vol. 25 no. 3, September, 2020

Book Reviews

Two books about archives

Benoit III, Edward and Eveleigh, Alexandra (eds.) Participatory archives: Theory and practice. Facet Publishing, 2019. xii, 263. ISBN 978-1783-30356-4. £64.95.

Bastian, Jeannette A. and Flinn, Andrew (eds.) Community archives, community spaces: Heritage, memory and identity. Facet Publishing, 2020. xxiv, 190. ISBN 978-1783-30350-2. £69.95.

Archives, in at least their most traditional form, might be considered the least publicly accessible institution within the cultural heritage quartet of galleries, libraries, archives, and museums. The popular conception of archives emphasizes their vastness; these are not the places for daily use and tourism that galleries, libraries, and museums have become. And as most researchers know, archival institutions are designed to regulate access to their collections. Protection of cultural heritage works to some extent against ease of access (Burton, 2005). The books reviewed here identify two trends that have led to the recent push to open up archives and increase both their accessibility and engagement with the public: social movements that have explicitly connected their historical invisibility to archival practices and the rapid growth of digital methods and platforms.

Benoit and Eveleigh’s volume is organized around four methods of encouraging participation: (1) tagging and commenting, (2) transcription, (3) crowdfunding and outreach, and (4) ‘alternative and activist’ community archives. Each method is allotted its own section, and all four sections begin with two introductory chapters, the first covering scholarly literature and the second focusing on theory, followed by two to three case studies of individual projects that have employed the method in question. This organization means that chapters can be selected and remixed for a variety of classroom uses, a strength of the volume. The case studies here range from participatory collection of digital photographs at the Nordic Museum in Sweden (chapter 5) to Amsterdam and Copenhagen city archives transcription projects (chapter 7) to crowdsourcing obsolete technology (chapter 13) to community archives in the United States and the United Kingdom designed to help localities document racism (chapters 16 and 17).

Participatory archives is organized to balance the on-the-ground perspectives of archivists and museum curators with more analytic pieces by academics that contextualize the concepts used in the case studies within scholarly literature. There is a clear distinction between the first three sections and the fourth, a divide highlighted in the introduction and conclusion. Inviting public participation via tagging and commenting, transcription, and crowdfunding and outreach all allow archives to retain their control over key aspects of archival work while benefitting from communities sitting on local, specific knowledge that employees of galleries, libraries, archives and museums may not have. Digital tools are central here and help to circumscribe the degree to which volunteers can affect practices in galleries, libraries archives and museums, though several case study chapters note how dependent digital participation can be on physical meetings and interaction.

These chapters illustrate the uneasy tension between the broadly democratic goals and highly specific tasks of galleries, libraries, archives and museums. As authors like Jansson and Huvila (on social tagging and commenting) and Dong (on transcription) make clear, cultural heritage staff will need to reevaluate the nature of their professional roles as digital tools increase the pressure to involve the public as ‘co-workers,’ albeit unpaid ones. As multiple chapters demonstrate, these kinds of participatory projects can result in a focus on ’collections with broad public appeal’ (p. 93) that can mobilize smaller, dedicated groups of volunteers with free time. An outward directedness may have bearing on which collections archivists choose to accept or digitize, in effect narrowing efforts to those projects that appeal to small, already mobilized subsections of the body politic with the resources to engage in free online work, who then stand in for a larger community. There are obvious problems with this gap between ideals and practice with which galleries, libraries, archives and museums will need to grapple in the future.

One answer to this problem is to reach out to specific, historically underrepresented communities. What level of participation distinguishes a participatory archive from a community archive? According Benoit and Roeschley (chapter 14), the answer lies in the level of control individuals outside the institution have over the archive itself, extending from practices of collection, to description, preservation, and access. Community archives are, by definition, grassroots institutions designed to preserve a history by and for a specific group of individuals. But as Benoit and Roeschley note, informal collections and local projects are increasingly finding homes in institutional archives, both through outreach and more open collection practices. While methods like transcription ’can be a productive but not a transformative process’ (p. 90), authors here argue that community archives require a reassessment of what it means to be an archivist, as well as what the purpose of an archive is (p. 168-169).

Benoit and Roeschley write in this overview chapter that the literature on community archives is still quite small and tightly focused on activist and social justice archives. This tendency is visible in Bastian and Flinn’s update to the pathbreaking Community archives, published in 2009 when, as the authors note, the field was in its nascency. The book begins with three theoretical chapters, followed by seven case study chapters that cover Thai community self-documentation (chapter 5), metal music archives (chapter 6), indigenous archiving (chapters 4 and 8), archiving minority communities in North America (chapters 7 and 9), and a chapter on Croatian postwar ‘archivy’ (chapter 10). This organization is designed to provide a loose, contextualized definition of ‘community archives’ that, as the authors put it in their introduction, ’[suggests] that there may be no boundaries to these synergies between people and their ability to unite around the records and the ability of the records to unite them’ (p. xxiii).

That the book is clearly weighted towards case studies reflects the fact that scholarly work on community archives is still at the beginning of a process of theorization. Both Rebecka Taves’ chapter on ‘archival optimism’ and Michelle Caswell’s chapter on ‘affective archivy’ underline the emotional engagement component of archives grounded in social justice, a strong theme in the field since the publication of Ann Cvetkovich’s An archive of feelings (2003). It is perhaps this social justice component that has led to the lack of links between community archives analysis and more traditional archival models like the records continuum, despite opportunities for connection noted in Michael Piggott’s chapter. This focus on engagement is further developed in the case studies, while concerns with conceptual archival frameworks are less evident. The case studies are focused tightly on archival practice, most often on collaborative archival practice in physical spaces from the bottom up.

As with Participatory archives, Bastian and Flinn’s volume highlights the importance of collaboration, but digital tools are far less central here. Oral history, which appears in several chapters, is a good case in point. Cooperation documentation of community voices employs both new technologies and physical interaction; as several authors note, recorded interviews can help to bridge the important gap between ‘tangible’ documents (text, photographs, etc.) and ‘intangible’ cultural heritage (performances, community practices, etc.). Community archives, community spaces is as space-focused as its title would imply; digital tools are a means of ongoing communication rather than a method of facilitating a fixed kind of participation and output. From this perspective, as Simionica’s chapter on Thai community self-archiving argues, collection practices that privilege intangible material can be more sustainable than tangible documents, in part because ‘ethnic provenance’ or collective ethnic ownership of traditions rather than physical items. From this perspective, community sustainability is central, while the traditional archive of tangible documents is secondary and significantly less durable.

Benoit and Eveleigh’s volume ends with this dilemma: ’which should take precedence, participation or the archive?’ (p. 216). This is a question that reifies the definition of archives as fixed, hierarchically ordered institutions. But the chapters in these two volumes reveal that the very definition of ‘the archive’ is shifting and diversifying in response to contemporary social movements and technological developments. Integrating some level of participation — with its varying levels of community involvement and control — into archival practice seems inevitable, a new facet of the modern archive with its various forms of digital outreach. But economic sustainability seems to sit silently under this question, with grants and other funding opportunities determining the nature of this balance. This issue is tangentially addressed in many texts in both volumes but is rarely directly addressed by scholars, a broader trend that Stacy Wood notes in her chapter ‘Crowdfunding and the moral economies of community archival work’ in Participatory archives. The nature of archival funding requires far greater attention if we are to really understand long-term sustainability for community archives.

It is clear from both volumes that cultural heritage institutions will have to place ‘ephemera’ at the center of new archival practices. Readers should be struck by the variety of document formats covered in these two short books, including video, oral histories, sound recordings, photographs, music, and performances. Having privileged paper text for centuries, archives have less experience collecting, processing, and preserving these kinds of documents, which are constantly at risk of technical obsolescence. This privileging of text has long had legal and political ramifications for minority communities that preserve their history in non-textual form, rendering that history inadmissible as archival evidence in courts and law-making bodies (Etinson, 2008). Digital technologies have only made this blindness unsustainable – much of the world now communicates in image and video as much as text (Hand, 2012).

The second question posed by Benoit and Eveleigh is related to methods, drawing a direct line between ‘radical’ methods and sustainability (p. 217). What counts as radical is, however, a bit sticky. As multiple authors in both volumes note, participation is almost always highly circumscribed and controlled by archival institutions and their staff. Bastian and Flinn’s volume underlines the need for relationships with local communities that support social justice. But these volumes also raise concerns about the ability of traditional archives to deal with local communities in a truly cooperative way. The social justice basis of many of the case studies sits in uneasy relation to the more traditional participatory projects of established archives. Is the integration suggested by Hall (Bastian and Flinn, p. xxiv) the responsibility of archivists, communities, or scholars? Ultimately, more work needs to be done on the connections between different kinds of archives and the way that community archives exist in a complicated universe of cultural heritage institutions with varying traditions and interdependencies.

There is a larger question hovering above both volumes: what does democratic archival practice look like? The answer seems mainly to focus on open dialogue and the slow building of trust between marginalized communities and institutions that accept the malleability and contested nature of the stuff of history. One of the more important, consistent conclusions across this array of case studies is the point that open access can be undemocratic, and that building democratic collections and providing equitable access to those collections is a deeply human process rather than a list of requirements. Rights of description and preservation, access and copyright are fraught, difficult to negotiate when cultural heritage has been appropriated from a community by colonizers. While there is a clear, predictable tilt towards North American and European archival projects in both volumes, the inclusion of the few projects that do not fit this mold makes clear the locality-specific cultural, economic, and political systems that shape what social justice ‘archivy’ means in practice. As the editors of both volumes and multiple authors within the volumes note, we need more research on archives in the Global South.

Empowerment too can mean many things to many different communities, and archival scholars would do well to be a bit more specific about what they mean with the term. While much energy has been expended on archival terminology and paradigms, more might be done with the theoretical and historical discussions of identity and community, unpacking just how thorny these concepts are and how difficult they are to trace through time, in relation to an idealized and never actualized community of normative individuals. What happens when the ‘spectrum of community needs’ (Bastian and Flinn, p. xx) becomes contradictory or too diffuse? How can we understand differences between consciously countercultural activist archives (an example here being the metal music archives) and archives that are activist because they preserve the histories of communities that the state has defined as outside the body politic (indigenous archives, for example)? Examining one large community of archives that houses both tendencies — feminist and women’s archives — seems a missed opportunity here, providing interesting institutional arrangements that sit, sometimes uncomfortably, between the traditional archival universe and the array of social justice community archives that dominate these two compendiums (Eichhorn, 2013). These archives also call into question a clean distinction between community and institutional archives. Both women’s and historically black colleges and universities might offer a set of institutional bridges between what we still define as “mainstream” institutional archives and archiving at the grassroots.

Both of these books are excellent introductions to the state of the archival field of participatory and community archives, offering accessible overviews of literature, theory, and projects. As noted, they should be good tools in the classroom. This is not merely because they are remixable. Both volumes open up a set of discussions about what ‘the archive’ is for archivists and the public in a world increasingly dominated by digital materials and tools, which support both collaboration and encourage societal fragmentation. What is clear is that archival practices are multiplying in response to new sociocultural and technological developments. These shifts will prompt a host of challenges to traditional rules of collection, provenance, description, and access. Community archives are, perhaps, the best place to look if we want to understand possible sustainable solutions.


Rachel Pierce

University of Borås
August, 2020

How to cite this review

Pierce, R. (2020). Review of: Two books about archives. Information Research, 25(3), review no. Rxxx [Retrieved from http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revsxxx.html]

Information Research is published four times a year by the University of Borås, Allégatan 1, 501 90 Borås, Sweden.