SAA 2017: Session 110 I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means: Differing Conceptions of the Archive

In advance of the 2017 Annual Meeting, we invited SNAP members to contribute summaries of panels, section meetings, forums, and pop-up sessions. Summaries represent the opinions of their individual authors; they are not necessarily endorsed by SNAP, members of the SNAP Steering Committee, or SAA.

Guest Author: Itza Carbajal, MSIS Candidate, The University of Texas at Austin

It took some time for me to get it. You know, the whole discussion on archives and THE Archive with a capital A. Despite now being a newly minted almost degree holding archivist, I haven’t always used the term archives with an insider’s perspective. In fact I am pretty sure I once used it in the ways that our profession oftentimes finds fault in. In attending the 2017 SAA conference session, “I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means: Differing Conceptions of the Archive” I realize that understanding the meaning of archives goes beyond a single perspective.

In the session, attendees heard from five speakers including Jeannette Bastian, Chelsea Gunn, Aaisha Haykal, Kelly Kietur, and David Staniunas. With these various perspectives from archivists to archival studies educators, the session aimed “to discuss conceptions of ‘the archive,’ with a focus on how archivists define archives and communicate these definitions, and how the concept of ‘the archive’ is evolving.”

Chelsea Gunn began the discussion with her experiences of teaching about archives in the classroom. For Gunn’s students, understanding definitions of archives revolved around concepts such as location as a reference, the age of an archive, role of preservation, and the amalgamation of materials. After sharing a few stories of questioning the archival profession, Gunn encouraged the audience to ask, “why does an understanding of archives even matter?” For this, she responds that understanding archives can shed light on the numerous people that make archival work happen. Not only is this understanding necessary to withstand the often pervasive erasure of archival labor, but it also allows archivists to negate harmful misconceptions of the field.

In Kelly Kietur’s experience, working with people with little to no understanding of the archival profession proved difficult in trying to conduct archival work. In her previous work environment, the most notable group of individuals that showed less interest or concern for archives largely consisted of upper management. The organization had in fact been born without archivists, which made the solidification and retrieval of institutional memory very difficult. When small groups of archivists did come to the organization, picking up loose pieces of either projects or efforts to document became a necessary initial step in order to better conduct the necessary archival work attached to their jobs.

Jeannette Bastian continued the discussion by highlighting how archivists oftentimes find themselves lost in the myriad of a family tree consisting of those interested in archives. In Bastian’s presentation, that family tree includes those in the areas of literature, performance art, rhetoric, history, photography, anthropology, art, and feminist studies alongside archivists to name a few. IMG_6966Like many families, misunderstandings can arise and in this case differing views on archives can create tension. Some of these family members see archives as sites of power, a pathway to personal knowledge about oneself, or as evidence for explorations of national identity and establishing a meaning of the past, while archivists may view it as the series of archival practices or the actual records and documents. On the other hand archivists may now be embracing a more active role in broadening understandings of archives. Alongside that Bastian also calls for an embrace of the multidisciplinary nature of archives without sacrificing disciplinarity of the profession.


After Bastian came Aaisha Haykal, who focused her presentation on the ways archives are perceived by community members with little exposure to archivists. This is not to say that community has little exposure to archival practices with Haykal providing clear examples of African American documentation practices such as quilting, oral traditions, hairstyles and clothing, art, artifacts, and performing arts. Many of these practices in fact laid the foundation for the Black Studies movement. So if there is an understanding of archival practices, but not enough exposure to those actively working in this field, we wonder how can these groups be connected? For this question Haykal offers a few suggestions including providing workshops or open houses, creating institutional visits behind the scenes, volunteering at community gatherings, and recognizing the community documentation that has been done.


That last suggestion by Haykal drove me to understand the significance of humbling ourselves to those outside our profession. David Staniunas’s presentation served as the perfect opportunity to reflect on a few of the ways archivists can embrace an unassuming representation of ourselves and our work. Staniunas in particular calls attention to the ways archivists impede broader understandings of archival work including acts of policing archives, trying to decide what is an archive and who is an archivist, as well as claiming sole authority over the word archive, archives, or the archive. Some would also say these abilities allow us to define who are by what we can do and what others cannot do. But by obstructing our own ability to examine our roles in furthering the work in the archival field, it would appear that we could easily forget that if exclude others, we create a divide that may not allow for new connections and relationships to flourish.

As the session came to a close, I reflected on the title and wondered who the statement of “I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means” was addressed to. To archivists? To those at times in charge of archivists? Or to those not always around archives? Regardless of who the statement may be for, it would seem in the best interest of the archival profession to embrace the fluid nature of the very thing we aim to represent or else risk being the ignorant schoolmaster unable to achieve internal change.