Williams and Eira Tansey. In fact, sharing the title of this post is an inverse of my sister Eira’s title in that article. The only thing I will add regarding labor is to keep a close eye on the lockout of faculty currently happening at Long Island University, which I learned of through Emily Drabinski on the twitter. This lockout will impact librarians at the university, including Emily. And I remember four years ago reading about how the state of Georgia planned to defund, almost in full, its state archives. I don’t have any specific facts on either case, but I would surmise that archivists and librarians who own their labor wouldn’t have them types of problems.

To the second point of using your labor to make archives about freedom, this is at the heart of Michelle’s chapter. She builds on the notion of the archival imaginary — which she traces to Jennifer Meehan and my cousin Mark Matienzo — to characterize it as:

…the archival imaginary is the dynamic way in which communities creatively and collectively re-envision the future through archival interventions in representations of the shared past. Through the archival imaginary, the past becomes a lens to the future; the future is rooted in that which preceded it. Through the archival imaginary, the future can be conceived through the seeds of what was possible in the past…[the archival imaginary] is not just about documenting a more diverse version of the past based on the identities of the present, but rather, by uncovering previously untold, ignored, or misinterpreted histories, communities can imagine and reimagine different trajectories for the future.

This quote explains one of the reasons why I am publicly putting distance between myself and so-named professional organizations of librarians and archivists. Too many of them — all of them — see new documentation efforts in the context of incomplete, neoliberal notions of diversity, and I am not here for any of it. I am here, however, for a future filled with freedom. This is why A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland was started without the backing of an organization or institution and this is why it remains free and focused on freedom. There ain’t a damn thing any of the existing so-named professional organizations can do other than get in the way of that goal. Before you try to hit me with the “well what about funding” response, we raised over $1,000 in less than one workday from strangers on the internet (s/o to all yall who gave). In a year, that’s $365,000; $366,000 in a leap year.

To the third point of distributing freedom-driven archives to the public to access free of charge, Chance the Rapper proves that the concerns many archives have around security and originality are unfounded at best and exclusionary (racist/classist/elitist/sexist/ableist) at worst. Otherwise reasonable and intelligent human beings with advanced degrees and common sense begin to sound like Newt Gingrinch when they defend the policies and practices they have regarding the reading room, everything from where the damn thing is located, to when it’s open, to what credentials you must show to enter, and to what rules you must follow or fees you must pay if you want to make copies of documents. Chance allows anyone with an internet connection to stream or download his songs. Anyone. Has it hurt his product or have people infringed on his copyright? NO. The dude has been so successful doing this that the Grammy’s had to change their rules so his work can qualify. The Grammy’s. Do you know how good something has to be to get the GRAMMY’S to change which types of art they evaluate?

At some point last year I was talking with my sister Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez about the troubling trend in the US where most of the archival labor is owned by corporations (for-profit or not) and governments that have larger agendas and goals they seek to accomplish. A sliver of professionally-trained archivists in the US work outside of one of those two spheres. Journalism has lots of problems, but can you imagine a news world where instead of having independent newspapers and news agencies that are not connected to power, the only sources for news were the corporations and governments themselves?

You’d likely call this situation a fascist state, and you’d likely be right. Well that’s the state of archives in the US. We are entrenched within power. We are trained and prepared in our graduate programs to see no other options. We are told this is the way of doing archives. But I’m asking you this labor day weekend to imagine a field of archivists without archives. Imagine owning your labor. Imagine making archives about freedom. Imagine distributing these freedom-driven archives to the public to access free of charge. Imagine a liberated archive. Imagine a liberated future. Give your imagination a Chance.