Over the next few weeks, this blog will feature a series of posts related to my research on grief and other emotions in archival work. We’ve written about this research in other places on the blog (you can find a set of links at the end of this post), but in this next series, we want to introduce more fully some of the key themes we find emerging from our analysis of the interview transcripts. Research assistants Alex Alisauskas, Elizabeth Bassett and Ted Lee and I will explore ideas about lack of preparation for the emotional dimensions of archival work; grief and how it is involved in and impacts archival work; other emotions; listening and paying attention; working with donors; the ‘sacred’ responsibility of archivists as holders of stories; different professional roles and ideas of professionalism more generally; and person-centred vs. record-centred approaches to records work.

The Research Project

The interviews we’ll be talking about in the next several posts are part of a larger project called Conceptualizing Recordkeeping as Grief Work: Implications for Archival Theory and Practice (CRAGW), for which I received a SSHRC Insight Development Grant in 2018. The CRAGW project, broadly speaking, considers the emotional dimensions of records and records work, with the hope that the findings will support the development of archival theory and methodology that is engaged with and responsive to these emotional dimensions.

The CRAGW project includes three research components:

  1. Interviews with bereaved parents
  2. Interviews with archivists
  3. Archival research in bereavement collections (defined as collections that have been significantly shaped by a grief experience)

While the interviews with parents and the archival research components  have focused primarily on the relationship between recordkeeping and grief work (Douglas, Alisauskas & Mordell 2019; Douglas & Alisauskas 2021), the interviews with archivists have explored a range of emotions involved in archival work.

The interviews

The interviews with archivists were intended to explore how grief and other emotions are implicated in and impact archival work. In the interviews, I asked archivists questions about grief in the contexts of working with records, with creators and donors, and with people who use records. We also talked about other emotions that impacted work in and with records and with those who create and use them. I asked questions about the kinds of resources and supports participants had access to, found useful and/or wished they had access to to help them manage difficult emotions and experiences, and about how well they felt their education or training had prepared them for the emotional dimensions of archival work.

I recruited interview participants via archival listservs and by sharing the invite on Twitter. I thought I would be lucky to find ten participants, but interest in the project surprised me and in the end I interviewed 29 archivists. These interviews were carried out in-person and over Skype (this was before the pandemic and Zoom had not yet taken over our lives!) between May and September 2019. Interview transcriptions were completed by myself and by research assistants Elizabeth Bassett and Noah Duranseaud. We wanted to do the transcribing ourselves because early on it became apparent that ‘listening’ and ‘paying attention’ were going to be prominent themes in the interviews; transcribing the interviews ourselves (i.e. rather than outsourcing to a transcription service) was one way we could practice these skills in our own work.

After all interviews were transcribed, we began a long and intensive coding process. The coding team included me, Elizabeth, Noah, Alex, Ted and Christina Mantey. Our approach to coding was both deductive and inductive. Some codes we created deductively based on the objectives of the research and our interest in key phenomena (e.g. codes for: grief and other emotions;  education and training;  existing and wished-for resources and supports;  types of archival work). We added other codes derived from the data, for themes we saw emerging in our analysis of the transcripts (e.g. codes for: listening and paying attention; working with donors; the insider/outsider role of the archivist;  archival responsibility; silences; person-centred approaches; and more). Coding was iterative and it took several meetings and attempts before we settled on a codebook, which we then used to recode all transcripts. Most transcripts have been coded by two members of the research team, which has helped us to confirm consistency in coding across the team.

Taking Our Time

At the Archival Education and Research Institute (AERI), which took place online July 12-16, 2021, Alex, Elizabeth, Ted and I held a panel that focused on our research process, and particularly on the experiences we’ve had doing research that is emotionally demanding (Kumar & Cavallaro 2018). All parts of the CRAGW project have been emotionally demanding in different ways: the interviews with bereaved parents were centred around intensely traumatic experiences; the archival collections we’ve studied have included records about depression, suicide and sexual abuse; and the archivist interviews included several interviews where participants shared deeply personal stories, made themselves vulnerable, and discussed the silences – and silencing – they’ve experienced as professionals experiencing the emotional dimensions of archival work.

This has been heavy work, in many ways, and we’ve made deliberate choices to slow down and take breaks when we need to – these have been especially necessary since the start of our coding process coincided with the onset of the Covid19 global pandemic!

We’ve also been very conscious of our responsibility to do right by the people who have participated in this project; parents and archivists have entrusted us with their stories and we feel a duty to care for them, to ensure we are representing them accurately, ethically and with compassion.

It’s taken some time to get here, and we’re still working on our analysis of our coding as well as on writing up research findings more formally, but we’re excited to be sharing some of those findings here over the next weeks.

Acknowledgments, links and works cited

Thank you to all members, past and present, of the research team for your thoughtful and caring approach to the work, and especially to all interviewees, for sharing your experiences and time with us.

Links to previous posts on the archivist interviews: 

There’s Something We Need to Talk About

A Change in the Narrative

A Change in the Narrative (Part 2)

Archiving Hurts (Part 1)

Archiving Hurts (Part 2)

Archiving Hurts (Part 3)

Archiving Hurts (Part 4)

Archiving Hurts (Part 5)

Works cited in this post: 

Douglas & Alisauskas (2021) ‘It Feels Like a Life’s Work’: Recordkeeping as an Act of Love. Archivaria 91, p. 6-37

Douglas, Alisauskas & Mordell (2019) ‘Treat Them with the Reverence of Archivists’: Records Work, Grief Work, and Relationship Work in the Archives. Archivaria 88, p. 84-119

Kumar & Cavallaro (2018) Researcher Self-Care in Emotionally Demanding Research: A Proposed Conceptual Framework. Qualitative Health Research vol 28, no. 4, p. 648-658