Krista McCracken and Skylee-Storm Hogan-Stacey, Decolonial Archival Futures (Chicago: Society of American Archivists and the American Library Association, 2023), USD $39.99, 112 pp.

 

Decolonising archives and record-keeping spaces is a dreadfully slow process, one attached to the post-World War Two decolonisation movement and the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and People (1960). Since the 1990s, clear action plans have been implemented in cultural institutions to recognise the unique position of Indigenous communities and the potential for community involvement. It took the work of another generation of advocates before the first international archives declaration on Indigenous people and matters occurred in 2019. Then, the Tandanya-Adelaide Declaration was created at the International Council on Archives (ICA) with support from the National Archives of Australia. As a joint publication of the Society of American Archivists and the American Library Association, Decolonial Archival Futures joins the Archival Futures Series, which is intended to improve public experiences with record-keeping professionals and institutions and provoke new directions of knowing the past. As part of this series, Krista McCracken and Skylee-Storm Hogan-Stacey are charged with assisting readers through ‘process[es] that ‘support the use of records in that future, by people not yet known, for reasons not yet imagined’ (viii). The intended outcome is to prompt important discussions about the archival future.

Matthew Feeney (Unsplash)

Sharing personal experience and professional knowledge concerning complex relationships is a generous process. Such a gift is given to readers when they engage with the authors of Decolonial Archival Futures. McCracken has worked as a public historian and archivist pursuing a PhD in Library and Information Management. Experience drawn on for the book came from their work as a Researcher/Curator at the Algoma University’s Arthur A Wishart Library and Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre in Baawating.  Hogan-Stacey’s time as a public historian, researcher and analyst came from working at the Shingwauk Residential Schools and the project of the Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites associated with Indian Residential Schools. McCracken and Hogan-Stacey use their knowledge and research skills to construct case studies about archives and record-keeping institutions in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Aotearoa New Zealand. This format illuminates the similarities and shared issues of archives in settler colonies and how professionals can learn from one another. The authors contribute new knowledge by analysing how these settler colonies have adopted ‘their respective protocols for stewarding indigenous archival collection[s] and building reciprocal relationships between instructions and source communities’ (ix).

From the first page, Decolonising the Archive is undeniably linked with building better community relationships. Chapter One starts by recognising that archives are inherently powered by colonial frameworks and, in turn, these ‘archival structures have reinforced colonial relationships’ (1). It is the practical experience of McCracken and Hogan-Stacey that allows them to move beyond theoretical conversations to show the practical reality of present-day decolonising archival work. This difficult process includes acknowledging and engaging with instances of alienation and silencing as currently experienced due to ongoing colonial legacies in places like Canada, the United States, Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia.

To offer an alternative to colonial tradition, McCracken and Hogan-Stacey show archival professionals how to be active, and respectful, change-makers. They want readers, at the very least, to reach out and engage with the various communities for which they host historical records. McCracken and Hogan-Stacey’s experiences as public historians infuse the book with a very welcome practicality, something that is often missing from such texts. They have produced a book that is very conscious of the push-pull between the past, present, and future. The authors argue that ‘archives control the past’, but it is the various people who work in these spaces that ‘control the imagined futures’ (2). Direct experience in Indigenous community archives and working with Indigenous communities enables Krista McCracken to speak about what it is to be a settler and to preference community needs over archival standards. The authors often repeat in the chapters that these are no ideal case studies but starting places to consider the specific concerns and requirements of the communities that record-keepers engage with to see to the repatriation and care of Indigenous communities and individual records. For instance, the Chapter One case study of Aotearoa New Zealand shows that the Mataatua Declaration is a standout for demanding that ‘local, national and international agencies recognise Indigenous nations and peoples as the stewards and guardians of their traditional knowledge with the right to protect and control dissemination, access and control of that knowledge’(8). This raises the question: can members of the archival profession legitimately take their advocacy beyond the stacks and into the realm of governance? The argument for meaningful engagement with communities and personal reflective growth in the workplace, as advocated by the authors, indicates that it is possible.

To decentre the power of the archive, the authors position the readers as those in a situation of power-holding, pressing them ‘to consider constructs of knowledge, which histories we tell, and how we present the past’ (xv). The accountability of institutions is not addressed by the authors as much as the ability of the individual within an organisation to take action. Archives are shaped by the people who work there. The provision of journal articles, reports, project guides, books and institutions, such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, offers readers a foundation of starting sources to make their mark in a discipline that is wrestling with the power-play between tradition and modernisation. Integrating and using Indigenous worldviews in the collection is the most enlightening and engaging section of the book. For those who need clear guidelines, in the last pages, a suggested list of steps to start learning how to serve the needs of Indigenous people is provided (64).

From undergraduate students to those who are currently undertaking professional development after years in the stacks, Decolonial Archival Futures is a great book for those moments when a project needs to be created, or readjusted, to centralise issues like the sovereignty and agency of marginalised communities, especially Indigenous cohorts. The careful merger of futuristic ambition and real-world experience makes this a valuable text for those engaging on a regular basis with settler-colonial historical records.

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Deborah Lee-Talbot
Deborah Lee-Talbot

Dr Deborah Lee-Talbot is a historian fascinated by Australian and Pacific histories, especially about the issues of materiality, gender, and archives. Deborah uses her time in various cultural institutions to pursue stories about a wide range of people and frequently seeks opportunities for community engagement, be it formal presentations or creative digital content. The outcome of her work is projects like Archive of the Archivist: Phyllis Mander-Jones and Pacific History, 1901-1957  when she was the 2023 CH Currey Fellowship at the State Library of New South Wales.