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Black History Month at the University of Saskatchewan Archives & Special Collections: A reflection on silences and biases

February 2022

Statement: 

When tasked with creating a small display in the Peter MacKinnon Building for Black History Month, the employees in University Archives and Special Collections (UASC) confronted a lack of archival materials pertaining to Black people and Black history.   

Archival silences are created when people, communities, groups, and movements do not have their stories selected to be included in the collections of libraries, archives, museums, or personal collections. You may have heard the phrase, "gaps in the historical record." This is because institutions have traditionally and often continued to prioritize the voices of those in power.1 

While “impartiality” of archives and archivists has long been a core value of the profession, current practice and scholarship has recognized the inherent problems in this assumption, both at an institutional level and with archivists’ implicit bias as “human, social beings”: 

By 1996, … prominent archival thinkers … had already begun to press the field on the impossibility of neutrality and objectivity in a profession that manages records that are integral to fundamentally inequitable systems and processes and that itself exercises so much control over the selection, description and transmission of those records to future generations. ...  
More recent scholarship has pushed the critique of archives and recordkeeping even further, focusing on how archives and their practices have failed to give voice or sometimes even breathing room to narratives and people who were submerged or subjugated by those structures and institutions, who did not fit within those narratives, or who did not share the same perspectives. Postcolonial, Indigenous and feminist scholars in the past two decades have been actively researching within archives and reading their contents along and against the grain to surface the ways in which recordkeeping has been an integral part of the apparatus of colonial rule, western and male domination, and the silencing of certain communities and experiences.

UASC and the University Library have taken meaningful steps, over several years, to build diverse collections and change historic collection patterns, contributing to the preservation of previously “unexplored histories.”3 However, significant gaps relating to Black history and other under-represented people remain in our archival collection, including the history of the Black community at the University of Saskatchewan. In acknowledgement of these collection gaps, UASC has opted to leave the display place empty during Black History Month. The erasure of Black history is what is on display, as is the promise to look for new ways to support the preservation of this history, through development of our own collection where this is the best fit, and in partnership with communities and other memory institutions. This will be ongoing and in-line with the four commitments of the University Library Strategic Framework 20254 to decolonize the library, build research infrastructure, enhance student learning, and foster academic community.  

[1] Silences and bias in archives - Visiting Special Collections - LibGuides at University of Maryland, Baltimore County (umbc.edu)

[2] Gilliland, Anne J. "'Dead on Arrival?' Impartiality as a Measure of Archival Professionalism in the Twenty-first Century," in Values in Transition" Perspectives on the Future of the Archival Profession, Hildo van Engen, ed. (Royal Society of Archivists in the Netherlands, 2017)

[3] Sheffielf, Rebecka T. "More than Acid-Free Folders: Extending the Concept of Preservation to Include the Stewardship of Unexplored Histories." Library Trends, vol. 64 no.3, 2016, p. 572-584. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/lib.2016.0001

[4]UofS Library Strategic Plan_v8.indd (usask.ca)

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