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Researching with Archival & Special Collections Primary Source Materials

Selection, Bias, & Silences

One important thing to keep in mind when it comes to archives and special collections, to all collections really, is that they are not neutral spaces. It is impossible to preserve everything and so an individual or group has decided what will be kept, how it will be described, and how it will be made accessible and to whom. The flip side of that selection process is that over time, the vast majority of created materials have not been saved or preserved or are not accessible.

What Is Missing?

Inevitably, historic and internalized, conscious and unconscious biases, including racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, and ignorance of marginalized genders, sexualities, or other communities, can all come into play during the selection process. In addition, historically, people with the most power and influence in society have considered the evidence of their lives to be important and worth organizing, describing, and collecting. Those without power and influence are usually both internally and externally excluded from that recognition and process. The result is reflected in phrases you may have heard, such as "archival gaps" and "archival silences." They remind us that so many voices, perspectives, experiences, and contributions have been lost, whether through purposeful exclusion or neglectful complacency.

Most traditional archives and special collections offer a skewed or inaccurate view of the past because of all those missing voices. Instead, they document a history and world told primarily from white, male perspectives. This problematic reality complicates research efforts. Some material no longer exists. Other material, however, can sometimes be found, it just takes some extra patience and creative thinking, searching, and questioning. Never hesitate to ask a librarian or archivist for help.

What Are We Doing?

For our part, at the Mahn Center, we are beginning to take some reparative steps that we recognize as being both very small and long overdue. Our current actions include identifying, better describing, and bringing greater attention to materials already in our collections related especially to African American, LGBTQIA+, and women's lives, experiences, perspectives, and contributions, and to prioritize acquisition of similar materials. We are also beginning conversations to remove harmful or insensitive language and to add in inclusive and conscientious language when describing the materials in our collections. Contact any of us (Bill Kimok for University Archives, Miriam Intrator for Rare Books, Laura Smith for the Documentary Photography Archive) to learn more about these processes, if you're having trouble finding the materials you're searching for, to bring problematic issues related to our collections to our attention, or to let us know what else we can be doing to improve your experience with our materials.

Learn More

Watch the video "Identifying and Addressing Archival Silences in Your Research" to learn more (with grateful thanks to Michaela Ullmann).

There also increasingly exist institutions and organizations dedicated to broadening the available pool of materials by focusing on specific, historically excluded communities. See the Finding other archival & special collections materials tab in this guide for some possible starting places.