what is a “community archive”, and why should we have one?

what is a “community archive”, and why should we have one?

In anticipation of the launch of Digital Craft Archive, archives practitioner and project developer Tatiana Povoroznyuk discusses the theory behind a community-led digital archive.

Working at the Craft Council over the past year in a newly-forged “archival” department has been incredibly exciting as somebody who loves to think about how we build history. As an organization that is nearing its 50th anniversary, the Craft Council is sitting on a trove of valuable records that have accumulated over the past half-century. Our members have indicated that craft-oriented groups in BC are in very similar positions, finding themselves wondering what they should be doing with all the “stuff”  in their offices and homes. In looking to build solution; a system that could help CCBC and our community bring these records to light I found myself questioning how we should even approach such a monumental task. The idea of a traditional approach, where records bequeathed to The Archive are dealt with by strictly neutral archivists who then sort and file them into neat categories and boxes, felt not only unrealistic to implement at CCBC, but also misaligned with the community-centric values of craft.

As a myriad of groups before us have done, CCBC is interested in approaching record-keeping from the perspective of re-imagining archival practice in a way that works for our community. These practices have been called “community” or “community-based” archiving, and are becoming increasingly accepted as valuable by mainstream institutions. With this in mind, we are excited to launch Digital Craft Archive, an exciting platform that will serve as the digital home to our archival program. For those curious (and a little nerdy), this blog post will look at the theoretical ideas behind  Digital Craft Archive; what is a “community archive” in the first place, and how does Craft fit in?

The term “Community Archive” is an academic one that covers a wide scope of archival practices outside of traditional institutions. As described by Jeannette A. Bastian and Andrew Flinn, “community archives have existed ever since groups of people have felt the need to affirm themselves and their own identities within or apart from the wider society”.[1] Themselves really is the key term here; community archives are all about “nothing about us, without us”, and creating access to knowledge that is often left out of the mainstream. In the English-speaking context, these self-directed archives really took hold in the 1960s and 1970s in response to political and social movements.[2] Michelle Caswell reviewed literature on community archives in 2014, and summarized five key principles that characterize these archives; participation, shared stewardship, multiplicity, archival activism, and reflexivity. As an organization that is heavily invested in promoting contemporary craft and the people behind it, how does our Digital Craft Archive fit in to these principles?

Participation: “…decisions about what materials to collect, how to describe those materials, and who should have access to them are most often made by community members themselves”.[3]

The active participation of a community is the defining characteristic of a community archive. Rather than allowing an outside authority to decide how to collect and care for materials, community members are in charge. Digital Craft Archive is built entirely around this principle; we want to empower community members and groups to have complete decision-making about their records. If you join Digital Craft Archive, you will have control in terms of what you add to your digital collections, how you organize them, the language you use to describe them, and finally how much is shared online. Projects are organized around “Teams”, so multiple people can participate in making these decisions at once. If you want, you can open your collections up to public submissions, so material can be collected directly from your immediate community. Digital Craft Archive seeks to reflect the strong bonds that have come about through contemporary craft from the ground up, starting with how data enters the archive.

Shared Stewardship: “In a stewardship approach, archival material is viewed less as property and more as a cultural asset, jointly held and invested in by the archive.”[4]

The dominant archival model is one where ownership of records is transferred from those who created them to the archive, but community archives seek to transform this “custodianship” into “stewardship”. This means there is an ongoing partnership between the original owners and the archive which they trust with their materials, and often the community has autonomy over the materials. Digital Craft Archive takes this one step further: by simply providing a digital platform where community members can publicize their materials, rather than writing up contracts that transfer ownership. You will always be the owner of your own materials, and any copyright will remain in your hands! CCBC recognizes the particular importance of controlling their own work for craft artists, and this is reflected in Digital Craft Archive.

Multiplicity: “by recognizing oral, visual, and kinetic ways of knowing, community archives reflect the culture, epistemologies, and values of their communities.”[5]

Community archives are not restrained by the way traditional archives value written word above other materials (although admittedly, this is changing within traditional archives too). A community archive will often encompass a much more diverse range of media, such as physical objects, ephemera, videos, and oral histories. Often, the archivist also takes on the roles of a creator in documenting a community and adding materials to collections. This multiplicity in materials is already apparent in the inaugural projects of Digital Craft Archive; it hosts written materials like CCBC newsletters, as well as less-traditional materials like ceramic marks and artist biographies. The software on which Digital Craft Archive is built allows for a range of material to be uploaded, so the often-informal happenings of craft history can be published whether they are photos, videos, or audio. Those building collections through Digital Craft Archive have the option to add whatever interpretive content they wish, so you can build digital exhibits explaining what the uploaded materials mean to you.

Activism: “for many community archives practitioners, archival collecting is not only about preserving traces of the past, but envisioning a new future.”[6]

Archival practice as a whole is inherently political; making decisions towards what to preserve for future generations has political implications. Community archives are distinct in that the work they do is often explicitly angled towards political activism. This is often the case because community archives are formed by groups that have been ignored or misrepresented by mainstream archives, as well as society at large.[7] Archival practice in these cases is all about self-representation and empowerment. At a time in Canada when arts funding, particularly for contemporary craft, is hard to come by, asserting the validity and history of these practices is crucial. Digital Craft Archive assembles collections related to craft from individuals and groups that are usually separated by distance or medium, and declares that the history of craft unwinds far into the past, as well as infinitely into the future. To further these goals, Digital Craft Archive is open to participation from anybody that holds a CCBC membership, opening our doors to a diverse range of craftspeople and their organizations. We welcome and encourage projects from craftspeople who find themselves under-represented or marginalized within institutional and societal structures.

Reflexivity: “Reflexivity… must result in a mutually beneficial dialogue with community members to ensure that needs are being met, problems are addressed, and priorities are aligned.”[8]

The idea of personal reflexivity and community reflexivity has been maintained throughout the development of Digital Craft Archive, as we continuously asked ourselves how to better serve CCBC’s membership base. The software was chosen on the basis of maintaining accessibility, even for those that find themselves puzzled by technology, and a promise for consistent support from CCBC staff will be maintained. Digital Craft Archive is always open to feedback from the community, so let us know how we can support you and your materials in the best way possible. Digital Craft Archive is a first for the Council and the craft community as a whole, so we are always looking for ways to improve.

Digital Craft Archive is currently open to CCBC members interested in building their own craft-centered archival projects on the platform. To learn more about Digital Craft Archive, and how you can be a part of it, please navigate to our main page on the topic. Explore the projects already available through the Archive at www.craftarchive.ca, and contact us at craftarchive@craftcouncilbc.ca with any comments, questions, or concerns!

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[1] Jeannette A. Bastian and Andrew Flinn, “Introduction” in Community Archives, Community Spaces: Heritage, Memory and Identity (Facet, 2018),  XX, https://doi.org/10.29085/9781783303526.

[2] Michelle Caswell, “Toward a Survivor-Centered Approach to Human Rights Archives: Lessons from Community-Based Archives,” UCLA Previously Published Works (2021): 11, https://escholarship.org/uc/item/73f5s7sr.

[3] Caswell, “Toward a Survivor-Centered Approach,” 6.

[4] Caswell, “Toward a Survivor-Centered Approach,” 8.

[5] Caswell, “Toward a Survivor-Centered Approach,” 10.

[6] Caswell, “Toward a Survivor-Centered Approach,” 11.

[7] See Lesbian Herstory Archives (https://lesbianherstoryarchives.org/), South Asian American Digital Archive (https://www.saada.org/)

[8] Caswell, “Toward a Survivor-Centered Approach,” 12-13.