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)