Rows of hundreds of blue and white archive boxes on shelves.

Archive: Developing Critical Collaborations

Walker Smith | University of Louisville

I arrived at my first in-person visit to an institutional archive with a strong foundation in archival research methods—both in teaching and in research. I had taught many composition research assignments with digital archives at Oklahoma State University even using readings from the field at the director’s suggestion (Gaillet). I had read extensively for my graduate seminar papers about how archives are not apolitical repositories of truth but require the user to navigate records critically, attuned to the ethical impacts of the histories that appear there (Cushman; Graban; Kirsch & Rohan; Morris; Ramsey et al.,). However, what my training hadn’t fully prepared me for was the laborers behind an archive’s organization and presentation to the public—archivists—also have their own theories and debates about the power dynamics of records management.

Entering the Edgar Rice Burroughs Archive, the world’s largest collection of “ERB” ephemera, the archivists offered me bits of information and context that I didn’t know I should or even could be asking for—particularly, what is this collection’s provenance

What is its history of ownership? 
Who had custody prior to its acquisition?
How and why was it acquired? 
What principles do the archivists follow in processing its records and making them accessible to others? 
Do they adhere to the original order of its creator or owner, or is its order negotiated among the collection’s various managers, users, and stakeholders?

Such questions of provenance in the Burroughs Archive came with high-stakes ethical concerns. The author of violent colonial fantasy novels like Tarzan of the Apes, Burroughs himself espoused white supremacist values and promoted a eugenicist vision for the U.S. As the “Godfather of American Science Fiction,” his works still garner a massive fandom who actively continue to produce fan art and fiction, hold events, and catalog their activities online. As the custodians of a challenging, undoubtedly colonial archive, University of Louisville’s archivists go above and beyond to present Burroughs’ records and artifacts to the public in appropriate historical context and to collaborate with instructors and researchers who treat its contents with a fervent critical stance.

My own time researching in the Burroughs Archive helped me to notice the often untapped potential for critical collaborations with archival staff who do much more than simply provide us with access to archives and information. Below, I outline the commitments of a subfield known as “critical archival studies” (CAS) and offer one example of how I have tried to integrate CAS into writing classes. Certainly, rhetoric and composition scholars in the field have drawn from critical archival theories before (especially from Stoler) and often encouraged collaborations with archival staff (e.g., Rawson), but here I only seek to draw attention to our potential theoretical overlaps.

What is CAS? Or, What are Archivists Saying about Power Today?
Critical archival studies (CAS) is in part a response to critical theory’s uptake of the archival metaphor in the late twentieth century. On the one hand, this body of theory was vital for explaining how multiple historical narratives vie for official commemoration and for how certain publics draw on shared resources for rhetorical invention. On the other hand, many archivists have rightfully criticized that when we invoke “the archive” as a theoretical idea, we often ignore the long tradition of archival practice and scholarship that informs the world’s second oldest profession (Schwartz & Cook).

Critical archivists also bemoan this theoretical trend while pausing to consider what aspects of critical theory may be useful to their field. For example, Caswell et al. outline the commitments of CAS as follows:

(1) explain what is unjust with the current state of archival research and practice, (2) posit practical goals for how such research and practice can and should change, and/or (3) provide the norms for such critique. In this way, critical archival studies, like critical theory, is emancipatory in nature, with the ultimate goal of transforming archival practice and society writ large.

The question posed by Caswell et al. is essentially: What do feminist and queer theories, critical race theory, Native American and Indigenous studies, post/de/anticolonial theories, and other theories of power in society have to offer those who manage archival records? A lot, they argue: “We know that power permeates every aspect of the archival endeavor” (Caswell et al. 3).

Interrogating archival power is a central tenet of CAS. Rather than adhering solely to a collection’s original order, they encourage archivists to embrace the many flourishing orders and “disorders” that appear, meaning that an archive’s organization and accessibility should be determined not only by those who created or acquired it but also by those marginalized stakeholders who are represented in the collection (Schwartz and Cook 18).

We archival researchers in rhetoric and composition have been leading similar conversations about the rhetorical power of archives to reinforce harmful metanarratives, to validate official versions of history, and to bolster violent institutions’ memory-making capacities. But clearly, we also have a lot to learn from archivists about what they see as “unjust” practices in their own field.

What Can First Year Writing Students Do With CAS?
In Spring 2020, I designed my section of second-semester composition to provide students the opportunity to conduct primary research (finding and reading firsthand accounts) in the first half of the semester before we dove into secondary research (finding and reading sources that summarize or analyze the primary sources) in the latter half. Moving from primary to secondary allows students to experience the messiness of gathering and organizing sources and piecing them together into coherent narratives for others to read, and it always highlights the ethical decisions they must make along the way about who comes to be considered a “reliable” source.

While I had taught digital archival research assignments many times before, I wanted to specifically develop in-person critical collaborations with archival staff. I first contacted UofL archivists Delinda Stephens Buie and Rebecca Pattillo and explained to them the goals I had for the first two primary research assignments of the semester. Excited by our conversations, Delinda and Rebecca worked diligently to prepare a presentation that both defined archiving for students and provided them with the history of the Burroughs Archive. Additionally, prior to arriving to the archives, I had spent a week with students defining coloniality, reading about the colonial history of archives, and discussing the impact colonization continues to have on public memory (Powell; Cushman).

With all of the necessary pieces in place, the archivists invited students to explore a personally curated exhibit of Burroughs artifacts that they thought might support the course’s focus, including all sorts of Tarzan-themed books, board games, movie posters, action figures, toys, lunch boxes, children’s shoes, and more. As students experimented with the different oddities that lay before them, Delinda and Rebecca circulated around the room, offering extra information about the history of certain items, answering questions from students, and helping them make connections between artifacts. Throughout the session, students were encouraged to take extensive notes and pictures, so that they could refer back to them over the next few weeks.

For the Unit 1 essay, students were asked to write a rhetorical analysis of one artifact from the Burroughs Archive. But as they quickly learned, this work couldn’t successfully be done alone. We engaged in research together as a class and in group activities, sharing sources and helpful bits of information along the way, and asking questions of our archival guides when necessary. In this way, primary research processes were framed as a negotiation among multiple, often competing audiences and stakeholders. Contrary to dominant understandings of history as a ready-made narrative waiting to be told, students naturally found themselves drawing connections between their artifacts and debating about the credibility of various, contradictory sources.

The contextual information provided by archivists gave students enough material to draft their essays or gave them enough clues that they could find more history in secondary research. For example, some students wrote about the 1930s Tarzan board game made by the Parker Brothers only a few years after they released Monopoly, which they were able to read more about because Delinda had provided some of the history of the artifact’s donation and condition. With this kind of background information, many of the students were able to trace how the violent aspects of Tarzan’s origin story were transformed into an entertaining colonial fantasy digestible for children.

Other students chose the 1966 “Tarzan Rub-ons” in the Picturama Magic Transfers series. Using some of the other sources provided by archivists, students were able to find interviews with Burroughs about how he made the decision to manufacture Tarzan’s image in multiple media.

This image features the "rub-on" images that will fill in the blank page of figure 4. Tarzan's torso, legs, palm trees, patches of grass, and a child holding a chimpanzee can be transferred to the blanks in the other page of the magazine.
Figure 5. The “rub-on” images.

These discussions flowed well into Unit 2 where students were asked to critically evaluate an aspect of the archive. Following class discussions, I articulated the following criteria:

Content layout and toolsOrganization and hierarchy of information, and inherent biases/stances
Originality/uniqueness of artifactsSignificance/relevance of historical events
Updated navigation guides and exhibitions for new usersImpact/learning potential of exhibitions/guides
Usability/legibility/accessibilityAccuracy/credibility/reliability of sources

Ultimately, we were able to collectively compose a list of recommendations to different types of researchers and teachers who might use the archive in the future. By the end of the two units, students were able to clearly articulate the features, functions, and tools they need from in-person archives and digital research databases, which was helpful preparation for the latter half of the course where they would need to become comfortable with navigating the university library’s various online search engines.

While students reported that they found the work of primary research exciting and beneficial, they also reported that the assignments were challenging and that they occasionally faced difficult setbacks. Most of these were successfully addressed in class discussions and responsively designed activities only because the UofL archivists made themselves available to us as secondary sources themselves, offering “the context of record creation, of archival functions, of the formation of archival institutions, of archival outreach and use and advocacy” (Caswell et al. 3). The artifacts on their own can appear somewhat a-contextual, leaving the responsibility to the user to determine what is of value and what artifacts mean, but archivists’ honest, critical histories of the archive’s acquisition and selection decisions made our analytical work easier and more effective.

We could perform rhetorical analyses of what simply lay before us, but we couldn’t answer certain questions on our own like:

    • Who originally called for the archive’s preservation and creation?
    • How have the archivists selected what records will be showcased or shelved?
    • What practices guided their organization?
    • How much of the collection is processed, and how do they decide what to process first?
    • Which stakeholders influenced these decisions?
    • What are the archivists’ goals for the collection?

Encouraging students to dialogue with archivists about their specific artifacts led them into other exciting avenues of inquiry, making it possible for them to develop critical stances and fully evaluate the various aspects of the artifacts they had chosen.

How Do I Support Critical Archivists?
These kinds of collaborations with archivists have multiple benefits for students. Not only do they enrich the researched arguments they write for the course, but they also demonstrate the dialogic and rhetorical nature of research, foregrounding how containers of knowledge like archives are socially constructed and organized according to certain theories of practice and with various groups of users in mind.

My hope is that asking students to interact with archivists supports the goals of CAS by valuing the labor of archival staff, which in turn, may also challenge their preconceived notions of research as an apolitical, fact-finding process. Below is a small snippet of some of the work that critical archivists are doing, provided by Rebecca, and which my students have used in their writing and appreciated:

Additionally, these are some of the open-access, digital archives from which students have reported rich researching experiences, all taken from a longer list written by Lynn Lewis for the Oklahoma State University First Year Composition Program:

Works Cited
Caswell, Michelle, Ricardo Punzalan, and T-Kay Sangwand. “Critical Archival Studies: An Introduction.” Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies, vol.1, no. 2, 2017, pp. 1-8.

Cushman, Ellen. “Wampum, Sequoyan, and Story: Decolonizing the Digital Archive.” College English, vol. 76, no. 2, 2013, pp. 115-135.

Gaillet, Lynée Lewis. “(Per)Forming Archival Research Methodologies.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 64, no. 1, 2012, pp. 35-58.

Graban, Tarez Samra. “From Location(s) to Locatability: Mapping Feminist Recovery and Archival Activity Through Metadata.” College English, vol. 76, no. 2, 2013, pp. 171-193.

Kirsch, Gesa, and Liz Rohan. Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008.

Morris, Charles. “Archival Queer.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs, vol. 9, no. 1, 2006, pp. 145-151.

Powell, Malea. “Dreaming Charles Eastman: Cultural Memory, Autobiography, and Geography in Indigenous Rhetorical Histories,” pp. 115-127. In Kirsch, Gesa, and Liz Rohan. Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008.

Ramsey, Alexis E., Wendy B. Sharer, & Barbara L’Eplattenier. Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010.

Rawson, K.J. “The Rhetorical Power of Archival Description: Classifying Images of Gender Transgression.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 4, 2018, pp. 327-351.

Schwartz, Joan M., and Terry Cook. “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science, vol. 2, 2002, pp. 1-19.

Stoler, Ann. “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance.” Archival Science, vol. 2, 2002, pp. 87-109.

Images Cited
Feature image photo by Nana Smirnova on Unsplash.

Tarzan board game, Parker Brothers, 1939.

Tarzan Picturama Rub-on Magic Transfers, Hasbro, 1966.

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