Michelle Caswell: New Book Examines Liberatory Memory Work in the Archival Field

UCLA associate professor of information studies seeks to transform archival theory and practice, based on the work of community-based archives.

In writing her forthcoming book, “Urgent Archives: Enacting Liberatory Memory Work,” Michelle Caswell, associate professor in the UCLA Department of Information Studies, says that she was “…looking to transform archival theory … to incorporate and include perspectives from independent, community-based archives where minoritized communities come together and document their own histories.” 

The book, which will be released by Routledge in May 2021, uncovers how dominant Western archival theories and practices are oppressive by design, while looking toward the radical politics of community archives to envision new liberatory theories and practices. In it, Caswell, who leads the UCLA Community Archives Lab funded in part by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, draws from her research, asserting that the archival field can and should do more to disrupt white supremacy and hetero-patriarchy beyond the standard liberal archival solutions of more diverse collecting and more inclusive description. With “Urgent Archives,” Professor Caswell explores how members of minoritized communities activate records to build solidarities across and within communities, challenge linear progress narratives, and disrupt historic cycles of oppression. 

Professor Caswell is a co-founder of the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA), which has empowered members of U.S. communities from South Asian nations including Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Pakistan to record their histories since 2008. The organization’s “First Days Project,” an online chronicle of South Asian immigrants’ first 24 hours in the United States, was honored with the Roy Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History by the American Historical Association in 2015. 

In 2016, Caswell served as principal investigator for a study on “Assessing the Use of Community Archives,” funded by a $325,000 Early Career Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Her 2014 book, “Archiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia,” was honored by the Society of American Archivists (SAA) with the Waldo Gifford Leland Award

Ampersand recently spoke with Professor Caswell on her upcoming book and on how the archival field, with an eye towards reparation, restoration, and true justice, can keep history from repeating itself.

Ampersand: What inspired “Urgent Archives”?

Michelle Caswell: The book rewrites dominant Western archival theory, including definitions of what  records and archives are. The dominant definitions of those term rely on a linear view of time and a linear progress narrative that asserts that societies get better over time. 

But if you look at insights from critical race theory, particularly theorist Derek Bell, you can see that  racism is baked into the fabric of American society and that there’s not a linear progress narrative, but rather cycles of repetition of oppression. And so, I take this theoretical concept of history repeating itself as a starting point to talk about archives.

My graduate students and I did focus groups with community-based archives in Southern California. Time and time again, people who use community-based archives [or] who volunteer for community-based archives, talked about oppressions repeating themselves, oppressions that their communities have suffered historically are happening again and again and again, and [are] really thinking about how to use archives to interrupt those cycles of oppression, how to use archives for liberation.

And so, the book is really about building a liberatory archival theory and practice, based on the work of community-based archives. On one level, [it’s] a very theoretical intervention in terms of interrupting concepts of fixity of format and linear temporalities in dominant Western theories and practices. But it’s also very political and practice-oriented and action- oriented, in the sense that I want archivists to shift their concerns to really see themselves as crucial for political liberation.

&: What is an example of a community-based archive that has uncovered a history of oppression?

Caswell: One of  the focus groups we did with was with La Historia Historical Society, which is a community- based archive in El Monte that documents the history of Mexican American  farm workers in East L.A. The focus groups were conducted right at the start of the Trump administration, so participants were talking about how when their grandparents came to work on these farms in East Los Angeles, the kind of discrimination that they encountered, and then again, the same kinds of experiences that people in their communities are currently having, [with threats of being] deported by the Trump administration or by ICE, and seeing this as a repetition of history. 

Similarly, at the Little Tokyo Historical Society, which was another site, participants talked about the forced incarceration that their grandparents’ or parents’ generation had experienced during World War II – that the same kind of threat was being enacted against Muslim communities or Black communities today. And they were talking about their work, preserving this history, documenting this history getting people to use archives, the records in their collections, as a way to interrupt those cycles of violence.

In the book I use a term, corollary records, which are records that document this repetition of history, records that document similar moments in time that  we can then go back and look and say like, ‘Oh, this is not new…this community has experienced similar oppression 50 years ago, 20 years ago, 100 years ago,’ and see [that] this was a corollary moment to what’s happening now.

It’s a corollary record that documents a corollary moment and we can look at that record and activate it by learning about what happened, what strategies were used to resist this oppression, what kind of inspiration can we get from those who came before us, what kind of lessons can we learn from our predecessors. Archival work is a way to activate those records, a way to figure out how we can learn lessons from the past in order to resist those cycles of oppression and interrupt those cycles of oppression. 

The book is based on over a decade of ethnography and participant observation at community archives. One of the chapters focuses on SAADA, looking at this moment last summer, when we were all just in the middle of the throes of COVID-19, the movement for Black Lives, the killing of George Floyd, and gearing up for the election, really looking at how SAADA was creating new records, and activating records to build these corollary moments.

SAADA has a project called “Letters from Six Feet Away,” where South Asian Americans would write brief narratives about their experiences with the COVID-19 crisis. And those records were then meant to be emailed back to the participants a year later, enacting a kind of circular time, where you’re writing to yourself in the future about the current moment.

And then, also looking at different projects that SAADA had to build solidarity between South Asian Americans and African Americans. So, looking at moments in the past, where South Asian Americans were very vocal about supporting the Civil Rights Movement for Black Americans, for example, and building corollary moments between colonial oppression in India and the experience of discrimination and oppression of Black Americans in the United States.

The book responds to the first decade of working with SAADA. At first, our mission was representational in the sense that we were really trying to recuperate these lost histories, so that South Asian Americans could see themselves represented in the in the face of what my previous research called symbolic annihilation.

I’ve done a lot of work, about how community archives have countered symbolic annihilation with powerful forms of representation. But this book is also arguing that community archives need to do more than that.   Representation is absolutely an important component of liberation, but we also need to think about activating archives for reparation and for  redistribution of resources. 

I also look at the disparity between really well-funded, predominantly white cultural institutions and these small community-based archives, some of which are operating on a shoestring budget and are all volunteer-run and doing incredible work that frankly, those larger institutions are failing to do with multimillion-dollar budgets.

The book comments on this tension between the importance of representation and at the same time, saying that representation is actually not the only goal – that we need to be activating these records in order to dismantle structural oppressions and to enact liberation.

Courtesy of Michelle Caswell