The Role of Archives and Anti-Racism

What Perkins Archives is doing in response to the Black Lives Matter Movement

Collections on shelving in the Perkins Archives

Shelving housing Perkins Archives collections. Blue boxed books, annual reports, and artifacts line the shelves alongside unboxed annual reports, embossed books, and writing devices.

July 16, 2020

As archivists, we make decisions that affect what gets collected, preserved, cataloged, exhibited, and researched. Because of that, our choices hold power to both include and exclude people, cultures, and memories from the historical records we steward. The calls for social justice and anti-racism that have come in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and others have been an important reminder of our responsibilities as archivists, the illusion of neutrality in this role, and of the imperative of actively working to dismantle the white supremacy and structural racism found in most archives. The Black Lives Matter movement has been the impetus for education, reflection, and identification of steps the Perkins Archives can start taking in response.

Here are four responses we’re working on now:

  1. Review and update our image description policies and practices. Currently, no ethnicity or skin tone information is provided in image descriptions for our digital collections. This lack of identifying information erases people of color from the historical record for people who are blind or visually impaired and who may also be a person of color.
  2. Consult with community members for their feedback and input when creating descriptions. As we update our description practices to include people of color, we will reach out to members of the communities represented to incorporate their feedback on these updates. We will do this to give members of the communities a say in how they are described and to make sure we are not causing harm by using descriptions that may be hurtful.
  3. Ensure that our collections are searchable and findable by the communities represented. We will identify people of color and related materials and topics in our collections and use this information to prioritize processing and digitization projects, special projects, and social media posts.
  4. We will provide access to our collections, with more attention to historically under- and misrepresented communities. We will identify these groups, related materials and topics in our collections. This will allow us to better able to provide access to and to highlight these people and stories in social media, exhibits, and other projects. We will also identify members of the communities represented and reach out to share these materials with them directly when appropriate.

These steps will become part of a larger plan of action intended to provide a path of continued learning, action, and accountability – the goal being to amplify the contributions, lives, work, and memory of people of color in our collections and in our narratives. We know that this work is ongoing and evolving. We are committed to continuing to educate ourselves, to listen, and to adapt our responses accordingly.