"Community Archives, Community Spaces"

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Jeannette A. Bastian and Andrew Flinn, eds. Community Archives, Community Spaces: Heritage, Memory and Identity. London: Facet Publishing, 2020. Softcover or ebook, xxiv, 190p. £69.95/US$89.95 (ISBN 978-1-78330-3502). Reviewed by Eric Hung.

In 2009, two long-time community archives advocates—Jeannette Bastian and Ben Alexander—published Community Archives: The Shaping of Memory.[1] Consisting primarily of case studies that explore collecting practices, identity formation, collective memory and social justice, this volume remains essential reading for scholars and practitioners of community archives. A decade later, Bastian teamed up with another pioneering community archives scholar, Andrew Flinn, to create a sequel. In its introduction, the editors wrote that they “believe the time is right, the level of debate and thinking more mature and the voices more plural, for an in-depth engagement with archival thinking and practice” (xxii). I believe Bastian and Flinn’s statement is correct. The 2010s saw tremendous growth in the number of community archives and archivists, in the production of theories and case studies, and in the number of courses that included significant discussions on this subject. With the growth of the Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and other movements, many community archives also decided on less conventional missions and adopted innovative practices. Much has changed, and it is time to take stock. The resulting volume contains ten chapters:  section one includes three longer theoretical essays and section two contains seven shorter case studies. In a collection of essays, some unevenness in quality is inevitable, but almost every chapter gives readers at least one key insight that is applicable to many archival situations. The practices discussed in the case studies are not especially unique—perhaps the editors wanted to explore more common practices, as they might offer more practical advice to most archivists. However, I wish a couple of the essays explored some of the really innovative projects that are popping up.

For me, one of the book’s highlights is the opening chapter by Rebecka Taves Sheffield (Senior Policy Advisor at the Archives of Ontario). She argues that the sustainability of community archives is not just a practical issue, but also an ideological one. To explain, she adapts the late Lauren Berlant’s “cruel optimism” theory, which argues that—since the 1980s—our optimistic attachment to outdated fantasies (e.g., the “American Dream”) has become a barrier for our own flourishing. In adapting this for community archives, Sheffield argues that, to build community archives, people need to have a sense of “archival optimism”—a vision of a coherent identity, a shared idea of what experiences and materials need to be preserved for future generations. Without it, community members would not put in the necessary and often tedious labor or financial resources needed to build a repository. The problems arise when significant numbers of community members either feel excluded from the founders’ vision or stop sharing it because the world is changing. This is when the “archival optimism” that made the archives possible in the first place turns cruel and becomes an obstacle to the institution’s sustainability. Sheffield suggests one possible way out, and this is “for community archives to focus less on the product of archival work and more on collective practices” (15). I agree, and I hope more community archives follow this methodology in the coming years.

In the second chapter, Michelle Caswell (Associate Professor at UCLA) argues that the South Asian American Digital Archive’s “Where We Belong: Artists in the Archive” project exemplifies the value many community archives place on affective impact in both appraisal and outreach strategies. I attended the event she discussed and concur that both the archival materials the artists used and the works they produced are extremely powerful. Caswell argues that for our field to stop marginalizing racialized communities, mainstream archives must also “consider the affective value of representation in records when making appraisal decisions” and encourage “the activation of records in their care for affective ends” (35-36). Given entrenched practices and the racially homogenous nature of our profession, she recognizes that this is not easy, and that community-based advisory boards that are compensated and empowered can help. These boards are definitely a good idea, but I wonder how many large institutions are flexible enough to allow them to make substantive and structural changes to long-established policies and workflows. I wish that Caswell had given us a few more tips on how she thinks they can be implemented. I also wonder why she did not discuss archival description in her article. To normalize such questions as “How does that make you feel?” in archives, I think one key step would be to explicitly include, in the metadata, the emotional and symbolic value certain collections or artifacts often has for people from certain communities. This information can serve several functions, including acting as trigger warnings, and helping researchers understand additional layers about these materials they’re examining.

In the final theoretical chapter, Australian archivist Michael Piggott noted that community archiving theories and the records continuum model (developed by Frank Upward and his colleagues at Monash University) developed largely separately from each other. In reading these two literatures against each other, he recognized several common themes. In particular, both seek to expand traditional definitions of the “record” and the “archive,” and use sociological theories to explain the nature of archives. He also finds “undercurrents of intellectual anxiety and defensiveness” in both community archiving theories and the records continuum model (49). At this stage of Piggott’s research, it is unclear what the practical implications of his findings are. I hope he is able to outline these in his next publication.

The second section of the volume contains seven case studies. They cover numerous themes, including relationships between Indigenous and mainstream archives, community-engaged archiving and scholarship, trauma and mental health, intangible heritage, storage and access, and differing notions of provenance. The essays are remarkably diverse geographically. Covering seven countries (New Zealand, Thailand, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, United States, Croatia), they explore community archives in rural, urban, and virtual environments, and examine Indigenous, immigrant, marginalized and even majority populations. Given space limitations, I will only focus on one insight from three chapters that I find particularly widely applicable.

In “Tuku mana taonga, tuku mana tāngata” (chapter 4), Claire Hall (a non-Māori historian and Māori language advocate) and Honiana Love (a Māori archivist and currently Chief Executive of Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision, New Zealand’s audiovisual archives) argue that after close to two centuries of colonialism, there is no way to go back to the traditional way of knowledge transmission. Instead, they believe the way forward is to discover a way that Māori archives can “comfortably cohabit” with mainstream institutions that came to hold Māori artifacts, usually through questionable means. As comfortable cohabitation is based on relationships and collaborations, Hall and Love conclude that there is no formula for this work. They ultimately “encourage [their] peers and bosses to commit to exploring the grey, undefined—and largely undefinable—space that sits between indigenous and institutional practice” (77). This advice, I think, is helpful in many situations, not just Indigenous spaces. In fact, similar processes occur in several of this book’s case studies, particularly the one on Montréal’s Maison d’Haïti (Chapter 7).

Meanwhile, the six authors of “Indigenous Archiving and Wellbeing” (chapter 7) apply the Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Island concept of “social and emotional wellbeing” (SEWB) to the effects of archives and archival policies. SEWB posits that—unlike Western ideas of mental health, which focus primarily on the individual—Indigenous Australians believe that wellbeing is related to the health of a multi-dimensional spirit that can “refer to person, family, community, or to Country” (134). For Indigenous Australians who are using archives to understand their own lives, look for family members and revitalize their languages and cultures, the archival records themselves, the descriptions provided by the archives and the institution’s policies can play significant roles in both strengthening and weakening the spirits of the researchers, their families and their communities. Two examples of practices that can help strengthen the spirit are creating memorials recognizing the reality of archival trauma and allowing patrons the “right to reply” to records that affected them or their communities. I believe that the broader concept of wellbeing that SEWB enables can help a diverse array of archives think through their ethical responsibilities as well as their potential impacts, both positive and negative. In many archival situations, “simply providing access is not enough, nor is it the full potential of what archival institutions can facilitate” (143).

Finally, Anne Gilliland (Associate Dean at UCLA’s iSchool) and Tamara Štefanac (Director, Croatian Railway Museum) raised some much-needed big-picture questions about community archives. Most notably, they asked, “How independent and autonomous can community archives realistically be?” (181) and “What role might they play in wider movements for fundamental changes in society” (182)?  Over the past decade, many community archivists have been drawn to broader notions of archives developed by humanities scholars. Unfortunately, archives scholars have by and large been rather slow to explore this shift. Little has been written about the potential impacts that New York’s Chinatown Art Brigade, Philadelphia’s Monument Lab and FuturesLab.Community, Chicago’s Panlasa Project: Community Cookbook, and other such projects can have on the practices and theories across the field. The big questions that Gilliland and Štefanac raised will help us move in this direction. Hopefully, there will soon be a sequel to this volume that explores the more innovative developments in community archiving.

Despite the high quality of the book’s content, editing and construction, I have one major quibble:  the relatively slim volume’s extremely high cost. The authors of the book are well aware of the financial challenges facing the vast majority of community archives. At the current price tag, few community archives and archivists would be able to afford this book and learn from its many insights. I wish that the editors had managed to convince the publisher to sell (at least the electronic version of) this book at a reasonable price, or to go with another publisher.

—Eric Hung, Music of Asian America Research Center

[1] Jeannette A. Bastian and Ben F. Alexander, eds., Community Archives: The Shaping of Memory (London: Facet Publishing, 2009).

Eric Hung