Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Community Archives and the Limitations of Identity

The Spring/Summer issue of The American Archivist contained a number of thought provoking articles on the representation of disabilities, minorities, and ethnic groups in archives and archival literature.  One of the articles which I found particularly compelling was "Community Archives and the Limitations of Identity : Considering Discursive Impact on Material Needs" by Christine N. Paschild. (Apparently, I wasn't the only one to be inspired by Paschild's article, Scott Ziegler wrote a review of the article on the Start an Archives! blog.) 

Paschild's article examines how "postmodern-influced discourse of identity shapes and influences critical analysis of community archives." The article outlines a number of interesting postmodern theoretical ideas and is rooted in Paschild's case study of the Japanese American National Museum (JANM).  Paschild argues that the language used to describe community archives often results in marginalization, distraction, or politicization of collections.

Throughout her article Paschild advocates for a clearer definition of community and identity.  She maintains that "the definition of community archives must be drafted in necessarily broad stokes to fully encompass all possible identity constructions." Identity can be constructed in a variety of ways and can mean very different things depending on the individual or community. 

Paschild's article also got me thinking a lot about self-identification within Canada's Aboriginal community and how archives develop collection policies relating to Aboriginal communities.  Defining who falls under the description Indigenous, Aboriginal, First Nation, and a myriad of other labels is something that has been long debated in Canada.

The Canadian government has repeatedly attempted to define Aboriginal identity through the use of legislation, the Indian Act, and treaties.  Government definitions of Aboriginal identity have created exclusions and divisions amongst Aboriginal peoples. Additionally, the government definition of Aboriginal identity often does  not a reflect or take into consideration Aboriginal culture, tradition, language, or practices. 

Self-identification allows people who are 'non-status', were adopted by a non-indigenous family at a young age, or simply don't fit the government's categories, to identify with the community that they see themselves as being a part of.   Granted, self-identification can be a difficult thing to quantify and many people may be reluctant to self-identify in some cases.  However, without taking into consideration self-identification and community based definitions of identity archives seriously limit the material they collect and potentially become increasingly removed from the communities they are aiming to serve.

A broad definition of identity can help archives and heritage organizations be institutions which serve the organizations they aim to represent and collect material for or about.  Community archives and archives which aim to collect information about specific communities need to consciously think about how they are selecting and accepting material based on their definition of identity.  Simply because a conception of community identity is popular or commonly accepted does not mean it is correct or complete.  Community identity can directly impact archival holdings and is something which more archivists should be addressing.

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