Ethics in the Archives

by Sarah IslamPhoto of Sarah Islam

Sarah is a Psychology major from Merrimack, NH. In her work with the archives, Sarah examined the work of archival storyteller Saidiya Hartman, who “points out a fundamental flaw in the development of the archive —  the lack of narratives of the oppressed.” Sarah was very interested in discovering different solutions to this injustice, and “wanted to understand some of the ethical dilemmas that can arise when working with archival materials.” Though the idea of writing about such a heavy topic was daunting at first, Sarah found herself becoming increasingly passionate about the injustices in the archives and the various ways we can provide reparations to the oppressed and missing voices. Crafting this essay was an important milestone for her, and she “gained confidence in [her] work and discovered a passion for English.” Sarah is a middle child with two sisters, and two parents, that support her dreams. She has watched both of her parents work extremely hard her entire life to “make sure that she, and her sisters, live comfortably and happily,” and they have taught her that she can “always pursue her passions, so long as she works hard.”

What Are the Archives?
Archives are a collection of primary source documents, dated throughout history. They can be considered the rawest form of history, waiting to be organized and interpreted by the hand of the archivist. Archives include all sorts of primary sources, such as photographs, diaries, letters, legal documents, etc. These documents are typically donated by individuals who find themselves in possession of potentially important primary sources. Once donated, the archives are preserved with the original documents they were donated with, and they are not altered even if they are related to other documents living in the archives. Archivists work with the material provided in the archives in many different ways. Some archivists may deal exclusively in organizing, preserving, and filing the documents, while others may use the archives to tell stories or document an organized account of history. Though the work of an archivist may vary, there are a number of ethical issues that arise in the archives.

Ethics in Storytelling
The archives are brimming with primary source materials spanning throughout history. When diving into the world of the archives, one must decide what to do with the priceless information that is discovered. One path a researcher may choose to take is the path of storytelling. Stories can be relayed in a plethora of ways, in the form of a poem, a book, an essay, a short story, a novel etc. Each story is unique, and each scholar applies different writing techniques. Some prefer to stay true to history, working with exactly what was provided through the archives, while others like to “fill the gaps” and fabricate parts of a story based on what is provided and what is missing. Following the latter path, there are many ethical issues that arise concerning missing voices.

Archival documents tell the stories of real people throughout history, however there are many who are left out of the archives. In the past, documentation tools have only been available to those with the resources — which are those in power. Often, the oppressed are left out of the archives, and if they are included, it is only in brief glimpses through the biased stories of the oppressors. In her writing about the fate of a slave girl, called “Venus in Two Acts,” Saidiya Hartman explains this issue perfectly. She writes, “We only know what can be extrapolated from an analysis of the ledger or borrowed from the world of her captors and masters and applied to her” (Hartman 2). As is the case for many slaves and victims, Venus had no voice, and all Hartman could discover of Venus was a brief discussion about her murder through the eyes of the oppressor. It is this injustice and voicelessness that presents us with an ethical dilemma in the archives—Do we have a right to fabricate a voice where one did not previously exist?

There is no doubt that we have an ethical obligation to inform the public of the stories of the oppressed, but to what end? Do we have an obligation to the oppressed to create a story for them based on a brief, unsubstantial appearance in the archives? In a writing about acting as an ethical archivist, Mark A. Greene proposes that “to be an ethical archivist, one must pursue ‘social justice’” (Greene 303). Part of this pursuit is to provide the historically abused with a voice and a platform, and to provide them with reparations. This often entails creating a story where there wasn’t one before. In her writing, Hartman touches upon the lack of African narratives of captivity and enslavement, and she states “… in these circumstances, it would not be far-fetched to consider stories as a form of compensation or even as reparations…” (Hartman 4). Taking the lack of African narratives of oppression into consideration, it creates an obligation for the archivist/researcher to take liberties and create the tale of the oppressed as accurately as possible, so as to shed light and provide the public with a point of view that was lost to history. Hence, we can view this issue from a utilitarian point of view, it would provide the most benefit to the largest number of people. The oppressed would be provided with representation as well as reparations, and the public would become more informed and empathetic.

Holes in the Archives
In assessing the ethics of “filling the holes of history,” it is vital to acknowledge why these gaps exist. It is largely due to the structural racism that exists within the archives. This structural racism is not intentional, but the result of a history of white male domination. The archives were historically created by the hand of the white man, who was normally well-off and held some sort of power in society. A large reason for the systemic racism in the archives is that historically, white men have been the only literate individuals, holding positions of power in society as well as the government. In an article about constructing archives for the sole purpose of documenting experiences of the oppressed, Melissa A. Hubbard writes, “Knowing who selected, organized, described, and preserved those records, and why, helps explain their full context” (Hubbard). White men historically decided what to preserve and heavily influenced the narrative, nearly eliminating the voices of the oppressed. These men decided what was documented and what was ignored, which in turn created a biased record of events. This advantage enabled them to dictate history under their power and create the narrative that best suited them.

We can still see the results of this supremacy in the archives, and it is our job to rectify this imbalance of power. The stories of the oppressed have been buried and pushed aside in the archives, and it is our duty to uncover them and bring them to the spotlight. These stories can be uncovered bit by bit through the stories of the oppressors. In “Venus in Two Acts”, Hartman states “The archive is inseparable from the play of power that murdered Venus and her shipmate and exonerated the captain” (Hartman 7). What Hartman is alluding to in this segment is that the archives are not immune to the same white domination faced by Venus. In fact, the two go hand in hand, for the oppressors are the ones documenting history. Venus is only one of many victims who lost a voice in the archives, but we can also use her as an example of how to uncover the stories hidden within the archives. We can and must closely examine the documented history of the white man to uncover the whispers of the stories of the oppressed.

Once we understand the ethical issues and the unjust holes in history, we must decide how to proceed to rectify the injustice in the archives. In a writing about the need for archivists to become activists, Anna Robinson-Sweet quotes Tonia Sutherland, stating that “For truth and reconciliation to occur the nation would be compelled to tell a version of history from slavery to lynchings to the New Civil Rights Movement that includes the voices and experiences of Black Americans and other communities silenced by archival amnesty” (Robinson-Sweet 36). Individuals like Saidiya Hartman are doing just that, by diving into the archives to uncover the true history buried among the documents and using their platform to spread the experiences and stories of those silenced in the archives. We must follow Hartman’s lead to uncover the truths hidden in the archives and make them known to the world. But along with providing the voiceless with a platform, we must strive to fix the system that allowed for the silencing of oppressed communities.

Structural reform is necessary in rectifying the archives. This starts with reducing the faith we have in the white male narrative throughout the archives and elevating the voices of the missing and oppressed. It is also necessary for all to acknowledge that the archives were built on structural racism, and to keep that in mind when working with archival material. We must encourage the narrative of the oppressed and find ways to incorporate it into archives to provide equal representation. In fact, multiple organizations have started working together to do just that. For example, one site is creating a digital archive centered around firsthand accounts of police brutality in Cleveland. In her writing about the archival resistance to structural racism and the construction of this digital archive, Melissa A. Hubbard says, “…archives can be deliberately constructed to enable the creation of counter-stories that serve to challenge, disrupt, or complicate dominant narratives in productive ways” (Hubbard). Creating new archives and platforms, specifically for the documentation of under-represented voices, is an amazing place to start in challenging the systemic racism of the archives. It is imperative that we continue to provide the oppressed with a place to document their stories, and to encourage them to contribute to the archives.

Going forward, we must ensure that all stories are accounted for. It is much easier to do so now with the technological and academic advancements the 21st century has provided us with. But it is vital to ensure that there is equal and sufficient representation of all groups in the archives. With the work being done by archival scholars like Saidiya Hartman, and digital archives like A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland (PAPVC), we are on our way to creating a better future and rectifying our failings in the representation of the missing and oppressed.

Works Cited
Greene, Mark A. “A Critique of Social Justice as an Archival Imperative: What Is It We’re Doing That’s All That Important?” The American Archivist, vol. 76, no. 2, The Society of American Archivists, 2013, pp. 302–34.

Hartman, Saidiya. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe : a Journal of Criticism, vol. 12, no. 2, Duke University Press, 2008, pp. 1–14.

Hubbard, Melissa A. “Archival Resistance to Structural Racism: A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland.” Digital Community Engagement: Partnering Communities with the Academy, by Rebecca S. Wingo et al., University of Cincinnati Press, 2020.

Robinson-Sweet, Anna. “Truth and Reconciliation: Archivists as Reparations Activists.” The American Archivist, vol. 81, no. 1, 2018, pp. 23-37.

Williams, Stacie M. and Jarrett M. Drake. “Power to the People: Documenting Police Violence in Cleveland,” in “Critical Archival Studies,” eds. Michelle Caswell, Ricardo Punzalan, and T-Kay Sangwand. Special issue, Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies 1, no. 2 (2017).