Legis* Research Team: Updates Regarding Legislation and Legislator Actions

The Legis* Research Team monitors the intersection of archives issues and legislative resources and concerns, legislative bills, and individual legislators. This post, part of our Research Post series, was written by Katharina Hering, Mark Prindiville, Ashley Levine, and Lindsay Hiltunen.

In the past several months, I have focused on monitoring opposition against the Immigration and Custom’s Enforcement’s (ICE) “Visa Lifecycle Vetting Initiative” (VLVI), formerly called the “Extreme Vetting Initiative” (EVI) in and outside of Congress. On April 5, 2018, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), Ranking Member of the Committee on Homeland Security, Rep. Filemon Vela (D-TX), Ranking Member of the Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee, and Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY), Ranking Member of the Counterterrorism and Intelligence Subcommittee, sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen urging her to halt the VLVI. “The Trump Administration’s extreme vetting initiative must be stopped.  Not only will it be ineffective and inaccurate, but will certainly be discriminatory and unjustly target certain communities. ICE’s intention to build a program with unknown limits to search social media platforms demonstrates a disregard for privacy, due process, and the rights to free speech and free association. This initiative will undoubtedly chill free speech online.” In March 2018, citing concerns raised by the Brennan Center for Justice and other civil liberties and civil rights organizations about the Extreme Vetting Initiative, the Congressional Black Caucus, via letter, requested that DHS suspends all activities related to the VLVI.

Among the groups opposing the VLVI were the Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York (ART) and the Concerned Archivists Alliance.

Several civil rights, civil liberties and privacy rights organizations provide regular updates on the opposition against the VLVI, including the Center for Democracy and Technology, National Immigration Law Center, Georgetown’s Center for Privacy and Technology, and the Brennan Center for Justice, among others.

— Katharina Hering

Senator Gary Peters of Michigan voted in favor of banking deregulation on March 6, 2018, as well as his fellow Michigander, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, and 14 other Democratic Senators. Coincidentally, both Peters and Stabenow have history with banking lobbyists, as campaign and leadership PAC donations from securities and investments have been found via OpenSecrets.org. Peters has received $726,879, while Stabenow has obtained $587,939, ironically including corporate/PAC donations into the realm of the gender wage gap issue.
— Mark Prindiville

In following the activities of the TV, radio, and internet news program, Democracy Now!, the legislator, Tom Cotton (R-AR), and the legislation, H.R. 3923:  Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act of 2017 (Sponsored by Adams Smith, D-WA), failures of government accountability in documenting abuse of undocumented persons by government agencies (e.g. U.S. Immigrations Customs Enforcement, a.k.a. ICE) amid simultaneous efforts to bolster aggressive immigration enforcement policies, are increasingly apparent.

The Democracy Now! website dedicates a section entirely to reporting on immigration issues in the United States. Articles bearing headlines like, “Immigration and Customs Enforcement to Allow Jailing of Pregnant Women,” to, “Immigration Activists Fight to End ICE Arrests at Courthouses,” and, “17 States Sue Trump Administration over Census Citizenship Question,” highlight the current administration’s efforts to crackdown on immigration from non-European (i.e. non-white) nations, and terrorize undocumented people within the U.S. These reports underscore concrete steps taken by ICE to simultaneously increase surveillance of immigrant communities (through data gathering mechanisms, such as the “Visa Lifecycle Vetting” initiative), and double-down on aggressive detainment activities (raids on courthouses, communities, and sanctuary cities). ICE activities are shrouded in secrecy, while ICE leadership neglects to adequately explain its extralegal actions.

Tom Cotton’s legislative activities mirror those of the administration in which he serves. For example, last year Senator Cotton sponsored S. 354: RAISE Act, which aims to limit illegal immigration by significantly reducing several provisions of U.S. policy that encourage legal immigration. S. 354 would end the Diversity Visa Program, a State Department initiative that grants an additional 50,000 legal permanent resident visas each year from countries with low rates of U.S. immigration. This bill also aims to reduce the number of family-sponsored immigrants, as well as cap number of refugees around the world offered U.S. permanent residency to 50,000. Tom Cotton also sponsored S. 1720: RAISE Act, a bill to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to establish a skills-based immigration points system.

Meanwhile, since its introduction in October 2017, H.R. 3923:  Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act of 2017, has seen no action made in the House. This bill aims to provide standards for facilities where undocumented persons in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security (ICE) are detained. Since ICE’s inception in 2003, and up to 2015, 150 individuals died in the agency’s custody. Furthermore, the immigration detainee watchdog group, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), highlighted 14,693 reported incidents of sexual and physical abuse in ICE detention centers from 2010 to 2016, with just about 1 percent of these reports actually resulting in investigations. ICE has even reversed its policy of not detaining pregnant women, as reports of multiple confirmed miscarriages and  inadequate medical care in ICE detention facilities have come to light. This new policy follows President Trump’s Muslim Ban, “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” from January 2017, which has led to increased interior enforcement across the country.

— Ashley Levine

The most active monitoring I have been doing lately stems from the National Coalition for History. An active advocate for many important policy issues that impact archives, libraries, and other cultural heritage institutions, the National Coalition for History has been doing a lot of work to keep the issue of Humanities funding in the forefront. Member organizations represent thousands of historians, genealogists, archivists, teachers, students, and other stakeholders, so they are keeping current on issues that impact those professions and the communities served. Active social media campaigns have been highlighting some of these efforts, as well as collaboration with other non-profit educational organizations to encourage face-to-face and other modes of history-related advocacy. Current goals and accomplishments that impact the archives profession include working to prevent the elimination of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, an important source of funding for archives across the country, and leading the effort to pass the Presidential & Federal Records Reform Act. The National History Coalition has an active social media presence, so be sure to check them out on Facebook and Twitter, or historycoalition.org, to get a sense of current advocacy work and major accomplishments.

— Lindsay Hiltunen


Archivists on the Issues: Access and Inclusion in the Reading Room

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from regular writer for I&A’s blog, Lindy Smith, Reference Archivist at Bowling Green State University’s Music Library and Bill Schurk Sound Archives.

For my second in a series on Access and Accessibility in Archives, I will discuss physical access to collections and spaces. I did not want to cover physical accessibility since there was an SAA AMRT/RMRT Joint Working Group on Accessibility in Archives and Records Management that covered this in depth and has created excellent documentation for working with both patrons and professionals with disabilities.

My initial thoughts were unfocused, though I knew I wanted to touch on this idea of who is, and more importantly, feels welcome in our spaces. I have been thinking about this since last spring, when I attended a presentation on art education and museum outreach, and last summer, when I read Cecilia Caballero’s blog post, “Mothering While Brown in White Spaces, Or, When I Took My Son to Octavia Butler’s Exhibit.” My thoughts congealed into a more digestible mass in my brain after I attended a fabulous session at the Midwest Archives Conference annual meeting titled “Beyond Description: Toward Critical Praxis in Public Services,” featuring Anna Trammell, Cinda Nofziger, and Rachael Dreyer as panelists.

These three occurrences gave me a lot to think about regarding the people in our reading rooms and what we can do to increase access and inclusion to a wider range of patrons. I hope we as a profession can come up with solutions to improve access to our physical spaces.

Director Dialogue: In Conversation with Brian Kennedy

Last March I attended a public discussion between three art museum directors about how they approach art education at their respective institutions: Brian Kennedy, director of my local art museum, the Toledo Museum of Art; Gretchen Dietrich from the Utah Museum of Fine Arts; and Lori Fogarty of the Oakland Museum of California. Though I went looking for outreach ideas, I came out with many questions, which I summarized on my own [sadly neglected] personal blog shortly after the event.

The directors discussed how they conduct outreach to make their museums into community spaces, better anticipate user needs, and invite more of the people from their respective neighborhoods into their buildings. Libraries, especially public libraries, have served the role of community centers for decades and museums are now getting on board, but where does this leave archives among our GLAM counterparts?

Archival public spaces tend to be limited to utilitarian reading rooms and maybe exhibit space. What would it look like if we tried to build new kinds of spaces where people could interact with our collections in different ways? What if we focused on more than research needs and looked at other information needs we could fill? What if we built spaces that are comfortable and appealing to spend time in? What if people didn’t have to sit at an uncomfortable table in a silent, surveilled room to get access to our collections? I am sure some of you reading this are thinking, “We’re doing something like this!” I want to hear about it! Do you have a good model others can follow? Shout it from the rooftops (or @librarypaste on Twitter)!

Beyond Description: Toward Critical Praxis in Public Services

During the MAC session, Trammel, Nofziger, and Dreyer began by presenting the idea of taking a critical look not only at our collections and our profession, but also the public services our staffs provide, using Michelle Caswell’s instant classic “Teaching to Dismantle White Supremacy” as a basis to examine the barriers that keep some users from accessing archives. Caswell’s article provides a useful diagram to provoke thinking about ways white supremacy shows up in our work; the area on Access/Use is particularly relevant to this discussion, but it only scratches the surface.

The second part of the MAC session was an interactive activity where the room broke into groups and filled out a rubric that had a much longer list of types of barriers along with space to include a description of specific barriers to help guide the group discussions. The categories listed were as follows:

  • Technology (i.e. digital literacy)
  • Physical (i.e. vision or mobility challenges presented by public spaces)
  • Time (i.e. public hours, length of time required to conduct research, request and recall materials)
  • Financial (i.e. costs involved with accessing archives)
  • Documentation (i.e. registration requirements, identification required)
  • Policy (i.e. restrictions)
  • Identity (i.e. gender, sexuality, race)
  • Institutional/Systemic (i.e. whose interests & history are represented by holdings?)
  • Human Factor (i.e. customer service issues, approachability, etc.)

I found these categories to be excellent starting points to brainstorm.  For the sake of (comparative) brevity, I will not go into all of them here, but I want to talk through a few to give examples of how to use them as inspiration for brainstorming. Full disclosure: some of these came up or were inspired by my group’s discussion and did not spring fully formed from my own brain.

First example: Cost is a huge barrier. Obvious costs include memberships to private libraries and historical societies, photocopying or other reproduction services, or private researcher time, but hidden costs like parking, transportation, childcare, time off work, food and accommodations if researchers are coming from out of town are also present. It is great to collect materials from underrepresented communities, but if members of those communities cannot afford to come see and use materials from their own lives and experiences, we are still only serving people with the means to visit. To mitigate this, archives could provide research grants to members of the communities targeted in collection development projects. Institutions could also take their work directly to those communities, rather than continuing on relying on patrons to do all the work of coming to them.

A second barrier: Time. Many repositories have limited hours, often because of limited staffing or other concerns that are seemingly insurmountable, but we should take a closer look at ways to make ourselves more available outside “normal working hours” (or 9-12 and 1-4, or afternoons two days a week, etc.). People who work have to take time from jobs to visit, and if they have limited or no paid time off, this is a costly proposition, especially if their research needs require multiple visits. Archives can at least test extended or flexible hours as their circumstances allow. What if a repository closed on Wednesday afternoons in order to open Saturday afternoons instead? What if academic archives used students to stay open on weekends? My repository is somewhat unusual in that we have a circulating collection in addition to our special collections; so we have longer hours than most special collections – when school is in session, we’re open until 10pm five days a week and Saturdays and Sundays). We only have four full-time and one part-time staff in our department, so our terrific student employees keep things running on evenings and weekends. Sometimes staff members take an evening shift, but we flex that time and take it off during the week.

“Mothering While Brown in White Spaces, Or, When I Took My Son to Octavia Butler’s Exhibit”

I stumbled across Cecilia Cabellero’s post via Twitter last fall and it hit me hard. It is worth a read, because we can see some of these issues in action in a real person’s real life. Rather than try to rephrase her words with my own [white] words, take a minute to read her post and reflect on the issues she raises.

Cabellero mentions a specific library, but let’s be honest: this could be many of our repositories. She identifies it as being in a white space, as many archives and special collections are. Started by a wealthy white man for the use of other wealthy white men. A place where researchers need to have advanced degrees or letters of reference to access collections. Who is served by these policies? What is protected? For those of us with less stringent admission guidelines, what groups are we still keeping out? Do you require photo identification? Do you charge membership or usage fees? Many of our policies have good reasoning behind them and we are not likely to update them anytime soon. Are there better ways to communicate that to our users?

Cabellero was visiting an exhibit about Octavia Butler, a woman of color who wrote science fiction at a time when neither women nor people of color were particularly welcome in that genre (I am sure many would argue they still are not, but things have improved). Regardless of the library’s intentions, they created an environment in which a female writer of color did not feel comfortable or welcome or allowed to visit an exhibit with personal resonance.

One of Cabellero’s main points, as evidenced by the title, is her experience parenting in our spaces. This deserves some examination for archivists. Do you allow children in the reading room? If not, do parents who want to use your collections have other options? Childcare is expensive and may not always be available at convenient times. This disproportionately affects mothers, who often take on more childcare labor, especially during weekdays when archives tend to be open.

How often do we exclude as Caballero was excluded, or on similar but smaller scales? How often do our minor interactions with patrons leave them feeling unwelcome? I am sure I have unintentionally done this in my work. What kind of image do we project and how does that keep people away? How do we make archival spaces that are really for everyone?

It Take a Long Pull to Get There

I do not have nearly as many answers as questions, but let us have these discussions and attempt solutions that better serve all potential users. It won’t be quick or easy, but it will be worthwhile.

I’ll leave you with one final illustration. I studied musicology in graduate school and I often think back to a point that one of my professors, Dr. Gayle Sherwood Magee, made about the importance of representation and access, as illustrated by the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess. A little background if you’re unfamiliar: it is very controversial because a group of privileged white men wrote about poor black characters so the script play into a lot of negative stereotypes: characters are beggars, drug dealers, abusive partners, etc. It gave African-American singers the opportunity to perform on Broadway, something that was still remarkable when Hamilton premiered with a diverse cast 80 years later, but none of the characters portrayed in the opera had access to be in the audience and watch their stories playing out on stage. Are we doing the same thing in archives by focusing our diversity efforts on our staffs and collections, and not the people coming into our reading rooms?




End-of-Year Steering Share: Accomplishments and What’s Next

Steering Shares  provide an opportunity to learn more about the I&A Steering Committee and the issues that the committee members care about. This post comes from soon-to-be-outgoing (but still current!) I&A Chair Rachel Mandell, Metadata Librarian at the University of Southern California Digital Library.

Though we are not quite down to the final moments of the year (in terms of the SAA leadership schedule), we are indeed approaching the final push and thus, as I&A Chair, it is my final Steering Share. First of all, I want to thank everyone on the Steering Committee for being such a great team. You were all vital components of the work that we accomplished this year and working with you all was such a treat! I can’t wait to see/meet all of you in August!

I wanted to take this opportunity to briefly recap everything that we worked on this year and what we hope to continue next year.

Projects accomplished this year:

  • Blog series: Probably our most focused project. We really tried to add valuable content to each of our 3 blog series.
    • Steering Shares: Each Steering Committee member writes 3 posts throughout the year
    • Archivists on the Issues: 3 contributors each writes 3 posts about a topic of their choice.
    • Research Teams: Two research teams each write 3 posts.
      • News Monitoring Team: This year, the News Monitoring Research team, led by our very own Steve Duckworth, created monthly updates as well as more focused posts.
      • Legis* Team: We revamped the Legislative Research teams this year. We encouraged each member on the team to monitor topics of interest relating to legislation, legislators, and/or resources relating to discovering information.
      • Also had some additional guest contributors like Eira Tansey and international blog follower François Dansereau
  • #AskanArchivist Day: Our Steering Committee participated by taking turns monitoring our Twitter feed. It was great fun!
  • Social Media: Our amazing I&A Intern, Samantha Brown, took on handling our social media—and she rocked it! Thanks, Samantha! See us on Facebook and/or Twitter!
  • Archives Design Share Portal in collaboration with the Regional Archival Associations Consortium (RAAC): Just getting started with collaborators at RAAC—hoping to get more going soon!
  • Collaboration with DLF’s Labor Working Group: Two phone calls to touch base and a possible project on the horizon!
  • SAA Advocacy groups quarterly calls. Keep each other informed, run ideas by each other. Also helped CoPP edit /update SAA’s public policy agenda
  • Developing program for section meeting at Annual Meeting

Projects to continue next year:

  • Continue the blog series tradition!
  • Collaboration with DLF
  • Temporary labor in libraries/archives survey/study
  • Archives Design Share Portal

While in many ways it seems like I wasn’t able to accomplish as much as I wanted, I also  definitely feel proud of what we did work on this year and the new projects that we got started on. I look forward to watching Courtney Dean, our esteemed Vice-Chair, who was really more of a co-chair, take over next year.


Research Post: Gaps in the Collections

The I&A News Monitoring Research Team stays abreast of news related to archives and archivists, and helps us stay updated. This post, part of our Research Post series, was written by News Monitoring Team member Rachel Cohen. 


History is told by the victors. For too long, the evidence of that history has been missing minority voices. On the heels of the #MeToo movement and the Charlottesville protest, society has been looking inwards towards racist and sexist gaps. Archivists are recognizing that our collections are frequently reflecting the identity of their stewards, a group largely composed of white individuals.

The collective idea of history as an elevated, almost posh concept for the elite is waning. The past is becoming more accessible to the everyday person in ordinary places outside of the occasionally intimidating archive or expensive museum.

In Chicago, black women well known by textbooks and never recognized, now have a guidebook documenting their legacies through geographic locations. An article in the Chicago Tribune interviews authors Mariame Kaba and Essence McDowell on their documentation of the South Side of Chicago’s African American women. Forty women during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, from pilot Bessie Coleman to the abolitionist Fannie Hagen Emanuel, are highlighted on maps throughout the city for their accomplishments. The authors were not paid for their work and published the book on top of their full time jobs. “People haven’t taken the time to really know black women, in our fullness as three-dimensional human beings,” Kaba explained. “I want people to think about what these women did, the stories they told, the music they made, the institutions they built and how it’s connected to black women’s lives today.”

The New York Times tried to correct the historical record by writing obituaries for overlooked women throughout the paper’s history. They solicited nominations and received submissions from readers that included famous women and their own deceased relatives. Accessible at “Overlooked,” the reporters are collating obituaries dating back to 1851.

Since 1888, National Geographic has been informing its readership about foreign lands, exotic animals, and racist coverage of minorities. As reported in “‘National Geographic’ Reckons With Its Past,” the magazine scoured its archive in anticipation of an edition solely devoted to race. The textual references, photographs, and choice of subjects in the magazine’s coverage upheld a tradition of racism that influenced generations of readers. Glossing over the ugly parts of history that don’t show people in the best light is wrong. The photographs in the magazine up until the 1970’s fetishized the “otherness” of certain groups in order to make them seem subhuman in comparison to Western, white culture. Women were often shown topless and images were framed in stereotypical manners without giving voice to the subjects. The so-called exotic practices of the people were emphasized in order to not report on the negative parts of their lives, like war or hunger. The magazine is increasing its list of diverse voices in response to their report.

Contemporary interpretations of history have had the tendency to try erase the struggles of people, to the point of war and death, for a better world. Confederate statues, largely put up in the twentieth century, ignited a nation-wide debate this year with how the present day culture deals with the notion of slavery and racism generations later. The last slaves have died, as have their children. How should we place the rampant practice of slavery in the present day interpretations of history?

A new historical marker in Memphis shows how history can include recognizing the negative aspects of the past. This prime example comes from the Jefferson Davies Highway, which still has remnants you can drive on throughout the Southern states. Memphis and the National Park Services expanded a 1955 sign honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest to include his participation in the antebellum slave trade. Prior to the additional words on the marker, the fifty-five words on Forrest only said that “business enterprises made him wealthy.” It is now the only sign in Memphis that connects the city to slave trading. Forrest was only one of several slave traders on Adams Street, where the sign is located, who bought and sold kidnapped African slaves despite the 1808 congressional ban on slave importation.

Revealing these hidden histories will take time and introspection by those in power, but the articles of this past month have shown some steps towards a more inclusive reading of the past. As archivists, we are in a unique position to fill in gaps in our collections that marginalize groups.

News Highlights, 2018 March

The I&A News Monitoring Research Team has compiled this list of recent news stories relating to archives, archivists, archival issues, and archival representations. This list was curated by SAA Issues & Advocacy News Monitoring Team, which includes Dana Bronson, Rachel Cohen, Samantha Cross, Shaun Hayes, and Beth Nevarez; it is managed by Steve Duckworth.

View the full list of news stories online.

Acquisition, Preservation, & Access

Archival Finds & Stories

Digital Archives, Technology, & the Web

Exhibits & Museums

Human & Civil Rights, Equality, & Health

Security & Privacy

The Profession

Archivists on the Issues: Welcome to the Séance, Voices from the Archives in Contemporary American Poetry, Part 3

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from a regular writer for I&A’s blog, Cate Peebles. Cate is the NDSR Art fellow at the Yale Center for British Art, where she works with permanent-collection-related born-digital records. In this last of three micro-essays, she shares another example of recent books of poetry that exemplify “ripped from the archives” writing, each in its own distinct way. The first is here, and the second is here



Anne Carson

New Directions, 2010


“When my brother died, I made an epitaph for him in the form of a book,” writes Carson as a caption to Nox (Latin for “night”), which is part artist’s book, part memory box. The physical book is constructed as a box that opens and contains accordion-like pages that could unfold and extend endlessly, it would seem, like a memory made physical, extending through time. Its construction is similar to a Hollinger box, with each fold representing reproduced pages of the author’s notebook of memories, written after her brother’s death in 2000. Similar to The Work-Shy, reading Nox is séance-like, but is an individualized exploration of private grief. The reader, in effect, is granted permission to riffle through Carson’s private papers and read her loss.

Carson, who is a classicist and poet, begins the book with an elegy in Latin by Catullus (poem 101) and throughout the work she defines each word of the poem with in-depth explorations of the words’ meanings, emphasizing a human urge to find meaning and connection when grieving. Carson has published many books throughout her career, including translations (If Not, Winter, 2004, translations of Sappho’s fragments), novels-in-verse (The Autobiography of Red, 1998, and Red Doc, 2008), and hybrid-form verse essays (Beauty of the Husband, 2001), as well as scholarship (Eros the Bittersweet, 1986). Her writing does not sit easily in any one category, just as an archives’ collections contain various kinds of record types and visual media. Nox is especially “archival” in its form and content, conveying that sometimes-spooky feeling an archivist can get while processing someone else’s personal papers and objects. Some pages of Nox display pasted fragments of letters, black and white photographs, and short memories surrounded by white space.

In an early section, 1.1, Carson writes: “History and elegy are akin. The word “history” comes from the ancient Greek verb…“to ask.” One who asks about things – their dimensions, weight, location, moods, names, holiness, smell – is an historian. It is when you are asking about something that you realize you yourself have survived it, and so you must carry it, or fashion into a thing that carries itself.” In a way, this is what an archive is: a carrier of histories, questions, and answers; this early passage is also a fitting description for this book, which carries the story of Carson’s brother, their estrangement, his death, and her grief. Nox is a moving example of how personal papers can carry and convey universal emotion, whether they are one’s own or belong to a stranger.

Read excerpts here.

There are several other poets whose work could be added to this list, particularly Susan Howe, whose poems and visual artworks draw from archival sources and research, her numerous books include: Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives, 2014; My Emily Dickinson, 1985; The Midnight, 2003; and, most recently, Debths, 2017. Her visual artworks, created from found texts, were included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

You can view Howe’s 2014 lecture at Harvard, Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives.

It is clear that archives are not just the domain of historians and academics. Our collections hold evidence of human creativity and life of all kinds that can be a treasure chest for artists, writers, and readers. In my next post, later this year, I will continue this exploration by looking to the visual arts for examples of archival influence and the wide-reaching impact of archives on culture.


Cate Peebles is the NDSR Art fellow at the Yale Center for British Art. She holds a BA in English from Reed College, an MFA in Poetry from the New School, and an MLIS with a concentration in Archives from the University of Pittsburgh. Her first collection of poetry, Thicket, will be published by Lost Roads Press in 2018; previous work has appeared in Boston Review, Tin House, jubilat, and elsewhere.

Archivists on the Issues: Welcome to the Séance, Voices from the Archives in Contemporary American Poetry, Part 2

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from a regular writer for I&A’s blog, Cate Peebles. Cate is the NDSR Art fellow at the Yale Center for British Art, where she works with permanent-collection-related born-digital records. In this second of three micro-essays, she shares another example of recent books of poetry that exemplify “ripped from the archives” writing, each in its own distinct way. The first is here


Voyage of the Sable Venus

Robin Coste Lewis

Alfred A. Knopf, 2015


Lewis’s book, winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Poetry, confronts representation and description of the black female body throughout art history, showcasing a central, eponymous long poem that creates a narrative by listing “the titles, catalog entries, or exhibition descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present, dating from 38,000 BCE to the present” (35). The author explains that none of the tiles have been broken or altered in any way, although she has reversed the re-classifications of historical naming conventions, including “slave, colored, and negro” to “African American” back to their originals. She writes, “I re-corrected the corrected horror in order to allow that original horror to stand”, and she also chose to include work by “black women curators and artists…” and “work by black queer artists of any gender” (35). The poem’s content is pulled directly from museum catalogs as direct commentary and revision of Western descriptive practices. Lewis’s poetry brings contradictory human emotions to what might be considered dry, didactic wall text.

The poem is visceral in its use of material language paired with descriptive titles that amplify historical violence as well as beauty, physicality and imposed aesthetic classifications. Behind the horror, or from it, Lewis shows us beauty and life. In “Catalog 1: Ancient Greece & Ancient Rome” she writes:


Statuette of a Woman Reduced

to the shape of a Flat Paddle


Statuette of a Black Slave Girl

Right Half of Body and Head Missing


Head of a Young Black Woman Fragment

from a Statuette of a Black Dancing Girl


Reverse Head of an African Princess

Statuette of a Concubine



This early section reads as a list whose repetitions build upon one another and accumulate ominously; even though the words describe marble and stone figurines, the language is at times similar to a police report and as the images build in the reader’s mind, a horrifying and mythical mass of disembodied heads is speaking. As the poem travels through time, its language shifts, and by the last section the staccato bluntness of the list’s diction transforms into a lyrical stream of blended voices and meditative, natural imagery:


What on earth have you done

to this coffee, Black Blossom?


Pour vous, Madame,

Paso doble as I am.


The Aftermath: underwater

window-shopping, Sunday


morning fireflies

on the water, blue shade–



Poise. Prayer



As in The Work-Shy, Lewis’s writing revisits a system of oppression to claim its constraints and correct its erasures, revealing vibrant life and lives within those institutional depictions. Archives, libraries and museums are not neutral spaces, we know, and it is often through art and poetry that we can confront difficult pasts with empathy.


Cate Peebles is the NDSR Art fellow at the Yale Center for British Art. She holds a BA in English from Reed College, an MFA in Poetry from the New School, and an MLIS with a concentration in Archives from the University of Pittsburgh. Her first collection of poetry, Thicket, will be published by Lost Roads Press in 2018; previous work has appeared in Boston Review, Tin House, jubilat, and elsewhere.

Archivists on the Issues: Welcome to the Séance, Voices from the Archives in Contemporary American Poetry

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from a regular writer for I&A’s blog, Cate Peebles. Cate is the NDSR Art fellow at the Yale Center for British Art, where she works with permanent-collection-related born-digital records. 

In my last post, I focused on the prevalence of archival source material in popular recent true crime docuseries, including The Keepers, The Jinx, and Making a Murderer, and the active role of records as essential narrative components and aesthetic representations of the criminal justice system’s silences and revelations. Under the guise of entertainment, these often sensational tales offer mainstream audiences a glimpse of archives and records in action, with little to no mention of professional archivists. This inquiry has prompted the question: where else in cultural and artistic practice are archives and records used as both resource and aesthetic medium?

The image of historians and genealogists spending long afternoons in the reading room is a familiar one—backs hunched over a table as they leaf through finding aids and folders, culling primary source materials to investigate, reconstruct, and re-present personal and cultural histories. However, this is not the only outcome time spent in the archives. What about less familiar modes of archival research and representation of primary sources? In honor of April, National Poetry Month (and also the cruelest!), this post will blast through literary tradition, history, and trends to take a look at three recent books of poetry that repossess archival source material and reanimate it as lyric lines in a manner that is no less impactful than a biographer’s refined synthesis of research materials.

Since the early twentieth-century (think: Marcel Duchamp and other Surrealists), and more so since the rise of conceptual and institutional critique art in the 1960s, documents, archival practice, and research have become valid and popular mediums for artistic works. In conjunction with these movements, some contemporary literary artists, particularly poets, have adopted a mode of writing that places archival sources at the center of their work. The work is often labeled “experimental” for lack of a better nutshell in which to encapsulate this genre-fluid kind of writing. In some instances, and with certain writers in particular, the mode is referred to as “Documentary Poetry” and “Poetry of Witness”, which document a particular moment, event, or cultural movement through the use of primary sources, photographs, video, and testimonial accounts. [i]

Archival collections are often fragmentary by nature and structurally lend themselves well to the production of evocative, lyrical, and time-bending poems. Since the publication of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1923), which includes frenetic splicing of sources, “borrowed” fragments, and telltale inclusion of an extensive “Notes” section, many poets have been attracted to this fragmentary, academic style that highlights interaction with the past and places seemingly unrelated references, quotations, and text side by side, reverberating so to speak, to create new associative leaps through sound and image in the reader’s mind; the word “medium” springs to mind—pun intended.

Similar devices are used by other Modernist and Surrealist writers, including Andre Breton, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Virginia Woolf.  The incorporation of found language and images has become a powerful technique of giving voice to the previously silenced; it is a kind of time travel via linguistic stitching of the past into our present moment. As in archival work, voices from the past are brought into the present.

In the following three micro-essays – one below and two posted separately later this week – I share but three examples of recent books of poetry that exemplify this mode of “ripped from the archives” writing, each in its own distinct way.

[i] See: C.D. Wright’s One Big Self, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Carolyn Forché’s Angel of History, and Tyehimba Jess’ Olio. The common impulse in this mode is one of social activism and revising cultural erasures.



The Work-Shy

Blunt Research Group

Wesleyan University Press, 2016


Published anonymously under the collective authorship of the Blunt Research Group, a collective of writers, scholars, and artists, the book begins with a brief, expository essay: “The following poems operate under a strict constraint: they are composed entirely of phrases drawn from the case files of inmates in the earliest youth prisons in California between 1910 and 1925…The histories contained in these files were gathered and archived by the now defunct Eugenics Records Office” as well as testimonies from the “chronically insane” collected by the Prinzhorn Collection in Germany and the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in New York.

What follows in the book’s first section are the voices of predominately African American and Chicano youths, aged 12-17, many of whom were subjected to psychological and physical experimentation. Experiments which, a decade or two later, influenced the eugenics practices at Nazi concentration camps.  Many of the book’s poems are named for the ward, whose words are italicized and spliced with the words of the “fieldworkers” who studied them. (The lineation is difficult to replicate here, sadly.)


Joe possesses

all the bad characteristics of all the boys

was heard to say

this is the last time

        I’m coming in here

twice accused of murder twice acquitted

made a fool of himself

too much already

he wanted us to keep on goin’ with the bottle

            at age 14 went out

to work in the fruit


The Work-Shy weaves together many voices, from multiple geographic and temporal locations, to build a chorus of the unheard and forgotten. The book calls out past wrongs that were once ignored by society at large and brings the reader face to face with the present, prompting us to take a closer look at the institutional systems of oppression that surround us yet.




Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from François Dansereau, Archivist at the McGill University Health Centre, in Montreal, Quebec.

Postmodern archivists have learned the value of diplomatics and provenance in order to contextualize records, to assess the hierarchical organization between units and offices, and to determine their impact on archival practices. Moreover, studies have emphasized the power associated with the control of information and the means of record creation. Michel Rolf-Trouillot expressed this idea brilliantly, writing that “the production of historical narratives involves the uneven contribution of competing groups and individuals who have unequal access to the means for such production.”[1] The eminent archivist Verne Harris has also demonstrated the extent of information control in his studies of South Africa’s apartheid regime.[2] Other authors have explored the power of photographs in the mapping of territories, to imagine a landscape, and in connection with the elaboration of national identity.[3]

Traditional archival institutions are currently being challenged on issues related to archival literacy in the digital world, and by the emergence and growing importance of community archives and participatory archives that seek to address social justice. These concerns and endeavors are crucial and resonate on how we think about institutional impacts on the creation of records, and how we give access to them. These institutions, and recent studies, allow us to think about the constantly evolving interpretations of historical records, the importance of reading “records against the grain,”[4] in all sectors, and the need to study the “sociohistorical context” of provenance.[5]

It is with these themes in mind that I propose to challenge interpretations of the hospital records of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), in Montreal, Quebec, and attempt to gather as much information as possible on the context of the production of these records, the preservation of documents, and the dissemination of historical traces of MUHC hospitals.

From this starting point, I began to think about archival theory and hospital record-creation and record-keeping practices. What type of records did North American modern hospitals produce when they established their organizational functioning in the late-19th century? With what kind of care and organization were archival records managed? Were official documents and photographs circulated internally and externally? What purposes did the production of official documents achieve? All of these factors, I argue, influenced how doctors, nurses, founders, and volunteers were represented in hospital photographic records of the late-19th- and early-20th-century.

In a forthcoming article, I explore these themes and look at hospital record-creation and record-keeping frameworks – or rather, the absence of standardized archival policies and procedures. My main argument around interpretation of hospital records rests on the larger picture of hospital organizational structure. Organizations, nation-states, corporations, and others instill a particular identity in the records they produce, based on conscious decision-making processes. Large-scale institutions, such as hospitals, are no different. Traditionally, institutional archives naturally reflect the particular identity of their larger institution. After all, it seems evident that archives should be aligned with their parent organization’s identity. Historical records allow institutions to construct and maintain their collective memory, but power dynamics are reflected in the records institutions create and disseminate, and that is what I intend to examine.

Hospitals of the late-19th century needed to forge their own medical and administrative structures. In addition to responding to hospital growth and increased access, they needed not only to establish their way of functioning, but to manage the arrival of dozens and eventually hundreds of women into the public sphere. I ask, what is the impact of the delineations of professional boundaries between health care workers on the identity of hospitals? More precisely, how do these elements affect the production and dissemination of institutional records? I am interested in how these aspects are translated in the depiction of health care workers, founders, and volunteers in institutional documents. What immediately struck me in my research were the social and cultural indicators permeating hospital records.

The content and context of historical records, I suggest, play a role in how archivists should approach past archival practices and how contemporary postmodern archivists can assess their current activities and professional development. I argue that hospitals’ historical power structures and record-keeping practices have an impact on the present management of historical records and archival practices. I believe it is crucial for postmodern archivists to contextualize the origins of their institutional structures in order to grasp what shaped and continues to shape the production of institutional records.

My research proposes to use a gender analytical framework, including the growing importance of the theme of masculinity in social studies, in order to contextualize hospitals’ historical traces and archival practices. The subject of gender and archives needs, I think, to be studied more extensively. A gender analytical framework for the study of traditional large-scale institutions, and their records, allows past archival practices to be put in perspective and can help present and future archivists in how they approach, give access, disseminate, and study archival documents.

[1] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1995), xix.

[2] Verne Harris, “The Archival Silver: Power, Memory, and Archives in South Africa,” Archival Science 2 (2002): 63–86; Verne Harris, Archives and Justice: A South African Perspective (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2006).

[3] See, for example, Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination, ed. Joan M. Shwartz and James R. Ryan, (New York: I.B. Tauris & Co., 2003).

[4] Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

[5] Jennifer Douglas, “Origins: Evolving Ideas about the Principle of Provenance,” in Currents of Archival Thinking, 2nd ed., ed. Heather MacNeil and Terry Eastwood (Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, 2010), 23–43.

Steering Share: University Archivists and advocacy

Steering Shares  provide an opportunity to learn more about the I&A Steering Committee and the issues that the committee members care about. This mid-year post comes courtesy of committee member Alison Stankrauff, the University Archivist at Wayne State University

I’ve been on the Issues and Advocacy Section’s Steering Committee since 2009 (a long time!) and I was chair of I&A from 2010 to 2012. There are a lot of things that drive me as a professional.

Here at Wayne State I’m fairly new as a professional – I began here this past September – so I’ve been here six months. That being said I’m coming back to Wayne State after receiving my archives degree here in 2002. I went away and served in two great positions between then and now – first as a Reference Archivist at the American Jewish Archives and then as Archivist and Associate Librarian at Indiana University South Bend.

Coming back to Wayne State – the university that I feel so deeply for – that I feel has given me the profession that I love – is a real honor, and an opportunity. I’m coming back in Wayne State’s sesquicentennial year – so there’s been a lot of celebration of this great urban university in the heart of the wonderful city of Detroit. 

Coming back to Wayne State as a full-blown professional with some great experience under my belt has enabled me to have the perspective and scope to connect with people all over the world who love Wayne State just as much as I do. These include the immediate campus community – university schools, departments, offices – and their faculty, students, staff, administrators. It also includes a lot of people who feel very connected to the university for many reasons: alumni as well as the community beyond.

I feel that being a University Archivist – first for 13 good years at Indiana University South Bend and now at my alma mater of Wayne State – means advocating for your repositories and always, always reaching out. It’s critical that we are actively connecting with all the – varied – communities that we serve.

We must let people know who we are, why we’re important, and show our value. We cannot wait for people to come to us. This underlines the fact that advocacy for our collections, our repositories, and our institutions has to be sewn into what we do.

I feel honored to serve this role at Wayne State University – and in a similar role with SAA’s Issues and Advocacy Section: that of advocate, ambassador, and communicator. Thank you for the opportunity to serve you – the membership of the Issues and Advocacy Section!