Navigating ‘Archives of Power’: What’s the Objective?

By Karen R. Roybal, Colorado College


When a colleague asked me to participate in an “Archival Encounters” symposium, I thought of the quirks, coincidences, and “ah-ha” moments I have had in the archive over the years and how I could detail the uniqueness of each encounter during my talk. It was not until I sat down to craft a syllabus for a course I was teaching that spring entitled “Archives of Power” that I realized the integral need to think about how we practice archival research. I also thought about how we make discoveries when we enter the archive, and most importantly, how we teach students the value of the archive and the responsibility that comes with using it. The course would be the perfect intersection of the epistemologies that guide my research and the pedagogy I employ in my courses. I have been thinking about the archive for decades; now I was tasked with teaching students about archival studies (broadly conceived). I wanted to introduce them to the science of the archive and how it has been theorized. I attempted to blend these two approaches to the archive in a way that seduced them into “articulat[ing] [their] own desires in relation to the archive” (Tortorici 2015, n.p.). This essay argues that in our teaching of archival studies and methods, we must invoke theories, practices, and pedagogy from an interdisciplinary perspective to continue to provide students with a more robust understanding of the genealogy of the archive and equip them with the skills necessary to navigate a changing archival culture.

Planning Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Archive

I teach at a small, private liberal arts college known for its “block plan”; students take one course at a time, for three-and-a-half weeks. We meet five days a week for three hours, and when we are “in the field,” our meeting time is extended, and we can easily spend up to eight hours together. The block plan is ideal for intensive study of a single topic without other distractions; however, it also poses major challenges because that time is hardly enough to begin to understand how to define the archive, much less progress to fieldwork in the archive. Many students who enroll in the course are unfamiliar with historical or interdisciplinary methodologies, and/or they have never taken a course with an intensive fieldwork component. Because of my own frustrations with the archival gaps encountered during my own research, when I conceptualized the course, I framed it as a critique of the archive. I also wanted to challenge the preconceived notion of the archive as something objective, as a repository in which Truth is not only determined, but also recorded. I considered Michelle Caswell’s work (2016) in my course design, especially the ways she highlights the tension between humanities and social science scholars and archivists. Caswell argues that though humanities scholars and archival studies scholars discuss “the archive,” they fail to take advantage of learning from insights gained from their respective positions.

Especially pertinent to her argument is her critique that humanities scholars do not acknowledge the important theoretical work occurring in archival studies, of which there exists an extensive lineage. In my own research, I define the archive as a repository of memories that provide an alternative understanding of dominant historical accounts. I use that alternative understanding to reframe the archive to include those voices and stories that have not typically been included as “evidence” in “mainstream” historical narratives about gender and borders. Caswell called humanities scholars out for our “failure of interdisciplinarity when it comes to archives” (n.p.); in some ways, the course challenges her assertion because it emphasizes interdisciplinary methods for examining and using the archive. The course also reminds students that though archival research is typically performed in isolation, the process involves more than one person.

The course outlines and invites students to study the intellectual, ideological, and genealogical development of archive studies to determine how the archive is constituted. Course readings question the archive as an empirically sound and objective form of public history and record and allow students to examine the many logics of archival systems and the hierarchies that dictate those systems (e.g., authoritarian, institutional, colonial, gendered, and heteronormative). In other words, the course invites students to think interdisciplinarily. They identify the ways history AND literature AND culture are legitimized/delegitimized, recognized/unrecognized, and valued/devalued within the archive. In part, the course achieves this by allowing students to work with archivists in the field to learn how they constantly add to collections, learning that alters students’ perception of the archive as static. Instead, they come to see archives as dynamic—to consider the multiple perspectives from which they are organized, analyzed, and used and how they evolve because of how we study them.

Course assignments (described in-depth later) include: (1) two “mini-archival projects” where students visit Special Collections on our campus and a local museum archive to craft short critical essays also used in their final research paper; (2) a field reflection journal in which they document and reflect on course readings, course lectures, and fieldwork site visits at two archive centers in New Mexico; (3) an abstract and annotated bibliography that prepare them to analyze an archival collection or collections of their choice; (4) a peer-reviewed 15-page paper based on archival research conducted in New Mexico; and (5) a 10-minute presentation at the end of the block in which they describe their respective collections and share their research findings with peers.

Course readings reflect variations in how archivists, literary scholars, historians, and community members consider the archive in their varied approaches to it. French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s Mal d’Archive, first a lecture and later published as the oft-cited text Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (1995), is a staple of the course. In this lecture-turned-significant-text in archival studies, Derrida explains the origin of the archive as it is rooted in the Greek word arkhē, “the principle according to the law, there where things commence—physical, historical, or ontological principle—but also the principle according to the law, there where men and gods command, there where authority, social order are exercised, in this place from which order is given—nomological principle” (emphasis original) (1). Archive Fever provides a strong foundation so students understand the etymology of the term “archive,” while their fieldwork actively engages them in better understanding the distinctions among archives, libraries, and other spaces in which repositories are housed, along with the power dynamics of the archive—a point gestured towards in Derrida’s definition through words like “order,” “command,” and “authority.” Students analyze the archive as a physical collection, but also theorize about it as a methodology through which order is determined.

I pair Derrida’s work with historians such as Antoinette Burton, who is critical of the archive and who has engaged in “archival encounters” for the better part of her career. Burton invokes Derrida’s ideas about the “archival turn,” which she suggests “is perhaps especially threatening to contemporary historians at accelerating moments of interdisciplinarity because of the ways it strikes at the heart of the evidentiary elitism of the discipline” (2005, 5). These authors offer students a glimpse into the overlaps in theoretical discussions about the archive and demonstrate tensions in how archival scholars find value in it in different ways. Students see for themselves that a universal understanding of the archive and archival studies is unrealistic. Another objective of my course is to emphasize and explain to students that these important and often competing archival ideologies point to the contention between humanities and social science scholars and archivists, as identified by Caswell. I pair Caswell’s work with that of Marlene Manoff, who theorizes about the archive and the historical record arguing, “The concept of the archive…is loosening and exploding” (10). She continues, “Archival discourse has also become a way to address some of the thorny issues of disciplinary knowledge production and the artificial character of disciplinary boundaries” (2004, 10-11). Through readings like these, students identify how cultural theorists, historians, and archivists articulate similar issues from seemingly different archival perspectives, and their fieldwork and final projects help them visualize those overlaps and points of dissent.

Struck with ‘Archive Fever’

My fascination with the archive began when, as a research assistant, I went to the Center for Southwest Research, an archival repository at the University of New Mexico that houses one of the largest collections of Southwest-related materials in the nation. My job was to examine reels of microfiche of unpublished manuscripts and records for a mentor’s project. That opportunity encouraged me to pursue my own archival research, as I uncovered ephemera, manuscripts, and photographs later used in my dissertation and eventually my first book. I wanted my students to also experience the “archive fever” that afflicted me as a graduate student and that Derrida so eloquently describes as the “desire and disorder of the archive” through which assignation and consignation occur (1995, 3). My course exposes students to the messiness of the archive so they might better understand how archiving is a system through which items and memories are preserved so they are remembered; yet, what is left out of the archive is also an active process through which we learn what was deemed something to be forgotten. To get this point across, we discuss Pierre Nora’s idea that “lieux de mémoire originate with the sense that there is no spontaneous memory, that we must deliberately create archives” (1989, 1). Situating the archive as something produced encourages students to engage in critical history and to consider how history, too, is produced. The course allows them to understand the archive as theoretical, it is produced and analyzed; but it also is material—archives are collections of items. This interdisciplinary perspective provides students with lenses through which they can better identify the intersection of theory and material reality. They do this when they embark on their archival research projects, as well as identify the “archival gaps” through such seemingly simple things as being limited by terms included in finding aids or not being able to find what they expected as they excavate collections. The combination of readings about the archive and their fieldwork, in other words, prepares students to use their field experiences as a lab of sorts, in which what they have theorized in class comes alive when they “experiment” in the archives.

In some ways, the course positions students to understand their fieldwork as a sort of “practicum” in archival research, and I encourage them to think about the importance of their roles as scholars interpreting the archives and the materials they hold. In our coursework, we explore how our understanding of history is not based on a single archival document; there is no manifest document.  Rather, as Derrida reminds us, it is a synthesis of the contradictions within the archive. Moreover, I emphasize that what we find in the archives has real political and material consequences and forces us to consider with care our roles as “archival truth tellers” through what we produce as a result of our work. Throughout the course, students begin to critique the archive as they consider whom and what is represented within the archive and who makes decisions about what is included and excluded. Students in the course echo an integral point made by historian Linda Heidenreich, who argues that the majority of sources through which we learn about histories of subjugated peoples, for instance, were not provided by those groups themselves; our historical knowledge, therefore, remains limited even as we turn to what has been deemed by the dominant public as the “official archive” (2007, 35). An interdisciplinary approach fosters this type of in-depth, critical interrogation of the archive writ large. The next section provides sample course activities and projects that provide experiential interdisciplinary learning opportunities.

In-Class and Field-based Activities

 Activity: Working with Minimal Information

I include in-class activities prior to our fieldwork that demonstrate how humanities scholars must think interdisciplinarily when it comes to archives. As a model, I use my own research and experience. During one class session in the first three days of the block, for instance, I began one in-class activity by asking students to examine primary sources I collected during my archival research. Working in small groups, students spent the first half of our three-hour session on the first part of the activity. I gave the first group a letter written by a female Mexican author to a California political official and military general. The letter was in Spanish and written during the nineteenth century. I gave another group a letter written to the editor of the Pittsburgh Catholic Observer in the twentieth century by a Tejana author and bilingual educator. The final group examined copies of photographs included in an autobioethnography, I asked all groups to spend roughly 20 minutes discussing and determining what they could deduce from the information contained in the letters and photo captions. Students quickly realized they had to analyze the sources based on what little information they had from the archival material itself to determine what story their archival document told. The group with the Spanish letter worked together to translate it into English; the group with the letter from the Tejana author discussed the significance of the editor to whom she was writing and why she was writing to him; the group with the photos attempted to identify people in the photographs. Though they were beginning to make some headway in their investigations and analyses, students expressed frustration because they needed more information. I explained that archival research is frustrating because although one might have a clear idea of what archival materials are included in a collection, at times one has very little information with which to work. At the beginning of class on Day 2 of this exercise and after their first round of investigation and analysis, I gave additional clues from the “repositories” where I gathered the sources and allowed students to conduct internet searches for approximately 15 minutes. Each group located supplementary information in the form of biographical details about persons named in their materials, and/or information about descendants or events associated with the people or places they could identify to help piece together the stories hidden within their archival documents. We discussed whether what they found online was credible and how to determine validity of sources by considering what they could tell from the site from which they drew their information. For example, we discussed why a site such as Wikipedia, to which anyone with a computer can contribute information, might not be as credible as a historical society site. Students expressed surprise at the amount of “sleuth” work involved in the research process. During the activity, I also played the role of archivist and when asked by the students, provided additional background information on the three authors whose materials we examined, or we discussed possible search terms to use to find additional information about materials they examined, such as specific regional identities, alternative name spellings, and landmarks or events. I asked them to reflect on the process; they should explain what was frustrating to them, what would have helped them in their searches, and how they would plan their searches if they had to conduct them again. Students identified other approaches they might need to take or recognized that they might become reliant on archivists. I explained that I assigned this exercise so they would have a primer for going through the processes of archival digging they would perform when we visited our first set of special collections in our campus library. I extended this in-class assignment over two days; it could easily be expanded to three and students could do some research outside of class. The primary sources used in this exercise are not in students’ final projects; they introduce them to the process of archival research only. The activity explained in the subsequent section marks the beginning of their own research on pre-selected topics.

Activity: Primary Source Analysis

Prior to the visit to our campus Special Collections, I sent the students’ first formal assignment description to our Southwest archivist and met with her to make a preliminary decision on a selection of items tangentially related to topics students expressed interest in for final projects. For the first day of class, I prepare a list of possible topics from which students can narrow their focus, and I ask them to review course readings to see which theoretical models we will study. Toward the end of the first week of class, I ask them to begin searching the online finding aids of repositories we will visit during our fieldwork to further help them select their area/topic of interest. They also attend office hours to discuss their interests, and together we narrow their topic. At that point, I contact the archivist from our Special Collections again to make modifications to materials she and I had originally identified. When we visit her, she sets the objects, documents, and photographs out so students can examine the archival material and discuss any item with us; they can take photographs of material(s) for their analyses. I explain this entire process to my students and make clear that I follow this procedure when I send their topic ideas to the archivists in New Mexico. Explaining this process is important, because it allows students to understand the need to communicate early with archivists so they do not assume that they can simply arrive at an archive unprepared. Before we begin fieldwork, I ask students to start communicating with archivists in New Mexico via email so they learn how to request materials and how to describe their projects. The primary source assignment in our Special Collections helps students gain confidence in asking the archivist questions about their materials.

I adapted the primary source analysis assignment from the approach of Dr. Cora Granata, Professor of History at California State University, Fullerton. The assignment asks students to address four major areas in a 3-5 page analysis: (1) Basic Identification; (2) Author’s Intent; (3) Historical Context and (4) Content of the Source. In addition to these categories, I ask students to consider how the source could be relevant to conducting research on the U.S. Southwest, which they have to address in each course assignment. This step helps them progress from identification to analysis. Identifying four main areas of inquiry for students allows them to spend more time on their analysis of key elements and specific details about the archival material. The section on “Basic Identification” seems intuitive at first, but I find often that because students are so engaged with their material, they assume the reader knows what they are describing, when the student has not named or described it specifically. The same can be said about the third criterion, “Historical Context.” Though some of the archival collections include an abundance of historical details about the object or author, some do not, which means students have to conduct external research. I remind them that though they might be familiar with the historical details because they read them, readers may not; thus, they need to include pertinent historical context. As students get to the “Author’s Intent,” they are left to surmise what the author/collector “may” have intended by documenting or preserving the material in the archive. Here students are asked to use their imaginations, but I stipulate that what they write has to be grounded in some historical, social, professional, or personal information they learn about the person, place, or thing analyzed. This section goes hand-in-hand with the “Contents of the Source,” as students must describe what perspectives are left out of the source material and what questions they are left with as they conclude their analyses. The first primary source analysis assignment preps students for their second assignment—a longer analysis of a second primary source from a local museum archive that, ideally, should be related to their first archival source. I scaffold the assignments so the first two mini-archival assignments introduce students who had not been exposed to primary sources and/or archival work to the need to be detail-oriented and careful observers. It also gives them a sense of the level of analytical depth they have to achieve in their final project analyses, which takes us to two significant archives in New Mexico: The Special Collections at the Institute for American Indian Arts (IAIA), and the Center for Southwest Research (CSWR).

Archival Fieldwork

In preparation for the field outing and in tandem with first week office hour visits and preliminary scouting of collections we will visit, I give students time in class to conduct research and to ask questions. They must also conduct research on their own and generate a list of two or three collections that most closely aligns with their final topic of interest, which they share with me via email. I then compile a list for the archivists with whom we work when we visit the New Mexico archives. The summer before the start of the first iteration of the course, I visited the archives, met with the archivists, shared my course syllabus and final assignment, and explained my intentions for the course and for the students’ final papers. Setting this project up prior to the course was extremely useful, because it reduced the amount of time students needed to identify collections while we were in the field, and the archivists were able to generate suggestions for other potential collections or materials.

Students were already nervous about working on their final assignment while they were in the field. This final project required them to write a 15-page paper where they were to (1) describe the archive collection examined during fieldwork; (2) provide historical context for the collection and its materials; and (3) connect the work to key ideas and theories from class. The goal of this final longer essay was to encourage students to use the two previously completed mini-archival assignments, along with their primary fieldwork research, as part of this longer research paper. To provide the historical context, they also had to conduct outside research and consult secondary sources. To mitigate issues with time management, I schedule time during fieldwork for students to work on research papers. We spend at least two days at each major archive, arriving when they open. Students use the first half of the day to conduct research. After lunch, they can use their time to write in the archive reading rooms, or locate another area to write in the main libraries. This approach allows students to organize their time in a way that is conducive to their routine “work” schedules when they are on our home campus. In addition to giving them time to research and write, I make myself available throughout the day by setting up an “office” in the libraries we visit so students can sit with me as if we are engaged in “office hours” to address any issues they have in the field. Though they are not required to meet with me, almost all do; we also “de-brief” as a group during dinner.

One of the most important steps in this process is introducing students to the archivists and scheduling time for each archivist to give a broad overview of their respective collections. Students see the “back end” of the archival repositories, as the archivists at each institution walk them through rows of materials and explain how they are organized. In addition, the archivists generously give of their time and meet one-on-one with students as they scour collections and generate questions about materials they have found. In these sessions, students have asked archivists questions such as the following: How would you describe your relationship with researchers who visit the archives with different levels of ‘expertise’ about a topic? How do you determine which material you choose to accept, and what is the process for rejecting materials that are in special collections? How would you respond to someone who might identify you as the ‘guardian of the archive’? The archivists are aware beforehand that the course explores systems of power and their relationship to what and whose stories are preserved in their repositories, so they engage with students well on these critical questions and students appreciate this type of experiential learning opportunity where they hear the archivists’ firsthand experiences, rather than solely reading about them.

Though their archival work in the course is designed to be original and single-authored, throughout the course, I reiterate the importance of building relationships when conducting archival research. I model for them the importance of building relationships, which I have done and continue to do with archivists with whom I still work, especially those with whom we meet in the field.

Activity: Field Reflection Journal

At the start of our block, I ask students to keep a field journal so they can reflect on their experiences during guest lectures and site visits, and so they can articulate their research as a process. The journal is where students document and reflect on “fieldwork,” broadly conceived. Because I did not want the journal to be a compilation of notes, I request active reflection. I want them to consider questions about their experience and their learning within and about the archive. Though it seems somewhat elementary, I also discuss what I mean by “field notes” and “reflective information.”  They know I want them to record their thoughts, ideas, questions, and concerns as they conduct research and then reflect on their field experiences. This step is important for their final essays. Their reflections reveal that they value the time with archivists; they believe the process of conducting of archival research is “hard”; they want to spend more time in the archive; and they find items they never could have imagined and that sometimes lead them in a different direction than they originally anticipated. The field journal provides me with a strong sense that students experience the “archive fever” they read about in Derrida’s book.

Discussion and Follow-Up Post-Fieldwork

When we return from fieldwork, we continue our discussions about current theoretical uses of “the archive.” We also discuss what we label “alternative” archives, which reveal how particular authors, cultural, racial, and gendered groups, and institutions encourage a re-reading of the archive and its foundations. Students generally say the fieldwork was the most enriching exercise they did in the course up to that point and express the value they found in working closely with archivists. I emphasize that I could not do the work I do in course planning and in my own research alone; I rely on my archivist contacts, who share their expertise in archival science and their experiences working with scholars, students, and community members who visit the repositories they built and manage. Before we visit with the archivists, I make clear that part of what is so enticing about working in the archive is not only the material you find within it, but also the friendships you build with the archivists with whom you work for days, months, and, in my case, years. It is not until we get to our archives in the field that students truly understand what I mean by the importance of the connection researchers make with the archivists and how fostering those relationships is more important for research because it demonstrates a mutual level of respect between researcher and archivist—two individuals engaged in archival labor. This type of experiential learning does not come by reading an article or by hearing about my experiences with archivists and with the archive. Students need to talk with archivists in person and learn how the archivists view and understand the archive. In considering the archive and archival studies in this way, I am committed to working towards a more multi-disciplinary conception and understanding of the archive Caswell calls for, one where there is less of a divide among archivists, archival studies and humanities scholars.


The varied opportunities provided throughout the course help students understand that there is not a single way to create, sustain, or utilize an archive. During our final course meeting, students articulate how their experiences as archival researchers allow them to think critically about the physical space of the archive, the decision-making involved in managing an archive, and the level of attention to detail those who donated their papers/collections to archives must have had—much greater than students initially conceived. These discussions reinforce my initial assumption that to teach archival studies, we must consider how interdisciplinary methods and epistemologies for understanding the archive are integral to providing students with a more holistic picture of history and how the way we record and memorialize stories of our past affects the present.

Students especially comment on the importance of fieldwork. One student wrote in a course evaluation, “I wanted to attempt something out of my comfort zone [taking a course on archival studies], and doing archival research was definitely different (in the best way possible)” (Anonymous course evaluation, Archives of Power, spring 2018). When asked, “What features of this course made the most valuable contributions to your learning,” another student responded, “Going to New Mexico and experiencing the archive for myself” (Anonymous course evaluation, Archives of Power, spring 2018). Responses in the course evaluation confirm that students discovered that “archives seduce” (Tortorici 2015, n.p.); but they also demonstrate that students need opportunities to see theory and praxis in action to better understand how other sites, memories, and archives inform our understanding of identity and cultural memory. Put plainly, experiential learning techniques and interdisciplinary conceptualization of the archive remain imperative.