The Emotional Impact of Archival Representation

By Michelle Caswell, Associate Professor, Information Studies

How does it feel to look for evidence of your community in archival records and find either gross distortions or nothing at all? Being “symbolically annihilated” by archival institutions can produce an affective or emotional response, marked by feelings of frustration, anger, and exclusion. By contrast, seeing yourself and your community represented richly, complexly, and robustly in archival records can lead to a greater sense of belonging and social inclusion, an affective response we call “representational belonging.”

These affective responses surfaced at Lambda Archives last year, an LGBTQ+ community archives in San Diego, where UCLA Information Studies doctoral students Joyce Gabiola and Gracen Brilmyer and I (under the guise of UCLA’s Community Archives Lab) conducted focus groups with LGBTQ+ community members who use and are represented by the archives. Based on these focus groups—and others conducted at additional community-based archives sites in the Southern California—we explored the ways in which community archives catalyze feelings of representational belonging in marginalized communities. These conversations, including two at Lambda Archives, confirmed for us the ways that community archives affirm I am here, We were here, and We belong here for the communities they serve and represent and helped us to develop a framework for assessing their impact.

With a generous grant from the Center for the Study of Women, my research team and I were able to return to Lambda Archives in June 2018 to report back these research findings to the community members who had previously participated in focus groups. Our audience was eager to see themselves represented in our data; they seemed particularly excited when they saw themselves quoted in the presentation. They also asked thoughtful questions about the similarities– and differences– between Lambda Archives and San Diego’s LGBTQ+ community and the other community archives sites and communities we studied. The lively community meeting addressed not only the affective impact of archives, but also the symbolic value of physical space, the ways that community archives enable users to imagine and express anxiety over the future of their particular communities, and the ways that members of marginalized communities have sometimes internalized oppressive notions that their history is not important.

Although we found it a bit nerve-wracking to quote research participants in the room, we also felt a sense of pride in acknowledging the ways in which participants helped to co-create the knowledge we were presenting. By the end of the evening, we collectively brainstormed some ways that we can ensure our research benefits, rather than merely extracts from, the community from whom we gathered our data. Community forums like this bridge the gap between academic research and community-based archival practice and are an essential step in an ongoing process of building community-engaged participatory research projects.

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Professor Michelle Caswell was the recipient of a Faculty Research Grant from CSW in 2017-2018.