Working Group Explores Dynamics of Silence in Archives

January 30, 2020
The Archival Silences Working Group is directed by Kinohi Nishikawa (English; African American Studies) and Emma Sarconi (Special Collections, Firestone Library). Spring 2020 workshops will begin on February 10.

In Fall 2019, with the support of the Humanities Council, the Archival Silences Working Group met over the semester to explore the limits, freedoms, frustrations, and complications presented by the biases inherent in both past and present archival practice. The group discussed how, as a collection of historical records, the archive reflects those in positions of power, the powerful majority or the established authority of the time. The voices of the less powerful, the marginal groups — women, people of color, the queer community, etc. — are often absent from the shelves or mediated by the point of view of the powerful.

Directed by Kinohi Nishikawa, Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies, and Emma Sarconi, Reference Professional for Special Collections in Firestone Library, the group has two aims: to establish the many instances of archival silences and examine ways in which the problem has been addressed by various communities. Examples from the fall semester include the reimagining of archival structures in the digital humanities (Lauren Klein’s “The Image of Absence: Archival Silence, Data Visualization, and James Hemings”) and the role of bias in writing the archival record (Rodney G.S. Carter “Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, and Power in Silence”).

Beginning with a session on Sadiya Hartman’s landmark article “Venus in Two Acts,” the group discussed the consequences of archival silences, why they matter and why they deserve attention. What is our responsibility as scholars to these silences and how can we navigate them respectfully, without perpetuating the prejudices against them? The majority of attendees had read the work before, but the multidisciplinary composition of the group which included historians, archivists, librarians, English, and digital humanities scholars, presented new perspectives and fresh ideas.

Medieval historians grappled with silences differently to English scholars. Archivists and librarians offered insight into ways silences were created and are being perpetuated in archival practices today. During the convergence of Princeton’s diverse communities, it was clear that the problems of the archival silence affects each and every one. 

In Spring 2020, the Humanities Council supports the continuation of these campus discussions which aim to gain a deeper understanding of archival silences and the importance of an interdisciplinary, holistic approach in tackling the challenges within its practices.

The first Spring 2020 meeting will take place on Monday, February 10. For more information, visit the Humanities Council Reading and Discussion Groups page.

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