Session 405: Access Under Occupation: Archival Collections in Palestine

Session 405: Access Under Occupation: Archival Collections in Palestine
Guest author Jennifer Sharp

Many of the phrases in this summary are the words of the presenters, not my own. For more details, I recommend reading the Storify of the session:

The panelists were three of the 16 people (from several countries) who traveled to Gaza and the West Bank last summer. They are Maggie Schreiner of the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive; Rachel Mattson, Project Manager, La MaMa Experimental Theater Company; and Mezna Qato, historian, Center for Palestine Studies, Columbia University.

To learn more about Librarians and Archivists with Palestine, visit them online:

A primary goal of the project was to come up with “strategies for diasporic access.” The physical and political barriers to the archives are difficult to surmount. The project team wants to digitize the material both for access, and for preservation. Some records have been destroyed or lost, and it is thought there are some disintegrating in a desert.

In 1948-1949, books were looted from Palestinian libraries and placed at Hebrew University.  During processing of the material (it was considered abandoned property) in the 1950s, some provenance was maintained by recording the names of the original owners in the call number. This practice was stopped in the 1960s.

Maggie Schreiner ( was the first to speak. She gave an overview of relevant historical events between 1948 and present day. This included the Nakba, a forced evacuation of Arabs from their homes in 1948. In 1965 over 100 Arab villages were razed. Last month (August 2014), the Islamic University of Gaza was destroyed.

Traveling from Palestinian to Israeli land is not the only hurdle. Descriptions of the material are provided in Hebrew, not Arabic. The Palestinians view all of these actions and obstacles as an attempt at cultural erasure.

They worked on two projects, one at Birzeit University ( and the other at the Al Aqsa Mosque Library. At Birzeit, over 10000 documents were digitized and given robust Arabic metadata. Newspaper collections were a primary focus at Al Aqsa. Two master sets of these files were created. One will be kept at Al Aqsa and the other at the British Library.

Rachel Mattson spoke about international law and the Palestine archive. Her conclusion is that the three international legal instruments in place (Hague Convention of 1907, treaty regarding seizure of documents; 1949 Geneva Convention, civilians in time of war; and 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict) are not adequate with regard to the problems facing Palestine’s archives. Some archival advocates have turned to replevin, though that is hard to use to settle a quarrel.

In addition to the access restrictions Maggie mentioned, Rachel reiterated that no visas are being issued for researchers going to the West Bank and Gaza. They must lie to get in. Classified documents are another hurdle.

Mezna Qato focused on the way archival conversations are taking place. There are three ways this is happening: archives as state, archives as market, and archives as class.

The anxiety regarding archives as state focuses around what it means to talk about a collection of artifacts, what it reflects in terms of current compulsions, etc.

This includes consolidation vs. decentralization (don’t want to build a state under occupation).

Archive as a market involves a lot of conversation about what the archive looks like; talking about what we see vs. the spaces where people are archiving now. How do you market an archive? An example is the Palestinian poster archive (1950s – present), a rich archive used by solidarity movement. It “essentially disembodies practice of art from movement in which movement is embedded.” There is an unwillingness to see artifacts in their context.

Conversations about archives as class brought up some anxieties. The vast majority of papers [being collected? digitized?] are of bourgeoius elite. This leads to questions such as, what is a Palestinian family? What political work do they do? Digitization is making these papers more accessible, but only one vision of kinship and family ties are being revealed by these archives. Not everyone will allow family archives to be digitized. Some parts are redacted, and there are issues about security. Many of these people are deeply embedded in the political movement.


One thought on “Session 405: Access Under Occupation: Archival Collections in Palestine

  1. Pingback: SNAP Report of SAA2014 Session 405, Access Under Occupation: Archival Collections in Palestine | IAART

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