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Introduction to Primary Source Research: Archival Silences


This is an introduction to a very large topic with the aim to get you to begin to think critically about whose voices might be missing from the material you access - and what that means for the historical record, as well as our understanding of the past.


How do these gaps happen? This is when you need to remember that we (in the larger sense) only have what was written down, what was kept, and then what was acquired by archivists. In each of these steps there is the opportunity for voices to be excluded or removed. It is critical to think about power and bias when working with primary sources.

Archival Silences

We only have what was created, what was kept, and what was accepted by a repository


What is meant by archival silences? I mean the people or groups whose voices are missing from the archives. Voices that are not necessarily completely or always absent from the historical record, but are historically missing from archives. And I specifically mean voices, not the lives of marginalized people written about by those in power. Those certainly exist. I mean people writing about themselves and their own communities.


How does this happen? There are many reasons why certain voices are absent from archival collections. These include:

  • Written records were never created  - for example:
    • communities that didn't have a written language
    • enslaved peoples
    • illiteracy
    • OR no recording of oral tradition
  • Materials not kept or destroyed after creation
  • Role of the repository
    • Materials of certain groups historically not deemed important enough to collect

Bias in Description

Bias can be found in the arrangement and description of collections The way that materials are organized and described effects the way that we find and think about the material — Description can impede discoverability and hide collections, either by excluding terms or using out of date terminology

Repositories have started to work to correct these practices, by using new guidelines like Archives for Black Lives, but this work takes time

Specialized Repositories

While the voices of some marginalized communities are not found in many archival collections, it doesn't mean that they aren't present in any archival collections. Some repositories have been established to collect and preserve materials created by traditionally marginalized communities. Examples include The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the GLBT Historical Society, and the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research.