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Visiting Special Collections

Special Collections at the Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery

Silences and bias in archives

Archival silences are created when people, communities, groups, and movements do not have their stories selected to be included in the collections of libraries, archives, museums, or personal collections. You may have heard the phrase, "gaps in the historical record." This is because institutions have traditionally and often continue to prioritize the voices of those in power. This is not a new concept or one that is probably hard to understand.

What may be less well known is the prevalence of bias in archives and how this shapes the historical record. Archivists and librarians are often seen as neutral parties. They evaluate sources to add to the collection based only on the potential value to researchers and the historical record. In truth, societal biases impact the work of archivists and librarians just like they would anyone else, and these biases can often shape what is determined to have historical value. This can lead to marginalized communities not being included and their stories left out.

Most of the collections at UMBC are donated by creators, collectors, or third parties, and when examined as a whole we can see holes in our collections that reflect larger societal biases. Our photography collections from the 20th century, for example, predominantly feature creators that are white, heterosexual, American men.

How do we combat this bias in archives and special collections? At UMBC, we use the resources that are available to us. We use the small book purchasing budget to focus on publications from creators that are non-binary, female, queer, and/or Black, Indigenous, or People of Color as well as international voices. We also seek out partners and collectors that prioritize diverse sources and creators.

Other archives, libraries, and museums have used their resources to form community-based collections with dedicated staff. A great example of this is at the Austin History Center in Austin, Texas; learn more by watching the video below.

Another way to combat bias and silence in archives is to follow what Dominique Luster calls "racially conscious, culturally competent archival theory" -- working directly with communities to ensure that their voices and stories are being recorded, documented, and described in ways that accurately capture their experience. Luster's presentation, "Archives Have the Power to Boost Marginalized Voices," from 2018 TEDxPittsburgh, clearly shows how the silences in the archival record are based on decisions made by people (often times archivists or "history gatekeepers") and these decisions directly impact what we know as the history of a community. Two quotes are included below but you should watch the whole video!

"We implicitly trust the evidence that we find in an archive, right, we see letters and photographs as the closest thing to actually being there. But we tend to overlook the biased decision making practices of the archivist or the history gatekeeper about what you found in that archive and what you didn't."

"We understand that if we continue to ignore how bias and privilege create large gaps in history, we will continue to have histories that look the same way that they do now."


Finally, we also need to be respectful, as both archivists and researchers, that there are communities that do not want their historical collections in the care of third party institutions. There needs to be a level of trust and archives and their parent organizations may not yet be able to demonstrate that they can be trusted. Some groups also have traditional norms surrounding who can use certain materials, or specific items may be part of a ceremony or tradition that is only accessible for people within that group. This is a very basic explanation; for a more in-depth example from the Native American community in the United States, you should review the Protocols for Native American Materials and this article about the history of the Protocols from the American Historical Association, "A Way Forward: The Society of American Archivists Endorses Protocols for Native American Materials."