Talking with archivists about the emotional dimensions of archival work

This post, co-authored with two research assistants, Elizabeth Bassett and Noah Duranseaud, summarizes a roundtable discussion that was part of the “There’s Something We Need to Talk About: Uncovering and Supporting Archivists’ Emotional Work” session at the Association of Canadian Archivists (ACA) conference, held online in June 2020. 

During the ACA conference session, Noah, Elizabeth and I introduced the Conceptualizing Recordkeeping as Grief Work (CRAGW) research project, focusing in particular on a series of interviews with archivists I conducted between May and October 2019. These interviews asked archivists how grief was part of and impacted archival work. In the ACA session, we brought together a roundtable panel of working archivists to discuss some of the themes that are emerging from our analysis of the interview transcripts. This post mostly focuses on the discussion of the roundtable panel and the emerging interview themes. 

 A note and apology from Jennifer 

Based on past experiences of seeing how archivists who talk about the emotional dimensions of recordkeeping have been disparaged and their concerns minimized at professional meetings, I decided to invite a particular demographic of archivist to participate in the roundtable discussion, focusing on mid-career, established professionals in permanent, full-time positions; as someone who has been condescended to and criticized for my commitment to the topics we’re discussing here despite my considerable personal and institutional privilege, I did not feel it was appropriate for me to ask others who don’t yet have this type of privilege to put themselves on the line. Knowing what we know about the demographics of the archival profession (a highly feminized profession and – as many have noted – whiter than cops) it might be unsurprising that the archivists I ended up inviting – and who accepted – were white women; again, this was a deliberate decision on my part, to include professionals who are able to ‘take the heat’ without immediate risk of professional harm.  There are certainly critiques to be made of this decision; as was pointed out in the Padlet created during the session, many BIPOC archivists are ready and willing to take this kind of heat and there was a suggestion that at next year’s ACA there be a BIPOC ‘There’s Something We Need to Talk About’ session. 

 During the online presentation at the ACA, I tried to explain my decision to invite a particular group of professional archivists to participate. I did not make clear that when I was talking about the makeup of the roundtable panel as white, cis women, I was referring specifically to the invited, mid-career, professional archivists and not to all of the session panelists, who included the research assistants on my project. By failing to clearly communicate I am responsible for misgendering one of the project research assistants, Noah Duranseaud, in front of a large audience of their colleagues and peers. In recognition of the pain this caused Noah, this post begins with an acknowledgment and a heartfelt apology. I am deeply sorry for causing pain and discomfort to a highly valued collaborator and team member, and enormously grateful for their generosity in bringing this failure to my attention. 

Noah responds

I want to acknowledge and thank Jennifer for this public apology. As a nonbinary individual, being misgendered is painful, and at first I wasn’t sure that I wanted to bring it up. Not all workplaces are genuinely committed to creating a safe environment for trans individuals, and I’m grateful that Jennifer always makes an effort to be inclusive. 

Having a conversation with somebody about misgendering is always difficult, and sometimes it is honestly not worth the energy. I knew in this instance that Jennifer would be open to discussion. The way I see it, asking for accountability is an act of care. Jennifer has been a mentor to me in the past few years, and working with her on this project has been a great experience. This is precisely why I put in the effort to have this conversation with her. I knew she would understand why I was hurt, and that this conversation would ultimately be a growth experience for both of us. The conversation we had about the incident was difficult, but I left it feeling seen and listened to. It bolstered my confidence to talk to more people about misgendering. Part of this conversation was discussing the ways in which Jennifer could apologize. We decided that an apology as part of a blog post about the session as a whole was the best way to place the apology in some context, and have it be public. We also both felt that it was important for me to have space to respond and explain the way I felt. It’s my hope that if there are transgender people reading this, they feel validated and seen. As well, I hope that the cisgendered people who read this consider what actions they can take to support transgender people in their daily life.

The roundtable discussion

In the remainder of this post, Elizabeth and Noah summarize the roundtable discussion that occurred with panelists Genevieve Weber, Taryn Jones, Erin Suliak, Anna St.Onge and Melanie Delva. We are enormously grateful to the panelists for generously sharing their expertise and experiences. Three of the four questions asked of the panelists are summarized below. We didn’t have time at the conference to address the last question; we’re hoping some readers might share thoughts in the comments!


Roundtable Question 1:

A consistent theme in the interviews Jennifer conducted with archivists as part of the CRAGW project was the lack of support and/or resources to help us understand and manage – or even of opportunities to talk about – the different feelings and emotional responses that are part of our work, including grief, sadness, anger, shame, etc. 

What kinds of barriers do you perceive within the profession to these types of discussions and to the creation of support resources and networks?

In response to this question, Genevieve suggested that one of the barriers is the perception of the archival profession as scientific and therefore unemotional. This perception, according to Genevieve, stems from archival education programs: “We’re taught it as a science. And you often hear people talking about archival science as a way of discussing it and lending more gravity to the profession. And I also think that’s important. But I think that my scientist friends that I work with at the museum would argue that the notion that science is unfeeling is also incorrect.” Genevieve suggested that there “should be a change in the narrative” of the profession—a change to acknowledge that archival work can be emotional at the same time as it is  “administrative in nature,” “very practical,” and tied to standards and processes.

The panelists also identified barriers stemming from the stigma against experiencing emotions in general, and the stigma against talking about those experiences. As Genevieve put it, “[W]e need to break down the stigma that our society has that emotions are somehow weak and bad, and recognize that they are integral to everything that we do.” She stressed the point that archival work is person-focused and asked: “If we’re focusing on people, how can we remove emotion from the conversation? We are emotional creatures. That’s part of our nature.”

In agreement, Taryn discussed how emotions are intertwined with the creation of many records, acknowledging that this emotional context can impact archivists working with the records:

“With the records I dealt with personally, they documented a lot of trauma on behalf of the record subjects and trauma that had happened to other people. But certainly, for an archivist reading that, depending on what context and their own personal experiences that they bring to their work, they could find it very difficult to deal with discussion of certain topics because of something that’s happened to them in the past. And I feel like they may not want to discuss that with their colleagues. They don’t want to make that part of their personality known. They don’t want to have that part of their history out there, potentially depending on what it is, because they’re scared of what’s going to happen. You know, is it going to affect their ability to get a permanent job or to hold a permanent job in the future?”

The issue of job precarity was identified many times throughout the discussion—by the panelists, as well as the audience. Anna stressed the crucial connection between emotions and labour conditions within the archival profession, explaining: “I really do feel like part of the resource conversation needs to be about precarity and how, in a very small professional community, we need to take that into consideration.” Agreeing with Anna, Genevieve expressed gratitude for her full-time permanent position and acknowledged: “it’s unusual for people to be in a position like I am.”


Roundtable Question 2:

What kinds of support resources and networks would you like to see develop in the field? Who should be responsible for developing these? What kinds of issues need to be considered in the development of support resources and networks?

 In response to this question, Erin raised the potential for archivists to turn to other fields (such as social work, nursing, and education) for existing resources: “I suspect that there are a lot of trauma-informed care resources or resources around working with people who are bereaved, or grieving, or at end of life, and that we don’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel.” She reminded that, although the archival community is only now starting to recognize the need for these resources, such a need is “not new to a lot of people.”

The panel also discussed the importance of embedding support resources into archival institutions so that they are easily accessible to archivists who need them. As Genevieve expressed: “I would love to see these sort of support resources and networks, once we figure out how to develop them for the archival profession at large, to be something that then naturally finds its way into the workplace, so it’s second nature to archival institutions to embed supports within their workplace.” While the supports should be immediately accessible, according to Genevieve, they do not have to be complicated: “[They] could be something as simple as a private room that you could go in with a colleague, and other people know that if you’re there that something is happening and you don’t want to be disturbed.” Additionally, the support could simply be the ability to go off-site and talk the emotional situation out.

 Taryn echoed that a private room could have a profound impact, particularly for archivists who do not work closely with other archivists: “I think having a dedicated space where you could go and make time and make space for that conversation is really important.”

 Continuing the thread of discussion about archivists working in isolation, Anna emphasized the importance of being mindful of solo archivists and archivists who are geographically isolated, as these professionals may have less access to conferences or other networks. Discussing the possibility of setting up virtual safe rooms, Anna also asked: “How can we provide safe spaces that have low barriers for access, so you don’t have to know the right person or go to an ACA conference to then know that those supports exist in an informal way?”

 In response, Jennifer discussed the frequency with which the topic of isolation came up in her interviews with archivists: “[O]ften in the interviews, I heard, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever talked to anybody about this.’ It was a very, very frequently expressed concern and also that people were relying on their own personal relationships and networks to help them.” Due to these expressed concerns, one of the original goals of the panel was to find ways to make resources and networks more accessible.

 Here, the conversation turned toward a discussion of the nuances that need to be considered when developing resources and networks. Jennifer pointed out that “[p]rivacy is a huge issue and something to be guiding all of our ways of developing these resources.” Melanie spoke further about the importance of considering accessibility and intersectionality: “What is helpful for me as a cis white woman may or may not—probably wouldn’t—be helpful to someone else. So taking into account power, privilege, and intersectionality would be things that I think need to be taken into account when creating these networks and supports.”


Roundtable Question 3:

One of the questions asked during the interviews with archivists was about how well prepared participants felt by their archival education and training to understand and manage feelings and emotional responses associated with their work. The overwhelming response was that participants did not feel prepared at all. 

How should archival education evolve to better prepare archivists for these aspects of the job? What role could professional associations, like the ACA play, in offering further training?

Panelists echoed interview participants, emphasizing the importance of talking about the emotional dimensions of archival work. Genevieve made the point that archival education is so theoretical, that for students, simply looking at the content of the records would be a huge yet simple change. She cited the example of government records, which are taught as being a specific type of record, but can be difficult both to witness alone, and to help a researcher process the content of the records. Genevieve said: “I think many people hear government records, and they have an idea in their head what that is and it…[does not include the] understanding that the records that you’re looking at will often be incredibly personal. In some cases, more so in government records than in personal records, because I find that often, in my experience, in personal records, people don’t always keep the really deeply traumatic records of what they’ve gone through. They may hint at it, and that’s not in all cases obviously, but in government records, there are some pretty visceral and very traumatic examples of grief and trauma, and they can be really hard to witness.” 

Taryn seconded this, stating: “When I was at school, I took a class on FOI. We talked about the legislation, and how to redact, and the very impersonal, cold, scientific points about it. But we never really sat down and talked about the fact that, in your job you may be reading and redacting extremely disturbing records.” Taryn voiced that her education never prepared her for dealing with researchers having extremely emotional reactions to the records, saying that she felt that “on the archives side of my education, anyways, we never really talked about how to deal with clients who are having such emotional responses. Just helping them through that while still maintaining a level of professionality.”

Erin mentioned that what’s informed her professional time the most has been working with residential school records and all of the trauma surrounding those, and helping former students access them. She mentioned that working with donors also requires many soft skills because interacting with donors often involves archivists in very emotional situations; some archivists, including Erin herself, have been with donors at their deathbed. Erin said: “I was invited to a donor’s home, and it was his last day on earth. And I stayed with him and the family that whole day. I never would have expected to do that before. It really threw me for a loop, and it continues to throw me for a loop.” Tying this back to archival education and resources, Erin said: “Maybe this isn’t something that early career archivists will be encountering. But we still have to talk about it, and I’ve just been completely surprised by it. And I also feel foolish for feeling surprised . . . [T]here’s a gap there, on the mid-career education. Maybe this is the time when us mid-career professionals get together and talk about these sorts of things.”


Roundtable Question 4:

There are many pressing issues in the archival field right now. We are witnessing, and many of us are actively engaged in, transformative change in our local communities that are reflected at a global scale. Issues of precarity and chronic underfunding have caused many of us and our colleagues to be furloughed or laid off. Administrators are calling on archivists to capture and document the impact of COVID-19, #BlackLivesMatter protests, police violence, and other movements without providing additional resources or having supports in place to manage what will necessarily be grief work and documentation that carries profound risk. 

With the profession facing so many challenges, how important is it that we talk about feelings, emotions, and support?

There was unfortunately not enough time left in the session for panelists to discuss this question, but we hope the discussion will continue in some other forms. The original aim of this panel was to create a space where the archival community could come together, gather resources, and create space to access them. With that spirit of collaboration and contribution in mind, we invite further discussion on the topics discussed in the panel and this blog post; folks who are interested can contribute by commenting on this post, through our shared Google Doc, and/or our Padlet page. We thought we might also be able to have ongoing discussions on social media using the hashtag #ArchivalEmotions.

Talking about the emotional dimension of archival work is important. It creates a space for archivists to share how they’re feeling about their work, about the profession as a whole, and hopefully will strengthen the movement to destigmatize emotional labour as an archivist. We want to thank the panelists again for providing their expertise and insight into this conversation, and we also thank everyone who has already contributed to the conversation through the ACA session Q&A, the Padlet or any other means.