Notes from “Underground Archives, Hidden Archives, Community Archives” – April 15, A/P/A Institute

This wide-ranging and dynamic conversation among Jack Tchen, Jackie Goldsby and Andrew Flinn engaged closely with examining the terms “underground,” “hidden,” and “community.” The conversation as a whole resonated with two questions raised by Carla Peterson’s and Steven Fullwood’s remarks earlier in the semester.  What’s remembered, what’s forgotten?  How should we collect and preserve political archives in a way that allows them to remain active and be used without foreclosing their politics?

For Jack Tchen, the term “underground” has relational meaning.  On its own, it could be a synonym for “subaltern,” but Tchen draws his precise understanding of “underground” archives from their intersection with the “dialogic process” of archiving.  Relating his experiences with activist and collecting movements outside the university, Tchen reclaimed the term “dumpster-diver” as a specific counter-measure to the academy’s tendency to abject certain kinds of materials.  For example, Tchen traced out the patronizing subtext of treating underground archives as a source of “raw” materials.  He argues that “to document” and “to curate” are actions that exercise authority, and that the power relations of that authority must always be questioned. For Tchen, the idea of a “dialogic” archival practice must be more than engaging in detective work or seeking to unlock “secret” meaning encoded in materials; rather, it means questioning fundamentally how knowledge is formulated and answering the questions, what stories get told?  What makes a story worth being told? Tchen closed by pointing to recent work by Ann Cvetkovich on public feelings and asking us to consider the prospect of an archive of embodied knowledge and the role of the digital archive – do archives have to be originals anymore?

For Jackie Goldsby, “hidden” archives have been in some ways a closed category, one set forth by Barbara Jones in 1990 in an ARL white paper as archives either unprocessed or without an electronic record.  Goldsby’s experience in processing the Chicago Defender’s photo archives as part of Mapping the Stacks was a paradoxical one for a scholar of African-American culture. The black public sphere in Chicago between 1930 and 1970 was at its most established and confident – its institutional presence was established and its cultural reach was broad. Paradoxically, however, this period is astoundingly under-archived.  Goldsby sought to remedy this paradox with institutional collaboration that was transparent about self-interest and mindful of the legacies of town-gown tensions between the University of Chicago and African-American communities in Chicago. Openness allowed her to leverage institutional history and institutional resources to work toward the university’s intellectual stewardship of archival materials, rather than working toward acquiring them.

Andrew Flinn uses the term “independent, community-based archives” to describe the archives he works with. The term conveys their autonomy from formal or mainstream institutions of heritage or higher learning, but Flinn notes that it also preserves the problematic nature of the word “community,” which often echoes what he calls “policy-speak” and a language of marginalization from society as a whole.  Flinn urges a conceptualization of “community” as shorthand for community archive practices. These “independent, community-based archives” far exceed the boundaries of traditional archives, including personal effects, ephemera, copies, performance, built environments and orality. What’s important to note, Flinn emphasizes, is why these archives exist, that they “stand in reproach to the misrepresentation and silence” often imposed by formal structures and mainstream institutions.  Flinn also discussed local archives as political archives, the impact of technology and the democratization of history-making in considering how community archives might challenge traditional archival practice.  He envisions a participatory archival practice, one which involves taking control of a notion of the present by engaging with the past, to create interpretive collective spaces, rather than passively collected ones.

In the subsequent discussion moderated by Laura Helton, the following themes emerged:

* Ephemera: In dealing with ephemeral objects, do we lessen the “reproach” that Andrew Flinn describes by collecting them?

* Sustainability: In thinking about resources during the economic downturn, what should responsible archive-building look like?  Does autonomy always have to mean building a fully autonomous archive from the ground up, or should we be looking to partner with existing institutions while seeking to retain the aura of independence of these underground/hidden/community archives? Each of the panelists approached sustainability from several perspectives, arguing overall for an awareness of institutional histories (Tchen), an understanding of archives hidden within established institutions (Goldsby) and theorizing a post-custodial model of archival practice (Flinn).

* Hidden-ness: Do people have a right not to be documented? How can we be mindful of the politics of wanting to remain hidden without abrogating our own responsibility not to reinstate or affirm the silences and misrepresentations described earlier?

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