Post by Ted Lee

While talking to my therapist, it struck me how archivists and therapists both use the same word — processing — quite frequently in their work. For archivists, processing involves the workflow of taking a metaphorical pile of records and transforming them into something coherent and useful for the study of history. For therapists, it’s used in the context of processing emotions which involves a patient working through often negative and traumatic experiences, purposefully exposing themselves to painful memories in order to allow themselves to experience the emotions in full.

There are some similarities in the purpose of processing, both in archives and the therapist’s office. Processing takes raw, often times messy, disorganized, and incoherent moments and put them in order, to contextualize them in a broader schema of lived human experience. The purpose of processing is to make something intelligible and understandable, to properly contextualize the experience. Processing for both archivists and patients requires time and conscious effort, and it can often be emotionally, mentally, and physically taxing, especially if the experiences which the archivist or patient must process are particularly traumatic or difficult. In this blog post, I’ll first give a background on the origins and purposes of emotional processing in the world of therapy, then an explanation of archival processing, and finally discuss how these two concepts can metaphorically intertwine with each other. Understanding the emotional aspects of archival processing can help reveal the hidden labour often undertaken by archivists to provide necessary services to their users.

Emotional Processing in Therapy

Edna Foa and Michael Kozak (1986) first coined the term “emotional processing” to try and create a theory as to why exposure therapy worked for many patients in dealing with phobias or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They argued most symptoms were caused by harmful “fear structures” developed by a traumatic moment. For example:

For example, a survivor of a motor vehicle accident may accurately associate driving fast with danger, but also associate blue cars with danger since the car that hit him was blue. However, in reality blue cars are not more dangerous than red cars. (Rauch and Foa 2006, 61).

Rauch and Foa (2006) believed that these fear structures are often compounded with negative thoughts regarding the patient’s ability to deal with what has just happened to them. They argue that there are two “basic dysfunctional cognitions” (61) in particular that create the negative effects of PTSD: “First, the world is completely dangerous (e.g., it is dangerous to be alone). Second, one’s self is totally incompetent (e.g., I can’t handle any stress, my PTSD symptoms mean that I am going crazy)” (62). They argue that emotional processing can interfere with and modify the underlying fear structures and replace them with more manageable and realistic elements that better correlate with lived experience (62). The general idea behind emotional processing is that through carefully controlled exposure to particular fears (usually by recalling past traumatic experiences), over time the patient will be able to properly integrate those traumatic moments with the rest of their emotional self so that those fears no longer dominate or control all other emotional responses.

This isn’t to say that any kind of emotional remembering will result in positive results; studies have shown it’s not just the re-experience of emotion but the intentional, directed form of re-experiencing negative emotions coupled with specific, intentional practices that help override or modify fear responses rather than simply re-traumatizing the patient (Watkins 2004). Since those initial studies, directed emotional processing has become a popular tool in helping patients work through traumatic and painful experiences. People have used emotional processing to deal with trauma from illnesses such as breast cancer (Martino et al 2019) as well as general negative experiences such as failure (Watkins 2004), and emotional processing has been shown to play an important role in other types of therapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (Baker et al 2012).

The idea of processing one’s emotions has even entered the collective discourse of popular culture, especially in a time of a global pandemic and a mental health crisis in the making due to the pressures and isolations of quarantine and lockdown (Wan 2020). Psychoanalyst Hilary Jacobs Hendel (2019) wrote in TIME Magazine about how “what we learn in our society is not how to work with our emotions, but how to block and avoid them.” She notes, “Emotions have energy that pushes up for expression, and to tamp them down, our minds and bodies use creative tactics — including muscular constriction and holding our breath.” But Handel instead argues that “to heal the mind, we need to experience the emotions that go with our stories, and those are located in the body.” Even publications such as Harvard Business Review are writing articles about letting yourself feel unproductive in a time of global pandemic:

Feel the sadness, the loss, the change. Sink into the discomfort of not moving forward, not getting things done. In a strange way, not progressing may be its own form of productivity. Something fruitful is happening, we’re just not controlling it (Bergman 2020).

Similarly, Monica Chin (2020) in The Verge writes about the need to mourn the small events cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic even if they seem insignificant and minuscule in a global context. Citing a UC Berkley study, Chin says, “people who allow negative emotions to run their course report fewer mood-disorder symptoms than those who resist them. In other words, feeling bad about feeling bad just makes us feel worse.”

In short, allowing oneself to experience emotions is the key to a happier life; stuffing emotions into the closet, preventing ourselves from experiencing emotions, trying to ignore that they exist, or punishing ourselves for experiencing them will only result in repression, trauma, and, ultimately, the emotions bursting out elsewhere in often self-destructive or wildly inappropriate ways.

Processing in Archives

Processing in archival work has a very different meaning, but there are some similar analogies in goals and purposes. Archival processing is a catch-all phrase that generally refers to the archival work necessary in making records fully available and coherent for the average user. This includes acquisition, appraisal, any preservation needs, arrangement to preserve context, and description of the records to make them findable and understandable to people who encounter them within the archives. Unprocessed acquisitions languish in the backlog, and an unprocessed collection is essentially inaccessible to the average user.

Archival processing differs from, say, the work a librarian does in cataloging books, because each individual record in an archives on its own tells very little. A single traffic incident report in the archival collection of a police department, for example, only tells the story of a single event. An archival series of traffic incident reports from 1970-1990 from that same collection, however, tells a very different collective story about an organization — perhaps one of systemic racism or corruption — that is difficult to detect in a single record. Thus, archivists work hard to preserve the original context of records so that these larger stories are not lost by focusing too much on any one individual record.

Much of the processing work is invisible to the average user, who usually interfaces with the archivist in the public-facing, service-oriented work of reference, access, and outreach. As such, there is often a belief that the contents of an archive appear just as they arrived — that the archivist simply takes a box of random documents and places it on the shelf unexamined — rather than as highly curated and designed packets of information for the user. However, processing is considered vital by the profession — in many ways, this work is the raison d’être of archivists — and knowledge on how to properly process a new collection makes up the bulk of what students learn in professional archival schools.

Similarities of Analogies

There are some similarities between archival processing and emotional processing. For one, both forms of processing refer to and work primarily with the past. Archivists deal with the records of past events that provide historical evidence of things that once happened. Emotional processing deals with fear structures created by the patient in response to past events. Both involve going back into the past and, in some ways, re-experiencing it. Our interviews with archivists, for example, have plenty of stories of those working in the archives — from users to donors to archival students, volunteers, and archivists — building a strong emotional attachment to records and the people and stories they represent (which often results in powerful emotional responses and affects). Similarly, emotional processing involves in many cases re-living or re-experiencing past events through memory recall. In both cases of processing, the past is re-lived and re-imagined in order for the work to be done.

Archival processing also has some of the same goals of emotional processing — taking the jumble of materials from past events and trying to make sense of it all. In addition to sense making, archival processing is ultimately a work of access; as noted before, records that sit in the backrooms of archives unprocessed are inaccessible to the user. Similarly, emotional processing is not just about restructuring fear responses to be more healthy and realistic; in many instances, it’s about making locked-away emotions and memories available for the patient once again. Often, people shut out negative emotions, experiences, and memories precisely because they are painful to experience and live through; this can result in large portions of a patient’s experiences, memories, psyche, identity, and even basic emotions lost and disconnected from their and control.

Emotional processing, like archival processing, can make emotions (or records) stuck in the backrooms of the psyche (or archives) accessible again; otherwise, those emotions, experiences, stories, and records are effectively lost. And similar to the way unprocessed emotions still carry a psychic burden or toll that accrues over time, the cumulative weight of an ever-growing unprocessed backlog of records can create a multitude of problems in the future for an archives and the archivists who work within them.

Finally, as archives are often referred to as the collective memory of a society or culture (Foote 1990), I could stretch this metaphor a little bit further (with all of the dangers, warnings, cautions, and caveats metaphor stretching entails) and argue that a lack of archival processing can lead to a lack of (and thus a severe need for) collective, societal emotional processing.

Our research project deals specifically with difficult records and archivists’ responses to them. Often times, historical records deal with some very ugly and unsavory things, particularly historical events that resulted in the mistreatment, oppression, harm, or death of marginalized individuals and groups. Similarly, archivists often deal with people in the twilight years of their lives who grapple with their own mortality; it’s not uncommon for archivists to develop close relationships with donors and their families only to lose those connections to death and then deal with the emotional aftermath. These events can lead to what experts call “secondary trauma,” and the experience of secondary trauma with archivists is still only beginning to be investigated by scholars (Laurent and Hart 2018; Sloan, Vanderbilt and Douglas 2019; Laurent and Wright 2020). There is a kind of irony that archival processing may lead to a necessity for archivists to seek out emotional processing with the help of a professional therapist to deal with the difficult materials they find in their own collections.

But the archival processing of difficult events and records perhaps ought to lead to a greater collective emotional processing by the society that produced such traumatic records rather than just individual archivists dealing with the brunt of secondary trauma. We could certainly find evidence of collective historical amnesia about past traumatic events in the form of willful denial or downplaying the legacies of societal traumas such as slavery, police violence, war, internment and concentration camps, systemic racism and sexism, the murder of marginalized individuals, and so forth. Rather than fully experiencing and processing these events, we often collectively ignore their reality or lock those memories away because they are just too “unpleasant” or “negative.” And, as emotional processing theory would suggest, such a reaction without fully emotionally processing these events as a collective group means that eventually these repressed emotions collectively burst out elsewhere at some other time, resulting in harmful, destructive actions and repeating the tragic cycle.

That said, there may be a danger in over-processing an archival collection akin to what psychologists call “rumination” — the act of dwelling or focusing on only negative or depressing emotions and experiences. In her book Archiving Loss (2018), Martine Hawkes questions the ability of archives to fully capture moments of trauma. She writes about “how the language and logic of the archive have seeped into our responses to or ways of remembering difficult events; how we expect memory and loss to be coherent, credible, and leading to clear conclusions” (4). Sometimes, we try to make trauma “useful” or to spin it so that it results in a net gain. We try to find the silver lining in terrible events; this is often a response to avoid dealing with the negative emotional fallout and mourning necessary to process something horrible that has happened to us. For example, there were several articles in the wake of the initial  COVID-19 lockdowns arguing the pandemic was a positive event by heavily relying on the common myth that the Black Death in the Middle Ages ultimately resulted in revitalization and the Renaissance; Medievalists have vigorously pushed back against this narrative calling it false and harmful (Janega 2020a, 2020b). Hawkes warns that there is a kind of insidious logic to the way we desperately want terrible events to have a teleological “happy ending” bringing growth, clarity, or improvement that often does not exist in traumatic events. Trying to obsessively focus on how trauma can help us, trying to make trauma “coherent” or “leading to clear conclusions,” similarly stifles our ability to fully process a past event, either emotionally or historically.

As memory keepers collecting and dealing with  traumatic records, archivists could work through their own individual emotional processing by thoughtfully and carefully speaking to the public about the many difficult memories our archives hold. By purposefully remembering and re-experiencing these difficult events, we could, both individually and collectively, begin to finally grapple with the many instances of repressed trauma in our society and begin the long, difficult work of healing and repair.


Sources Cited

Baker, R., et al (2012), “Does CBT Facilitate Emotional Processing?” Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy 40:19-37.

Bergman, P. (2020), “Let Yourself be Unproductive. At Least for a Little While,” June 26, 2020. Harvard Business Review.

Chin, M. (2020), “You Can Care about COVID-19 and also Be Sad when Things Are Canceled,” March 12, 2020. The Verge. Website:

Foa, E. and Kozak, M. (1986), Psychological Bulletin 99(1):20-35.

Foa, F. B. and Cahill, S. P. (2001), “Emotional processing in psychological therapies,” in N.J. Smelser & P.B. Bates (Eds.) International encyclopedia of the social and behavioural sciences, 12363-12369. New York: Elsevier.

Hendel, H. (2018), Ignoring Your Emotions Is Bad for Your Health. Here’s What to Do About It,” February 27, 2018. TIME Magazine.

Janega, E. (2020), “On collapsing time, or, not everyone will be taken into the future,” August 25, 2020, Going Medieval. Website:

Janega, E. (2020), “Not every pandemic is the Black Death,” April 2, 2020, Going Medieval. Website:

Laurent, N. and Wright, K. (2020), “A trauma-informed approach to managing archives: a new online course,” Archives and Manuscripts, vol 48 no 1, 80-87.

Laurent, N. and Hart, M. (2018), “Emotional Labour and Archival Practice – Reflection,” Journal of the Society of North Carolina Archivists, vol 15.

Martino, M. et al (2019), “Longitudinal effect of emotional processing on psychological symptoms in women under 50 with breast cancer,” Health Psychology Open. DOI: 10.1177/2055102919844501.

Rauch, S. and Foa E. (2006), “Emotional Processing Theory (EPT) and Exposure Therapy for PTSD,” Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy 36:61-65.

Sloan, K., Vanderfluit J., Douglas, J. (2019) “Not ‘Just My Problem to Handle’: Emerging Themes on Secondary Trauma and Archivists,” Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies, vol 6, article 20.

Wan, W. (2020), “The coronavirus pandemic is pushing America into a mental health crisis,” May 4, 2020. The Washington Post.

Watkins, E. (2004), “Adaptive and maladaptive ruminative self-focus during emotional processing,” Behavior Research and Therapy 42:1037-1052.