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Introduction to Archival Research

Get started understanding how to find and use archival collections in your school work, professional research, or family research.

Archival silences

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: 

  • Records that were lost or destroyed by fire or flood damage
  • A collection of personal letters that represents one side of a conversation
  • Photographs of people, places, and events that are not identified or dated

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: 

  • cultures with oral history traditions
  • people who could not read or write, often including enslaved people
  • people who lack access to technology for printing or disseminating information
  • people who cannot speak and write freely without censorship or persecution
  • people whose perspectives are not represented by government or institutional documents, because they could not vote or could not access those institutions

 

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: 

  • Records of non-white people are often filed into broad categories like "minorities," which makes it difficult for researchers to identify material related to specific cultural groups, like Chicanx communities or Japanese-Americans. Similarly, records of Indigenous people are often broadly described as Native American, without an indication of their specific tribal identities.
  • Because archival description often reflects the vocabulary of the original creators, archives can easily perpetuate harmful language to modern users without context or explanation.

 

Additional resources

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:

  • by not collecting or caring for the records of marginalized people,
  • by describing records of marginalized people from the perspectives of people in power, or
  • by creating policies that prevent marginalized people from accessing records of their own histories and communities.

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

 

 

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