Last updated on 13 April 2021

Dr Kirsty Fairclough is Associate Dean: Research and Innovation at the School of Arts and Media, University of Salford and she attended iPres2019 with support from the DPC's Leadership Programme which is generously funded by DPC supporters.

Michelle Caswell - UCLA

Whose Digital Preservation? Locating Our Standpoints to Reallocate Resources 

The second keynote comes from Michelle Caswell who is an Associate Professor of Archival Studies in the Department of Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where she also holds a joint appointment with Asian American studies. Her work in critical archival studies engages how individuals and communities activate archives to forge identities, create robust representations, and produce feelings of belonging. Caswell directs a team of students at UCLA’s Community Archives Lab, which explores the ways that independent, identity-based memory organisations document, shape, and provide access to the histories of minoritised communities, with a particular emphasis on understanding their affective, political, and artistic impact.

Caswell begins by presenting a personal story of her experience as a student, studying the white, male canon so rooted in education systems worldwide. She explains once she was introduced to post-colonial studies, she felt a connection and became acutely aware of how we all come from different epistemological standpoints and read the same text in vastly different ways. From here, she posits how dominant archival theories are oppressive by design and calls for a rethink of the “Archivist view from nowhere” standpoint and how appraisal is a duty of the archivist. Here she astutely questions who does the archivist actually serve?

She discusses how in the 1990s there was a welcome shift to deconstructionist appraisal theory which acknowledges subjectivity but still sees it as an obstacle instead of a value. 

Caswell argues that archivists should always be accountable to the  communities they are serving. But as the canon of archival theory has been written from a white male institutional perspective, especially theory of archival appraisal, assigning value to materials, deciding where resources are allocated has been extremely subjective.   Caswell presents her powerful call for a “feminist standpoint appraisal”, a position that gives value and weight to those objects created by the oppressed to document their oppression and resistance. She sees great value in seeing things differently which in turn leads to better work. It is important to unmasking “neutrality”,  the universalist perspectives that are unlocatable, unaccountable and have remained dominant for so long.

Helpfully, Caswell provides a set of actions that we can consider as we move through our work with a different perspective that takes in our acknowledgement of our privileged positions.

She suggests we should ask the following:

  • What is the emotional impact of my intervention with the digital objects?
  • How do we centre the oppressed? We should start by acknowledging the positionality of ourselves as archivists and the composition of our institutions.
  • We should question whether our institutions are best situated to collect from community.
  • We should always acknowledge the complex dynamics within communities and consider who or what is left out in this work and who can be potentially harmed.
  • How do we make our labour visible and leave our fingerprints?

This is an extremely timely and powerful argument that propels us to aim to reallocate resources that value, preserve and centre other perspectives instead of reproducing existing power structures/relationships. 

Both keynotes situated the complexities of digital curation, network cultures and archival preservation in ways that spoke to the texture of the present moment, one that is fraught with contradictions and tensions and one that as scholars and practitioners, we are slowly finding our way through.

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