Primary Source Literacy at USC Libraries & Beyond

Archival Silences, and: Are Archives Really Neutral?

"The notion that archives are neutral places with no vested interests has been undermined by current philosophical and theoretical handlings of the concept of the “Archive”; it is now undeniable that archives are spaces of power. Archival power is, in part, the power to allow voices to be heard. It consists of highlighting certain narratives and of including certain types of records created by certain groups. The power of the archive is witnessed in the act of inclusion, but this is only one of its components. The power to exclude is a fundamental aspect of the archive. Inevitably, there are distortions, omissions, erasures, and silences in the archive. Not every story is told." 

Rodney G.S. Carter
Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, and Power in Silence

Please watch this video to learn about archival silences and about the bias and privilege that is often reflected in primary source materials. Being aware of the concept of archival silences and the consequences of bias and privilege will help you become a better researcher. 

In the following activity, we will practice analyzing a source from USC Special Collections to put into practice some of the concept you have learned from the video "Identifying and Addressing Archival Silences in your Research." This exercise is inspired by Blake Spitz's activity for Structured Close-Looking that can be found here.

Please follow along below, answering the questions as you go. 
By doing this exercise, you will be able to:
- identify, interrogate, and consider the reasons for silences, gaps, contradictions, or evidence of power relationships in the documentary record and how they impact the research process.
- critically evaluate the perspective of the creator(s) of a primary source, including tone, subjectivity, and biases, and consider how these relate to the original purpose(s) and audience(s) of the source.
Identifying and Understanding Archival Silences Exercise (Exercise created by Becca Gates)

Learn about Identifying and Dismantling White Supremacy in Archives.
Created by Michelle Caswell and her Archives, Records, and Memories class in Fall 2016 at UCLA. Poster design by Gracen Brilmyer.
Full PDF for download here.

Further reading:
Charlotte S. Kostelic (2018) The Silence of the Archive. The American Archivist: Fall/Winter 2018, Vol. 81, No. 2, pp. 558-561.
Rodney G.S. Carter, "Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, and Power in Silence", Archivaria 61 (Spring 2006):215-233.
Radiolab Podcast about the Mau Mau. 
Learn more about human bias and how it effects our thinking and doing: 
National Museum of African American History & Culture: Talking about Bias


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