For many archivists the focus of the work is on the “stuff,” the records and material that document what has happened in the past.
For Michelle Caswell, an associate professor in the UCLA Department of Information Studies and a scholar of archival studies, it’s about the people.
“We fetishize the stuff, we’re trained to work with the stuff, but more importantly, it’s about the people,” Caswell says. “We’re responsible for the people and their stories and whether and how their stories get told, and how those stories empower or disempower people.”
A few years ago, with the support of a National Endowment for the Humanities Common Heritage grant, Professor Caswell helped to set up projects with the South Asian American Digital Archive to digitize records of local residents of two neighborhoods sometimes refer
red to as “Little India” and “Little Bangladesh.” They set up scanners at the public library in Artesia, a city in Southeast Los Angeles county, and invited people to bring in their family photographs, home movies, audio recordings, journals, newspaper clippings, and correspondence for digitization. And two ninety-year-old Indian immigrants who came to Los Angeles in the 1940s brought in some materials.
“It was really amazing stuff, but more importantly, they sat around a table and just started talking and people started talking with them. We scanned their stuff, but it made me realize, it’s not about the stuff, the work of the archive is those people talking to each other, sharing stories, people listening, sitting around this table. We didn’t have the microphone on. We weren’t recording. I kind of wished—the archivist in me was like, oh, we should have been recording. But it’s about those relationships. It’s about the people. It’s about people like these two ninety-year-olds, who have experienced so much racism living in the United States since the 1940s and ’50s, feeling validated. Being in a room where people want to hear their stories and are telling them their stories are important, and that their personal stories are part of a larger story, part of a larger narrative.”
Professor Caswell’s research centers on both community-based archives and the growing field of archiving human rights violations in a way that respects survivors and victims, documents their history, and provides valuable information for communities, scholars and historians.
Among other archival studies projects, Caswell’s research has explored the genocide of the Cambodian people during the reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge. Roughly 1.7 million people died in Cambodia at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. The regime’s brutality has come to be symbolized by the black-and-white mug shots of prisoners taken at the Tuol Sleng prison, where thousands of “enemies of the state” were tortured before being sent to the Killing Fields. In her book, “Archiving the Unspeakable,” Caswell examined these photographic records through the lens of archival studies, showing how they have become agents of silence and witnessing human rights and injustice as they are deployed at various moments in time and space. From their creation as Khmer Rouge administrative records to their transformation beginning in 1979 into museum displays, archival collections, and databases, the mug shots are key components in an ongoing drama of unimaginable human suffering.
Professor Caswell, along with her colleague Samip Mallick, is also the co-founder of the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA), a community-based project that chronicles the history of South Asians in the United States by collaborating with the very individuals, families, and communities represented.
“SAADA is a part of what I would call a community archives movement in the U.S. where groups that have been left out of mainstream university or government archives take it upon themselves to document their own history and to steward those histories, and to control the narrative about themselves,” Caswell says.
Professor Caswell worked with Mallick and others at SAADA on the “First Days Project,” which provides an opportunity for South Asian immigrants to chronicle their first 24 hours in the United States through a community-based online resource with short audio, video, and written narratives. The “First Days Project” was recognized with the Roy Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History by the American Historical Association in 2015. Caswell calls the site a “digital participatory microhistory project,” that provides “a sense of how emotional the immigration experience is—from fear, anxiety, and loneliness to excitement, relief, and wonder.”
In 2016, Caswell expanded her work on community archives, launching a study on “Assessing the Use of Community Archives,” funded by an Early Career Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The three-year project examines the use of community archives by observing and interviewing users of five community archives sites in Southern California. The study will also include the creation of a toolkit for community archives to assess their own users.
Caswell draws deeply on her experiences with SAADA and with community-based archives to teach about archival work at the UCLA Department of Information Studies. Her class on community-based archives engages students in learning about best practices for community-based archives. But Caswell also pushes students to critique how standards for archival practice have been applied in community-based settings and to consider the kinds of policies and practices developed by community-based archives that are rooted in and reflect the context and culture of their communities.
The students in the class are required to complete community-based archive projects. These range from the development of grants in support of community-based archival projects, to plans to start up archives, or efforts to help existing community organizations who may have not thought about archiving their histories or may not have had the resources to do so.
“It’s a huge range of projects, and they require a high level of creativity and perseverance,” Caswell says. “Students are confronted with what works and what doesn’t, and have to figure it out as they go along. Practice and theory come together.”
“A lot of this work is unglamorous,” Caswell says. “That student is sitting there opening up documents, putting them on the scanner, pressing scan, resizing objects, but that kind of unglamorous work has huge political implications. I always tell the students that politics is infused in everything we do. Even the seemingly benign act of pressing the scan button is very political. Because it’s all about enabling who gets represented, whose story gets told, whose doesn’t, who has access to it, and who doesn’t.”
Emily Sulzer, a student in Caswell’s class, worked on a project to digitize records from the Yassir Islam materials portraying the experiences and perspectives of members of the South Asian LGBTQ community for SAADA. “It was a lot of work; I digitized more than 200 pages of materials for the collection,” Sulzer says.
“I was thinking that working with LGBTQ materials there is always a concern that you might unintentionally out someone if you put the materials online,” Sulzer said. “But in this case I did not find anything particularly sensitive. I’m really excited about this. I thought that they were really good examples that showed how preserving smaller histories can be important for constructing much larger histories. Hopefully it will bring more LGBTQ representation to the SAADA collection.”
Caswell sees community archives as a way to push back against the structure and limitations of predominately white institutions, a way to ensure that the stories of people of color and other marginalized groups get told.
“I’m interested in building [the use of] this term symbolic annihilation in archival studies because it resonates with the experiences of users when they look for people who look like them or who are from their communities.”
With her students, Caswell developed a framework on the concepts of symbolic annihilation and representational belonging; the interviews with users of community-based archives revealed “emotions and affect [that are] a very important component of studying archives.”
“If you’re narrowly studying academic users, there’s a sense [of] a cool distance between researchers and their materials,” says Caswell. “But if you’re interviewing activists, artists, or community members who see themselves sometimes quite literally in the collections and materials, there might be an emotional response to seeing themselves represented. Community archives foster something we’re calling representational belonging, which we’re positing is the opposite of symbolic annihilation. There’s an affect; an emotional dimension of seeing yourself represented in archives when … you felt excluded before.”
Professor Caswell is also very interested in dismantling what she refers to as the “white supremacist foundations of archival theory and practice.” In a 2017 article for The Library Quarterly, “Teaching to Dismantle White Supremacy in Archives,” she outlines steps to help students identify the ways in which white privilege is embedded in archival institutions and strategizes steps to dismantle white supremacy in archival practice.
“For centuries, archivists working in predominantly white institutions have made decisions that devalue the histories of communities of color,” Caswell says. “Archival work is a political act, and I am saying, the history of immigrants, the history of people of color is important, it’s worth documenting, this is a story worth telling.”
“I think archival work is essentially about telling stories and having evidence to support those stories. Representation is hugely political. Just an assertion that by preserving a record, documenting a person, or community organization, the assertion that they exist and they were important and they mattered is political,” Caswell says. “But I also think we need to go beyond representation and actually look at materials in archives, and the structures and practices developed around archives and ask ‘how do we learn from them?’ so that we’re not making the same mistakes over and over again. How do we use the materials that are in the archives to enable new forms of activism and inspiration?”
Caswell hopes her students will take those questions and lessons to heart. “In our Information Studies Department, we want our students to look at the larger social and political implications, to look critically at practice. We hope our students don’t just graduate to put stuff in boxes. We hope they go out and transform archival practices to help build a more just society.”