Vault in the basement of the Stony Island Arts Bank

Confronting Our Failure of Care Around the Legacies of Marginalized People in the Archives

Bergis Jules
On Archivy
Published in
17 min readNov 11, 2016


On Wednesday, November 9th, I was one of the keynote speakers at the National Digital Stewardship Alliance annual meeting. Below is the text of my talk with some minor edits and some of the slides. I’m sharing my full slide deck as a google doc. I’d like to thank Bethany Nowviskie and Helen Tibbo for inviting me to speak at this event. I also want to thank the audience for their kindness and courage on what was a difficult days for many of us.

Good afternoon. I’d like to thank Bethany, Oliver, Helen, and the rest of the NDSA and DLF team for inviting me here. It’s truly an honor to address fellow archivists and information professionals on a topic I hope will lead to some good conversation. I also want to thank Bethany for her leadership in inviting Stacie Williams and Jarrett Drake to address this conference as well. Stacie and Jarrett are two people who always push me to do better, and as Black people in this profession we take enormous risks any time we choose to speak some truth about the work we all do. So it was really powerful to see them on stage here this week speaking their truth and being welcomed.

The politics of what we’ve traditionally preserved means the archive is filled with silences, absences, and distortions, mostly affecting the legacies of the less privileged, including black women, LGBTQ people, immigrants, poor people, and victims of police violence, to name a few. In the name of neutrality, we’re erasing people, communities and their humanity from the historical record.

The more selective and specialized space of digital collections, prioritizes professionalism, technical expertise, and standards, over a critical interrogation of the cultural character of our records. So this is certainly an appropriate venue to ask questions about the diversity represented in our historical records. Because for digital collections, who gets represented is closely tied to who writes the software, who builds the tools, who produces the technical standards, and who provides the funding or other resources for that work.

Today I want to have an honest conversation about the silences and erasures in our archives, the implications of those silences and erasures, and how we can start to push back against them, to create a more inclusive community of practitioners working toward a more representative record of our history. In order to do that, we need to talk about a few things, including the unbearable whiteness of our profession and why that’s dangerous for black lives, brown lives, native lives, and trans lives.

Theaster Gates and artists at the Dorchester Projects

Before we get into that though, I’d like to give some background on the inspiration for the title of my talk. It was inspired by the powerful words of the renowned artist and urban planner, Theaster Gates. Theaster is the Director of the Arts and Public Life Initiative and also a professor in the Department of Visual Arts, both at the University of Chicago. He does a lot of amazing things but some of his most powerful art is around working directly within communities that have been forgotten; where he believes art can transform how people see themselves within those communities and how others see them from the outside.

This includes projects like transforming a boarded up and abandoned home into a community centered library, archive, and arts space on the Southside of Chicago; Or converting an abandoned bank building into a thriving arts center. In many ways Gates’ work is about radical inclusion and transformation and I think archivists can learn a lot from that. In an interview earlier this year about his new exhibition, How to Build a House Museum, Gates talked about the politics of what gets preserved, how we decide what is worthy of memorialization, and why those things matter. It’s a fascinating interview where he also touched on the awesome potential of house museums as a powerful way of remembering how local people or communities have contributed to our shared culture.

One example he touched on were the attempts to preserve the Muddy Waters home in Chicago and converting it into a house museum; and a central site where people can come to learn about arguably America’s most influential Blues musician; and how his home, neighborhood, community, and adopted city might have influenced his art. A quote from that Gates interview resonated with me, because in many ways it embodied all the reasons why I do the work that I do. And why I admire the work of archivists like Stacie Williams, Jarrett Drake, Dino Robinson, Makiba Foster, Meredith Evans, Holly Smith, Stephen Booth, and so many others.

While describing his work on building house museums as a way of challenging the traditional notions of what should be preserved, Theaster asked, “Who feels responsible for the failure of care around the legacies of great black people around the world?” I had an crushing feeling like that question was directed at me and at our profession and what he was saying was that we had not done enough; that we had a responsibility to act. I think it can do our field a lot of good by reflecting long and hard on this question and seeing where it takes us.

“Who feels responsible for the failure of care around the legacies of great black people around the world?”

The evidence is abundant that people other than white men contributed to building this country. Land, labor, wealth, and life stolen from Native Americans and enslaved Africans are but few examples. Slavery and extreme violence against black bodies were the foundation of American capitalism. Without those two evils we would be living in a different America today. If we accept the historical fact that African Americans were at the center of American progress from the very beginning, it begs the question then, why is the historical record filled with so many silences, distortions, and erasures around Black peoples lives?

Is the erasure of marginalized people in all sectors of our society, including the archives, an intentional act and if so, how do we begin to confront that? One way is by acknowledging our willful ignorance around the histories of marginalized people of color and to allow new knowledge to affect how we do our work.

In his book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, Ed Baptist places slavery and the extreme violence involved with cotton production, the most valuable commodity in 19th century America, at the very heart of a new and distinctive American capitalist system. He argues, among other things, that slavery created and supported the economy in the Northern, enriching merchants, and mill owners, while also drastically growing the assets of British bankers. Slave owners pioneered advances in banking and finance, which still exist today.

But most importantly, Baptist argues, what drove the drastic rate of cotton production and our first experience with a type of national economic growth, especially between 1800 and 1860, was an extreme new kind of violence perpetrated against enslaved Africans. The sole purpose of this violence was to drive up the daily output of cotton that one person could produce. He paints a picture of this violence in distressing details and one of the most unsettling examples is when he writes about tracking the increasing size of the slavers whip with the rise in cotton production in the most productive decades of the 19th century.

In the introduction, Baptist describes how he wanted to set up the book so there could be no doubt as to the centrality of forced African labor to the economic foundation of the country. He set up the chapters in a way that presents a powerful image of the entire American experiment sitting on top of a black human body. Chapters are titled, feet, head, right hand, left hand, tongues, breath, seed, blood, backs, and arms. I thought this was an effective way to represent the truth about black labor and how it drove American progress.

Baptist also calls out the lack of care for the history of African Americans and how that plays out in the exclusion practices of our cultural heritage sites, he references the work of Stephen Small and Jennifer Eichstedt in their book, Representations of Slavery, when he says and I quote, “Millions of people each year visit plantation homes where guides blather on about furniture and silverware. As sites, such homes hide the real purpose of these places, which was to make African Americans toil under the hot sun for the profit of the rest of the world. All this is the ‘symbolic annihilation’ of enslaved people.” In a book about the slavery roots of capitalism, he too recognized the implications of erasure in our historical records.

There is a lesson here for archivists about making sure our collections are about confronting truth and being comfortable about acknowledging the complexity of our history. The inspiration for Baptist to lay his book out this was Ralph Ellison. In the book he quotes from a little known essay Ellison published in 1953 called, Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity. In it Ellison writes: “On the moral level I propose we view the whole of American life as a drama enacted on the body of a Negro giant who, lying trussed up like Gulliver, forms the stage and the scene upon which and within which the action unfolds.”

“On the moral level I propose we view the whole of American life as a drama enacted on the body of a negro giant who, lying trussed up like Gulliver, forms the stage and the scene upon which and within which the action unfolds.”

Imagining our history this way amplifies the silences and erasures in our historical records and really begs us to question the motives behind them. If we know that African Americans and other historically victimized and marginalized people in the United States were absolutely essential to building this nation, then why do these silences and erasures continue to exist in our special and distinctive collections, our digital collections, our rare books, our web and social media archives, or our university archives?

As amazing as those words were from Ellison, they were only the first part of an incredibly powerful paragraph, the rest of which I thought spoke directly to archivists and our complicity in the symbolic annihilation of marginalized people. Ellison continues the paragraph, and I quote: “If we examine the beginnings of the colonies, the application of this worldview is not, in its economic connotations at least, too farfetched or too difficult to see. For then the Negro’s body was exploited as amorally as the soil and climate. It was later, when white men drew up a plan for a democratic way of life, the Negro began slowly to exert an influence upon America’s moral consciousness. Gradually he was recognized as the human factor placed outside the democratic master plan, a human ‘natural’ resource who, so that white men could become more human, was elected to undergo a process of institutionalized dehumanization.”

Our traditional practices in the archives are dangerously close to this legacy of institutionalized dehumanization. The silences, erasures, and distortions, and the lack of care, around the histories of the most marginalized people in our society are essential characteristics of it. This is especially true when we look at what makes up for cultural heritage at institutions that legitimize history in America, our universities and their archives and libraries, or our federal archives and museums. Are we ready to confront this reality?

I don’t think we spend enough time talking about the reality of violence, whether it’s cultural, psychological, or physical, being a consequence of how we choose to do our work in the archives. The tradition of exclusion in our profession deserves a critical response in order to begin to change it. Our work affects people’s lives more directly than we care to acknowledge.

And when we do choose to talk about it, we tend to gloss over the real danger the work poses to people’s lives through exclusion and erasure, and instead focus on lofty ideals of librarianship and archives. I won’t do that here. Yes, I agree that archives have the potential to change and even save lives, but whose lives are we talking about and are we really invested in this idea? I offer that we haven’t done the truth work necessary to allow us to claim these lofty ideals.

The work we do as archivists, as librarians, as digital preservationists, have real consequences for marginalized people because who is remembered and how they’re remembered dictates who gets violence perpetrated against them. Black bodies are either erased from the historical record or distorted in the historical record before we’re shot is the street like Rekia Boyd and Trayvon Martin. That’s partly what makes it ok to a large segment of the American public.

That erasure from records, cultural spaces, and mass media are partly what allow people to accept absurd justifications for killing us. It’s what makes a large majority of the public ok with these extrajudicial executions, because someone was wearing a hoodie, or someone was standing in a crowd, or someone might have stolen a stolen a cigar, or someone was playing their music too loud, or someone was driving to their new job, or someone was selling cigarettes, or cd’s, or someone was sitting in a car and reaching for their license, which made a police officer feel his life was threatened.

This is the legacy of symbolic annihilation in the archives that Michelle Caswell has so eloquently and powerfully forced us to think about, and I thank her for that. A legacy that says before actual annihilation, you don’t exist, and after actual annihilation, it didn’t happen.

Since we’re going to have an honest conversation today, I’ll admit that I’m not very optimistic about change because so far in my experience in this profession, feel good slogans and professionalism, are easier than deep cultural and social engagement with the communities we’ve abandoned through our traditional archives practices, at the foundation of which, is a myth of neutrality that mandates an #AllLivesMatter approach to collection building. I’m against that idea.

Neutrality is a threat to the legacies of marginalized people and by extension their lives. In our line of work neutrality is a dangerous idea that prioritizes dominant culture, white male culture. So I want to push back and say that I’m interested in a #BlackLivesMatter care ethic for building our collections in the future, or better yet, a #BlackTransLivesMatter care ethic.

One that says the humanity of Black trans people is connected to my humanity and I can just as easily tell the story of America’s past by prioritizing their lives and their legacies in the historical record, over the legacies of white men. I believe this sincerely and see myself as being one of people responsible for the failure of care around the legacies of Black trans people. I am ready to confront that failure in my own work because I haven’t done enough.

Violence against trans people is at epidemic levels. In October, the Advocate magazine published the names of twenty-three trans people who have been murdered in the first ten months of 2016, making it the deadliest year on record for trans people. Last year, in 2015, twenty-one trans people were murdered. In addition to the record number of murders, the overwhelming majority of those killed have been trans people of color. The Advocate also pointed out that the numbers could very well be higher since police misidentify most trans victims. We have to ask ourselves, what do we owe these victims and the trans community, as fellow humans, as archivists, as culture keepers, and as the people who’ve charged ourselves with deciding who gets remembered and who doesn’t? What do we owe communities that are constantly victimized because of erasure and by erasure?

In the short video clip I’ll show next, trans activist, writer, and filmmaker, Reina Gossett, recounts an experience learning about and sharing the histories of trans people of color as a strategy to heal from the violence of historical isolation and erasure. In this clip Reina is talking about conducting research about trans activist Marsha P. Johnson. And I think this research was related to a film Gossett wrote, directed and produced about Johnson called Happy Birthday Marsha!.

These words should resonate with all of us. It was also good to hear Gossett talk about why we need to document the complexities and the silences within marginalized people’s histories as well. Because we know the issue of erasure also exists there. This is something we don’t do a very good job with in the archives. We lean towards clean narratives of history, which uphold these erasures, especially in our university based collections that are dependent on donor relationships.

So how do we begin to confront our failure of care around the legacies of marginalized people? I think we need to start by taking a hard look at our obsession with professionalism and ask instead, why people, are not at the center of our work. I think back to a conversation I was a part of around the time I was first invited to do this keynote, and one of the things someone in the group said to me was “I don’t see you as a digital person, I see you more as a collections person.” Now I don’t know what the intention of that comment was but I was at least happy they saw me as a person.

On a more personal level though, I interpreted the comment as an insult. I interpreted it as, I hadn’t done enough to be able to stand up here today addressing a meeting of digital preservationists or folks interested in digital collections. I interpreted it as, I wasn’t in the room when national standards and best practices for digital preservation were being developed, so who am I to stand on a stage today addressing (a mostly white) audience of digital preservation experts about this. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just sensitive and was reading too much into the comment. But that’s just how I felt.

Even if we assume that my interpretation of the comment was way off, I think it was a perfect example of how we think about professionalism and why our work, and especially the areas dealing with digital preservation, web or social media archiving, and software development, remain so overwhelmingly white and exclusive. What makes someone a digital collections person versus just a collections person (which I assume is a lower class of person? I don’t know.) And why are these distinctions so important to us? Professionalism plays a big role here.

In his 1970 address to the Society of American Archivists annual conference, which was later published as, Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest, Howard Zinn cautioned against the prioritization of professionalism and neutrality by archivists. He said, and I quote, “The archivist, even more than the historian and the political scientist, tends to be scrupulous about his neutrality, and to see his job as a technical job, free from the nasty world of political interest: a job of collecting, sorting, preserving, making available, the records of the society. But I will stick by what I have said about other scholars; and argue that the archivist, in subtle ways, tends to perpetuate the political and economic status quo simply by going about his ordinary business. His supposed neutrality is, in other words, a fake. If so, the rebellion of the archivist against his normal role is not, as so many scholars fear, the politicizing of a neutral craft, but the humanizing of an inevitably political craft.”

Zinn goes on to say, “Scholarship in society is inescapably political. Our choice is not between being political or not. Our choice is to follow the politics of the going order, that is, to do our job within the priorities and directions set by the dominant forces of society, or else to promote those human values of peace, equality, and justice, which our present society denies.”

Amazing People!

We should be careful of creating more closed spaces in the profession. It goes against everything we’re supposed to be about and we risk alienating people committed to helping this profession move forward. The most empowering professional event I’ve been a part of this year was the digital blackness conference, which took place at Rutgers University back in April. It was a gathering of a few hundred black scholars, journalists, archivists, librarians, technologists, and activists, among others, who all came together to talk about digital humanities, digital cultural representation, digital preservation, and digital media, all through the lens of Black American and Diaspora culture. The event was about people.

This was my first experience in a space like this. It was a space full of honesty, brilliance, and support. It was welcoming and full of care. Which is not surprising since it was an event planned by black women, including Dr. Brittany Cooper. When was the last time you were in space dominated by black women speaking about digital collections, and why doesn’t this happen all the time?

These safe spaces exist partly because the exclusively white spaces where these digital collections conversations traditionally happen are not welcoming and are overwhelmingly rooted in professionalism around standards and technical know how. I’m not saying these things aren’t important but there is a lot of room to grow. Inclusive spaces where critical conversations around digital culture take place have deep implications for who gets represented in the digital historical record.

Ok, so this is the part where I close and offer ideas around some things we can do.

1.We can also hold our professional organizations and our home institutions accountable. So I went through the NDSA website in preparation for this talk and to be honest there was a lot about standards and digital infrastructure. I didn’t see a lot about caring for the people represented in NDSA institutional member collections, and making sure that members commit to an ethic of care around protecting people in those collections, and committing to collecting more inclusive and representative digital records. An organization that’s about advocating for digital preservation can focus on both the technology and the people. This is why I was happy to see this tweet about the DLF Mission and Community statement. It was really incredible to read this and I thank DLF for their leadership here. I hope they continue to do good work and that more organizations model this behavior.

2.Model our work after projects, organizations, or institutions that are already doing people centered work. I invite to dig deeper into these project and make contact with the people involved.

Digital Transgender Archive


A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland

Inland Empire Memories

The South Asian American Digital Archive

The Shorefront Legacy Center

Diversifying the Digital Historical Record

Documenting the Now

3.We need to confront the unbearable whiteness of our profession. According to 2014/2015 Association of Research Libraries statistics, “14.8% of professional staff in US ARL university libraries (including law and medical libraries) belongs to one of the four non-Caucasian categories for which ARL keeps records. The percentage of minorities in managerial or leadership positions in ARL academic libraries is far lower: 10.7% are directors (12 out of 112), 6.2% are associate directors (20 out of 323), 7% are assistant directors (11 out of 157), and 8.7% (33 out of 379) are the head of a branch library.” Overall, more than 85% of professionals working in ARL libraries are white. And I use ARL library statistics because most of the larger, resource rich, and prominent American university libraries are represented there.

4.And I know this one is controversial but it needs to be said; we need to be honest the unbearable whiteness of the people staffing our cultural heritage funding organizations. While these organizations have undoubtedly funded projects around building more inclusive collections, including some of my projects, I can’t help but think about how missions and priorities might be enhanced if we had more diversity among our grant program officers.

5.And finally, we should take an honest assessment of our collections in our home institutions to determine how they silence, erase, and distort the legacies of marginalized people. For example, what can a critical look at our collective accession records tell us about historical production and the state of cultural heritage work in the United States?

These are only a few suggestions but I think addressing them can help us be more honest about the state of our profession. Acknowledging and accepting our role is a starting point for doing the transformational work that will be necessary.

So in closing, I want to encourage you to take action where you are. And if your home institution is not ready to take action, I urge you to challenge that position. And if that challenge doesn’t work, then find a way to support projects and people outside your home institution that are doing this kind of work. And if you need a little encouragement through out all of this you can always reach out to me. I look forward to the opportunity to work with many of you.

Thank you!