Building Trust in Archives

In my last post, I went on and on about the problems archivists have in documenting the diverse viewpoints of the world. But what’s the fix? Specifically, how do I fix this problem here at UHD?

One of the hardest issues to hurdle is that in the United States (and most Western cultures), archives are built on two suppositions: 1) written documentation is paramount, and 2) all “valuable” materials are physically housed within the archives itself, under the management of the archivist.

This model actually presents a lot of problems when we start thinking about the issue of trustworthiness. Archival principles are built on hundreds (if not thousands) of years of assumptions that the archive is the safest, most desirable place to store “important” documents. Obviously with those kinds of assumptions in tow, it was only a matter of time before archives became untrustworthy to non-privileged groups. Since it takes money and space to create a dedicated place, that means that people with money and space will do the building and saving. This is true from the very first archives in the king’s palace in ancient Sumeria to the National Archives today.

But most cultures use oral traditions to pass down knowledge rather than books. Or they may be groups who depend on what we call “distributed” custodianship (each family keeps their own history) to manage historical materials because there is no space/money for a dedicated space like a museum or an archives (again, this is most human beings). So, given these cultural norms among so many people in this world, here at UHD I feel that we can give more thought to these practices and more space for them to flourish. I currently have three strategies in mind:

1) Using more oral transmission of information (in-person or narrative interviews during the donation process, or just doing more oral histories with the community generally)

2) Conducting more community meetings with office groups or departments that include everyone, and encouraging the group to discuss collecting based around topics which the colleges, departments, or offices decide is important, and the archive takes that material in,
3) More “shared custodianship” for on-campus groups–basically, the group keeps their own material and allows for an advisory role for the archivist to act as a guide in matters of preservation and access, keeping a list for the archives of what is housed, but not taking the materials physically into the archives itself.
Hopefully doing these things helps to build an atmosphere of trust within the archives, and allows more people and more groups to see the archives as a resource rather than a  vault.  And I’m looking for more strategies, too. I hope to get lots of advice on this in the days and weeks to come.