Archiving Difficult and Sensitive Collections
January 13, 2013 § 1 Comment
Recently I started a new project at work, one which will require redaction as well as digitization. The collection contains letters sent to a nationally-syndicated advice column focused on young people, with a temporal scope of the late 1980s to the early 2000s. The bulk of the collection was processed traditionally and redacted on paper a few years ago, but we’re going to try digitizing an additional donation. Many of the letters are signed with pseudonyms — think of the letters to “Dear Abby” — but each letter will nevertheless require detailed reading and redaction of any identifying information. I think this is where I can finally use “accretion” in a sentence – the new accretion is two linear feet.
While there are plenty of letters about friendship and adolescence, there is also a lot of heavy stuff: sexual abuse, alcoholism, animal abuse, drugs, gangs. I find that I need to take a lot more breaks working with this material than I ever have with any other collection. And I did know I signed up for this; during my job interview we discussed that part of the experimental and innovative nature of the job would be finding better ways to process and deliver sensitive materials. The last collection I worked on, the clippings of a cultural historian focused on sexuality and gender, was full of salacious material but it dealt with acts between consenting adults. Some of the materials in this new collection are absolutely heartbreaking. They are also necessary.
One of my supervisors told me that the existing collection is used quite frequently by researchers. As difficult as processing this collection will be for me, I will be aiding in the delivery of this primary resource to researchers who may be working in child psychology, sociology, social work, or any other number of fields. It’s worth hoping that making this material available in its redacted form will allow people to gain an understanding of some of the terrible things young people can go through, and that the people in those areas of expertise can act accordingly. As archivists we can only hope that the information we make accessible is used toward some sort of justice.
Processing difficult or sensitive collections does not quite fit the romantic ideal of the work an archivist performs, does it? There’s the occasional historical scandal uncovered, but we rarely think about the truly tragic stories that archives may lay bare. In our effort to give agency to marginalized voices by stewarding new collections, we have to face the fact that often no voices are more marginalized than those of children. I’m interested in the intersection between history, archives, and activism, and I think working on this collection will help me develop as a stronger, more activism-driven archivist as well as provide a valuable resource for the public. Archiving with an activist’s perspective means doing the difficult work and treating the slivers of tragic stories with diligence and respect.