Monday, September 27, 2010

Archives and Community

The activities of communities are represented in our archives. Our written documents help us understand our own communities, how our communities intersect with others, the similarities among people and their differences. Examining communities helps us define ourselves and the world around us. It helps us recognize a path into the future. I have recently been delving further into the idea of archives built on communities, expanding on the idea of "Community Documentation" as an efficient means of archives collection development. I addressed this issue in an earlier blog post but would like to continue to explore the ideas I presented earlier.

A community is a formal or informal group with a common history or culture. The community can be based around a geographic area, trait, or topic of interest. Communities come in the form of:
  • Families
  • ethnic groups
  • civic organizations
  • governments
  • informal and formal social groups
  • educational institutions
  • colleagues
  • causes
  • geographical locations / neighborhoods
Every individual participates in communities either intentionally or unintentionally through ethnicity, living space, workplaces, beliefs, and behaviors. Our communities are reflected in the documents we create to run our formal groups. Our less formal communities are reflected in the things we addresses in our papers, providing clues about who we are and what we believe.

I keep coming back to the idea of a wedding. My brother was married this past summer and looking around the event I realized what a microcosm of humanity I had before me. The wedding ceremony itself -- its wording and the traditions we included -- tell a lot about my brother, his wife, and their communities. The wedding party's style of dress, the table centerpieces, and the food all provide clues about the communities of the people we were celebrating. Wedding attendees were all members of at least one community of the bride and groom. They were family members, or they went to school with them, or they sat and drank beers with them on Friday nights. Some at the wedding were colleagues or neighbors. Some were involved in formal social groups in which the couple took part. Some lived far away. Others could scooter to the ceremony. We had people with different political beliefs and different religions. Most were attached by a number of community connections. Interestingly, this wedding was very different than any that could have taken place a century ago for a number of social (community based) reasons.


I believe that one of the primary roles of cultural heritage institutions is to reflect the human connections and changes similar to those that were so apparent during my brother's nuptials. Personal papers reveal a lot about an individual, the time and place in which one lives. They also reveal a lot about human nature, what we have in common, and how we change our perspectives (and thus our communities) over time. As society evolves, theoretically it should change for the better and become more equipped to meet our needs and desires.


I've begun thinking about historical communities. I am a member of an historical community of women, Americans, and archivists among other groups. Each of my communities has changed over time. I would be a very different person if I lived at a different time because the expectations my communities had of me would differ. We can see in our archives how ideas have altered. We see signs of discontent and then moves to change situations. Movements against serfdom or for women's rights are part of the same historical alterations - communities rallying for a better future.


Our archives must successfully document these movements through time. As we work to document our communities, we must keep in mind how they are changing and growing. A particular collection is a slice of life at a particular time, but it is also a piece of a puzzle or a link in a chain. It is the archivist's challenge to make sure all the links are in place so that we understand where we've been and where life might lead us into the future. Thinking about communities allows us to consider individual humans as members of diverse groups that reflect aspects of our being. The concept of communities also helps us make sense of our historical environment and societal expectations.
The idea of communities is thus vital to an archivist's understanding of her role in society and vital toward a better understanding of history.



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