Community Archives: The Shaping of Memory

Margot Note (World Monuments Fund, New York, USA)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 28 June 2011




Note, M. (2011), "Community Archives: The Shaping of Memory", Library Review, Vol. 60 No. 6, pp. 535-536.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited


In Community Archives: The Shaping of Memory, Editors Jeannette A. Bastian, Associate Professor, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Simmons College, and Ben Alexander, Assistant Professor, Graduate School of Library and Information Studies, Queens College, have collected essays that explore archivists' responsibility in fostering community building processes and their ability to assist in them. Bastian and Alexander affirm, “Through their formation, collection, maintenance, diffusion and use, records in all their manifestations are pivotal to constructing a community, consolidating its identity and shaping its memories” (p. xxi). Community archives, understood in the context of the book, are materials produced, collected and administered principally within communities and outside the formal heritage sector.

The book's aim is to enhance the understanding of how archives shape collective memory and how records reflect community identity by revealing territories that are important to societal memory, but neglected. As series editor Geoffrey Yeo states:

Intentionally or inadvertently, established professional approaches may often privilege the value systems of powerful governments, corporate businesses and organizations or individuals with influence in the world […] Communitarian perspectives may oblige archivists to revisit traditional perceptions and extend their understanding of records to encompass new forms of evidence and more fluid manifestations of human memory (p. x).

The book questions the implications of community archives for heritage professionals and their role in supporting the physical and digital futures of records that are collected outside of archives, libraries, or museums. In writing about his experience, documenting the island's leper colony at the Culion Museum and Archives, Ricardo L. Punzalan states:

In my position as an outsider “Expert” archivist, I learned that my vulnerabilities in the community also provided an opportunity to act more as a co‐witness in the construction of the collective meaning of archives (p. 199).

The editors advise archivists to look beyond conventional practice to the “minor narratives, the untold stories, the traces, the whispers and the expressions of marginalized identities that people yearn to find in the archives” (p. xxiii). Their hope is that these narratives “illustrate above all that ‘marginal’ is no longer a concept that makes sense in our world” (p. xxiv).

With authors that form “an eclectic group of archivists, librarians and lawyers,” the thirteen essays in the volume present case studies that range geographically and institutionally from archival repositories, community groups, or documentary projects (p. xxii). Exploring the importance of archives and its correlation to remembrance, identity, accountability, justice and power, the book is divided into five parts: a community archives model; communities and non‐traditional record keeping; records loss, destruction and recovery; online communities: how technology brings communities and their records together and building a community archive.

In the closing chapter, The Archivist and Community, archival scholar Richard J. Cox encourages archivists to forge new relationships with communities with an impartial approach. He cautions:

We need to make sure that our involvement with these communities does not allow notions of pride, identity, image and other positive attributes to overwhelm the essential significance of records and record keeping for evidence (warts and all), accountability (often with its unpleasant aspects) and memory (just as often contested as not) (p. 262).

Defining “community” is the book's greatest challenge as the editors note that the essays assume “widely disparate meanings in different contexts” from global, national, regional, local and personal viewpoints, and the essays “highlight both the versatility of ‘community’ and its close connection to memory and identity” (p. xvii).

With no definitive elucidation of “community,” it is abstruse to ascertain the institutional reach for archives, the borders of a particular community, or the community's appropriate representation in the archives – or lack thereof. For example, in discussing the National Archives of St. Kitts‐Nevins, Victoria Borg O'Flaherty remarks:

By recognizing that the archive was an inherent part of the machinery of colonialism, one becomes conscious of its limitations in contributing to the history of the colonized in a post‐colonial community and yet it is still a source of information about them (p. 22).

In his case study on the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, Marcel Barriault offers another example of the exiguousness of some communities in traditional archives:

Given the absence of personal records, researchers interested in queer studies in Canada have often had to rely on the evidential value of public records, which necessarily document only the official version of this issue. Researchers have thus had to read the records “against the grain” in order to grasp some sense of the everyday lives of queer Canadians in the past (p. 97‐98).

Community Archives: The Shaping of Memory is a meritorious contribution to the field of growing case studies on collecting and preserving records of under documented cultures, ranging from the taping of grateful dead performances, documenting with videos and blogs communities destroyed by genocide, or capturing oral traditions in Fiji. Community archives democratize our heritage, contributing a unique body of documentation that gives voice to those historically ignored. One caveat is the book's copy‐editing errors, especially in the series introduction and the misspelling of Bastian's name on the cover. Overall, however, the book is highly recommended for those interested in community history and identity, cultural heritage professionals, and the creators, users and custodians of community archives.

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