A Reflection: Emotional Labor in the Archives

Taylor Wolford processing archival materials for the Special Collections Research Center

Taylor Wolford processing archival materials for the Special Collections Research Center

This blog post contributed by Taylor Wolford.

While working as an archival processor for the Special Collections Research Center, I have come across materials in collections that I find disturbing and difficult. Some of these collections depict instances of animal cruelty and abuse. As someone who cares deeply for animals, it was challenging for me to see images of animal abuse in such graphic detail. I never felt that I should stop processing collections because of how it was affecting my emotional state. However, my experiences with these records encouraged me to question whether I was alone in feeling distressed by the nature of my work in the archives. Do other archivists and researchers experience strong emotional responses in the archives? How do they cope with these emotional responses? Furthermore, why does it seem like no one around me is experiencing this phenomenon? These questions lead to a more in-depth research project that I presented as my master’s paper for Library Science accreditation at UNC-Chapel Hill in July 2021. 

As I delved deeper into my research on emotional labor in the archives, it became clear to me that archives are “full of emotion” (Leary, 2018), and archival work is inherently a form of emotional labor. Archival processors, or those who establish physical and intellectual control of collections to ensure researcher access, are uniquely positioned to experience emotional labor as witnesses to disturbing and deeply upsetting historical events. 

Recent studies have explored how archivists have come into contact with emotional labor and trauma in archival settings. These works reorient the archivist as a witness of historical events as well as historical and generational trauma. As a witness, the archivist engages in relationships of reciprocity and affective responsibility with archival stakeholders and responds and acts on emotional levels (Cifor, 2015, p. 18). Although archivists may not be directly affected by trauma, archival stakeholders and collections can transfer trauma to the archive worker through these “relationships of reciprocity” (Cifor, 2015, p. 18). This transfer occurs because acting as witness to certain historical events is a form of trauma, and witnessing traumatic events may trigger deep emotional resonances for those documenting and preserving historical events (Cifor, 2015, p. 19).

Since emotional labor is a requirement of archival roles, how can the profession support individuals in processing emotional labor and developing emotional intelligence skills? Some scholars in the field have suggested developing a more defined “community of care and support” to create spaces of authenticity and care within the profession (Brown & Settoducato, 2019; Laurent & Hart, 2018; Schomberg, 2018). Creating a community of care involves providing support to others in the profession to lessen some of the burdens of the job. In the past, I have certainly relied on the social support of my colleagues at the SCRC to process disturbing and upsetting content in collections. Overall, I think the profession could also benefit from more open discussions about the traumatic and emotionally draining experiences of archival work.

For library professionals and researchers interested in the emotional resonances of archival work, I encourage you to read the resources cited below. This is a topic of increasing interest in the field, as archivists have more recently started reflecting on how emotion intersects with work practices in the archives.

The Special Collections Research Center is open by appointment only.  Please contact us at library_specialcollections@ncsu.edu for appointments or any questions. You can also submit a request to use materials, and we will email you with available appointment times. Please also feel free to explore our Rare and Unique Digital Collections and our online collection guides


Brown, D. N., & Settoducato, L. (2019). Caring for Your Community of Practice: Collective Responses to Burnout. LOEX Quarterly, Volume 45/46.

Caswell, M., & Cifor, M. (2016). From Human Rights to Feminist Ethics: Radical Empathy in the Archives. Archivaria 81, 23- 43. https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/687705. 

Cifor, M., & Gilliland, A. J. (2015). Affect and the archive, archives and their affects: an introduction to the special issue. Archival Science, 16(1), 1–6.

Cifor, M. (2015). Affecting relations: introducing affect theory to archival discourse. Archival Science, 16 (1), 7–31.

Laurent, N. & Hart, M. (2018). Emotional Labor and Archival Practice - Reflection. Journal of the Society of North Carolina Archivists, 15, pp.13-22.

Leary, K. (2018, February 20). An Emotional Archive: Hiie Saumaa on Jerome Robbins. The New York Public Library. https://www.nypl.org/blog/2018/02/14/emotional-archive-hiie-saumaa-jerome-robbins

Schomberg, J., Nicholson, K. P., & Seale, M. (2018). In the Politics of Theory and the Practice of Critical Librarianship (pp. 111–123). essay, Library Juice Press.