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what is an archive?

Updated: Oct 6, 2023

for someone who applied to do a research and archival project on Jamaican Patois in Toronto / it feels like something I should know. And yes, I know what the archive is. The archive is the institution defining documental history. The archivist chooses what history gets remembered based on their expertise and based off the archive’s mandate.


A whole other ball park.

An archive is a collection from a collective level. A collection of items that spark memory. From a stained tea cloth to the Mona Lisa as soon as memory is assigned to an item it became an archival piece. Yes, this includes the Camberwell bench that’s been turned into an outdoor sofa and living room. Yes, this includes all the first day at school photos your mum took of you.

It’s all well and good marking this difference but I need to understand how this plays out in reality to understand how I can get cultural archival pieces into my archive and have a meaningful reach.


The archive is normally a government or private funded institution following a mandate imposed on them from a philanthropist who has been long gone. This financial backing and resources means the archive is more carefully preserved and collated with an agenda in mind. An archive is literally anything. We are fed this idea that the more exclusive and curated the archive is the more legitimate it is. However to narrow a culture in like Caribbean culture by being extremely selective in the items approved would be a disservice

Antonio Benitez-Rojo - “The Caribbean is the product of the plantation whose slow explosion throughout modern history threw out billions and billions of cultural fragments”


The contents of the archive doesn’t appeal to Black people. A stack of old photographs and documents about Black people rather than from Black people. Black people don’t see themselves in the archive so why would they trust their history with the archive by donating items? Historians like Aaron Francis with Vintage Black Canada have taken it upon themselves to start their own family archive to show living culture.


The archive demonstrates who it is for from the collective descriptions. Collective descriptions should use a language that explains the item clearly based on the intended audience. The description shouldn’t serve the subjects who know the system and make the system. Black people shouldn’t be trawling through collections titled Negro - Miscellaneous in 2023. The archive struggles to get people to it so should they go to the people ? Should they be showing people how they can preserve items and how they can create their own archive? This is all assuming they have the capacity to do so.

How can I address these differences and change systems so entrenched?

Hierarchy of Value

  • Archivists choose what history remembers. One person fair enough, one skilled person picks. Where is the scrutiny? Where is the accountability? Where is the community involvement especially if the archive is for them on paper?

  • I’d be interested in organising a community panel perhaps like a board meeting where we can come to a consensus on items that make it into the collection.

The Lack of Relevant Items

  • You need to get people excited about history, preservation and the value of their items. You need to give people confidence that their story matters.

Who’s the audience ?

  • Engaging people doesn’t happen sitting behind an office and sending emails.

  • You need to be on the ground experiencing people, culture and living.

  • The more embedded you are in a community the more you gain the trust of the community.

  • A cultural understanding of what language is accessible to these groups needs to be held to have accurate collective descriptions.

  • I’d be keen to include Jamaican Patois translations for my collective descriptions. Written and audio?

An ambitious vision for my archive but if it isn’t shaped by the community, reflects the community and is accessed by the community then what’s the point? Follow along to see the journey.

Thanks to my amazing mentor Melissa J. Nelson who invoked these thoughts in me.

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