International Archives Day: Harmony is overrated

It’s International Archives Day, and the theme is “Archives, Harmony and Friendship.”

I would like to take a moment to point out that archives—the collections and the profession—can benefit from a lack of harmony.

Archives have a tendency to reproduce structural inequalities: your documents, your story, are much more likely to be preserved (and deemed worthy of preservation) if you have power. (That power can take many forms, but there’s a reason so many buildings are named after rich white men.) Proactive collecting policies, thoughtful description, and community archiving can help correct some of these issues, but it’s work, and not necessarily the type of work that will earn enthusiastic institutional support.

The archival profession also reproduces structural inequalities. Archivists are not particularly well-paid or powerful by most objective measures. Despite that lukewarm career payoff, there are significant educational and financial barriers to entering the profession. (That Master’s degree is not cheap, and only having one can limit your options.) And barriers to staying in the profession. (You want money and professional development opportunities? How about an internship?) And the impressive set of barriers that confront archivists of color and other outsider groups.

Harmony is great…except when it’s a fiction inspired by politeness or insecurity. A little less harmony in the archives could help make archives a better place.