Urgent Archives: Enacting Liberatory Memory Work

by Michelle Caswell, Routledge 2021, 142 pp. 
Hardback $160.00, ebook $44.05, ISBN: 9780367427276.

Urgent Archives : Enacting Liberatory Memory Work book coverWhen I sat down to read Michelle Caswell’s newest book, Urgent Archives, I didn’t expect her to call on archivists to participate in “mischief-making,” but I’m here for it. Caswell says: “I wish more archivists would join me in...mischief-making, collectively and strategically” (101). This mischief-making encompasses the energy and joy of critiquing and dismantling archival studies, chipping away at tradition, and imagining new, more equitable archival spaces. Urgent Archives is situated firmly in the field of critical archival studies, and focuses on active archival work, which Caswell also calls “liberatory memory work.” Liberatory actions in memory work “center oppressed communities, using records and archives to invert dominant hierarchies caused by white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, capitalism, and other forms of oppression” (12). This work seeks to inform the construction of “activist archives,” with archivists collaborating with their communities, collecting intentionally, activating records, and creating spaces for “temporal autonomy, self-recognition, and the redistribution of resources” (20). This work is supremely urgent. The scope of memory work is not limited to archival tropes of connecting the past to the future, but instead should begin by admitting that the past is happening now. Caswell calls readers not only to imagine a better archival space, but to make it happen, and to create places where records catalyze change, embrace the oppressed, and usher in new ways of understanding the self.  

Urgent Archives opens with a vivid descriptive scene from a home video of an Indian man and a white woman’s marriage in 1959, 8 years before the 1967 US Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virginia, which made interracial marriage legal in the United States. Caswell explains that this video uncovers a hidden history of the lives of South Asian immigrants in the United States, a moment “previously thought...impossible on screens” (1). Caswell, with Samip Mallick, is a co-founder of the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA), “an online community-based archives” with a focus on collecting and making accessible “the histories of immigrants from South Asia to the United States and their descendants” (1). The home video became part of an art-centered project at SAADA, which sought to remix archival footage of South Asian Americans and recontextualize histories of erasure in contemporary America, where racism and xenophobia persist. This act of artistic remixing, of recreating with archival records, activates the record, allowing these creative archival assemblages to “move us beyond the affective impact of representational belonging, toward a deeper understanding of our current political moment” (6). That understanding, for Caswell, “gets us one step closer to action” (6). In this introduction, Caswell sets up her argument for active and engaged liberatory work in community archives, arguing that to reach their full “liberatory potential,” community archives “must be activated for resistance rather than assimilation or integration into the mainstream” (6).  

What if records weren’t bound to linear time? In Chapter 1, Caswell draws attention to the temporality of archives, and the link between records and understandings of time. Often, archival work is seen as preserving the past for the future, but Caswell questions this, surveying examples of non-linear time. Caswell suggests there is a “chronoviolence” of understanding the constructed, Christian, white, western ideas of linear time and instead presents alternate, cyclical understandings of time to break down this structure. Caswell pushes against traditional Western archival notions of “fixity,” which suggest that a document can be stable in time. She also critiques traditional archives’ focus on preserving materials for future use. What if, she asks, archives were not just focused on future use? What shall we make of “records documenting abuse when the conflict is ongoing, unresolved, and unacknowledged?” (p.38). Caswell argues that “[l]iberatory memory work does not ask for a recognition, it demands a refusal” (42). Allowing records to become ongoing, to affect change now, allows records to refuse traditional western temporal norms. 

In Chapter 2, Caswell suggests that community archives can disrupt time. Caswell uses research from a survey of LGBTQ+ identifying people and people of color who are activating archival records in the present, in order to advance a model of time that is cyclical. This chapter includes intimate survey responses from focus groups with leaders of community archives, revealing the ways that certain records, which Caswell terms “corollary records,” actively connect oppression of the past to the present in “corollary moments,” affecting and shifting identities, as well as subjects’ sense of belonging. Caswell ends with poignant questions: “How do we move from making connections across repetitions of oppression to dismantling that oppression? How do we enact liberatory memory work?” (p. 66).  

The third chapter moves into the practical enactment of such liberatory memory work, introducing Caswell’s idea of “liberatory activation,” a way of mobilizing records as “interventions in and uses of records that seek to dismantle systems of oppression and imagine and enact new possible worlds” (87). Caswell describes projects at SAADA that seek to actively engage communities in the present. Moreso than collecting for representation, Caswell suggests that archives should focus on activating records for political use, to make change, and affect actual liberation from oppressive, western structures. Continuing in the final chapter, Caswell proposes a new role for archivists: the liberatory memory worker. This worker is not a passive, neutral engager with archival work, but an active worker, engaging with the liberation of oppressed communities through archival work. It’s here that Caswell encourages her “mischief-making,” and suggests that the archivist has a dual role, to “simultaneously dismantle and build” (101, 106). For white archivists (87% of archivists, Caswell notes), this work needs to focus on “owning up to...oppressor standpoints” (107). The goal of mischief-making and demanding change is to realize that dismantling and building requires slow, often messy, work in pursuit of structural change,  

Urgent Archives emits a call to action to archivists, and by doing the work of critical theory, builds a foundation that redefines and adds a new layer to the work of the archivist. At the same time, this work exists in the important genre of the guidebook, offering insights that can lead an archivist to follow through, actually engaging with activism and liberatory work. This work begins to bridge the gap between theory and practice, helping to answer the archivist or practitioner’s “Okay, but where do I start?” by citing examples of active and liberatory archival practice. As Caswell suggests, this isn’t work that can be done in a day, but is instead a slow and laborious project. This book offers a place to start.

Bethany Radcliff, University of Michigan