This post, co-authored by project research assistants Elizabeth Bassett and Noah Duranseaud, summarizes the audience participation portion 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.

The session was originally planned as a time where the invited panelists would answer questions, but also a time for the audience to participate in a much more interactive way than a Q&A portion at the end of the session. Our original intent was to use a significant chunk of time to create break-out groups, where a discussion would be generated amongst everyone. The discussion would have centered around what resources to support archivists’ emotional work were already available, what resources people would like to have available, and how to develop these. Once the conference was moved to a digital format, we were no longer able to provide this level of interactivity. However, we still wanted to find ways to involve the audience, and to generate a discussion that could last longer than the panel itself. To do so, we created a virtual bulletin board using Padlet, and invited the audience (who could remain anonymous) to respond, discuss, and ask questions related to our session’s topics. 

This blog post first summarizes the resulting Padlet comments, and then discusses the kinds of resources identified by the audience, both those that currently exist and those that are wished-for.

Audience Discussion Themes

The Padlet comments show widespread agreement that archival work very often consists of emotional work. Yet, a theme that emerged was the difficulty of starting workplace conversations about this dimension of the profession. Commenters identified several reasons for this difficulty: for one commenter, the barrier was toxic masculinity, for another, it was fear of being perceived as needing special treatment as a non-white person in a predominantly white profession, and for many, it was the fear of being perceived as unfit for the job. According to one comment, hesitance in speaking up about the emotional realities of the job clearly ties back to ideas about archival professionalism; specifically, the idea that they must be impartial leaves archivists struggling to acknowledge when they are affected by emotions.

Yet, most Padlet commenters admitted that they are affected emotionally—often in unpredictable ways. One topic that came up is the impact of long-term exposure to difficult records; weeks of describing violent, racist, and/or homophobic records, for example, can quickly and unexpectedly catch up to archivists and lead to burnout. And, as another commenter pointed out, if archivists feel they can’t talk to their supervisors about difficult experiences with records, how can they properly inform and prepare archives users?

Words such as “frustration” and “exhaustion” often sprang up in relation to the profession’s resistance to addressing topics related to emotions. One commenter mentioned that the “emotional toll” of the job began during their archival education program, when they were taught strict ideas about the information professional’s role. Typically, the emotional and people-centric aspects of the work are not covered in archives classes. In hindsight, several commenters wished their education had prepared them, at the very least, by acknowledging these aspects of the work.

As a result of the unacknowledged role of emotions in the profession, some commenters referred to feeling “imposter’s syndrome” upon entering the workforce and realizing their own emotional responses. While comments show a widespread suspicion that the archival profession’s ideal of objectivity is exactly that – an ideal that is impossible as a reality – stresses of job precarity often halt open discussion of the topic. No one, understandably, wants to risk jeopardizing their careers by acknowledging that they aren’t living up to the profession’s standards.

Anonymously, commenters in the Padlet put out a call to start support groups for new professionals—where they could safely discuss the emotional aspects of the work. Also anonymously, a few mid-career professionals expressed their willingness to advise and act as mentors. Within the archival community, there is both a need for supportive conversations and a willingness to respond to that need. Part of the goal of the ACA panel, and the Padlet, was to begin brainstorming ways to start these conversations.

Also clear in the Padlet discussion is that, while many archivists acknowledge the existence and importance of emotional work, a next step includes breaking the topic down into more granular discussions. Identified topics include: BIPOC-specific emotional work; cultural contexts of emotions; donor relations; archivist mental health needs; job precarity; neurodiversity; isolation; and emotional trauma related to climate crisis records. These topics are only a few examples of those that deserve their own focus.

Another Next Step: Identifying Wished-For and Existing Resources

During the panel, Jennifer mentioned that many participants in the interviews she conducted with archivists about grief and other emotions in archival work had identified a general lack of resources when it comes to supporting archivists in their emotional work. Interviewees discussed that there aren’t many formal resources from the archival community, but some did mention they attended counselling sessions, or had informal resources they relied on such as personal and professional relationships. The Padlet was made to be a place for discussion, but also a place to compile resources. As well, audience members participated during the panel sessions, posting resources, articles, and thoughts in the chat section of Zoom. While the Zoom chat was not able to be saved, we hope that further discussion and resource sharing will take place in the Padlet, or here in comments on this post.

The idea of the panel was always to build on previous research and discussions, including (but not limited to): the conference session held by Anna St. Onge, Dr. Rebecka Sheffield, and Melanie Delva at the 2016 Association of Canadian Archivists Annual Conference, titled “Already Enough Ghosts: The Invisibility of Emotional Labour in Archives;” research on affect, empathy, and care, as for example in the work of Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor (2016); and research on archival work and vicarious or secondary trauma, as in work by Katie Sloan, Jennifer Vanderfluit and Jennifer Douglas  (2019), and work by Nicola Laurent, Michaela Hart and Kristen Wright, Australian archivists, whose work has led to the development of online courses for archivists, including the Out-of-Home Care Records Toolkit and A Trauma-Informed Approach to Managing Archives.

As a few Padlet commenters pointed out, discussion, support groups, and training resources alone aren’t going to solve the profession’s systemic challenges. Nevertheless, their existence is important. The goal of our ACA panel was to start conversations between professionals in the field—professionals who, as this Padlet shows, have a wealth of knowledge to share and a willingness for offering support. To continue these conversations and to encourage further resource sharing, we invite you to comment on this post, our shared Google Doc, and/or our Padlet page

Regardless of the platform you choose to comment on, we would like to encourage you to reflect on the following prompt, which was originally posed during our ACA panel:

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?

We have included this prompt here, realizing that it continues to be as relevant today as it was back in June. Thank you for taking the time to reflect—we look forward to hearing your thoughts and discussions.