Archival institutions exist to preserve and make accessible the raw, original sources that document the lives and times of individuals, groups of people, organizations, and regions. Collecting policies may differ but archives try to be as comprehensive as possible for their areas of focus, and to work with other archival institutions to create a network of primary source documentation.
This isn’t an esoteric or academic exercise; archives exist in the closets of grass-roots organizations, in the “local history rooms” of public libraries across the nation, in public and private universities, in city, county and state institutions, and on servers maintained by these organizations to share resources freely online. These collections are generally open to the public, with volunteers, clerks, librarians, and archivists ready to show you the tools and the resources for exploring, digging deeper, and constructing meaning and reinterpreting events based on additional facts and perspectives. Archival staff can also help you decide how best to save documentation you yourself are creating as you go about the course of your life, so that researchers in the future can have a wide array of primary sources available to understand and interpret our time.
Why does this matter, and why now? Because facts are neutral, but interpretations and perspectives and the use of facts are not. Archives hold facts and archives hold multiple perspectives on those same facts. Letters, diaries, journals, and meeting minutes from various organizations may all express different opinions on those facts, based on their creators’ lived experiences, perspectives, and motivations. Researchers get the opportunity to untangle these knots and determine fact from fiction–observable, verifiable, corroborated facts–and make their well-supported interpretations based on a variety of sources from all echelons of society.
Take for example this simplified and condensed scenario of DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus and the surrounding neighborhood. It is a fact that structures that housed families and small businesses for generations were torn down in the 1960s and 1970s for “urban renewal” projects and the expansion of DePaul’s campus.
Fact: Buildings were torn down.
Evidence: You can track this by photographs, by newspaper articles, by census records, city directories, etc.
There are various perspectives about how and why this was done, who was responsible, and how to judge the outcome.
Perspective/Interpretation: The neighborhood is better/worse now. Citizens did/did not have a voice in the process. A bigger, better DePaul makes for a better neighborhood/DePaul was insensitive to many in the community displaced by the expansion.
Evidence: Neighborhood association meeting minutes, University memos, newspaper articles, personal and family papers, oral histories and interviews.
Words like “urban renewal,” “expansion,” and “displacement” have values and emotions attached to them based on perspective, but those interpretations and opinions should start with facts, and both facts and their complementary, contradictory, complicating, and contextualizing perspectives can be found in the archives.
The Society of American Archivists (SAA) issued a statement in support of diversity and inclusion in the fall, and the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) issued a statement on equity, diversity, inclusion and access on Monday. ACRL’s statement asserts that “academic libraries have a critical role to play in creating spaces in which diverse and divergent viewpoints can be shared and exchanged…As instructors, we teach students to critically evaluate information and to seek differing perspectives.” Again, start with the facts and consider the sources and their perspectives.
Archives matter. Support us, use us, engage with us, challenge us to grow our collections in ways that better reflect the variety of the communities we serve. Advocate for us as part of a strong network of well-funded cultural heritage organizations. Encourage accountability by holding leaders from elected officials to volunteer committee chairs to records retention schedules and transparency standards and leaving that paper (or email trail) that allows thoughtful citizens to engage with their past and to learn from the experiences of others they may see as different.
DePaul University Library Special Collections and Archives partners with faculty to design active learning sessions in which students analyze primary sources, consult with their peers, and construct personal and shared meaning from the evidence at hand. These valuable skills have application beyond the instruction session, the course, and the undergraduate years. For more information on our instruction program, please contact Morgen MacIntosh Hodgetts, or submit a request for instruction.