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

In our last post in the ‘Talking to Archivists’ series, we looked at different types of grief that we identified in our analysis of interviews with twenty-nine working archivists and records professionals. In this post, the seventh in this series, we take a look at when and where archivists encounter these different types of grief.

In our analysis of interview transcripts, we included codes for a range of tasks and functions carried out by the archivists and records professionals we spoke with. The primary tasks and functions we ended up coding for included: appraisal, selection and acquisition; processing, arrangement and description; reference and access; outreach; records management; FOI requests; and records management. We also included a code for records work related to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work gathering records from government and church archives, collecting Survivor and Intergenerational Survivor statements and testimonies, and processing and preserving these materials.

Appraisal, acquisition and selection

Appraisal is “the process of identifying materials offered to an archives that have sufficient value to be accessioned” (SAA Dictionary of Archival Terminology). For archivists working with personal and community records, deciding what has value and should be acquired usually involves working closely with the creators or donors of the records and this can often be an emotionally fraught process. Frequently, records are donated when a creator is nearing the end of their life or of a particular chapter of their life (e.g. at the end of their career or at the end of a big project), or they may come to an archives in the aftermath of a death, donated by a grieving relative, friend or executor. It makes sense, then, that appraisal was one the archival function that was most frequently associated with grief by the participants in our project.

In terms of types of grief experienced by participants, appraisal, selection and acquisition were associated to a high degree with both personal grief and with the more general sense of loss, but every other type of grief we identified (empathic grief; grief for changes in the profession; grief for community) was also connected to work with donors and records at the time of acquisition.

“I think the most times the grief is present is when I’m working with donors, because what will happen … in the course of the donor interview, or when you’re sitting down with the donor who is giving you these materials, they will often just tell you stories.”

The stories that donors tell are often about the lives and deaths of loved ones, but also about other kinds of love and loss, as one participant explained:

“You’re called upon fairly regularly to minister people, and often it is some form of grief. And it’s not always the usual form of grief, like they’ve lost a person. Sometimes it’s the loss of their youth, the loss of their former life, the loss of what they see as their heyday or their prime… you know, when elder people move from a large place that had all their stuff around them, and they move to a small place and they have to get rid of all that stuff, it’s a death every single time, and for some it’s hugely traumatic…”

In an article about working with dying donors, Geoff Wexler and Linda Long (2009, p. 478) suggest that “as archivists we must acknowledge that our profession is bound up with” intimate “life events” like “aging, dying and death.” We encountered this acknowledgment frequently, though participants also expressed surprise at discovering this type of ‘boundedness’ in their work:

“[I]t’s surprised me in how profoundly it has affected me, in doing donor relations. In the last 18 months I’ve dealt with three deathbed donors, and literally deathbed donors. So it’s been really interesting and I haven’t had any direct experiences with death at work until now.  Working in archives, of course you’re dealing with a past, and people in the past are dead, so it’s not really a surprise, I’m fine with that, I’m comfortable with that. But it’s dealing with people, dealing with families, in grief that I’ve been surprised how unprepared I am for that part of my work as an archivist. Whether they’ve had a terminal illness, and you’re dealing with grief prior to death, or post-death grief. It’s just been really interesting; I’ve had a lot of positive – it’s been only positive experiences so far, which I feel fortunate for but I know it’s not always going to be that way, because I know that grief is different every single time and through time with different people.”

This quote also illustrates how profoundly surprised many archivists we interviewed were at how much “dealing with people” was part of their work. In many cases, it was not death and grief itself that was surprising or difficult, but working with people who were dying or grieving. During our conversations with participants and as we transcribed and analyzed interviews, it became increasingly clear how much work there is to do related to preparing archivists for the people part of the job.

“It’s something we didn’t really talk about in my training, at all. Like, not just grief, but just…donor relations. The people part of it.”

The archivist as grief counsellor

Some participants described taking on the role of caregiver or “therapist,” especially as they interacted with donors during acquisition. “It’s very rarely a happy occasion that prompts someone to donate records to an archives,”  one participant noted, explaining that the archivists at her place of work frequently described “feeling like a grief counsellor” when working with donors. Acknowledging the care work that goes into working with people at difficult and often unhappy times, one participant shared half-laughingly, “I joke, but I have a chair in my office that’s known as the therapy chair. It’s silly, but there it is; it’s completely what it’s turned into.” Records are, participants noted, “not dispassionate [to their creators and donors]….they are intricate parts of their lives,” and they – both the records and the people – need a certain kind of attention and care. More than one participant likened this type of care to a kind of pastoral care:

 “…these are not just pieces of paper for these people. These are very important parts of their life, or their parents’ lives, that they’re handing over. And so… maybe it comes back a bit to that idea of almost having a pastoral role, or […] counselling— not that I would consider myself a counsellor [laughs], but you kind of have to just be very attentive, um… to what people, uh— what people need in this job, I’m finding. And you— you never quite know… when people are coming in, where they’re at, in that regard. So, just listening.”

Processing, arrangement and description

The next function most highly associated with grief by the participants in our project was work involved in processing, arranging and describing materials. During this type of work, which involves close study of the records and the contexts in which they were created, used and maintained, we found high levels of empathic grief, felt for the creators, donors and other people whose stories were contained within the records.

Participants (sometimes somewhat sheepishly) admitted to “reading the records,” something new archivists and students are often discouraged from doing, and being “sucked in,” empathizing with the experiences and expression of the records’ writers:

“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… it can really affect your whole day, when you read something that’s very, explicitly sad…”

One participant said, “I felt like I got to know [a creator] on a personal, emotional level, in the way that she kept her records,” so that “I could almost feel her grief as I processed the collection.” They added that as they went through the creator’s files, “It was like I was getting to know her and she was already gone and it was heartbreaking.”  This participant described this feeling as “second-hand grief” – a feeling that was compounded, or exacerbated, by their understanding from their education and training that archivists were not supposed or allowed to feel  or to express that feeling, especially in their work:

“A few fonds that I’ve worked on [] I’ve dealt with almost like second-hand grief by working through the records, and not knowing how to really move forward with the kind of archival work that I was supposed to be doing. And then, representing that emotional aspect. Because a lot of archival theory, like, in the first year, is like, “You are the neutral, impartial observer of these records, and you must steward them.” But I feel like emotion really comes into a lot of decisions about appraisal, and description, and even arrangement. And your experience of the records, I think, should be kind of reflected in that process.”

As some participants noted, working with people is part of processing, too. Several participants described working with creators and donors as they arranged and described records, asking questions about what records related to, and running draft finding aids past them. These participants tended to stress the responsibility they felt to donors and creators, and the gravity of, as some participants put it, “bearing witness” to a creator’s life and experiences (see Marika Cifor’s 2016 article on affect and archives for more on the archivist bearing witness).

Reference and access

Providing reference and access was another area where participants described encountering and being impacted by grief. Participants discussed grief experienced by researchers doing family research, research on formerly institutionalized family members,  and research related to the genocide in the Canadian residential schools system. One participant explained that as an archivist, “you never really know what brings a researcher [into the archives]” and so you don’t always know or can’t predict what materials or interactions might be difficult. Archivists who worked with residential schools Survivors and Intergenerational Survivors talked about working with people  “who have suffered trauma, who are grieving, who are angry, who are a whole bunch of different things.”

“It’s almost like the TRC events, when they took place, and people would get up and tell their stories. And that will happen in the reference room, regularly. Because people have come in to do research, and sometimes that’s connected to their school experience, or day  school experience, and they will begin to tell their story, and sometimes that’s in the middle of the busy reference room.”

One archivist who worked frequently with residential school Survivors and Intergenerational Survivors stressed the need for archival education programs to centre people in teaching about reference services:

“When we talk about  reference services in archives, we focus so much on…the records.  We just… we focus completely on, ‘Okay, as a reference archivist, in addition to getting original records, you will be using newspapers, and directories, and, you know, all of these things that we have in our reference library, and making sure that you know how to access those.’ Rather than, ‘As a reference archivist, you will be talking to upset people… all the time.’

Grief permeates archival work

Our research has found that grief is part of all types of archival work, and though grief might not be part of every interaction or activity, it is also difficult to know when and where grief will surface: the possibility is always present. A key reason  this potential exists is that records are always connected to a life, to people. As Genevieve Weber (2018, p. 97) reminds us, “archives are, by their very nature, about people;” they “cannot be created without people; their subject matter has no substance in the absence of humanity; they must be viewed by people; and their existence affects people and communities in a multitude of unseen ways.”

Some participants felt that archivists who had experienced personal grief were more prepared to work with other people who were grieving or experiencing trauma:

“I think once you’ve experienced grief yourself, you become sensitized in others. So you can almost see it in staff who had lost a parent, or who were doing their own genealogy. Once they started on their own journey, they became more sensitized to other people’s who were going through it.”

As a profession, we need to ask ourselves whether it is personal experience that should be preparing us for this type of work, or if it is time to centre emotions – and especially people – in archival training. A result of not having done so to date is that archivists, especially new archivists just encountering grief and other intense emotions in archival work, can feel that they are the problem, that they are what one participant called a “hashtag-bad-archivist.”

“Nobody was talking about it. And if they were, it was still very much, ‘You leave your feelings at the door.’ Um…so, I don’t know – now I grieve that. I don’t know that I grieved that at the time. I more took it personally, and said, ‘I’m a bad archivist.’ Like, I took it as, you know, ‘I just need to pull my socks up. I just need to go to more therapy. Like, I am the problem. Not the profession. It’s me.”

In addition to better preparing archivists for complex emotional work and providing support and resources (excellent work is being done on identifying trauma-informed archival practices and developing a trauma-informed community of practice), archival scholars and professionals can begin to explore how “feelings are epistemologically valuable” (Caswell 2020a, p. 152) to archival work, and especially to “radically rethink[ing] and redo[ing] the work of archives,” to make it person centred. Michelle Caswell (2020a and b) has talked about the potential feelings like anger and joy have to move archivists to undertake liberatory memory work: what potential does a feeling like grief have? In our next post, we’ll look at a couple of examples of how grief moves archivists to work differently, to pay a different kind of attention and take a particular kind of care and work in a person-centred way.

Works cited:

Caswell, Michelle. 2020a. “Feeling Liberatory Memory Work: On the Archival Uses of Joy and Anger.” Archivaria  90: 148-64.

Caswell, Michelle. 2020b. Urgent Archives:  Enacting Liberatory Memory Work. London: Routledge.

Cifor, Marika. 2016. “Affecting Relations: Introducing Affect Theory to Archives.” Archival Science 16: 7-31.

Laurent, Nicola and Michaela Hart. 2021. “Building a Trauma-Informed Community of Practice.” Education for Information 37, no. 1: 27-32.

Weber, Genevieve. 2018. “From Documents to People: Working Towards Indigenizing the BC Archives.” BC Studies 199: 95-112.

Wright, Kirsten and Nicola Laurent. 2021. “Safety, Collaboration and Empowerment: Trauma-Informed Archival Practice.” Archivaria 91: 38-73.