Searching for Truth in History

This first week of the digital fellowship has been interesting to say the least. The remote format of the experience has brought a new meaning to the “digital” in Digital Scholarship Summer Fellowship. I appreciate learning about an archivist’s job and responsibilities through the workshops, but I also enjoy reading about firsthand experiences in navigating the nuances and complexities of this ever-changing field. A particularly eye-opening piece was the blog post titled “No One Owes Their Trauma to Archivists” by Eira Tansey.1 The comments made in this post really got me thinking about the relationship between archivists and history. Because archives are a center of power and archivists act somewhat as “gatekeepers of history,” they hold an immense amount of power and responsibility in their hands. As the amount of records that exist in this world greatly exceed archivists’ storage capacities, there will inevitably be parts of history that will be turned away, disregarded and eventually forgotten. Archivists have the ability to decide what materials to keep and what to set aside, what is important and what is unimportant.

Given that the profession has been predominantly white and female and continues to remain so, much of what has already been recorded reflects their biases. Recently there have been more attempts to record information from underrepresented populations. In times of chaos or unrest, however, this attempt may backfire. The fact that these communities are disproportionately more likely to be negatively affected by these events and may sustain trauma as a result remains a sad truth. Archivists can actively seek to help amplify their voices, but no one wants to relive trauma. Their well-intended search may in fact be an unwanted intrusion. In the end, individuals have the right to choose what they wish to reveal and what they wish to keep to themselves. How do we balance wanting to capture a more accurate reflection of history with not overstepping our boundaries as archivists? Of course, training in trauma-informed practice and interviewing are a great way to start, but in the end parts of history will still inevitably be left out.

I am grappling with the fact that some parts of history will always be lost, that we will never be able to obtain a complete, objective reflection of our past (if that is even possible to begin with). It is also nearly impossible to separate our biases from the material we are working with or the way that we work with them. The history that we pass down will always hold a tint of our prejudices, conscious or subconscious.

I will keep this delicate relationship in mind as I work towards developing a project with my DSSF cohort. I am excited about all the possibilities that this self-guided research project may bring. The opportunity to explore the college’s history and to be able to dive more deeply into an area of interest are two things I have always wanted to accomplish during my time at Amherst. I look forward to working with the vast primary resource collection and gaining a better understanding of the digital humanities field.

I am glad to have been made aware of some issues that exist in the field early in my fellowship experience. However, awareness is merely the first step in creating change. I hope that throughout the summer, I can maybe find some answers to the questions I have, then apply what I have learned in order to become a better researcher.

1“No one owes their trauma to archivists” Tansey, Eira. “No one Owes Their Trauma to Archivists” (accessed 6/23/2020)

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