Editor’s note: this guest post was written by Campbell Hannan. Campbell was the 2021-2022 Amherst Folger Humanities Fellow, during which time she worked on a variety of projects with the Collections Division. She is a recent graduate of the MA Archives and Records Management program at University College Dublin. This piece was written in 2022, but publication was delayed until an article referenced in the text was made available online. While Campbell is the primary author, this post was written in conversation with Folger staff members Sara Schliep (Archivist and Cataloger), Heather Wolfe (Curator of Manuscripts), and Julie Swierczek (Associate Librarian for Collection Description and Imaging) whose voices helped shape this final version.
Archives are not neutral. Just like any remnant of the past, they have voices that tell certain stories about the periods from which they came. They tell specific stories that do not and cannot convey every narrative that ever existed. Thus, an investigation of archival narratives necessitates an investigation of what narratives have been left out of our cultural institutions. As the Folger Shakespeare Library reckons with its past and works towards a more equitable future after re-opening, we must consider the silences in its institutional archives; that is, in records created by an institution in the course of its daily operations.
I came to the Folger in September  as the Amherst Folger Humanities Fellow for the 2021-2022 academic year. I completed my undergraduate degree at Amherst College, where I worked in the Library’s Digital Collections for most of my time on campus. One of my many responsibilities was curating the collection’s Instagram feed. Although I was not involved with the growth of Amherst’s institutional archives, I was presenting its contents to the public, and thus valuing it based on what I deemed worthy of sharing. If the feed leaned too heavily on photographs of sports games or articles from a fraternity newsletter, it was because of my work. I therefore took very seriously what balance of faces, activities, backgrounds, and areas of campus life were represented each week. My mission was to present as many historical narratives as possible to our students and alumni. Nobody is perfect, we’re all still figuring it out—I know for a fact I had disproportionately more Emily Dickinson content than photos of athletics—but it is the effort and the evolution of the field that matters.
One of the most harmful falsehoods about “history” is that it is equivalent to “the past,” that it is immune to opinion or perspective, and every event of the past happened in exactly one way. When the definition of history that we’re taught in our earliest levels of school is stagnant and disconnected from the present moment, it sets in this misunderstanding that persists for the rest of our lives. It is a process of unlearning, then, for those of us who study history, to understand that the narratives we’ve heard as set in stone are only a fraction of the whole story. Archives are the same—they give us a window into the past but require analytical inspection.
Historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot, in his groundbreaking book Silencing the Past, speaks to the perceived disconnect between the past and the present that leads to an abundance of silence in history, and for our purposes, archives. He writes,
“We are never as steeped in history as when we pretend not to be, but if we stop pretending, we may gain in understanding what we lose in false innocence. Naiveté is often an excuse for those who exercise power. For those upon whom that power is exercised, naiveté is always a mistake.” (Trouillot, 1995, p. XIX.)
Trouillot urges historians, archivists, and all professionals who deal with artifacts and narratives of the past, to recognize the power they hold in assigning meaning to those narratives. The reason the American and French Revolutions are more commonly taught than the Haitian Revolution (the focus of his book) is not because the American and French Revolutions were better, more successful, or more revolutionary (they are arguably less so), but because the custodians of America’s past have decided over the years that studying the Haitian Revolution exposes a narrative that counteracts the idea that the Founding Fathers were the sole architects of freedom. If American students studied a slave revolt based around exploited labor and capitalism, they might understand that the foundation of their government explicitly maintained the slave hierarchy to expand the rights of white landholders. This is not exactly the intended lesson in American classrooms. What we leave out matters.
Institutional archives are not created with the intent to capture the experiences of all their employees. But the important thing here is that people decide what has lasting historical or evidentiary value and what does not based on an understanding of the institution’s regular operations and functions. These choices have consequences. Should institutional archives be more expansive and capture the experiences of staff as well as the functional roles it serves? There has always been a singular focus to an archive: the self-preservation of an institution. How can institutions better tell their stories and the stories of their employees?
Many incredible Black Women Archivists are working to ensure that their peers are aware of the impact of their choices as cultural heritage stewards and highlighting that it is often Black Women who are most silenced throughout archival history. In her illuminating TEDx talk, Dominique Luster names history as “a series of strategically curated decisions” (Luster, TEDx Pittsburgh 2018). People make decisions, not immune from their own set of personal biases, about what deserves to be included as a part of history. Rachel Winston notes in her article, “Praxis for the People: Critical Race Theory and Archival Practice,” that Black women are especially susceptible to silence that has been built into the “archival ecosystem” based on “systems of oppression, sexism, and global anti-Blackness” (Winston, 284). We have lost far more threads in the historical tapestry than we have kept because people have chosen which stories are worth telling and which ones they would rather suppress or ignore.
Archivists can’t keep everything, however. And the priorities of the archival community have shifted throughout the years. We’ve reached the paradox of agency in archival silence. How do we reckon with the prejudicial accession standards of the past while still acknowledging that archivists must make certain judgement calls to make their collections manageable? How do we make peace with the fact that there will always be parts of our past that we cannot know, while trying to preserve and recover the parts we can? How do we create equitable and pro-active archival practices after years of traditionally passive accumulation and records retention policies?
One area of the institution’s history that current archivist Sara Schliep hopes to expand is the records from the Folger’s security staff, which has the highest percentage of employees of color. Facilitating regular records transfer from the security team will ensure representation of their contributions to a critical part of the Folger’s operations. And as the Folger begins to process its existing institutional records, the descriptive team will look for the footprint of its BIPOC employees and bring that out in the metadata.
What we as stewards of historical narratives can do is pay attention. We can adopt Rachel Winston’s suggestions for a Critical Race Praxis for Archival Studies—to recognize, address, and disrupt the racist, sexist, ableist history of the Folger (Winston, 290-295). The Folger can take a critical look at the language former directors and staff were using, the messages they were sending to the public, and the community they were creating in Washington, DC. For example, Schliep has identified correspondence from Folger director Joseph Quincy Adams that highlights—in no uncertain terms—the racial prejudice held at the Folger that aligned with and supported the segregation practices in DC. In a letter to the Chair of the Folger Committee of Amherst Trustees, Supreme Court Justice Harlan Fiske Stone, Adams asks for clarification on how to respond to Howard University Professor and Shakespeare scholar Benjamin Brawley’s request for a ticket to a Folger performance. This exchange, as well as Adams’ response to Brawley, clarifies that in 1938 the Folger did not welcome Black scholars for social events, only academic research.
Schliep passed that correspondence on to current director Mike Witmore, who chose to publicly engage with this moment in the institution through a column in the Folger Magazine. By taking time to interact with the Folger’s racist legacy, he and the Folger’s current staff are doing the work of addressing archival silence to move toward a more equitable, anti-racist future.
The Folger’s historical record is not complete, but neither is any other cultural institution’s repository. By only considering the material in an institutional archive, we exclude all the material that was ever deemed irrelevant or unworthy of keeping, narrowing our field of historical vision. The investigation of archival silences is a process of reading between the lines, consulting and collaborating with other collections and people, and opening our minds to the possibility of more. The Folger can continue its work of bringing William Shakespeare and his contemporaries to the public of Washington, DC and beyond while acknowledging that its institutional archive only tells a portion of the Folger’s history. We know that the Folger has not always been the most welcoming to nonwhite, nonmale people hoping to engage with Early Modern England, but Folger staff is working to uncover and reckon with that history. Moving forward, the Folger intends to remain mindful and cognizant of its place in conveying historical narratives, filling in silences and absences when it can, while always recognizing that they exist.
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