Response to comments to the #BLACKLIVESMATTER AND ARCHIVES IN AUSTRALIA blog post

Recently I wrote a blog article about the engagement of the Australian GLAM sector with the #BlackLivesMatter movement and Indigenous activism. The blog article called for Australian memory institutions to shift from retroactive to proactive practice and contrasted the libraries’ and archives’ collection calls for the federal election and COVID19 to their collection calls for Invasion Day and Black Lives Matter. I mentioned the US-based archives that are an integral part of the Black Lives Matter Movement, born out of it, and continuing to exist as an active arm of the US Black communities’ voice and agency, calling attention to the dearth of such archives here. I also used the example of the National Apology and the Reconciliation Walk to reiterate my point about the disparity between the collection campaigns for major Indigenous activism events and other major events.

I was encouraged to hear that many in the GLAM sector had read the blog article 👋. Some of these readers sent in responses to the article, pointing out that there are collections or records about the National Apology or the Reconciliation Walk, others shared collecting initiatives underway of #BlackLivesMatter ephemera or social media posts. Others still offered insight into collections that had broader connections to Indigenous peoples, communities or movements.

Two things struck me about these responses to my blog article. First was that the general public needs to be hearing more about these collections and records, especially at times when they are most relevant. Black Lives Matter was at the forefront of conversations, media and global thought for weeks before I published the blog article, this would have been a great time for archives and libraries to use the channels they have available, at the very least through their social media feeds, to highlight the records in their collections that relate to this very public discussion. Even without the event of Black Lives Matter action, institutions should have already had outreach, content and media programmed to discuss records that relate to the commemoration of National Sorry Day and Reconciliation Week that happened to coincide with Black Lives Matter action. There was, and still exists, ample opportunity for libraries and archives to talk about the records in their repositories that relate to Indigenous battles for social justice in Australia.

The second thing that came to mind was that these collections and records are scattered across different collections, repositories and institutions around the country. While some are openly available online, in some cases, the collections can only be accessed in person at the archive, others require you to be a resident of that state and be a member to access the record. Some records were single pieces of evidence in a collection that was not specifically about Indigenous activism. They present a body of evidence that is scattered not just geographically, but also in terms of access and usability.

For these reasons, the archives that we have in Australia are fundamentally different to the archives I held up as examples of community agency in the United States. The US exemplars are different in their intention, formulation, formation, and legacy. They were created in partnership with the community to empower the community to decide the way they were represented in the archive. The records are created by community members. It is exactly this sort of record creation and keeping that Black and Indigenous community members imply when they say, “Nothing about us without us”. The records remain available online with open access (for the most part), as ongoing evidence of the injustices faced by Black communities and as a record of the community’s agency and activism against those injustices. These archives not only start with centring the communities involved, but they also continue to support the community in their ongoing efforts to document injustices and to educate the broader public when Black Lives Matter is not trending, or when it begins to trend again in the future, as it inevitably will.

This response reinforces my original argument that there are no equivalent archives in Australia that proactively capture the Indigenous activism in this country as it is happening. Collections are not available to be used as evidence of, and in support of, Indigenous activism, in the way that Documenting Ferguson, Preserve the Baltimore Uprising 2015, Texas After Violence and others do for Black activism in the US. There is no central archive or collection that centres Indigenous peoples as creators and controllers of the records, that anyone can access (subject to the record creators’ restrictions), from anywhere in Australia, at any point in time, to learn about, or understand the long and multipronged history of Indigenous activism and agency in this country. There is also a lack of promotion of existing collections and records in times when this is needed to inform the discussion around race and racism in Australia. Records and collections are evidence, but what use is that evidence if it is not shared, talked about, and held up in times when it is most needed?

The questions I put forward for readers to ponder were:

Which part of our GLAM sector is being anti-racist in their praxis?

Why are we always looking backwards to rectify the past?

What can we be doing now to give agency and voice to the Indigenous peoples of Australia?

My answers remain unchanged. At this point in time, Australia’s GLAM sector has not adopted anti-racist praxis and is still retroactively trying to fix underrepresentation, misrepresentation and lack of agency in archives, but not adequately supporting Indigenous communities in their contemporary activism. I also maintain that there are many things that GLAM institutions can do right now, in the heat of an uprising, to address these issues and give voice and agency to Indigenous communities and people. These changes need to start with archives engaging with activist organisations and communities, and learning from the archivist organisations that are already doing this work. Doing better means changing the actions of our memory institutions now, not retroactively correcting today’s actions in twenty years’ time.

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