Knowing Our Histories: Moving Forward by Looking Back

We live in an age that has no shortage of information.

Watching any current event unfold in real time means juggling input from all sides. We receive information from journalists on the ground, pundits in newsrooms, television personalities, op-ed contributors, Twitter hashtags, video clips, photos, and word of mouth.

We see how, in their retelling, events get moulded and changed – we see the politicisation of information.

This is evidence of the need for media and information literacy to inform critical thinking skills.

It is also evidence of the crucial importance of primary sources.  This refers to materials that document first-hand the lived experiences of the past, and that preserve those of today.

We need both – access to the primary sources and information literacy to be able to put them into past and present context – to take informed steps forward.

In light of recent events in the United States, and their reverberations around the world, this is incredibly urgent.

Therefore, on International Archives Day (9 June), let’s explore the power of the primary source in giving voice to the historically voiceless, and informing the journey towards more equitable societies.

Archives and Society

As memory institutions, the missions of archives and libraries are closely tied: we empower knowledge societies.

Knowledge Societies

UNESCO asserts that knowledge societies “have the potential to achieve lasting, positive impacts on education, economic prosperity, social inclusion and environmental protection, taking humanity forward to a new era of peace and sustainable development”.

To take a step toward towards this new era, we need to use the information available to us to examine our current societies.

Looking at the testimonies of the past will help us know how we got here. They help us understand that current events do not unfold in a vacuum. They allow us to recognise that the societies in which we find ourselves are the output of the decisions and actions of those who came before us.

The International Council on Archives (ICA) states: “The archival heritage is a valuable testimony about the economical, political and social development of humanity”.

We need this economic, political, and social context in order to better understand the systems we live in. We need it to recognise our relative power, and to use this knowledge to work towards making those systems more equitable.

The Perspectives of Heritage

History is often is painful. The heritage objects and places linked to these histories, as they are presented, can have a darker side, a side that is not immediately visible.

But just because it is uncomfortable does not mean it should go unexamined.

This area of heritage study is beginning to be referred to by some as contested heritage. It is the acknowledgment that some cultural heritage came at the cost of great pain. The approach to talking about this cultural heritage, the perspectives that are included in the narrative, and the way its existence continues to effect society today, must be reckoned with.

An important example is the acknowledgement of the role of colonialism in European history and cultural heritage. It is recognising that, although not always apparent on the surface, exploitation is an inescapably part of the story of some cultural places and objects.

Part of the solution lies in telling the complete story, and doing so in a polyvocal, participatory and self-reflective way. This is where we need primary sources.

For those people and communities that were voiceless, archives of their diaries, letters, personal artifacts, and images, as well as municipal records of their marginalisation, give glimpses to the other side of the story.

We will not understand society and our place in it until our shared history, our contested heritage, is examined. This is not possible unless we ensure the historically voiceless are heard.


Archives for Empowerment

Roots are important. Representation in the historical record is important. Disenfranchisement begins with denial of any individual’s or group’s claim to their history, with the erasure of their past.

The foundation for rights and identity

ICA identifies one of the goals for International Archives Day as being to:

Raise awareness among the public of the importance of records and archives, in order to make it understood that records and archives provide the foundation for their rights and identity.

Beyond simply showing the foundations of our societal structures, this knowledge informs our identity – how we view ourselves in society.

They allow us to answer the crucial question: How have past events constructed the society I live in now? What evidence can I find from the past to better inform myself of this?

More than this, however, accessing and listening to the history of another person or group may change the way we understand how they view themselves in society. It can build empathy; it can oppose racism. For historically marginalised groups, this is more important than ever. A failure to listen and reflect can perpetuate or reinforce exclusion.

Knowledge is Power

Who wrote the history books we studied in school? Who wrote the books available in our libraries’ collections? Could this be more inclusive?

Part of the disenfranchisement of historically marginalised communities was the frequent omission of their perspective from the historical record.

Archives offer us access to the stories that the official record sometimes left out.

The Dutch-based initiative The Black Archives seeks to inspire conversations, activities and literature from Black and other perspectives that are often overlooked. The organisation has amassed a large collection of resources giving these perspectives:

The approximately 3000 books in the collections focus on racism and race issues, slavery and (the) colonization, gender and feminism, social sciences and development, Suriname, the Netherlands Antilles, South America, Africa and more. As a result, The Black Archives provides book collections and literature which are not or little discussed in schools and within universities.

For this organisation and others like it around the world, there is power in this knowledge. Collecting archives from the silenced past is a form of empowerment – it is taking back the historical record and giving a voice to those who were not included.

Documentary heritage, books, writings, and archival material make this possible.

For examples of this, take a look at our past article, Shared Stories: how documentary heritage enriches monuments and sites.

With current events a stark reminder of how present racism and discrimination continue to be in our societies, there is a clear mission for archivists and other documentary heritage professionals. As the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience said in a recent statement:

 As historians, survivors, activists, artists, and archivists, the Coalition knows that the inequities of the past permeate the present and will devastate the future unless we act to build a better alternative. This may feel daunting, but with the light of history and the love and compassion we seed in telling each other our stories, we can shape a future rooted in our shared humanity, in dignity and justice.


To end, let’s bring it back to the mission of archives and libraries: to empower knowledge societies.

What can we, as library and information professionals, do to transform the information in these primary sources into knowledge? Meaning, how can we help society look to stories from the past, especially the painful ones, and use them to self-reflect, learn, grow, and create a more equitable future for all people? What within our power can we do to make society more equitable than it was in the past?


Here is a list of some initiatives and organisation working in this space. It is certainly not exhaustive, so please share more in the comments.

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