This post is co-authored by Jennifer Douglas, Alex Alisauskas and Elizabeth Bassett.

After a somewhat longer than anticipated blog hiatus while we adjusted back to being in-person on campus, and as two long-term (and amazing!) research assistants, Alex Alisauskas and Elizabeth Bassett, are moving on from the project after graduating from their dual MAS/MLIS degree programs, we are back to our series on Talking to Archivists about Emotions with new posts in on grief in the archives. The CRAG-W project began with grief, considering the relationship between grief work and recordkeeping in multiple modalities. In this post and the next, we take a look at some of the ways grief was discussed as part of archival work in our interviews with archivists. This post will focus on some of the different types of grief we identified in our analysis of interview transcripts; the next post will focus on when and how these different types of grief were experienced by participants on the job.

Defining grief: a starting point

The interview guide we provided to participants in advance of each interview offered a general definition of grief as we had been using the term in our project, but we also left room for participants to define what grief meant to them and when they felt it.

Excerpt from Interview Guide:

How do we define grief?

Thomas Attig defines bereavement as a condition of being deprived or dispossessed of a loved one; grief as an emotion, or how we feel the loss; and grieving as a process through which we respond to or cope with the loss. We use this same understanding of bereavement as condition, grief as feeling, and grieving as process. We also acknowledge that bereavement, grief and grieving can be occasioned not only by the death of a loved one but also by a variety of types of losses. Although we have determined working definitions for our project, participants might define these terms differently for their own purposes; this is fine and may be a topic of discussion during the interview.

We weren’t sure when we posted recruitment emails how many archivists would want to talk about grief, or how much those who did want to talk would have to say. But, as we began to talk with interested participants, it became clear, as one archivist put it, that “grief courses through archives,” through all parts of archival work, as a motivation for making and keeping records, as something felt by archivists when donors die or when they encounter death in the records of creators to whom they’ve developed connections. Grief, it turned out, was not a minor emotion in archives, and nor was it a singular feeling or experience.

Identifying types of grief in archives

As we listened to participants discuss their experiences, and later as we analyzed the transcribed interviews, we identified several different ways participants talked about grief. In this section, we review five of these, briefly outlining how each type was characterized in participant interviews and using participant quotations to illustrate. The different types of grief are not mutually exclusive and can be felt in varying degrees of intensity; for example, an archivist might feel a very strong  empathic grief  that they distinguish clearly from a more general sense of loss or longing, while another archivist, or the same archivist in a different situation, might experience empathic grief  that they recognize as more akin to a feeling of loss than to their own feelings of personal grief.

Empathic grief: Grief felt for creators, donors and subjects of records; grief felt in empathy with people involved in records creation or use.

Many participants described how  as they worked with records they developed an empathic grief for the people who created or were represented in the records, even if those people had been dead for many years, and especially when experiences of loss, death, grief and other painful or traumatic events were detailed in the records.

“I have had experiences of records that have affected me very, very deeply. They mostly have been about children. I have a home children file here at [institution name redacted] about children who were sent from the slums of London and Bristol to farms in Canada…And then the other ones were the house of industry records when I worked in [redacted], the poorhouse records that documented the treatment of children in the 19th and early 20th century. And those…I guess it is grief. It’s, you know…the horror, you can’t walk away at the end of the day and just leave that behind. So in my professional life those are the ones that have affected me strongly. […] And I have grieved for those children.”

“I just read records yesterday, when I was processing, that you could hear this—the grief pouring out of the writer. […] He was somebody writing on behalf of a non-profit organization, writing to a political representative. He was talking about really painful things that had happened in his community, but [also] to people all around the province. […]  and it was… it was very painful to read. And, you know, I know we’re not supposed to read every line of a record when we’re processing, but sometimes it’s hard not to, when you can see that emotion and you’re trying to figure out how it fits in with the rest of the records, and… […] …and that can really affect your whole day, when you read something that’s very, explicitly sad…”

This kind of empathic grief can be experienced intensely by archivists, who through their work caring for records, develop connections to the people whose stories, lives, and often deaths, they contain.

“At my current institution, the school was very, very small in World War I and because the community was so tight knit because it was a boarding school, the letters would go straight to the headmaster. You don’t think “oh I’m going to send a letter to my principal” these days, but there were so few kids that they did, there was a very intimate relationship within the entire community. There were some letters that we have that talk about their time at the war and how shocked they are that it’s not “oh, we’re going to go and win a medal and come back and be heroes!” Often these letters stop and are replaced by letters from the mothers or the fathers trying to set up a memorial fund in the name of the son because abruptly that’s it. So last year or the year before that, I digitized these so that the students could work with them more easily, and that took two weeks. It was not a fun time. There were times I was sitting in my office sobbing because here’s this 19- year-old kid, and I know what’s going to happen because we have the obituary and it’s just brutal reading his words where he’s talking about how excited he is to get home for Christmas, or a birthday, or what have you. I mean, it’s right there, it’s black and white, there’s your grief in the archives. Seeing the letters from the mothers too, is…yeah, it’s not good. ”

Empathic grief was also felt for donors of records and their families when a records creator died or fell ill, as well as for researchers experiencing grief and/or retraumatization in the archives. This was a kind of grief that participants recognized they felt somewhat indirectly, alongside or for another person who was experience loss.

Personal grief: Grief felt by participants because of personal loss or experience (e.g. death of a family member, donor, researcher, etc.)

Participants who had experienced personal loss and grief talked about how that experience helped them relate to people in the archives who were grieving or experiencing trauma. For example, one participant talked about how the trauma of her mother’s early death has impacted her ability to work with dying donors:

“I think that that trauma has made me a lot more, I guess comfortable [with death], and so I, not that often, but from time to time, I go to see donors who are dying and I just say, well what would you like me to do, and what can I do for you, and I think feel comfortable talking to me because I’m not scared and I don’t feel uncomfortable around them.”

Participants also explained how working in the archives – and with the stories of other people’s losses – helped them to work through personal grief. Personal grief might also make an archivist more vulnerable to grief and trauma expressed in records.

 “Grief really affects my work because it does colour how I see records, donors, and users, especially when they resemble my own situations of loss … I mean, because I guess it’s a big part of me, it’s a big part of how I view things.”

“Having two major… or two experiences with grief that made a huge impact on my life, that … have trained me in a way. Whether it’s to be a listener, or truly be sympathetic, or understand maybe that this person has just lost someone they’re—you know, what they say now may change. Just, uh—so it’s really personal. ” 

The same participant adds:  “And the other part of it is, you know, I have to look at, maybe I spend more time with people and hearing their stories, because of my own—because it’s healing for me, in some ways.”

Participants also experienced personal grief after the death of donors and researchers with whom they’d developed relationships  as well as when co-workers passed away. Participants talked about the intimate nature of archival work, of working with people and the records of their lives; when these lives – and intimate relationships – come to an end, archivists experience grief as they would in any other personal relationship.

“I mean definitely there’s some donors that I can still start crying if I think about it, so.”

“Two years ago I had a donor just… really die suddenly. And I was— I just… I just couldn’t believe it. I just— and I had just brought his papers in in January, and he died in February. […] and his wife, who I know very well now— I mean… it’s a grieving process now, because when I see her we talk about [him], and we… we go through this whole, like, you know, “How’re you doing?” or um, “blah,” right? And she still has a lot of his records, so she’s still… carrying on what he was doing, right? In terms of trying to get them to us, and get the right things to us, and do right by his papers.”

This kind of grief for a donor can also start before a donor dies, as archivists witness age or sickness take its effect on a donor, anticipating the end of a life and a relationship.

“I’ve watched him deteriorate. […] And I’ve found that very difficult. Because he was… he was such a vibrant member of the community, and he’s such a lovely man. And, you know, I’ve sat at his house and his cat has sat in my lap, and I’ve developed a… a relationship with him. And then, he—yeah, he—they were just forced to leave their house and move into a retirement community. So, he donated some more records,  and I believe he has Parkinson’s. So just watching him not be able to explain the records to me the way he did, five years ago. I find that quite difficult.”

Grief for a community or change in community: Grief for a lost or changing community, which might be experienced by the community and/or by the archivist working with the community or as part of the community.

Grief for a lost or changing community was a recurring topic in our interviews. Participants talked about the deep sense of loss donors felt when communities they belonged to ceased to exist, and explained that they too felt some of this grief, especially when they belonged to the same communities.

One participant talked about working in Mennonite archives as a Mennonite herself, and experiencing the closure of small, rural congregations:

“That’s a kind of a grief, too. It’s an ending. […] And that can be— that can be hard…to realize that you’re— you’re loading these boxes into your car, of records, and this is the last… the last time that this congregation will contribute records. They’ll be— they’ll be scattered elsewhere, so. […]  I think maybe there’s some comfort for these congregations in the idea that their story will live on in the archives. But at the end, at the same time, it is an ending.”

Participants seemed to feel a keener sense of loss for community when the community had faced marginalization and/or discrimination.

“They are facing the end of an organization that they’ve given a lot of time to, and that’s almost as bad as anything. Like, especially, we’ve found, a lot of women’s organizations—I think they were very strong. And then, women are in the work force now, full time, and can’t do the lunch clubs… the volunteer work, right? And these older ladies come in, and they bring the records, and they are sad [emphasized] that this isn’t going to continue, and that… that, you know, it’s something that they had found so vibrant and so important, is—has fizzled or died, really. And so that… that’s definitely one of the things that we encounter a lot. […] All sorts of organizations, but the women’s ones have sort of stuck in my mind.”

Grief for a change in the profession: Grief felt by participants due to changes in how they perceive the profession changing over time (e.g. dwindling resources, increased focus on technology over people, changes in training, etc.)

Some participants expressed feeling a kind of grief when dwindling resources meant they couldn’t do their jobs or preserve materials in the way they would like.

“It’s one of the things about austerity which is really cruel, and evil. It takes away people’s capacity to do well. And that is cruel. … Well, one wants –  you ache to be able to do well by them [the people in the records]. And you can up to a certain point. Those are the bits I can be proud of. But past a certain point you’re betraying them by your incapacity to do the very simple humane thing of – just letting them know how fully they’re valued; just doing small things; capturing, completing, sharing…”

Others referred to a kind of grief related to the profession’s increased focus on technology, which could be accompanied by a loss of appreciation for connecting with material objects and for working directly with researchers who might now rely on online interfaces.

“… they want to digitize everything. They want to digitize a lot of textual-type records and then get rid of them, destroy them, because well, we’ve got the digital content now. All we’re interested in is the content. But we forget … when we look at the original record and touch or feel it, we forget about all the emotional connections that come with it. And it can also include grief. So, if you’re looking at… an item that perhaps is… and this is really for family, like I find this more with genealogists, but also other researchers. When someone sees something that their great-grandfather and ancestor signed, or wrote, or something like that, there’s this emotional connection when they see the original document. Scanning that and getting rid of it… the scan doesn’t have the same… connection as the original. And we really… I find when we’re moving away from that, we’re forgetting, um, that there is that tie to it.” 

More than one participant mentioned feeling left behind by the rate of technological change in the profession and grieving for the loss of their own sense of belonging:

“I don’t know if this counts, but I have a hard time at work because, and I think some of this is because of my training, I did not get a lot of training on computer stuff, and it’s all computer stuff. So I feel like I’m dealing with all this stuff at work, but I feel like, and maybe it’s because I’m older, because I’m pretty sure younger people don’t feel this way, I feel like I don’t really belong there anymore. That makes me really sad because I love my work.”

One participant described a particular sense of grief for the loss of professional knowledge and values as a consequence of changes in institutional hiring practices:

“[There’s] a very base thing about the fact that [institution redacted] is not employing people that are either library trained or archive trained. They’ve got a trend towards employing people with history degrees who come from a very different motivation. They understand content but they don’t understand form. They don’t think about…they don’t understand that what you’re dealing with is an extension of person and the relationships. They just don’t think about, they’re not trained in a sensibility about records and archives and power and justice and emotion, not only in the way that I was, but also they don’t have people in the organization to give them that sensibility. So the corporate memory, the corporate practice is gone.”

General sense of loss: A less intense grief or sadness; experienced by the participant as a sense of wistfulness or longing for something (a person, a time, a feeling) that has been lost.

As the participant quotes above illustrate, archivists witness many types of loss: loss of life, loss of community, loss of resources, loss of sense of self. Some participants distinguished between feeling a sense of loss and feeling ‘real’ grief or sadness; as one participant put it when talking about the loss of a city neighbourhood community, “it’s not sadness, but you are exploring loss. There used to be this huge, vibrant – impoverished but vibrant – community that was there and it’s gone.” The people this archivist worked with were, they thought, more “searching” than “sad.” To this archivist, grief is something one feels in response to a personal loss; what one feels for another’s loss – or a loss that is not connected to death – is more abstract.

Other participants talked about loss and grief less distinctly, but noted that each could be experienced at varying degrees of intensity.

“I guess you could kind of relate it to grief, too. And it’s not so much in the big kinds of loss, but in the— in the small things. Like if I’m— if it’s a collection of someone who… experienced a major physical change in their life, and all of a sudden they had a stroke, or something, and they just can’t do what they used to. And sometimes those kinds of frustrations come through in the records. […] So the kind of… deterioration of the body, too, that comes with old age and sometimes you can see that in handwriting, and…”

Whose grief is it?

For the archivist who distinguished between grief as something that is felt personally, and loss as something that is felt for another’s experience of grief, there was an important difference to be drawn between experiencing grief and witnessing it. Sometimes participants weren’t sure whether the feelings of grief and loss they described were really theirs to feel.

“To me grief is a personal loss kind of thing, and the records that are coming to me aren’t directly connected to me, and I’m not experiencing a sense of personal loss, they’re not relatives, they’re not people from my community, in the sense of like a direct connection. So I don’t particularly feel that the grief is mine to have. I can experience the sadness, like I’m sad that this person died alone, I’m sad they didn’t achieve what they wanted to in their life, but then I sort of wanted to express the other side of it which is that there’s a lot of, to me, joy and hopefulness.”

The concern about appropriating the experiences and feelings of others was especially strongly felt when participants described feeling grief for losses experienced by communities that have been marginalized, oppressed and harmed, often by the very institutions archivists work in.

“I think, across the whole country we’re talking a lot more about colonialism and the long-term effects of colonialism, and also about the fact that Indigenous peoples in Canada are so over-researched and constantly have other people speaking for them. And a lot of the work that I’ve done, that I would say is about grief,  or that sometimes causes me grief […] is related to working with Indigenous communities and people who are coming in and researching their own personal history, or their community’s history. And, I was concerned about telling those stories and… and diminishing them to an anecdote that, um, that isn’t my story to tell.”

Ultimately, though many participants drew distinctions between grief or loss they experienced personally and grief or loss they witnessed in the archives, they also stressed the responsibility that came with being a witness to another’s person’s or community’s grief and caring for the records that tell their stories.

“And this is the thing, I don’t know how much I’m involved in her grief, or her working through that. I don’t really feel like I am very much, but it’s almost like, you’re bearing witness to it, or you’re privy to it. You know? […]

“This might seem strange. [laughs] I don’t know if you’ve heard this before. I had a specific collection I was working on, of First World War correspondence. And it’s strange, but I became quite attached to this guy. And, of course, he dies. […] And I felt like I knew him. Which is… it’s kind of big of a person to say that from reading a few letters. Of course, I didn’t really know him. But I suppose I felt some responsibility for keeping his memory alive, and when I was thinking about it later, I… I realized, ‘Oh, it comes from this sense of responsibility I have, that I’m taking care of his records.’”

“Grief courses through archives”

“I go back to the material and I think well where does grief…grief courses through archives. There’s no doubt about it. But it courses through right from the moment of creation. All the stuff that I’m doing with my grandmother’s and my father’s stuff at the moment, starts, the records are created out of a moment of grief. They’re kept because they can’t deal with the loss of people. I mean it’s a very raw sort of situation. But records aren’t always created as a result of grief. They just might cause grief. And grief isn’t a problem, it’s normal. ”

A clear finding of the CRAG-W project has been that grief is not a minor emotion in archives, that it is associated with multiple different aspects of archival work, and that many  archivists recognize how grief as an emotion is, as the participant quoted below puts it, connected to “the power and meaning of records”:

“When in fact, what we were really doing was dealing with people’s grief, because they were losing their jobs. These records are the last embodiment of their workplace. Or in private records, you’re taking away the last bit of the body of the person. You look at what these records mean to people at different stages in the archive world, and you do have to know what you’re doing. You have to understand the power and meaning of records before you can do this role.”

In the interviews, encounters with and experiences of grief were described across a range of archival work, including in appraisal and acquisition, processing, arrangement and description, reference and access, outreach and programming, records management, and responding to and administering FOI requests; several participants also discussed the empathic and personal grief they experienced and/or encountered working with records related to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada. In our next post, we’ll explore some of the ways the types of grief outlined in this post intersect with various archival functions.  In the meantime, if you are reading and have other examples of types of grief related to archival work that you’d like to share, we’d love to hear from you in the comments.