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).
Similarly, in her article “In Secret Kept, in Silence Sealed: Privacy in the Papers of Authors and Celebrities,” Sara Hodson argues that “archivists should become as knowledgeable as possible about the moral and social milieu of the individuals represented in [a] collection” (200). While Hodson is discussing the moral quandaries presented by personal papers, I believe her argument can be replicated and expanded upon for the purpose of dealing with communal or subcultural archives (and public history). What happens when archives and other institutions are run by the very same (or similar) people whose histories are being preserved, maintained, and shared within them – belying the idea of having to “educate” or radically “re-position” oneself in order to accommodate the experiences of the Other? Archival practice can become not just an act of communal/subcultural self-sufficiency, but self-love, and an assertion of agency.
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