“The generations of ‘wearing a mask’ and having to pass as heterosexual, of invisibility and enforced silencing of our own voices, and of oppressive distortions about our lives in the mainstream media have all made collecting and preserving our historical records an act of liberation.” – “In the Archives,” John D’Emilio
This week, John D’Emilio published a blog post on OutHistory about archives and I was (am) thrilled. D’Emilio reflects on the role of archives in queer historiography – how early research in this nascent field was very rarely conducted in physical institutions that housed and cared for materials. This grass-roots historiography necessitated community engagement – speaking with individual activists and wading through piles of documents at their organizations of origin. Indeed, D’Emilio reflects on his visit to the New York Mattachine Society, being told that they would be closing at the end of the month and having any/all of the office files offered to him! He kept two four-drawer file cabinets in an apartment closet for several years. The sheer absurdity (and “cringewothiness”) of the situation acts as a solemn reminder of “how precarious the survival of our historical records has been.”
Finding aids can act as the means through which we familiarize ourselves with an archive and/or orient ourselves within an archival space. The Society of American Archivists Glossary describes a finding aid as “a single document that places materials in context by consolidating information about the collection.” But what does it really mean to “contextualize” materials?
Leora Farber’s article, “Archival Addresses: Photographies, Practices, Positionalities,” employs a sociological concept (of which I’m particularly fond), in order to examine the role of archivists in shaping their collections and making them “suitable” for public consumption: “Positionality is situated in relation to the construction of the identities and subjectivities of practitioners, those subjectivities present within the archive itself, and ways in which these subject positions are activated” (2). Locating the relationships between the positionalities of archivists and archive users, as well as the archives’, archivists’, and archive users’ “historical, political, geographic, social and cultural” contexts, allows us to determine and outline appropriate “processes of exchange” (2).