• Libby Coyner

Burn it Down, Built it Up

It's been a hell of a week in archives land. Following Michelle Caswell's excellent session on "Identifying and Dismantling White Supremacy in Archives" at the Society of American Archivists' conference in Portland, we've witnessed trolling and harassment directed toward her and her collaborators, both from people inside and outside of the archives profession. It feels like a turning point in that the profession is confronted more than ever to stand up for ethical issues that have been categorized as "too political" in the past. In the current political context, we are no longer able to hide behind neutrality. Especially now, when the very act of being black or brown or queer is considered too political (or at the very least, recognizing that these identities, and particularly intersecting identities) experience both personal and historical trauma in navigating the world around them.

A common thread throughout the Society of American Archivists conference in Portland this year was "bring your whole self to work." So I'll just lay this out there. This past year, I beat cancer. I am learning to live in a new body, with a brand new disability that I hide carefully under my dresses. I moved to the South in the same year that Donald Trump got elected president. I negotiate the world around me as a queer femme, and enjoy the privilege of being able to "pass," but also struggle with being largely invisible within my community.

In general but particularly in archives, I've been angry at how many white men rise to positions of power through years of sustained mediocrity. I've been mad at how often they've made their careers on the backs of queers and women and especially women of color - often in the name of promoting diversity. I've been mad at how a specific variety of white man seems to be our default definition of "professionalism" and that anything that deviates from that is described as unprofessional, messy, emotional, angry. That talking about these differences and naming racism and homophobia and misogyny, toxic symptoms that absolutely impact our work and our colleagues, is too political.

“Folks have been creating safe spaces outside of the system for centuries.” Walidah Imarisha’s keynote hung with me, especially there in Portland, Oregon, a place I thought of as my safe space for many years, but has a complicated history and identity and isn't a safe space for a lot of folks. It's taken me a long time to see how my own need to be part of a queer community in Portland didn't allow me to see past that community's whiteness. It's taken me a long time to really articulate whiteness as a problem, rather than trying to manifest a more comfortable narrative for myself by trying to build up diverse communities, rather than explicitly talking about burning down white supremacy. I was wrong. We were all wrong. I have been complicit in creating this mess, personally, professionally.

*Portland, Oregon. Land of abandoned dreams, meat, and obsolete media.

I haven't really spent much time at SAA when I wasn't presenting. I've had the pleasure of presenting at a couple of well attended sessions, including "Tattoos as Personal Archives" and "Mind Your Own Fucking Business" (on communities who don't want to be documented). It felt strange to go and to, in some ways, feel like I wasn't offering much to the community of scholarship and archives. Except I need to get over my own self because there were some really amazing people there creating some spaces that felt pretty revolutionary for SAA. I need to hold space in the audience, practice what it feels like to be a person who doesn't belong in all of the conversations, amplify the right voices. Jen rightly reminded me that maybe one of the best things to do is to shine a light on the great work being done. So here it is, abbreviated as it may be. Always a work in progress!

Roll call

1. I was in awe of the amazing group amassed to speak about Radical Empathy in Archives. I was grateful to Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez, who spoke of processing collections while processing personal grief. I relived my own grief of working full-time through cancer last year, and thought of those moments of crying quietly at my desk sometime between a radiation treatment and my reference shift.

2. I witnessed Shannon O'Neill pulling together, anchoring, and supporting an amazing group. Shannon is an important voice in our field, but I am always in awe of her her radical feminist way of amplifying other voices. (She also sends excellent witchy care packages!) I was super nervous to present with Shannon a few years ago in our "Mind Your Own Fucking Business" panel, where she talked about the widespread problem of lack of transparency among police departments in record-keeping, but she was kind and dear and amazing.

3. I saw Holly Smith talk about where archives fit into community-building, and thought about how I have witnessed Holly's incredible gift of community-building - she has a rare ability to address difficult topics in our field with warmth and humor, and I'm so dang happy to live so close to her now.

4. Giordana Mecagni is a force, and I'm so proud of her for highlighting the economics of archives and limitations of access. She said, hey, why is the documentation of some pretty marginalized groups behind a firewall? And how have we, working within large institutions, been complicit in this happening? Open access!

5. Kelly Wooten reminded us that open access isn't paramount, though. And sometimes under-documented communities want to stay under-documented, and how zines and other ephemera is sometimes the safe space outside the system that Walidah Imarisha reminds us exists. We have a duty to honor this safe space, even if it challenges us to abandon the open access that library school taught us to always champion. Kelly is from the strange little town in the south that I've settled in, and she mapped out a bike route of her Burlington - I treasure her closeness and friendship here so far from everything that feels familiar.

6. Jasmine Jones talked about how change can be tough and is a lot of emotional labor and that we should be confronting awkward conversations and just having them. This will be critical for our field going forward, because there is going to be a hell of a lot of change.

7. Michelle Caswell is doing the work that white folks need to be doing. Her session, "Identifying and Dismantling White Supremacy in Archives," articulates so many things that need to be addressed in our field, but which are often deemed too political. She has been the target of unspeakable acts of trolling and harassment, and I am so impressed by her seemingly cool way of balancing speaking up for what's right, and setting boundaries when she's not going to engage with trolls.

8. Terry Baxter sat with me at Burgerville over a pile of fries and helped me decompress a big year personally, politically, and professionally. Terry is so good at helping to talk through and name things what they are, and helped me to realize that when people dominate space in seats of power, in conversations, at the bank, these are silencing techniques, and we need to call them that. As always, he has such innovative ways of thinking about the work that we do, propelling our profession in important directions, and coming up with really creative and engaging ways of thinking critically about the world around us. I have been so very fortunate to have had his friendship all these years, and so glad that he introduced me to Debbie, who has helped me through this cancer business with such kindness.

9. Actually, everyone who made Archives Leadership Institute happen can never know how profoundly important that was, and how grateful I am to them for providing that perfect circle of love and support the week before I went under the knife for my surgery. ALI was the perfect venue for us to practice the concept of "bring your whole self to work," and I made friends for life there. But in particular, I am just always amazed at Rachel Vagts - she is superwoman. How the woman is able to balance being ALI director, overseeing a special collections of her own, serving on SAA council, and nurturing archives and personal relationship with people like bell hooks is just beyond me.

10. Tanya Zanish-Belcher and I recently shared a meal and talked about what it means to take the helm as SAA President this year in a time that feels so politically charge and a time of such change in our profession. She understands that we as white women need to do better. I was happy to see the strength in the words she wrote denouncing the trolling of presenters at SAA, her very first month as president and when she was away on vacation.

11. Nancy Godoy and I found a quiet corner to share what is happening in our lives. We have exchanged countless IMs and texts just letting the other process through the hard stuff (personally and professionally), have shared numerous WTF-eyerolls in microaggressive meetings and sessions, taken walks, shared meals. We have both experienced being buried in an unsupportive and stressful place in the organizational chart, and I can't wait to see how she's able to shine now that she is out of that. The works she has done already within both queer and Latina organizations in Phoenix is just phenomenal. She is my hero.

12. Chrystal Carpenter and I allow each other to bring our whole selves to work every day. I treasure her as a friend and a boss, and appreciate that we can let some of the messiness out. We are plotting exciting things.

So in the spirit of collecting tattoos as personal archives, in the spirit of having my ovaries fried beyond usefulness, in the spirit of surviving and realizing how much fight I still have left in me and finding ways to direct it toward something of meaning, my dear old friend and tattoo artist, Dan Gilsdorf, gave me this pair of ovaries and the words "burn it down." So I'll leave it without conclusion. I don't know what I'm doing except learning, except figuring out how to burn some of it down and build it back up again in a way that works. I'm figuring out how to pull myself up from the ashes.

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