Ethics in Archives: Diversity, Inclusion, and the Archival Record

Blog post contributed by Taylor de Klerk and Jessica Serrao, Library Associates

Archival work requires a lot of tough decisions. It may not always seem that way, but archivists have unique responsibilities to society. Because social responsibility underlies all professional activities of archivists, the archival profession solidified it as one of SAA’s core values of archivists. A major responsibility archives uphold is to collect and provide access to materials that represent diverse populations. In Special Collections, we aim to encompass intersections of all identities, including race, economic status, gender and sexuality, religion, and politics. Today’s archivists work to increase instances of previously unrepresented and underrepresented people once silenced from the historical record.

As a public institution, NC State University also has a social and legal responsibility to preserve departmental and administrative records to ensure accountability for their actions. It’s important for all public archives to maintain accountability by preserving an accurate record of the past, even if that record doesn’t paint the institution in the best light. Archivists are socially responsible for providing equitable access to those records by opening their doors to all audiences and working to remove any potential barriers to access.

Students viewing Special Collections materials

Archival holdings and collecting efforts historically reflect the social power structures in place in society and at any particular institution. Standards are slowly changing, but archivists have a ways to go to ensure our archives represent all voices, not just those in power. We know that there is a lot at stake when it comes to selecting, arranging, and making accessible the archival record because those actions ultimately shape public memory based on what is saved (remembered) and what is discarded (forgotten). However, we recognize that with that power comes an additional social responsibility to wield it in a safe and inclusive way - using it for good, not for bad - so that all diverse populations are included in the historical record.

African proverb

To foster diverse and inclusive archives, collections, and researcher access, archivists must strive to make diversity and inclusion a part of all areas of archival work. We have covered many of these areas in this blog series, including description, arrangement, preservation, privacy, acquisition, and curation. Archivists are encouraged to actively think about the ways we arrange, describe, and preserve materials and how they might be implicitly biased. Do choices in the level of description we provide reflect our own personal or institutional biases? Are we privileging one group’s voice (users, content creators, subjects in the materials, donors) over another by preserving certain collections? How will our descriptive word choices impact others? Are some of our collections traditionally under-preserved or under-described and why? Are we describing people and their cultural materials in a way they want to be described, or are we placing unwanted descriptions upon them?

Privacy concerns of vulnerable peoples represented in our collections are also considered. Many indigenous cultures have varying beliefs and traditions about how and when their materials are accessed and who may handle them. Members of the GLBT community may want to be represented by their chosen names and define their own pronouns (he/him/his, they/them/theirs, she/her/hers, etc.). People who have experienced trauma or suffered atrocities may not want their stories preserved in an archive at all, and they have the right to be forgotten. Archives and other heritage institutions (such as libraries and museums) must be sensitive to cultural and personal beliefs and work with those represented peoples to find amicable privacy and access policies.

NC State's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Community Alliance at the NC Pride Parade and Festival, 2010

Curating and acquiring diverse collections is another priority, but sometimes a challenging one. Records that represent diverse groups of people may not be easy to find, and historic records showcasing diversity may not exist at all. Some groups have oral storytelling traditions and don’t have a written or tangible record to preserve. Other groups’ records didn’t survive the test of time or their creators didn’t have an immediate purpose to preserve them. Many institutions are grappling with this problem. One solution initiated by our neighbors at UNC’s Southern Historical Collection (SHC) is Community-Driven Archives. Community archives restructure archiving efforts as a collaboration between living communities and archives in a shared stewardship of the historical record. The SHC’s website states that the purpose of this program is to help community members “tell their own history in ways that are meaningful, authentic, and engaging.”

Another solution in which archives can encourage a community’s telling of its own stories is through oral history programming. Oral histories can fill gaps in the historical record by capturing stories of people whose paper records may not have survived. They solicit and preserve memories of those who lived through history firsthand. It is also a means to archive current events on campus in real-time.

Wolf Tales participants

Virginia Ferris

Wolf Tales is NC State University’s mobile video storytelling program. This project was initiated by Special Collections in 2015 and is facilitated by Virginia Ferris, our Outreach and Engagement Program Librarian. “Wolf Tales, and our oral history programming in general,” Ferris says, “is strongly driven by a desire to diversify the voices in our collection and the stories that our collections document.” The program aims to target “members of our community historically and currently who haven’t been reflected in the records as well, especially current and former students, and underrepresented staff and faculty stories.” Ferris advocates for the collection of these stories, as they are “a really rich and nuanced addition to the written records and other kinds of documentary records that we have” in Special Collections.

Special Collections staff are also actively diversifying the university’s historical record by archiving social media, websites, and current events. Documenting the actions of our current student body allows our archive to take an active stance on collecting, and helps ensure that we are capturing the sentiments of all campus populations. We use tools like Archive-It and ArchiveSocial to accumulate snapshots of social media sites and webpages. We’ll hit on this in further detail with our next post about Digital Collections, so keep an eye out for that!

Like all the blog posts in this series on Ethics in Archives, we are only touching the surface of the social responsibilities archives uphold. These are only a few areas and actions archivists are taking to create a more diverse, inclusive, and accessible historical record for society. For those of you itching to dig deeper into the archival discussion, we’ve provided a short (and by no means exhaustive!) list of resources at the end of the post.

This post is the sixth in our series about ethics in archives introduced here. In this series, we discuss a variety of ethical issues that archivists face and simultaneously provide background on what we do every day. Check out our previous posts on description, privacy, preservation, and curation. And stay tuned--more posts are coming soon!

Interview with Virginia Ferris conducted by Taylor de Klerk at D. H. Hill Jr. Library, North Carolina State University, 2018 February 22.

Additional resources:

Michelle Caswell. (2016). “Identifying and Dismantling White Supremacy in Archives”

Mario H. Ramirez. (2015). “Being Assumed Not to Be: A Critique of Whiteness as an Archival Imperative.” American Archivist, vol. 78, no. 2: 339-356.

Randall C. Jimerson. (2007). “Archives for All: Professional Responsibility and Social Justice.” American Archivist, vol. 70: 252-281.

Randall C. Jimerson. (2006). “Embracing the Power of Archives.” American Archivist, vol. 69: 19-32.

Verne Harris. (2002). “The Archival Sliver: Power, Memory, and Archives in South Africa.” Archival Science, vol. 2: 63-86.