Diversity and Inclusion in Archiving

How is the archiving profession faring, when it comes to diversity and inclusion?

The Journal of Western Archives will publish a special issue on diversity, inclusion, and cultural diversity during 2018. Its editors have disseminated a call for papers (deadline 1 April 2018), with such potential topics as the history of diversity in the archiving profession, collaboration among institutional and community archives, and what can be achieved with a shift from a “diversity mindset” to an “inclusivity mindset.”

Diversity, suggests the call for submissions, “can potentially encompass differences along lines of race, gender, socioeconomic status, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs, political beliefs, ethnicity, and sexual orientation,” while inclusion “refers to the activities that individuals and institutions engage in that allow all kinds of individuals to feel comfortable and accepted with equal opportunity to access services.”

In the archiving profession, inclusivity has been slow coming, suggest the editors of the special issue, J. Gordon Daines III, the head of special collections at Brigham Young University, and Helen Wong Smith, the executive director of the Kaua’i Historical Society, in Hawai’i, and a librarian archivist at the State Historic Preservation Division. On behalf of the Society of American Archivists, Smith offers a cultural diversity workshop in which she teaches basic skills in cultural competency.

Moving Image Archive News spoke with Helen Wong Smith about the state of diversity and inclusivity in archiving; here’s what she said (edited for length and clarity).


How did you come to work with the Society of American Archivists, around diversity issues?

Helen Wong Smith

In 2015, I was on the SAA Council [the organization’s governing body], and they had been struggling with tackling diversity for several years and I said, you know, because we don’t have an entire office, the way the American Library Association does [Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services], we need to bite off a smaller portion, and perhaps a manageable way of addressing this is through cultural competency. If we start with that — if everybody is aware of cultural competency and trained in it — that might be a more successful way of being more inclusive.

Council had me give a presentation; they liked it; they allowed me to do a full-day workshop with Council and staff. That was extremely successful and became the full-day workshop that I now offer.

Has archiving lagged, in regards to diversity and inclusion? What has made this a pressing issue for archiving, now?

Mostly because traditionally archives collect things of rich white people who were the power brokers. My argument has been that we should be collecting the entire communities that we serve, in order to diversity the record. Archives have been a little behind libraries, because libraries are so publicly oriented.

SAA has made very important progress in diversifying, in introducing the topic. We had a diversity reader published a few years ago [Through the Archival Looking Glass: A Reader on Diversity and Inclusion, edited by Mary A. Caldera and Kathryn M. Neal, 2014], but it’s such a huge issue to tackle. People are stymied because they just don’t know how to approach it.

And talking about inclusion, rather than diversity, is a way to cut to the chase?

Yes. It makes it much more personal. When I do my workshop, it’s extremely on the personal level, talking about your life experiences. My recommendation is that not only should we have the voices of previously disenfranchised people and people who maybe still feel disenfranchised, and how they’re trying to be more inclusive and increase diversity and cultural competency, but we should also open it up to people who want to talk about white privilege.

So, shifting from a diversity mindset to an inclusivity mindset can generate more diverse collections?

Yes, because if we’re able to communicate very basically not just with our patrons but to really expand the type of things we collect in our archives, we’re more responsive to our communities—they’ll see that we value their contributions.

I’m afraid of ‘diversity’ because it can be a token effort: ‘Oh, we have one person of color on our staff; we’re all good,’ or ‘We have 30 percent; we’re all good.’ But you can still ignore the fact that you’re not recognizing the diversity, and not just in terms of ethnicity. I always want to warn people that diversity is not limited to ethnicity, but also applies to socioeconomic groups, religions, and what have you. If we don’t do that we won’t reflect, and we’ll become even more isolated, and lose our community support.

You mentioned that archives are somewhat behind libraries, in this regard. Is the archiving profession aware of being behind?

Recently there has been a much stronger push to open up the collections, in what we seek and what we acquire. Traditionally, archives have been pretty embarrassing, but in the past 5 to 10 years, there has been a really big push, especially the younger generation, to open up and be much more diverse in their collecting policies.

Is it the profession that is resisting, or more the people providing the money who haven’t seen diversity in collections as important?

Yeah, that’s huge. Traditionally, archives are so poorly funded, and when you have limited funds and limited support, you have to focus on what the institution says: ‘You’ll concentrate on the records of this particular institution; you can’t go out and solicit things from the outside.’ But if you abide by that, you lose the traction, the social capital that is so important in order to remain in place, and hopefully to support you when you need support for future funding.

Academic libraries often are so poorly funded that you’d only take care of what’s on campus, or what have you. With business archives, of course they’re just going to worry about you collecting the vitals of a particular business. But recently there has been a shift to say, ‘Wait a minute — after, say, a mass-shooting tragedy, we’re going to collect all the mementos that were left at a site where a shooting occurred.’

So there has been a big change in what we collect, and that’s not just up to community archives.

It’s very difficult for government archives, because they’re just mandated to take care of government records, but I have seen instances of government archives collecting and acquiring records of significant social occurrences.

How do you gauge progress?

Just by looking at the variety. For instance, in our SAA newsletter, when you look at the types of collections that people are starting to go after, you can see that archivists are taking more of a proactive role, rather than just sitting back until somebody says, ‘I’m going to devote my papers to you because I’m so important, or my grandfather was so important.’

In doing that, I suppose it’s obvious why they need to have developed cultural competency.

Yes. When archivists come down from their ivory towers and talk to a community and they’re condescending, or they have this sense of either ‘you’re not important enough,’ or ‘yes we’ll take this, but this is the way you’ve got to do it; we’ll adhere to our procedures’… Just the interaction between any two cultures, when the two cultures come face to face. That even goes down in the reading room: how archivists will communicate with a different culture than they’re unaccustomed to.

When I take people from Hawaii to Washington DC to conduct research, in places like that National Archives, just in the communication styles, the habits, all these different things, I can really see the conflict because one does not necessarily understand the other’s cultural habits or communications styles.

And then when you come to the new cultures being introduced to the workforce… When I started doing my research in the archives, 40 years ago, it was me and a bunch of old white men; now it’s much more diverse in the state archives, in the large repositories. As we get more and more diversity in the workplace, this is extremely important, as well.

So, it permeates every level: it permeates our working environment, how we may get people of color, to use that as an example – people of different cultures, but especially socioeconomic. That’s something I tell people to be really careful about. Maybe they didn’t go to an Ivy League school, or maybe they didn’t get their training the way you did, or the traditional way that one got training to become an archivist.

You have to be able to communicate with all of these different cultures, especially to potential donors and patrons, people who come in and use the collections. You have to have that cultural competency, to have successful interactions.

How accepting and active is the profession in trying to educate itself, along those lines?

From what I’ve seen, since I’ve introduced the concept to SAA, it has been readily accepted. It’s in its neophyte stages, because I’m the only one who is talking about it. I have a few people now who have heard me speak or attended my workshops and who have said, ‘this is great, can you talk about it here or present it there.’ The SAA can’t afford to fly me all over the place, so they asked me to do those online workshops, so it can be spread.

So I think it’s getting a lot of traction because cultural competency is something that is tangible, as opposed to diversity. Diversity is so large a concept that people said, ‘It’s too much to handle,’ and left it alone; so I break it down to certain skill sets that I think are easy for people to handle.

That would seem to indicate that the profession is quite a way behind where you might hope it’d be, by now. It’s not like inclusiveness and diversity are new concepts.

Yeah. I think they want it to be, it was just too nebulous for them to get a handle on it. I think that’s where the problem was – when you don’t quite know how to increase that, then you have the token person of a different culture and say, ‘We’re diversified.’ So I think they want cultural competency to be another tool for them, to increase their capabilities.

It must help potential donors of material, if archivists have that skill.

Oh yes, and it’s so funny because one archivist said ‘We have lots of Vietnamese in our community so we know how to speak to Asians,’ and I said, ‘Oh no, you can’t lump them all together.’

After 40 years I can think of all the instances that I have either experienced or viewed where lack of cultural competency has created communication breakdown and bad feeling between a repository and a community.

I’m not telling archivists how to interact with any one particular group. I’m saying: these are skill sets that can be apply to any group, whether it be LGBT, or homeless, or any particular culture you may be face to face with. So, they’re transferable skills that make all the difference in the world when you’re dealing with potential donors.

What specific sorts of things are you telling archivists?

The major thing is: ‘Know your audience.’ Know a little bit about who it is you’re speaking to. My main goal is for people to be cognizant of who they’re talking to. You can explain to them your basic policies and procedures, but you should be attuned to picking up both verbal and non-verbal communication from them about what they’re understanding. It can be very nuanced, but there are ways of portraying yourself and your profession and your guidelines, while being appropriate to the particular culture you’re dealing with.

For the journal special issue, your call for submissions says you’re interested in hearing about work that is increasing diversity and inclusion. Is it your sense that there is a well of concrete ideas out there for doing that — ideas that haven’t been brought together in an organized way, in archiving?

Oh, yeah, for example here we’ve done a whole range of activities — like, whole-day workshops in how you care for your family treasures, everything from books and papers and photographs and textiles, even wooden bowls and featherwork and such. That introduces people to the profession and what archives are, and how they can help you. I do a lot of outreach as far as: these are the types of repositories that can help you to conduct your genealogy, that are freely available. So there are a lot of different ways that we can cross that divide.

Is part of the challenge to create ways for people within the profession to learn what each other is doing?

Yes, this journal issue is just another approach. My workshop is one approach, and the literature that more and more people are writing. And then actual case studies that are printed in our newsletter. People talk about how they have approached particular cultures and successfully worked with them, or even lessons learned from unsuccessful collaborations. We should talk about lessons learned, as well.

The profession is definitely going in that direction. But when you think that we’ve been around since 1939, it’s taken a while.

For more information about the journal’s special issue, contact Helen Wong Smith (Smith@hawaii.edu) or J. Gordon Daines III (gordon_daines@byu.edu).


In February 2017, the Association of Moving Image Archivists adopted its AMIA Statement on Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity:

The Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) is a non-profit professional association committed to diversity, inclusion, and equity as core values, to be reflected in our membership and within the institutions and constituents we serve as stewards of our moving image heritage. AMIA strives to cultivate an environment in which a multiplicity of voices are sought, listened to, and respected, and in which the development of cultural competence is a priority. AMIA is dedicated to expanding membership, participation and leadership to include historically underrepresented professionals and their allies, reflecting the evolving diversity of society and the moving image field.

AMIA fosters an environment in which professionals working in many different regions, countries, and institutional types, across the spectrum of experience, and with a multiplicity of media formats, are welcomed and empowered to share information and advance the field on equal footing. AMIA also understands diversity to encompass the following socio-economic factors, and works to create an inclusive, equitable and responsive environment for all of our members and colleagues, the holdings we manage, and the publics we serve: Age, Class, Dis/ability, Ethnicity, Familial Responsibility, Gender Identity, Immigration/Citizen Status, Income, Language, Perceptive Abilities, Political Affiliation, Physical and Mental Health, Race, Region/Geography, Religion, Sexual Preference, Veteran status.

— Peter Monaghan

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