UCLA Ed & IS Magazine: Community Archives

Professor Michelle Caswell's work explores the growing field of archiving human rights violations and teaching UCLA students best practices for community-based archives.

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 referred 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.

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.

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.

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.

To read the full article, “Community Archives, visit the Sudikoff Institute Public Forum website.

This article can also be found in the Fall 2018 issue of UCLA Ed & IS Magazine in issu.com.


Above: Professor Michelle Caswell (at center) participated in the “Memory for Justice” dialogue program in Cape Town, South Africa, which was presented by the Mandela Foundation in 2016.

Courtesy of Michelle Caswell