Beyond hearing (one another): radical empathy in archives-as-workplace

I am writing this amidst being crammed into a seat flying back from New York City, after a few days of intensive meetings. Between a number of good and less ideal things, my mind has felt really unsettled lately, and I’m working through some professional malaise, and feeling a bit rudderless. In an attempt to give myself something be myself optimistic about and to set some direction, I reread Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor’s Archivaria article “From Human Rights to Feminist Ethics: Radical Empathy in Archives”. Part of their analysis outlines four affective shifts in archival relationships based on radical empathy - those between 1) archivist and records creator, 2) archivist and records subject, 3) archivist and user, and 4) archivist and larger community. Given a long list of topics on my mind (precarity, developing inclusive workplaces and cultures, my own uncertain pathway), it felt like there was plenty of space to identify other shifts.Most notably, what are the shifts that we should seek understand among archivists, and between archivists and others we work with to carry out archival work?1

What I am trying to navigate is what makes the work that I do worthwhile, and what it would mean to craft or exist within a radically empathetic workplace. All the while, I find myself around parts that want change but might not know what or how, and watching others not know where our responsibility to one another stops or starts. Our professional communities also talk increasingly about the importance of bringing our whole selves to work, without always reflecting about what we ask of people and their boundaries when we emphasize that. To be radically empathetic in our workplace, that empathy must extend to our fellow workers “even when our own visceral affective responses are steeped in fear, disgust, or anger” (Caswell & Cifor, 25). As those of us who who are committed to this kind of transition move into greater situations of leadership and influence I want to talk more about what these pathways look like. The panel presentations and discussion in the SAA 2017 session on radical empathy and archival practice, followup conversations with a number of individual panelists and participants in the session, and their subsequent CFP for a special issue of the Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies have all helped inform the way I’ve thought about this. In addition, Ruth Kitchin Tillman’s opening editorial from Code4Lib Journal 35 has helped me understand that we need to conceptualize archivist/archivist(s) relationships and those with allied workers in complementary, but not always identical ways. To that end, what follows is a few questions I’ve been pondering over the last few days:

  • What new or unique affective spaces do we need to step into within our workplaces that are unique to our field?
  • What is the responsibility of a professional community in regards to empathy?
  • How do we navigate this with workers in archives or allied fields that we collaborate in archival practice (digital library staff, developers, project managers, metadata librarians, etc.)?
  • How do ensure that we don’t feel so alone, and how do we make time for the hospitality essential to maintain radical empathy?
  • How do managers redress the potential or actual toxicity or psychological fatigue that may arise?

I’m eager to discuss this further, and I’m still determining where this could go in terms of a potential contribution to the JCLIS special issue, or just even to deeper possibilities of learning how to work together oriented towards mutual respect and care. I’m also eager to think how this informs education, training, or onboarding as well, so please share any thoughts you might have. I also recognize that my thoughts here are not fully formed, and want to particularly note my gratitude for the deep reflection of many people on this (as well as much else), to ensure they’re recognized for their generosity and kindness to me. So to Jennifer Anderson, Hillel Arnold, Ben Armintor, Elvia Arroyo-Ramírez, Shawn Averkamp, Karen Estlund, María Estorino, Gloria Gonzalez, Dinah Handel, Shannon O’Neill, Jack Reed, Craig Savino, Camille Villa, and Jennifer Vinopal, thank you for going beyond hearing me. I know I didn’t see all of you this week but I’ve cherished our recent conversations to help me better understand myself.

  1. While I was writing this, I remembered that Kelly Wooten articulated a fifth responsibility from to archivist to archivist(s) in her zine on radical empathy