Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hidden Communities

I've previously discussed on this blog the value of considering communities for archives. I have also discussed documenting the underdocumented. And I discussed documenting the underdocumented, again. Communities are the informal and formal groups to which we belong. Some communities are obvious to us such as our family community, our geographic community, our religious community, and our ethnic community. Some communities we are less likely to acknowledge, consider, or know about. It is a challenge to those who are attempting to collect the evidence and stories of humanity to identify these hidden communities. It is worthwhile to consider them for the purposes of collecting (as in formal repositories) and for purposes of telling our own personal stories (when preserving family memories or working as citizen archivists or cultural heritage collaborators.)

I am going to use an example of a hidden community of my own. About a decade ago, I found out that I have Celiac Disease. I exhibited signs for about twenty years, but did not know that it was wheat, barley and rye that made my head cloudy and my emotions intense. My Celiac community was hidden to me. Had I known about it earlier, I would have had access to more information that could have made my life much easier. Celiacs had been sharing what they were discovering about the disorder. Doctors were working with patients to help them. No one from this community to which I belonged was helping me. They did not know that I existed. I didn't know that they existed, until one day a colleague mentioned that her daughter had Celiac and told me about how she dealt with that from day-to-day. A few years later when I set off on a pursuit to "cure" myself, bells about the conversation I had with my librarian friend years earlier rang in my head. Her sharing of her unique personal experience helped me discover that I too had Celiac. Her information dissemination raised my awareness of something previously foreign to me. Within that information I found something hidden about myself. I continually explore my personal relationship with the disorder. I write about it. I talk about it with people I meet in person. It is something that I live with every day.

However, most people do not know that I have Celiac. You can't tell by looking at me that I need to stick to a special diet. My membership in the Celiac community is hidden to most people. Yet, I have lots of information to share. I can tell people that Celiac effects one out of every one hundred people. I can tell you that its symptoms are diverse and not necessarily what you might expect. I may even help others discover that they too have Celiac. My information can help them better prepare to live a new lifestyle. I can help put them on a path toward better health. Indeed, I have helped a number of people this way.

So, what does this have to do with archives? Information sharing is the name of the game. Your hidden stories have a lot to offer to others. The stories of others can also affect you. Aiming to document hidden communities can advance our civilization, save someone's life, make someone happier, make us more understanding and smarter. This is the role of archives. This is a challenge for our society. What knowledge do we need to record that is currently not being recorded? What communities should we identify and what knowledge do they hold that should be preserved and disseminated? Consider what aspects of you and your communities are not so obvious. Make sure they are not neglected in documentation efforts.

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