By Dr Sharon Webb, Lecturer in Digital Humanities, University of Sussex
Collaboration is a great thing. Even better when you get to collaborate with friends and colleagues who are as passionate and engaged in a topic as you are. Thursday’s Archival Activism event hosted by the Digital Repository of Ireland (DRI) and National Archives, Ireland (NAI) was one such occasion.
The title of the session; ‘Archival Activism: Community -Centred Approaches to Archives’, contributes to a growing body of literature, of research and action that looks at community responses, often from communities traditionally marginalised or oppressed in society, which ensure the historical record is inclusive of those voices traditionally ‘silenced’ or absent from history. Although, in many respects, the analogy of voices being silent or absent diminishes or glosses over the often violent, oppressive acts associated with marginalisation from historical records and from society foremost. The event’s theme and our speakers’ address to this, prompted so much conversation and dialogue among the panellists and the large number of participants attending on Zoom, demonstrating both the need for this conversation and the appetite for it. People zoomed in from across the globe to hear our speakers, demonstrating how this theme is of paramount importance to society, to democracy, to social justice but also to the future of our collective histories – an importance and interest that transcends the geopolitical borders in which we might find ourselves.
The fact that the DRI and NAI collaborated on this topic should be acknowledged as an important intervention by both institutions. Not only because it signals that our cultural heritage bodies are dedicated to being involved in the ‘global conversation [and action], on racism and social justice’, but because it also prompts us to think about the new ways in which our cultural heritage is created, shared and indeed saved or preserved. DRI and the NAI may not see their collaboration as an act of archival activism but in many regards it is – it is positive action that not only highlights, acknowledges and celebrates Black History Month, here in the UK and Ireland, but it also highlights the need for us to review our archival practices and support for community-centred approaches to archival development, practice and creation. In so doing, they challenge the concept of the archive and create space for alternative voices and manifestations of the archive – shifting ‘our focus from the things in the archive to the idea of archives’ (1). A shift which allows us to rethink archival discourse and practices, archival priorities and what constitutes an archive.
A lot of questions came up in the Q&A about what is an archive, does an Instagram account like the Black and Irish account constitute one? Traditionally speaking, no, but if we view the function of an archive as to collect, so share, to disseminate then it possesses a lot of those characteristics. It is also useful to think about how the analogue world shaped our idea and notion of the archive – social media and our digital platforms and systems throw a spanner in the (archival) works! We therefore need an expanded version of what archives are, and indeed who they are for – who gets to build them, to collect and control their content? But the work that community-led organisations like Black & Irish do, transcend the idea of archives. As political, counter-hegemonic acts they provide a crucial moment of self-reflection for Ireland. As Boni Odoemene from Black and Irish said, ‘Ireland is known as the home of a thousand welcomes, we just want to continue that welcome’. Archival activism is expanding who is included in the historical record – Black and Irish are doing this. And as Digital Archivist Zakiya Collier points out – what archive gets 42k+ users in 6 months?
However, the use of digital platforms, digital archives and social media to amplify voices traditionally segregated to the periphery poses a significant threat which could result in double erasure from the historical record – digital media is inherently more fragile and requires continued maintenance – Zakiya’s work and that of DRI exemplifies this. A running theme of all panellists was the need for institutions with capacity and resources to better support community archives and community heritage projects. Indeed, the DRI’s Community Archive award exemplifies this need and demand to share resources, expertise and knowledge on long-term digital preservation practices and infrastructures.
DRI’s Community Archive Scheme is in its third year (and long may it continue) – it’s not only a great award but signals the need for this work and for wider engagement from our cultural heritage bodies and the higher education sector (let’s all share our online digital repositories!) I was delighted to hear that the Cork LGBT Archive won DRI’s community archive award in 2018. This collaboration ensures that Cork’s rich LGBTQ history is preserved, digitally, in a trusted digital repository. But we must acknowledge the significant amount of volunteer labour and work required to get the Cork LGBT collection to a point where it could be archived – and Orla Egan, digital archivist and creator of the Cork LGBT Archive, should be commended for her amazing and continued work on this. But the Cork LGBT archive provides a great example for us to think about, and recognise, the precious nature of some of our heritage – without the communities’ efforts to save, gather and create this collection, it simply would not exist – and we can also, of course, think about the work of Black & Irish. The deadline for submissions to the DRI Community Archive Scheme is looming. My advice? Apply!
Thanks again to our speakers Boni from Black & Irish, and of course Femi’s guest appearance, and to Zakiya for providing us with such inspiring words, but perhaps most importantly, their archival and social justice action.
Terry Cook, ‘Electronic Records, Paper Minds: The Revolution in Information Management and Archives in the Post-Custodial and Post-Modernist Era’ (2007) in Archives and Social Studies Vol 1, p. 416.
If you missed the Archival Activism event, you can find the recording on our website.