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Dismantling white supremacy in archive and library collections

Collections

In this excerpt from ‘Radical Collections: re-examining the roots of collections, practices and information professions’, a new book re-examining the roots of collections, Alycia Sellie, an associate librarian at City University of New York’s Graduate Center Library, focuses on ‘identifying and dismantling’ white supremacy in archives and libraries. In doing so, she confronts whiteness and uses it to interrogate the past.

In 2005 or thereabouts, while working at the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS), I emailed an editor to enquire about a recent publication. I had discovered a print newsletter that had been published for some time, but which the WHS did not yet hold. I hadn’t expected a response because the organisation’s website looked outdated and I couldn’t tell whether it was being maintained.

Yet I got a quick and enthusiastic reply. The editor was happy to hear from me, and had good news: not only would they be able to send the newsletters, but because members of their group lived nearby in the next county, they would be able to get the issues to us immediately.

This encounter stuck in my mind because the editor with whom I was corresponding was an unabashed white supremacist and his organisation was tied to the Ku Klux Klan. The fact that it had members in a nearby location was a chilling disappointment. Almost a decade later, I cannot remember the title of the publication, although I am still haunted by the correspondence. I cannot easily work backwards to figure out which title it was, either. The WHS currently holds thirty-seven serial titles under the subject heading ‘Ku Klux Klan − Periodicals’, the majority of which are written not by those studying white supremacy, but by those who actively uphold or represent white hate.

As a white woman raised in a working-class family in the Midwest, I was aware of the ways in which white people express fear. I was also aware of hate groups − there had been times when racist literature was literally in the air. I distinctly remember the haunting experience of unfolding a crumpled flyer that had blown down my street when the realisation hit me that this method of distribution required those effecting it to live in close proximity to my home (much like how I felt at the WHS when I realised groups like this were organising nearby). My husband’s parents likewise found literature on their lawn condemning interracial marriages such as theirs and discovered that their tyres had been slashed. This was not that long ago; the late 1980s and 1990s.

Since I presented this paper at the Radical Collections conference in 2017 at Senate House, I’ve thought what I might say now that with every passing day in America we live with a white supremacist as president. Headlines have been distracting my attention from what I originally presented. It’s hard to know which conversations might still feel relevant when so much has been discussed this year about race and hatred in America.

The Racial Imaginary website, an ‘interdisciplinary cultural laboratory’, founded by poet Claudia Rankine, approaches the subject as follows:

The Institute begins with a focus on whiteness because we believe that in our current moment whiteness is freshly articulated: the volume on whiteness has been turned up. Whiteness as a source of unquestioned power, and as a ‘bloc’, feels itself to be endangered even as it retains its hold on power. Given that the concept of racial hierarchy is a strategy employed to support white dominance, whiteness is an important aspect of any conversation about race.

 We begin here in order to make visible that which has been intentionally presented as inevitable so that we can move forward into more revelatory conversations about race. Our first project questions what can be made when we investigate, evade, beset and call out bloc-whiteness.

As one of the most dangerous issues so often ignored, whiteness is part of what I would like to consider here. Or, echoing Michelle Caswell’s work with library and information science (LIS) students, I’ll focus on ‘identifying and dismantling’ white supremacy in archives and libraries. I am mindful or even wary of my own position in writing this chapter.

As a cis [denotes someone whose gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth] white heterosexual woman in a field filled with people like me, my desire is to confront whiteness and to use it to interrogate the past, or to better see the present. It feels precarious to suggest that collecting outright racist work might be part of anti-racist activism. But I am more concerned about not making this suggestion than making it. I worry that when librarians and archivists think about radical collections and leave out the terrors of the right, we (or the majority white people working in LIS) perpetuate structures of white power.

Although whiteness has been studied outside of LIS for some time, librarians and archivists are now beginning to write about its influence on the field, and the ways in which this concept can function in terms of power and culture. Todd Honma, by way of George Lipsitz, describes whiteness as ‘a socio-cultural category constantly created and recreated as a way to uphold the unequal distribution of wealth, power, and opportunity.’

Honma also describes how normalised the hegemonic hold of whiteness has become, and states that ‘what counts as ‘universal’ knowledge is an unquestioned and unacknowledged white perspective.’ While dominant, whiteness is often described as an elusive subject, one that ‘never has to speak its name.’ Gina Schlesselman-Tarango writes: ‘Because of its insistence on not naming itself, whiteness largely remains invisible (especially, it has been argued, by white subjects).’

So much of the conversation in LIS echoes the work of the broader Black Lives Matter movement and what the Racial Imaginary describes as making visible that which has been assumed inevitable, that which went unidentified and unquestioned.

When we contemplate all of the work that is housed within libraries and archives throughout America and indeed the world, we are certain to find a vast representation of works made by, for and upholding whiteness. All too often when confronted with the stranglehold of whiteness in our collections, librarians respond by arguing for inclusion.

A common solution introduced to address the overpowering whiteness of our collections is to add work made by people of colour (and, by extension hire library workers of colour). But how could current collecting displace all that we have inherited? Do we believe that adding the works of people of colour solves issues of racial injustice in our profession? And how could I possibly argue for preserving works of hate that are difficult to comprehend? Because it has been in the air around us. These views were shared; this violence happened. We cannot ignore our history, even when it is horrific.

Excerpt taken from ‘Radical Collections: re-examining the roots of collections, practices and information professions’, edited by Senate House librarians Dr Richard Espley (head of modern collections) and Dr Jordan Landes (research), is published by the School of Advanced Study on 13 December.

Alycia Sellie is the associate librarian for collections at the Graduate Center Library, part of the City University of New York. Her work has appeared in works such as Libraries and the Reading Public in Twentieth Century America, Feminist Collections, and her own publication, The Borough is My Library: A Metropolitan Library Workers Zine. Her chapter in Radical Collections: re-examining the roots of collections, practices and information professions’ is entitled ‘Beyond the Left. Documenting American racism in print periodicals at the Wisconsin Historical Society, and theorising (radical) collections today’.

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