Journal Review of Archives and Manuscripts- M. Kwasnik
Archives and Manuscripts is the academic journal of the Australian Society of Archivists. The journal publishes articles, reviews and editorials written by Australian archivists, but often pertaining to archival issues and trends worldwide. The first issue was published in 1955 after an influential visit from the famous American appraisal archivist TR Schellenberg. Archives and Manuscripts publishes three issues per year and often dedicates whole issues to certain topics researchers are discussing.
Upon a careful reading of the last two years of Archives and Manuscripts there are several research trends that persist from issue to issue. The articles deconstruct the expected topics of digitization of records, accountability in record keeping, the need for security in workplace archives, but there was one area in particular that stood apart from the others. Starting with the first issue of the last two years, Archives and Manuscripts delve into a problem that is beginning to be addressed in the field: the use of archives for the purpose of finding one’s identity.
This topic is so unlike the other archival concepts that it truly stood out. Archives are places where memory meets fact and we are able to piece together history. The concept of using an archival institution to piece together one’s own history and past is a much more personal approach to records than the average genealogical search. Throughout the last two volumes of Archives and Manuscripts, the publication investigates this subject through the experiences of care-leavers, or adults who spent their childhoods in out-of-home care, Indigenous and Aboriginal Australians, and early Australian feminists.
In Volume 40, Issue 1, the problem of identity is first explored. In fact, the entire issue is dedicated to the “Who Am I?” project that has begun in Australia. This endeavor began to help adult care-leavers make sense of their records. Each article in the issue explores the idea, which is luckily foreign to most, that children who are displaced from their homes at a young age lack the identity of someone who grew up with their own family. Children in care lose their family connections and the identity that accompanies a familial upbringing, this leads them to search out their social work records as adults in an attempt to piece together their past. However, this can be a traumatic and alienating experience. They find that their records were not written for them, but purely about them for bureaucratic purposes. As O’Neill, Selakovic and Tropea (2012) note, “the documentary traces mostly relate to administrative incidents that were bureaucratically important to the institution”. Care-leavers examine their records and find little that is personal, yet pages and pages of paperwork pertaining to school uniform bills and the like.
Often care-leavers who had a childhood of abuse and neglect at the hands of their guardians find no trace of this in the records. Sköld, Foberg, and Hedström (2012) argue that social workers were likely hesitant to document the conditions in foster homes, “The notes become rather unclear and diffuse using phrases such as ‘the situation is not good’; ‘concerned about foster care’; ‘not a pleasant home.’” With such little evidence of abuse and neglect, care-leavers are often left with a feeling of dismay and distrust for authority.
The issue then turns its attention to the role of the archivist and how it must adapt when working with such records. Archivists largely see themselves as guardians and custodians of the record, but as O’Neill et al. (2012) note, this role is too neutral, “The people responsible for managing these records, and making them available to former residents come from a variety of professional backgrounds, and often lack the time or ability to manage the complex emotional needs of the client.” The authors urge archivists to work closely with their users to help them best understand and contextualize their records in what can be an emotional and confusing experience. This argument is an interesting take on the role of an archivist as not only a guardian but as someone who can actively and importantly re-shape the meaning of records for the user.
In Volume 40, Issue 2 Archives and Manuscripts visits this idea of identity formation for Indigenous and Aboriginal Australians. Nakata writes of the inequalities between Australians who have obvious Aboriginal heritage and those who have ambiguous or mixed Aboriginal roots. Those Australians who may not have connections to their Aboriginal family or may not look Aboriginal use archives as a means to self-identify and truly feel a part of their heritage. Another aspect to this search for identifying records is for users to feel accepted by Aboriginal communities. Nakata (2012) cites a study of Aboriginal identity and its basis of exclusion based on what ultimately comes down to appearance:
“In the schisms between the generally shared experience and the particularities of the unshared experience, where there is a continuing struggle over what it means to be an Aboriginal or a Torres Strait Islander today, and who can legitimately identify and be recognised as one. And here, as we struggle among ourselves, we now do to ourselves what was done to us in the past.”
However the use of archives helps users who have been excluded from the Aboriginal community by this “unshared experience” to realize their identity and expand the collective Aboriginal past. As Nakata (2012) writes:
“Legitimising their stories as stories of Aboriginal experience can give those currently caught outside the accepted and acceptable discourses of Aboriginality permission to be all that they have become over time and still acknowledge their Indigenous heritage.”
Nakata argues that the archives are integral in this collective identity; for one user to find their identity and history through the archives is for a whole community to grow closer to a collective understanding of its past.
Another direction the journal takes in discussing identity is that of a personal collection. In Volume 21, Issue 2, Archives and Manuscripts explores the identity of early Australian feminism through the personal papers of feminist activist Merle Thornton. This view veers from the other meanings and identities discussed, in that Thornton’s papers are her own memories and experiences, but help to put feminist identity and a shared past of oppression into the collective sphere of feminism. As Henderson writes “Her personal papers provide an invaluable perspective on the placement of a feminist subject into the archives and an example of the modern Australian feminist self.”
The appraisal and acceptance of these personal papers have firmly documented Thornton’s experience as a 1960s feminist and her struggles in the workplace as well as society. Had these documents been institutional or bureaucratic, perhaps they would not have the same meaning. Henderson (2012) cites archivist Sue McKemmish in arguing that personal papers have several aspects of value, “as ‘a narrative of self’, as well as ‘preserving society’s memory, experiential knowledge and cultural identity’”. Another archivist, Penny Russell explains that personal archives are “‘the site of self-representation and evidence of the cultural narratives amongst which a sense of self may be forged’” (Henderson, 2012). In these statements of importance, one can sense how vital a personal collection of feminist manuscripts are for women today as a new tide of feminism is rising. Henderson argues that it was of utmost importance to have Thornton’s papers archived in a public institution to be saved and preserved for today’s young feminists to have an insight into the first wave of feminism and find that sense of collective self.
As students, archivists are told to be neutral. As one handles a record and makes it public, archivists have the true ability to mold and shape a record and must be very careful to keep personal biases away. Yet, in a close reading of Archives and Manuscripts, archivists are invited to step closer. They are urged to become less neutral and become less of a guardian and more of an explainer when working with users. Archives and Manuscripts sees a distinct trend in archives being used more and more by people searching for identities, whether it be intrinsically personal or collective. For a field that has traditionally been used to provide accountability and insight to the workings of organizations, this is a very meaningful and delicate approach to archives that certainly shows a distinctly human side to the climate-controlled stacks of yore.
Henderson, M. (2013). Archiving the feminist self: reflections on the personal papers of Merle Thornton. Archives and Manuscripts, 41(2), 91–104. doi:10.1080/01576895.2013.806013
Nakata, M. (2012). Indigenous memory, forgetting and the archives. Archives and Manuscripts, 40(2), 98–105. doi:10.1080/01576895.2012.687129
O’Neill, C., Selakovic, V., & Tropea, R. (2012). Access to records for people who were in out-of-home care: moving beyond “third dimension” archival practice. Archives and Manuscripts, 40(1), 29–41. doi:10.1080/01576895.2012.668841
Sköld, J., Foberg, E., & Hedström, J. (2012). Conflicting or complementing narratives? Interviewees’ stories compared to their documentary records in the Swedish Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse and Neglect in Institutions and Foster Homes. Archives and Manuscripts, 40(1), 15–28. doi:10.1080/01576895.2012.668842