MARAC Erie – Part III – Archival Advocacy and Activism: Communities and Causes

I attended a two part session about many exciting advocacy projects.  Here is a snapshot of what was presented:

Some of the presenters were faced with the dual role of being archivists and activists for their causes.  Richard Wandel, of the LGBT Community Center National History Archive, and others like Christine Anne George, from SUNY-Buffalo Law School, emphasized the need for archivists to advocate not only for legislation involving archives, but also for litigation.

George discussed Boston College’s “Belfast Project” and the ensuing legal battle that challenged the project’s confidentiality agreements with its participants.  In a case that was taken to the Supreme Court, archivists Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre challenged the rights of the Federal Government to subpoena access restricted oral history interviews collected from paramilitaries involved in political strife in Northern Ireland.  George argued that because the archival community remained silent on the issue, an opportunity for professional education regarding the reality of legal issues was missed.  She challenged the community to better define what advocacy means to archivists and stated that while it is okay to recognize our limitations, it is never okay to be silent.

To learn more, check out George’s blog post: and her paper “Archives Beyond the Pale: Negotiating Legal and Ethical Entanglements after the Belfast Project”

Dan Golodner from Wayne State University said that the power of the archives is the power to collect. It makes us all activists, especially in our role in preserving the voice of underrepresented communities.  He found through his work supporting video activists, that the archives lexicon wasn’t helpful to people in that community and encouraged the profession to find new ways to effectively communicate what we do without alienating people.

Sheli Walker-Saltsman at the University of Kentucky developed a way to use their Appalachian collections for critical thinking and to incorporate activism and outreach into the classroom.  Combining active learning online to confront ideas about coal, gender, race and agency and using as much of the University’s collection as possible resulted in the web resource “A Strike Against Starvation and Terror” (  She emphasized the need to demonstrate multiple perspectives.

Adrien Hilton, now at Columbia University, discussed her work with Red Stockings of the Women’s Liberation Movement ( and the contradiction she felt in her dual role as archivist and activist for the organization.  Hilton said that there were three concepts of what advocacy means to her: 1) advocating for ourselves, our organization and for society at large, 2) advocating for the underrepresented and documenting their history, and 3) advocating for openness and transparency.

Yvonne Ng of WITNESS (, a group that exposes human rights violations through video and empowers people to create change, shared her archival skills with advocacy groups and provided training of realistic best archival practices.  Maggie Schreiner, now at the Fashion Institute of Technology-SUNY, talked about her work with Metropolitan Council on Housing, a group established in 1959 to advocate for housing justice in New York City (  Schreiner partnered with the Metropolitan Council on Housing, offering advice and training on archival skills.

After both sessions a lively discussion ensued.  While everyone seemed in agreement that transparency, accuracy, truthfulness and objectivity were important, many questions still arose.  Can archivists remain unbiased?  How do we curate and deal with our biases? How do we document underrepresented, unsympathetic groups and provide the appropriate contextual framework?  What is the dividing line between archives and advocacy?  What is the raw truth?

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