Michelle Caswell: Book on Human Rights Archives Wins SAA Award

"Archiving the Unspeakable" bridges theory and practice for professional archivists and humanities scholars.

UCLA Professor of Information Studies Michelle Caswell has been honored by the Society of American Archivists (SAA) with the Waldo Gifford Leland Award for her 2014 book, “Archiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia” (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014). In this volume, Caswell presents a look at photographs created by the Khmer Rouge at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh as an example of how archivists play an important role in remembering human rights violations. The book bridges theory and practice for scholars in the humanities as well as in archival studies.

“I’m really delighted that it was chosen, and a little bit surprised,” says Caswell. “The Society of American Archivists is a professional association that traditionally has emphasized practice. My book is meant to bridge the divide between practice and theory [because] I don’t think there is a divide there. I think that every practical action that archivists take is guided and informed by theory.”

Caswell says that the book, which was published by the University of Wisconsin Press as part of their Critical Human Rights Series, and is cross-listed under Southeast Asian Studies, is “really geared toward an academic audience in the humanities rather than practicing archivists, although I certainly have a lot of archival studies material to keep archivists engaged as well.

“In many ways, the book is an articulation of what archival studies is to outsiders, [namely], to scholars in the humanities,” she says. “There has been a lot of humanities scholarship on the ‘archive,’ without any understanding or acknowledgement that archival studies exist – that there are faculty members with Ph.D.s who study archives, and that practicing archivists are professionally trained with master’s degrees. My book was in part an attempt to introduce archival studies to a broader audience. I’m also excited because it shows that the archival field is really starting to become more concerned with larger social issues and human rights issues.”

“Archiving the Unspeakable” was also shortlisted for the International Conference of Scholars of Asia Book Award in the humanities category. Caswell, who holds a master of theological studies degree from Harvard and studied South Asian religions, says that she is pleased with this recognition from the international studies field as well.

Caswell is also a co-founder and board member of the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA), which has recently raised more than $38,000 via Kickstarter for a book project.

“’Our Stories’ will be geared toward South Asian American teenagers and their parents as a narrative based on materials from the SAADA archives, explaining the century-old history of South Asian in the United States,” says Caswell. “As part of the [fundraising] campaign, South Asian Americans were encouraged to record brief videos to talk about why the [book] project is important. Several of the videos talk about feelings of being excluded. South Asian Americans growing up in rural areas where they were the only South Asian American, and before the internet, they had no information about South Asian Americans. Looking through history books, they didn’t see themselves represented. They didn’t see anyone that looked like them on TV. It’s important for South Asian Americans who are now raising their own children, to have resources like this to show them.”

“Our Stories” will be written by members of SAADA’s Academic Advisory Council, which is a 14-member board of academics whose work focuses on South Asian American studies. Caswell will work on several sections of the book, based on materials in the SAADA archives, and hopes to write the conclusion of the book, to discuss the importance of archives and to discuss why SAADA was created to document and share the histories of South Asian communities in the United States whose members originate from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Caswell says that the Kickstarter campaign served to get the word out about SAADA, as well as raise funds for the book project.

“SAADA is just one example of what I hope will be a larger trend in communities to see the need to document their own histories and represent themselves,” says Caswell. “It’s much broader than just South Asian Americans. It’s about identity, community, and empowerment for marginalized groups across the board. Archival collecting is not just about collecting materials from the past, although that’s important. But it’s about how you use those materials to work toward a better future – a more just, more equitable future.”