Archival Community, Human Rights

Being an Activist Archivist

The Australian Society of Archivists’ 2017 conference explored the theme of ‘Diverse Worlds’ and had an element of activism throughout. The conference featured two keynotes passionate about decolonising the archival space (Jarrett Drake and Verne Harris) and had a strong Indigenous Australian focus.

The conference reinforced Cassie Findlay’s view that:

“[Archivist/recordkeepers] have a unique view of the world of information – the twenty-first century’s most important currency – and our work is inherently political. […] we have agency or at least influence in matters of policy, recordkeeping systems design, the retention and findability of records, and records access. These are not trivial matters, in politico-social terms” (Findlay, 2016, p. 155).

But the conference made me reflect upon the violence inherent to archives.

“In a world where language and naming are power, silence is oppression, is violence.”
― Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978

To silence a community, an individual or an issue is an act of structural violence (Daniels, L., personal communication, 2016). It’s referred to as ‘structural’ violence because the silencing of certain members and aspects of society is maintained by that society’s underlying political, economic and social structures (Kurtz et al., 2008). As a result of discriminatory structures, marginalised individuals may have limited access to basic services, including the basic human right of having access to information.

To silence marginalised communities and alternative narratives within the archive is an act of violence, but the archive is unaware of its own violence.

This act of silencing can take a number of forms within the archive:

  1. Alternative narratives can be excluded;
  2. Individuals can be denied access, and;
  3. Individuals can be denied the right to challenge the existing narratives within the archive.

In order to address these forms of structural violence we need to critically examine the governance, policies and practices of our institutions and be willing to change. 

I hear people ask; ‘If this is such an important matter, why isn’t changing our structures more of a priority in our institutions and within our profession?’ As explained in my post about innovative archivists, infrastructure is a tricky beast and one of it’s defining principles is that infrastructure is largely invisible unless something goes wrong (for example, one doesn’t often consider the road one drives on, until you see the giant potholes).

The ASA 2017 conference pointed out the giant potholes present in our archival structures.

So let’s shake the dust off our metaphorical cardigans, recognise our socio-political power and get to work as activist archivists.



Findlay, C. (2016). Archival activism. Archives and Manuscripts44(3), 155-159

(or better yet, watch the keynote on which the above paper was based).

Kurtz, D. L., Nyberg, J. C., Susan Van Den Tillaart RN, M. N. S., & Mills, B. (2008). Silencing of voice: an act of structural violence: urban Aboriginal women speak out about their experiences with health care. International Journal of Indigenous Health4(1), 53.

Wright, K. (2017). The power imbalance inherent in records and archives,The Find and Connect Web Resource Blog

Daniels, L. (2016). Personal communication.


Postscript 1: Thanks Liz Daniels for first introducing me to the idea of silencing as an act of violence! It was the type of idea that had such resonance that I had to recognise it as truth. I can’t wait to read your PhD which will be filled with further insights.

Postscript: The keynotes of Jarrett Drake and Verne Harris were recorded and will eventually be made available via the ASA YouTube channel. If you haven’t yet, it is worth having a look at the hashtag #asaitic17 to see how the conversations progressed throughout the week.

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