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The power imbalance inherent in records and archives

In September 2016, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse released its Consultation Paper into Records and recordkeeping practices. Submissions were invited and subsequently published on the Royal Commission website in early 2017.

Both the Consultation Paper and the submissions neatly summarise many of the issues faced by people requesting their records to better understand their time in ‘care’; that records are not made or kept properly (see the submission from CLAN), that records release processes are confusing and arbitrary (see the submission from Open Place), and that the content of the records is often inaccurate, misleading and upsetting. It was also apparent that these issues are not new, and had been highlighted in many other Inquiries and Commissions (see the submission from VACCA) going back at least 30 years.

These papers also serve as an example of how power structures inherent in archives can prevent those for whom the records are held from being able to access even basic information. This power imbalance is apparent in two areas: the knowledge required to access archives, and the archival principle of original order.

A great deal of specialised knowledge is required just to access records and archives. This includes knowledge about how and why archives are kept and managed; jurisdiction- and sector-specific knowledge about mechanisms by which records access can be sought (including freedom of information, privacy and public records laws – all of which vary from state to state); and what archives’ catalogue search results mean, how different records and groupings are described and catalogued, and how to request relevant records.

Once records have been accessed, there is, again, specialised knowledge required to interpret them. This includes understanding who created the records and why, the meaning of jargon, abbreviations and terminology used, even how the individual documents have been compiled into a file. In many cases it also means having detailed knowledge about the legislation under which records may be redacted or not released at all.

Much of this knowledge is not immediately apparent to first-time record requestors, and in some cases archivists and record holders act as gatekeepers if the required information is not provided by the requestor. This assists in maintaining the power on the side of the record holder, rather than with the person wanting to access the records.

The principle of original order
Original order is a fundamental archival principle. It requires archivists to maintain records in the order in which they were created, so that a record’s creation and use can be fully understood, and so as much context as possible is retained.

In keeping the records in their original order, archivists are reproducing the power structures of the time they were created – the power structures of oppressors and bureaucracies. In requesting and using these records, people are required to understand and use these structures without any acknowledgement that this difficult or problematic. This means people using these records are required to interact with the bureaucracies who took away agency and power from individuals and groups, without any recourse or ability to talk back to the bureaucracy.

While there are good reasons why archives are maintained in original order, the enforcement of power structures is rarely interrogated or acknowledged. These issues need to be made more explicit, both by and for archivists, but also for people using the records, particularly when they are also the subjects of the records.

While archives can be sites of liberation, they are also sites of continued oppression and repression, sites of trauma, and sites of violence. Archives and archivists must be more aware of what this means for users of archives, and be much more aware and explicit about their interventions and practices.

(Inspired by posts and articles by Sam Winn, Jarrett Drake, Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor, Cassie Findlay and J.J. Ghaddar)


  1. Hi Kirsten,
    Clearly it is important for archivists to keep, front of mind at all times, that the documents they are accessing mean different things to different people, and that they have the potential to re-hurt the very people who are named as the subject of the records.
    The big issue, though, is that the records were rarely, if ever, meant to be read by the subject person they are about – they were kept for the purposes of maintaining track of the financial maintenance, education progress, contact with parents and others, etc.
    As your post highlights, the power in these circumstances, firmly resides with those who hold the records. This power should, ideally, be used to help the care leaver understand the nature and context of what was reported about them – kind or cruel, encouraging or disparaging. The principles of “knowledge” and “original order”, as you have highlighted are in place, not for malicious use by power hungry, self-interested, archivists but for the purposes of positive assistance to those who wish access.
    It seems to me that the organisations handling this best are those that engage people with specific counselling skills and experience in dealing with people, often troubled and confused, who are seeking to make sense of what happened to them, often through no fault of their own.
    The problem, it seems to me, is not the power imbalance per se, but how it may be used – for good or ill.

    • Thanks for your comment Graham!

      I agree that this power can be used positively to help people make sense of the records and, wherever possible, give some of that power up or back to the individual who the records relate to. I also agree that the supported release model you mention seems the best way to go about this, as it enables a specific response to each person’s differing circumstances and to provide the support most suitable for them.

      However, I do think it is important that archivists and records holders recognise that their work can perpetuate this power imbalance and that they need to actively work to overcome this, rather than passively continue without considering it. It’s absolutely not done for malicious reasons, but can have negative outcomes.

      I think that being aware of this enables people and organisations to start using this power for good, as you suggest.

  2. great post kirsten!

    • Graham,
      The records were not “kept for or the purposes of maintaining track of the financial maintenance, education progress, contact with parents and others, etc”. They were kept for all sorts of reasons – many of which we are only now finding out about with new laws, human rights and FOI access. The records, or as they are commonly known amongst care leavers as “the files”, overwhelmingly demonstrate a gross lack of accountability that has long characterised the child welfare and justice systems in Australia. They are for many care leavers the only source of information they have about their childhoods, identity, medical histories and so on.
      Who are they meant to be read by if they still exist?
      People, like myself, have to deal with the fact that secret dossiers compiled about them, that they had no say in, or even knowledge about, sit in various locations, alongside thousands of other files waiting for somebody to “read”. This raises questions about disparate experiences of citizenship and the rights to know what government and private agencies record and keep about Australian citizens. My eyes are now firmly on my records.

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