I’m Leaving the Archival Profession: It’s Better This Way


My last day as a professional archivist will come just three days before the 4-year anniversary when I interviewed for my job as Princeton’s first-ever digital archivist on July 24, 2013. I remember that interview quite vividly for two reasons.

First, Princeton sent a driver to pick me up from Philadelphia International Airport. I arrived at the area I’d been told to find my ride, only to see about 10 different cars. I didn’t know which one was mine, so I waited. I was the only passenger there. After standing in the baking hot sun for close to 20 minutes by myself, one of the drivers — who’d been standing there the whole time — finally walked over to me, looking a bit perplexed, and asked if I was Jarrett Drake. I said yes, sat my sweaty ass on the seat and tried to process during the 57-minute car ride whether I had just been racially profiled by a cab driver on my way to Princeton (hint: yes).

Second, once the interview concluded, I went back down to Philly to catch up with one of my best friends and we went to see the film Fruitvale Station. Though we both knew the outcome of the movie — it was one of the first police killings of black people we ever saw from a cell phone video — we still cried at the end. I can’t remember whether we talked about why we cried, but I remember white people leaving the theater with eyes as clear as the night’s sky.

In a nutshell, that’s why I’m leaving the archival profession to begin a PhD program in anthropology at Harvard where I will be studying how communities in the US are using memory projects in the fight against state violence. For four years, I have watched white co-workers and colleagues in this profession stay complicitly silent as state agents slaughter black people in the streets. I cried when Mike got killed. When Tamir got killed. When Freddie got killed. When Sandra got killed. When Korryn got killed. I cried again when, in each case, the state held no one accountable. I want to cry right now as I process that yet another black person, Philando Castile, was taken by the state yet his killer walks free. Another mother buries a son, a partner buries a partner, a daughter buries a father. State assaults on black boys and men often have a ripple effect of impacting 3x as many black women and girls, as is the case with Philando. The silence suffocates me in the open air; at work, at conferences, or anywhere large number of professional archivists congregate. I can’t breathe.

But in my brief career I saw quite clearly the purpose of the archival profession. The purpose of the archival profession is to curate the past, not confront it; to entrench inequality, not eradicate it; to erase black lives, not ennoble them. Tigers cannot change their stripes. They are merely adept at blending into their surrounding environment until it is time to strike, and strike it will.

So I’m leaving to do the liberatory memory work that drew me to archives in the first place because I cannot co-create the transformation in which we are desperate need within the archival profession. Let me reword that: the archival profession will not allow for this sort of transformation. No profession will. Professions are the problem. I started growing weary of professions and professionalism roughly two years ago. That’s when I first saw these concepts as the effective instruments of social control that they truly are. Professionalism emphasizes “the work” — its completion, its evaluation, its perpetuity, etc. — without a meaningful critique of how “the work” mandates a replication of the patriarchy, oppression, and violence many in our world experience.

The author who first articulated the archival profession’s role in this cycle was Howard Zinn in his oft-cited address to the Society of American Archivists “Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest.” Everyone within the archival profession should read this address. But for a wider critique of professionalism, I strongly recommend Paul Kivel’s essay “Social Service or Social Change,” which I first read as part of the excellent anthology The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. In this essay, Kivel states:

To maintain this separation and to prevent themselves from becoming the objects of people’s anger, [the ruling classes] have used legal, educational, and professional systems to create a network of occupations, careers, and professions to deal directly with the rest of the population. This buffer zone comprises all occupations that carry out the agenda of the ruling class without requiring ruling class presence or visibility. Some of the people employed in the buffer zone fall into the 19 percent section of the pyramid; however, most have jobs that put them somewhere near the top of the bottom 80 percent. These jobs give them a little more economic security and just enough power to make decisions about other people’s lives — those who have even less than they do.

Thus the archival profession, like others, performs a crucial part in systemic violence, hyper-concentrations of poverty, and global capitalism. Professionalism, which consists of the actions taken to ensure the viability and perpetuity of one’s line of work, explains why the main professional archival organization in the United States needs to be convinced to declare publicly that black lives matter, even though individuals in that organization’s leadership claim to believe so privately. Neutrality and objectivity are professionalism’s gift and curse. Professionalism rewards (some of) its professionals with job security, healthcare, retirement plans, paid conference travel, and more.

Professionalism asks us to believe the fiction that our fidelity, niceness, obedience, and servitude will save us and our jobs. They won’t. Professionalism further asks that we remain content with the status quo, predictability, and propaganda. Big K.R.I.T., a Mississippi-born music artist and producer, captures this tension with his song “It’s Better This Way,” which appeared on a mixtape of the same name. In it, he raps:

You don’t really like what they play
On the radio every single day

Ain’t no telling when it’s gon’ change
Cause they all really say the same things

K.R.I.T.’s album art from the mixtape conveys this monotony, giving us a visual illustration of professionalism’s path.

Mixtape cover to Big K.R.I.T.’s mixtape It’s Better This Way. Stream or download it here.

So I am trading in my job security, healthcare, retirement plans, paid conference travel, and the like for a much more precarious path but potentially a soul-filling one. I am not leaving the archival profession because I no longer care about archives. In fact, the opposite is true: it’s because I care about archives and their full capacity that I am departing the profession. The archival profession =/= the archival field. I will remain in the latter, committed to understanding the transformative potential of independent, grassroots archival projects. I will also, along this new path, have more space to co-create transformative educational experiences with currently and formerly incarcerated communities, work that itself will likely need to happen outside the professionalism bounds likewise constructed by anthropologists and educators.

The prognosis for those who, bound by obligations such as children, spouses, or mortgages, cannot leave the archival profession is not that you are incapable or off the hook from meaningful critique and action against systems of oppression. As Kivel explains near the end of his chapter:

Wherever we are within the economic pyramid, whatever work we are doing, it is possible to work for social justice. It is possible to more effectively serve the interests of the poor and working class, people of color and women, lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people, and people with disabilities. But doing so is challenging.

For the few archivists fighting this fight, it's been an honor to face that challenge alongside you. To struggle alongside you. To work alongside you. To grow alongside you. To be in community alongside you. I'm sure our paths will cross again soon. In the meanwhile, I hope you will understand my choice to follow this one: for me, it’s better this way.

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