Community archiving initiatives frequently call for recovering, often by foregrounding, the voices and persons that frequently fall outside of the collecting missions of traditional repositories. Activists and archivists join researchers and historians in wondering how the stories we tell, and the frameworks we use, to understand various historical moment might change if we centered underrepresented people, whose ordinary lives provide deeper contextualization of what is currently know about an event? The processing of Haitian Creole radio audio broadcasts (Duke University’s Radio Haiti Records), revealed the obscured yet prolonged, complicated, and ultimately grassroots-led anti-government struggle that galvanized regional agricultural workers and peasant farmers against the Duvalier dictatorships (1957-1986). New analyses using this digitized popular media content challenged the dominant narrative by offering voices obscured from traditional primary sources. If we aspire to create a more comprehensive historical record, merely recognizing class, geographic, and gender bias fall far shy of addressing what Michelle Caswell describes as archival “symbolic annihilation” of historically marginalized communities.
Through acquisition, advocacy, and post-custodial stewardship models, a reparative community-based framework that concertedly incorporates historically oppressed voices can bring new voices in from the margins of the historical record. Recent questions have encouraged us to cast a more critical eye on archival inclusion, asking, instead, whether this visibility is always and invariably an overall good.
Documenting the Now (DocNow) wrestles with this question and with the practical and ethical challenges it presents. Activists and organizers have used social media platforms [like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp] to galvanize support, articulate demands, and seek reparative justice. Arab Spring organizers (2010-2012) and, more recently, Black Lives Matter protestors have used these platforms to demand justice. Tweets, posts, shares, and photographs constituted a rich digital archive of social media content that organizers, archivists, and researchers have sought to preserve. While their open access framework make them effective organizing tools, it simultaneously facilitates their capacity to track, surveil, and perpetrate state violence on the very users who have used them to seek redress.
The Documenting the Now project grapples with the implications of permanently rendering ephemeral objects — tweets, facebook posts, and hashtagged content. While these are unquestionably a valued archive of contemporary civil disobedience, those seeking to preserve and collect this digital archive must navigate issues of privacy and consent, alongside government surveillance and possible retribution. To support communities in their activism, DocNow is developing new knowledges and tools to enable and promote the collection, preservation, and analysis of social media content that is at the heart of community documentation, storytelling, and activism.
Know a community organization whose work is making an social justice impactin Philadelphia? Doc Now is offering a series of free workshops to support activist and organizers built their community-based digital archives.
Interested in helping hyperlocal and community archive collect and preserve their histories of their neighborhoods, towns, and cities. The Mellon Foundation is offering grants to support in their efforts.