by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
Above: Illustration by Janine Carrington
I’m obsessed with archives and archiving. I’m obsessed with them for a lot of reasons: because I’m an immigrant and a diasporic person, the daughter of a Sri Lankan who had to move across the world and lost a lot of objects along the way, a survivor of violence estranged from her given family who knows how easily stories and family and cultural objects can get lost. Because I believe in the importance of leaving records and track marks for each other so we can refuse to be erased and leave our future descendents our stories.
This past year when I went to the Allied Media Conference, I went to a ton of workshops in their Community Based Archiving track and I learned a lot.
I went out of a desire to figure out how to archive the records of a QTPOC arts project I worked on for almost a decade, and because I have been saving photos, zines, posters and other objects for the past 20 plus years from the movements and projects- student of colour, prison justice, psych survivor, QTPOC and disability justice- that I am involved in. I wanted to figure out how to move them to someplace more accessible than the boxes and shopping bags in my closet where they currently reside.
I was expecting to receive a lot of dos and don’ts and concrete tips for, for example, digitizing analog material, and I did get some of that. But the main thing I learned was a series of questions and principles community based radical archivists have evolved to guide their work. I learned that there is no one right way to archive, but exploring these questions and principles might guide me- and you- to finding the right way for you.
Before you begin, ask yourself:
What do you want to archive? A collection of zines? Of photographs? Of banners, notes and promotional material for a group you were part of? Stories from elders? You might jump to thinking that an archive just contains posters, videotapes and banners but it could also contain: memories, field recordings, stories, costumes, pressed wildflowers, seeds.
Do you want the archive to be static– like, hello, here is this zine collection/ personal records of an organization, please read and enjoy? Or do you also want to have an interactive component, where folks can add-in/ upload their memories, experiences and materials of a protest movement, a community or an organization or cafe? There’s archiving sites and software that can help you do this, like Omeka, Historypin.org, Digital Timeline, archive.org and the Community Oral History Toolkit, which has downloadable release forms with different options of restrictions. There are so many ways to archive.
Young Women’s Empowerment Project, a revolutionary organization by and for Chicago based young women (cis and trans) and nonbinary folks in the sex trade and street economies, had a “community listening post” when their organization was forced to close after 12 years. They set up a voicemail, where folks who had been a part of YWEP, being influenced by YWEP and adult allies could leave their stories and memories. These stories have been woven into an audio documentary, which you can access here.
How have folks in your communities preserved memories, stories and records before? Do some research
Why do you want to archive? To preserve history? To pass on knowledge? To showcase beautiful costumes
Who needs to hear those stories/ appreciate and access these records? Make a list. Then think: what format will allow them to do that? An online website where they can click on links telling stories? A zine library inside a local library? A whole bunch of artifacts in boxes at the local queer archive? A compilation of stories, oral and transcribed, online or in a community center, or both?
Think about access. Do you have a ton of video and audio material that is uncaptioned/ transcribed? You can learn to caption videos easily and for free using Amara (amara.org.) You can also ask around- often in local Deaf, HOH, disabled and autistic community, people are doing transcription work, and you can have word processing files up with the words of what people said.
After you’ve started to ask these questions, ask yourselves:
How much time/ energy/ money do you need to budget to do this? Think about your time, materials you need to store things, the services of someone to transfer files from one format to another or cut hours of video into 3 to 5 minute chunks for youtube, access services like transcription.
Who do you want to have access to what material? When you sit down with your huge archive of your political organization, you might realize that some material is more sensitive and private than others. Maybe that ex-collective member doesn’t want everyone to see the decade-old video of them talking about a sex party or the ex-lover they’re mad at!! Is some material stuff you just want certain people (core collective members, members of a certain community, close family members) to be able to access? Think about whether you want several layers of archiving- some that is public and accessible to anyone, some that is more private.
Consent is crucial. Depending on what you’re archiving, you might have material that is personal or sensitive. Take that member of your collective who maybe doesn’t want to have their decade-old video of them talking about their ex posted online? You might need to make a list of people whose names are in the meeting notes, etc, and see if they’re ok with those notes being posted publicaly. You can use release forms to ask folks to give permission to have their stuff or stories included in an archive.
Getting consent about what historical records to release and how can also be complex. One woman in a workshop I attended talked about how, in her work archiving Black liberation organizing from her community that took place in the 1960s, some people who were radical back then were now right wing, fundamentalist Christians who didn’t want to be included in her project. Yet, the truth was they had been part of the movement in the past. Her story prompted a vibrant discussion in the workshop about the complex nature of truth and the tension between getting everyone’s easeful consent and a responsibility to document the totality of what happened in a movement or gorup. What I left with was that there are no easy answers, and you do the best you can, working towards the goal of doing no harm.
Principles of activist archiving (that I learned from the Freedom Archive folks):
Accountability/ self determination: How do we create spaces that are responsive, not claiming people’s voices/ or speaking for them? How are our collections liberating/ transforming how we see the world? Freedom Archives members said you have to be open to building relationships with people who might want you to take it down/ take it back, and be responsive to that.
They also talked about the importance of media release forms- getting in touch with folks whose stuff is in the archives and getting their written consent to being included. They also talked about safety planning/ anonymizing people’s submissions if it would not be safe for their names to be attached.
Commitment to non neutrality: The mainstream principles of library archives is “We’re all neutral–we’re just the conservers of any knowledge that comes through, we store everything.” But no archive is neutral; everyone brings our own perspective into the work we do. you can be transparent but you can also be “look, I’m committed to these social justice principles, this is why I am recording this history”
Flexibility: making do with what we had. Some records might be destroyed, incomplete or confusing, or on really dirty old casette tapes. You might not have a ton of money or unlimited time and energy or the perfect space. But, what can you do with what you have
Collectivity: working together and building community through materials and stories being preserved and shared. Can collecting stories, memories and records help bring a community together or build/re build itself, even (or especially) when there is or has been conflict, when people don’t agree on one version of the story of the group, project, etc, or when there has been grief or trauma? How can many people, not just one archivist, contribute to a gathering of stories?
Accessibility: What’s our entitlement to certain materials? Who can access certain things or not (in terms of disability, literacy, physical proximity to where it is, being in prison, being a parent?) Think about making some things available online, about captioning and visual and/ or audio descriptions, about making sure that the things are not just accessible to academics with all the right papers, or people who can pay $40 to enter a museum and never raise their voices.
Nuts and bolts:
Archiving is hard work. A facilitator estimated that going through each box full of stuff you have can take from 10 to 20 hours. If you are feeling stuck around the enormity of the task, know you are not alone! There are grants available to fund your archiving work; if you are thinking about working with a community archive, some of them have archivists who will help you. Think about doing fundraisers (community dinners, crowdsourcing, whatever you’ve got that makes sense). Do it bit by bit; enlist help; think about what wildly creative structure will be the most accessible for you; have an archiving party.
Start by making a list or spreadsheet of the papers, posters, zines, tapes and all other material you have. Make notes about the date/time/place it’s from Organizing can show you what you have, what the story you are trying to preserve is, and what things you swore you had in a shoebox that have gone missing.
Dust, water, smoke and sunlight are enemies of all kinds of archival material- find places to store archival material that are protected from those things!
Many people will rush to digitize and upload everything to the cloud, but digital is not the only, best option. Having stuff online can make it accessible to anyone who has an internet connection, but that is only one way of access. Being about to touch, read and look at objects, garments and notes is just as important. A lot of community archivists talk about “three site access” and “one is none”- having backups and multiple copies of archived material so if something destroys one version of it, all is not lost.
Some more things to consider:
Professional archives- often in universities, libraries, or museums – can be the first place people think of as “here’s where we’ll bring the stuff.” They have dedicated space and staff, but they also can also be gatekeepers that cut off the people you most want to be able to access your files. I recently read a brown parenting femme’s experience trying to access Octavia Butler’s exhibit at the Huntington Library–how her academic request to view Butler’s archives for free was turned down, how the library was located in a white, upper middle class part of town and was expensive to access, and how she was asked to leave the library because her brown kid was playing in a corner in a way deemed to be “too loud.” Black trans filmmaker and activist Reina Gossett has written about her struggles to access archival material about Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera’s archives at the New York Public Library, how racist and transmisogynist security guards asked her to leave.
Not all archives are like that, however. Some community based archives have been created by Black and brown, queer and trans and disabled communities, to archive our movements work. There are inspiring stories out there, like the Lesbian Herstory Archives, a working-class queer women’s archive that began at femme writer Joan Nestle’s kitchen table and moved to a wheelchair accessible Brooklyn building which, through grassroots fundraising, the archivist collective bought, so they would never be at the mercy of landlords evicting them from a rented space. The Lesbian Herstory Archives is open to everyone, no credentials required. When I visited, I and everyone else was allowed to touch and rummage through archives as varied as the pasties of a femme stripper from the 1950s to the typewritten manuscript of Dorothy Allison’s first uppublished manuscript.
Some archives that you can check out for inspiration and to see how they work include:
For lots more information about community archiving, check out:
look up the Community Archiving Workshop online for a ton of resources and information.
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a queer femme Burgher/Tamil Sri Lankan, Irish and Roma disabled writer, performer and organizer. The Lambda award winning author of Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home, Bodymap, Love Cake, Concensual Genocide and co-editor of The Revolution Starts At Home: Comfronting Intimate Violence in Activist Communities, she is a lead artist with disability justice performance troupe Sins Invalid and is currently nishing her new book of essays, Care Work: Dream- ing Disability Justice Culture and book of poetry, Tonguebreaker.