Politics & Ethics of Archives: Q & A With BCRW Director Elizabeth Castelli

activismBCRWlibrary The theme of the 44th annual Scholar and Feminist Conference of the Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW), taking place on February 8-9, 2019, is “Politics and Ethics of the Archive.” BCRW Director and Professor of Religion Elizabeth Castelli shares her thoughts on how archives have changed in the digital world, why archivists must approach their work using an ethical lens, and the ways in which archives are political.

BCRW Director & Professor of Religion Elizabeth CastelliWhen you use the word “archive” in 2019, to what are you referring? How is this notion of “archive” different from the one commonly held a generation ago?

I use the word “archive” to describe repositories of a wide range of artifacts — textual, visual, audio, video, and material. These artifacts can be published or unpublished, public and private, documentary and polemical. With apologies to the journalists among us, I believe that archives are truly the first draft of history.

How have social media and digital culture transformed archival practices?

Certainly social media and digital culture have changed how we communicate, how we save the many sorts of artifacts that have traditionally been part of “the archive.” The paradox of traditional archives is the materiality of so-called “ephemera” — posters, fliers, photographs, newsletters, and so on. Since these sorts of items now circulate predominantly in digital formats, they haven’t quite lost their materiality, but they have certainly been pixelated! But the other side of this question is how digital formats have made it possible for archival materials to be much more accessible to many more people, thanks to various forms of open-source platforms and projects. Though the digital is a facsimile of the “real” artifact, the digital also makes the artifact more available — and quite often “better-than-real” in that one can explore the facsimile in a more fine-grained way, albeit from a distance.

In what ways are archives political? What makes discussion over their ethics a feminist project?

When we say that archives are political, we’re talking about differentials of power at all sorts of levels: Whose materials get collected in the first place? Who is empowered to catalogue, organize, and curate those collections? Who is authorized to have access to the materials and to interpret them? How does the institutional location of a particular archive shape its existence and the security of its future?

Talking about the ethics of archives is a feminist project for a number of reasons: feminists have long asked questions about issues of representation and documentation, the textures of social difference, and the authority by which some experiences and histories have been positioned as representative and normative — often at the expense of those individuals and communities pushed to the margins. Now that we have archives of earlier generations of feminist movements, we can ask: Who was in the room when strategies and tactics were decided? Whose voices were muted and muffled? How do we represent the historical absence of certain perspectives rather than simply reproducing them in the decisions we make about curating and exhibiting

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