archival silence (n.) - the unintentional or purposeful absence or distortion of documentation of enduring value, resulting in gaps and inabilities to represent the past accurately
Dictionary of Archival Terminology, Society of American Archivists, https://dictionary.archivists.org/
When evaluating archival material as primary source evidence, one of the most important questions to ask is, "What evidence is missing?"
Some basic examples include:
However, many gaps in our historical record are due to broader and more complex issues. Archives only hold historical evidence that was documented, preserved, and collected. Archival material can only be identified and put to use when it's adequately described and made accessible to the researchers who need it.
Recognizing the silences that exist within an archival collection does not mean you cannot use the collection in your research or that you need to fill every gap in the story. Acknowledging the ways our bodies of evidence are limited leads us to more informed conclusions and more accurate understandings of history, while identifying clear areas for future research.
In some cases, physical documentation of historical evidence simply was not created or no longer exists. This includes the records of:
In order for a collection to be preserved or deposited in archives, someone must decide that it has lasting historical value, worthy of being saved. Decisions about what collections to accept are made by archivists, administrators, and advisors who carry their own values and biases about what is historically significant. Traditionally, as governmental and academic institutions, the records archives chose to collect reflect the interests and identities of those in power, leading to a critical lack of diversity in historical collections in many archival institutions.
Decisions about which collections to prioritize for description, preservation, or digitization are also dependent on the priorities and interests of archivists and the institution. Even when records of diverse voices are collected, they may not be given the care or attention they deserve.
When archives do contain records from or about people from historically marginalized groups, the ways they are described in Finding Aids and other resources often make it difficult to them to be discovered or used. For example:
In the TEDxPittsburgh video below, archivist Dominique Lester explains the ways archives, as traditional institutions of power, can often erase the histories of marginalized people:
She goes on to describe new methods by which archivists can better preserve and care for material from historically underrepresented people, in ways that respect the needs of their communities.
Dominique Lester, "Archives Have the Power to Boost Marginalized Voices," 2018, TEDxPittsburgh