Intro: Current 2018 Oral History student Kim-Hee Wong explores the world of archives in reflection of a talk presented by Maria Cotera in the OHMA workshop series, Oral History and the Future: Archives and Embodied Memory.
Hoarder. If you had asked me months ago to describe my Halmonie, grandmother, based on the clusters of books, programs and pamphlets piled up in the back room of her house I would have used this word. As a former librarian and music teacher, she has piles of song books, performance programs and pictures overflowing on the shelf, ground and table. Looking back, I would have said she was a hoarder; but now I appreciate her collection for what it really is: an archive.
On September 13, 2018 at the first Fall 2018 OHMA Workshop, Chicana feminist, activist and academic Dr. Maria Cotera presented “Breaking Bread with the Past.” Focusing on her journey to create Chicana por mi Raza – a digital oral history project that collects narratives and archival materials of Chicana Feminists from the 1970s-90s – Cotera challenged us to activate archives and re-imagine the space of the archive as “a lived experience.”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an archive is “a place in which public records or other important historic documents are kept.” I had always thought of an archive in the traditional sense as a grand library filled with books in an academic institution, a historic building or museum. Behind closed doors in temperature controlled rooms, one would be able to interact with carefully processed and selected materials. But to me, these barriers meant for protection merely served as a reminder of the distance between myself and the object. In no way does this image of an archive resemble the kind of “living experience” that Cotera envisions.
So then, what would a living archive look like? For me, this idea manifests itself in two ways: as a place filled with materials that can easily be accessed and as a safe, open space where individuals can gather to discuss, organize and inspire change.
By having an easily accessible archive, the potential for learning would be endless. Individuals would be able to obtain information without having to jump through the hoops and hurdles of institutional spaces. Often times there is an idea that archives are for the select few and exist only in academic institutions, thus lack-of-access serves as a barrier to those not in these realms; but the truth is that archives can exist anywhere. In her work, Cotera explores the personal archives of Chicana feminists. Physically these materials exist in the homes of these Chicana feminists; however, they also live in the digital archives of Chicana por mi Raza. By utilizing technology, archives can extend their points of accessibility to those who may not be able to access the materials otherwise; therefore enabling digital archives to serve as a space for discussion and community building around certain topics.
How do we get to that point? How can we create an archive and a community? First and foremost, before a community can be created the archive itself must be established. Like my Halmonie, you probably already have an archive or a small collection just waiting to grow. Although her archive was focused on Hawaiian music and the music program at her school, your archive can include anything that is important to you! My personal archive contains books, maps and documents about Hawaiian plants and flowers. When I go hiking and I find a flower or fern of interest, I always take a leaf or petal to look-up when I get home. In this way, my archive is constantly living and growing. Just as I slowly add to my collection from different sources, so can you! According to the U.S. National Archives website, a personal archive – “a collection of material that records important events” – can work in tandem with a variety of sources, such as a governmental archive, to tell the story. As such, my family archive is filled with photos, birth certificates and interview recordings with members of my family, all culminating together to document the history of my family.
Once you have the materials, then comes the second question: how do you create a community? Communities come in many different forms and sizes. From online forums to bi-weekly or once-a-month meeting groups, communities are meant to be safe, supportive spaces filled with individuals that share a common interest. If you have a friend who shares the same interest as you, great! Challenge your friend to bring another friend to an informal meeting and if you do the same, then it will be a gathering of four. Then at the next gathering do the same thing and the group will grow to eight. In this way, the community will steadily grow over time. Once in a community, engage with others and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Be open to new ideas and celebrate whatever it is that brought you all together.
I think in the end this is what Cotera means by the archives as a “lived experience”. The archives should be a place to store history but to also engage with the past and present. To initiate conversations and to celebrate where we came from. So, the next time I go to my Halmonie’s house, instead of just re-stacking the piles of music books on the ground I will open one up, get a ‘ukulele and play along.
Kim-Hee Wong is a student in the 2018 Columbia University Oral History MA Program. Traveling far from her home in Hawaiʻi, her work centers on Native Hawaiian feminist, Mana Wahine, in the twenty-first century. It is her hope that through her work the aloha spirit will live and carry on.