When spending time in the archives, it’s important to think critically about the practice. Much like art, each viewer brings their own individual perspectives and biases, just as each archive brings its own circumstances. Being a critical archivist means being aware of the context in which the archive was created, as well as being aware of the context in which you are viewing it. Here is a list of questions to ask yourself as you start the journey.
What biases are you bringing to your viewing?
Maybe you hold stereotypical beliefs about certain groups, or at the very least our culture has instilled some implicit biases into your thinking (learn more about the implicit biases you hold). This can affect the way you interpret information from the archives or how you assign value to this information. Being conscious of this influence can help you address these biases in your archival work.
In what context was this archive created? What was it intended to do?
The archive could have been intended to move people to political action, or spread information/awareness, or just to document someone’s day to day life. It could be intended for dissemination to the masses or perhaps it was someone’s personal diary. Knowing the context in which it was created and the audience it was intended for is helpful for analyzing why the archive is important.
What does it mean for you to have access to this archive? Why did you choose to read it?
Often, historically marginalized groups are the focus of archival studies. Since these ‘alternative’ stories don’t usually fit into a mainstream narrative of history, we have to dig through archival materials to construct and identify these histories. In the time since the archive was created, it is likely that some aspects of culture have changed, making it more acceptable to take an interest in telling these stories. However, it is also likely that some aspects of culture haven’t changed, and the marginalized group of interest still deals with oppression and significant obstacles. These things are essential to consider because how you use the archive can impact these communities (positively or negatively).