November 17, 2015 - Comments Off on In Process | When History is What Hurts
In Process is a blog series that highlights the activities and experiences of current archival studies students in the Los Angeles area. Check in every two weeks, for grad students’ insights and fresh perspectives on new and emerging trends, issues, and events in the field.
By Noah Geraci
I’m always glad to see Howard Zinn’s “Secrecy, Archives and the Public Good” recommended by archives people I know– mostly because it’s a great piece that makes important points about our profession (that I would argue we still haven’t fully digested or acted upon almost 40 years later), but also because I am pleased and grateful for Zinn’s recurring role in my life. I first heard Zinn’s name when I was 12 or so, in a line from a song by embarrassing punk band NOFX, on one of the first CDs I bought myself. The line in question, “I read some Howard Zinn, now I’m always depressed,” is not an entirely inaccurate summation of my life from that point to the present. By the time a lefty history teacher assigned A People’s History of the United States in late high school, I already had my own well-worn copy, and had gotten my grade lowered in a previous history class for “making America look bad” in a research paper on the U.S. role in Central American human rights abuses.
I was asked recently, by someone friendly, well-meaning, and supportive of archives, if I do the work that I do because I “love history.” I was caught off-guard, and stammered something about “yes, well, I suppose, I’m interested in history.” But, if I am being frank, of course, I do not love history at all: I don't actually know how to think about it as something that can be loved. I am Jewish, living in diaspora, assimilation and the long shadow of Nazi genocide. I am queer, post-AIDS epidemic. I am a white person raised on colonized land. When I think about “history” as any sort of discrete concept, I mostly think about violence, loss, and disconnection; about the blood that rushes out of the elevator shaft in The Shining; and about Fredric Jameson’s graceful phrasing that “history is what hurts.”
I’m very grateful for the opportunity to study at UCLA, where there are fellow students and faculty who create space to discuss critical ideas and complex relationships to our work. I’m also grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to connect with like-minded colleagues in other places, through social media and working on projects like A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland.
But I know that in many archives work settings, there can be serious pressure to cater to nostalgia, and to preserve a history that presents a generally sunny view of the institution or community you are working in. Ultimately, in many settings, especially smaller, nonacademic archives, people who “love history,” whose take on it is more Colonial Williamsburg than Howard Zinn and may consider historical or genealogical research a hobby, are some of our biggest supporters, as users, volunteers, donors and advocates. Even in university archives and special collections, which tend to think of their primary users as academic researchers, I hear anecdotally that university communications departments are some of the most frequent archives users, looking for “cool old photos” for marketing materials.
My partner is from a small town in Arizona, with a long history of mining that has had devastating environmental and health impacts there. Having access to records about specific mining practices and policies could probably have tangible legal and healthcare implications in the lives of current and former residents. Yet the town’s current economy, and thus people’s immediate livelihoods, is propelled by historically themed tourism, which requires the preservation and exhibition of a positive, nostalgic history of mining. So this is what the local archives and other historical organizations do.
As a student gaining practical experience in a variety of settings, I struggle to navigate all of this. While it’s easy enough to be polite to someone even when we may disagree about the purpose or value of archives, it’s harder to make peace with being in a field that sometimes feels like it is kept afloat by being valued and viewed in ways that are very much not the values I bring to it. To figure out how to serve marginalized communities and the broader public interest within a professional context, without acting like a petulant teenager lecturing their family about smallpox and colonization at Thanksgiving dinner (been there, done that). I know these are not always conversations that can be had with any specificity in public forums, but I’d always like to know more about how others navigate and cope.
Noah Geraci is an MLIS student at UCLA who works at UCLA’s Digital Library Program. Born and raised in San Diego, in other lives he has been a mental health counselor, home care worker, elementary educator, writer, and punk musician.
Published by: Los Angeles Archivist Collective in In Process