Problematic Thoughts 05 - Activism in the Archives

By Doctor Comrade

Let’s talk about Las Vegas history. Las Vegas is a city with a long mythology, celebrated for its party atmosphere and “sinful” nature. Gambling, prostitution, raucous entertainment, and money, that’s what Las Vegas is about. And when histories of the city are written, they mention the famous financiers and hotel owners that built the city: Hughes, Binion, Harrah, Wynn, Adelson, Siegel, Kerkorian; or the railroad owners like Clark and Durant.

But let me make one thing clear: No CEO, casino executive, financier, or entrepreneur ever built anything in Las Vegas.

These elite white men have been enshrined by a discourse of history that privileges their achievements and elides the workers who actually created the city. These discourses have been bolstered by the archives that house their documents, records, photographs, and artifacts. So this podcast is actually about archives and what is contained within them.

Archives are vitally important for every historian. Archives store and preserve historical documents and artifacts from which historians form interpretations and arguments about the past. Archives can range from small businesses, local museums, and historical societies to giant academic libraries and government repositories.

Archivists are the people who work in archives, and for the last 18 months, I’ve had the privilege of working as an archivist, first as an intern and now as a full-time employee. As important as archives are to historical research, archivists are also crucially important. This is not to overstate the importance of my job; rather, I want to explain how archives and archivists participate in, and ultimately influence, historical discourse. In essence, I will argue two main points: that people and objects in the archives are never objective, and they are constantly producing historical knowledge. I will then go on to explain what archivists, historians, and researchers can do to change and shape the narratives produced by that historical knowledge.

I use the terms “objective” and “production of knowledge” because of an excellent book I read while I was in grad school. The book is a series of essays called Contesting Archives: Finding Women in the Sources, edited by Nupur Chaudhuri, Sherry J. Katz, and Mary Elizabeth Perry, published in 2010. In the introduction to the book, the authors argue that the book will “challenge the tired assumption that an archive is simply an immutable, neutral, and ahistorical place in which historical records are preserved. Rather than agreeing that an archive is merely a repository of information, these scholars view it as a site for the production of knowledge.”[1] They go on to say that, “Women’s historians in particular highlighted the exclusion of documents pertaining to women, who were not until quite recently considered legitimate subjects of history and therefore of archival collection.”[2] In effect, archives are not objective, they are shaped by those who construct them and by those who control the materials, and in turn, those archives shape narratives that are “found” there.

We can see an example in the history of Las Vegas. Joanne Goodwin, a professor of history at UNLV, wrote in her essay “Revealing New Narratives of Women in Las Vegas,” that most of the beliefs about Las Vegas, and about women in Las Vegas, are completely erroneous. She argues that mainstream notions of Las Vegas as an adult fantasyland belie people who sustain the industry, and images of women as hookers and showgirls “bear little resemblance to the lives of the women who lived there.”[3] In actuality, Las Vegas provided opportunities for work that challenged domestic stereotypes and roles; learning about women in Las Vegas “expands our understanding of US women since 1945... beyond the simple image constructed by casino public relations offices in the 1950s.... In an era of increasing tensions between conventional morals and newfound expressions of sexuality, the showgirl image came to overwhelm and obscure the experiences of women as workers and community builders. Going beyond local history, the narratives fill out the story of women’s experiences with survival, migration, work, and agency.”[4]

The narratives of Las Vegas history—so often constructed around the histories of gaming, entertainment, the mob, and white pioneers—have usually left out the experiences of women. The results, both from popular culture and historical production, have created a caricature of the kind of woman who inhabits Las Vegas history. Hookers and showgirls dominate, while workers, migrants, civil rights activists, and union members have been marginalized. This narrative bias, as a direct result of archives built to encapsulate a certain version of Las Vegas history, is most pronounced when considering the historical agency of women in the past. Women’s historians, like Goodwin and others from Contesting Archives, have worked strenuously to excavate and reimagine the experiences of women in the past, to form new interpretations of women’s roles in historical narratives, and to challenge the version of history that dominates scholastic publications and popular imagination.

What I hope these examples demonstrate is that the archive is forever imperfect, yet it is also subject to constant pressures and changes. Recognizing the biases, obfuscations, and omissions in archives is only part of the battle. Historians—especially social historians, cultural historians, women’s historians, LGBT historians, Latino/Latina historians, African-American historians, and indigenous historians—have challenged archival convention by searching for documentary evidence that can be reimagined in order to elucidate the experiences of historically marginalized groups. Along with historians, archivists also have a key role to play in the future of archives.

At my job, I describe collections, which means I look at what has been donated to the archive, and I write a description that will help researchers find the materials. I also revise old descriptions to bring them into compliance with new standards and rules. For example, I recently described a collection donated by an amateur photographer who had taken pictures of the Hoover Dam while it was being constructed in the 1930s. I went through the pictures, made an inventory, and then revised the short descriptions of each picture written by another archivist; I also wrote the historical background on the dam and the companies who oversaw its construction, which is information that goes in the finding aid for this collection. Now, if a researcher goes to our database and searches for “Hoover Dam construction,” or even if they search in Google, they can find the collection that’s housed in our archive, and they’ll find my revised description of it. Then they can look at the pictures and hopefully use them as research materials for a paper or book they’re working on.

I picked this collection to talk about on the podcast because it demonstrates one of the key interventions I have made in the archive. Perhaps because of my political beliefs or my education, I have become conscious of the racialized, gendered, and classed structures that have shaped historical scholarship. But those structures have also determined the kinds of materials—and their concomitant descriptions—which are present in the archive. So as I have become more aware of the archive’s biases, I have endeavored to correct them through small linguistic interventions in the descriptions that I write.

This is certainly not an original argument, but I have to say that language matters, and I’d like to expound on two ways that are relevant in the archives. Firstly, the language we use to describe material and conceptual objects fundamentally shapes the treatment of those objects. Language illustrates how some people have chosen to categorize photographs and other artifacts, especially concerning the subject matter. By analyzing language, we can use it as evidence of historical conditions. For example, racial slurs demonstrate how some white historical actors treated people of color, demeaned them, dehumanized them, reinforced white cultural superiority, and so on. When those slurs are evident in the archive, I notice them. And that they remain in the archive, often as part of the description written by an archivist, became ethically troublesome to me.

In the second way, language affects how narratives are shaped in the present. In the case of racial slurs, those words are used for a political effect, often with the result or goal of reinforcing white supremacy. Using hateful words against people of color is meant to strip them of dignity and rights. So we can see that language is not only evidence of past bias, but also affects bias by providing a means to reify inequality in the present. As an archivist, I have noticed both of these forms of language, and I change them whenever I can.

Many interventions are easy and obvious. In the past few days, for instance, I have removed the words “squaw” and “retarded” from old descriptions of photographs because they are culturally offensive. They may have been tolerated in the 1970s and 1980s when the photographs were initially described, but they are no longer acceptable parts of our discourse, and they characterize the subjects of the photographs as inferior. Calling an indigenous woman a “squaw” or a child with a mental handicap “retarded” is evidence of white-male supremacy: the ability to label, denigrate, and marginalize the subject of the photograph.

We also know that many slurs, like the n-word, would never be allowed in the archival descriptions. However, allowing some epithets to stay in the archive normalizes their usage and makes them seem more harmless. These more subtle forms of racism, sexism, and ableism are dangerous because they hide in plain sight, reinforcing that they may still be part of legitimate political discourse. We might never say them in polite conversation, but so far, they’ve been tolerated as descriptions of archival materials. Therefore, when I see them, I do not tolerate them, and I strike them from the record; I attempt to deprive these slurs of their ability to marginalize the subjects of the photographs, to silence or categorize these people as Others.

But in addition to being an archivist, I’m also a historian, and I’m interested in creating what I believe to be accurate depictions of past events. These depictions, what I characterize as narratives, influence discourse about the past. While working at my job, I deal with a lot of photographs of white settlers coming to the Las Vegas Valley. The unfortunate descriptions of these photographs, written by archivists who worked here decades ago, call some of these white settlers the “first settlers of the Las Vegas Valley.” Of course, we know this is absurd because indigenous peoples had lived in the Las Vegas Valley for centuries before Europeans ever came here. But we have to realize that calling these white settlers “first settlers” marginalizes the indigenous peoples who lived here before. Christopher Columbus did not “discover” America; it had been settled for thousands of years before he arrived. Similarly, these white migrants were not the “first” settlers of the Las Vegas Valley because indigenous peoples and Mexican people had been here first. (There’s no way a place called “Las Vegas” was first settled by WASPy migrants from the East Coast.) Continuing to call these white people “first” settlers creates a narrative that privileges the white experience and silences the history of indigenous peoples. This is unacceptable, not only because I’m a historian who searches for historical accuracy, but also because of the political implications of silencing indigenous peoples. For centuries, American belief in “Manifest Destiny” and white supremacy has led to the genocides of many native peoples. As a historical agent myself, and someone who believes in social justice, this is my indictment of Manifest Destiny, manifest racism, and white privilege. Whites have written the dominant historical narrative and housed it in their archives, so let us then undermine that narrative where it lives.

Another example is when women in photographs are referred to as “Mrs.” and then by their husband’s first and last name. Unfortunately, for many of these photographs, that’s the only information I have, and I have to reluctantly call her that in the description of the photo. But in cases where I have seen her full name in other places, I change the name from “Mrs. John Smith” to her full name, especially if her maiden name is included. The naming conventions in our culture have been dissected by feminists for over a century and those critiques need not be rehashed here. But I will simply add that our archive has been blind to the erasure of women’s heritage when archivists are content to call women by only their husbands’ names. I might not be able to resurrect or save women from historical erasure, but at times when it’s possible, I can make sure that they are not absent and that their names, especially their maiden names, are preserved in some form. Hopefully, if researchers ever use these collections in the future, they will be able to refer to the women on their own terms rather than by the strictures of their husband’s name.

Earlier, I brought up the collection that had photographs of the Hoover Dam under construction. The old description said that the Six Companies built the Hoover Dam. From multiple angles, this kind of claim is inherently flawed. For one thing, the owners and officers of those companies built nothing. Only through the intense and dangerous labor of thousands of workers did the Hoover Dam get built. Stating that the Six Companies built the dam is simply historically inaccurate. At worst, we might say that “the Six Companies employed the workers who built the dam.” But I’m more inclined to write about the Six Companies in the passive voice, making those companies subordinate in the sentence. I’d say that “workers, employed by the Six Companies, built the Hoover Dam.” At least in this formulation, the workers are credited with their labor and made the subject of the sentence.

What I hope to accomplish is to clarify and enlarge the documented historical agency of the workers, those who have been marginalized in historical discourse, reduced often to statistics and tables of numbers. In some small sense, I hope to encourage people who read my descriptions to imagine the workers as the active historical agents rather than the immutable mass that has been pushed aside by historians in the past.

On a similar note, we should also acknowledge that photographs of CEOs and politicians at groundbreaking ceremonies are nothing more than political and ideological theater. How many unnamed, unmentioned, unappreciated workers are left out of the historical narrative because they weren’t rich enough to hold a golden shovel? These men make a mockery out of the people who did carry the dirt and erected a structure in its place. When captured in photographs, these groundbreakers attempt to insert themselves at the forefront of the historical narrative, and archivists and historians have helped to ensure that their names, faces, and performances are remembered.

Some people may question my ethics and my agenda. I invite the criticism. I also acknowledge that I’m tinkering with the concept of provenance, the guiding principle of archival work. In archives, provenance is the treatment of materials when archivists defer to the materials’ original production or earliest history. I say it’s deferential because archivists generally adhere to the donor’s descriptions of materials. Intervening on behalf of historical subjects, as I claim to do, is a kind of archival activism, which may violate some archivists’ deferential attitudes towards provenance. But, as I have argued before, there are some words we would excise without question, including racial slurs. I am simply addressing the kinds of ideological attacks against workers, women, and people of color that have subtly permeated our archives. We do not tolerate overt racism, and for the same reasons I will not tolerate covert racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and so on.

Archives have sheltered, encouraged, and propagated elite narratives for their entire histories. When elite narratives marginalize, silence, obscure, or conceal the historical agency of others, those elite narratives must be challenged. Attack the elites where they hide. I am an archivist and a historian, but I’m also an activist, and I think our profession has failed in its mission to preserve history. When only one version of history is preserved, it is incumbent upon us to improve the conditions under which counter-histories exist. In order for us to fulfill our obligations, we should be changing the depictions of historical narratives, we should be intervening in historical revision, and we should be actively participating in the production of knowledge.

Archives already shape the versions of history that are apparent to historians. Archivists should be conscious of their own contributions.

[1] p. xiii.
[2] p. xiv.
[3] p. 177.
[4] p. 179.

Chaudhuri, Nupur, Sherry J. Katz, and Mary Elizabeth Perry, eds. Contesting Archives: Finding Women in the Sources. University of Illinois Press, 2010.

Goodwin, Joanne L. “Revealing New Narratives of Women in Las Vegas.” In Contesting Archives: Finding Women in the Sources, edited by Nupur Chaudhuri, Sherry J. Katz, and Mary Elizabeth Perry. University of Illinois Press, 2010.