There seems to be two narratives being told about archives. The first narrative paints the archive as the collective history of the public, built from a vast collection of primary sources, a place where the objective truths of the past can be found. The other narrative sees the archive as a space where only certain people’s history is stored, only certain memories can be found and where power and privilege are being used to shape a view of the past that benefits only a select few.
Archive in a traditional sense means to file or collect records or documents (Ketelar, 2001). The archive though, is often considered to be more than just records or dusty collections. The National Archive UK interviewed several archivists and asked them what archives means to them. Based on these responses, archives are seen as memory, memory of individuals, memory of families, memory of nations, and memories of social movements; archives are heritage; archives are stories. The Tate Museum similarly produced their own video discussing what archives are. For them, archives are where memories are stored, it is a democratic history, a repository of knowledge and first-hand accounts that witness the thoughts, accounts, and cultures of the past. One significant aspect the Tate emphasizes is the way archives are meant to be open and accessible to the public.
The archival process centers on the collection of primary source documents or objects. Often archives are meant to collect indiscriminately, to provide an unbiased and objective record of history (Schwartz and Cook, 2002). Weaver (1938) notes the archival process can be challenging because history is always being written, the world changes, and there is ever more that could be collected. Because there is so much that could be collected and not everything can be collected, archivists must determine what is worth keeping permanently, what has value, what will benefit future research, and what is excluded. Here lies the problem with archives.
Dominque Luster (2018) gave a TEDx talk regarding the power archives have to boost marginalized voices. She began her talk by asking the listeners to imagine what it would be like if your history, your stories, your heritage, was never written down or what it would feel like to have someone else tell your history from their perspective instead of your own. For many marginalized groups this is a reality. Archives are full of what she calls “strategically curated decisions” that uplift some and silence others. Who makes the decisions? Who is included or excluded? What history is being told or not told? Luster argues, these are essential questions because we implicitly trust the evidence that exists in the archive, but we do not question who is represented there and who is not.