Found  /  First Person

Archival Shouting

Silence and volume in collections and institutions.

At the John Carter Brown Library (JCB), it can sometimes seem like the entire collection is shouting. Some of this noise, particularly the dominance of European male voices, is unsurprising. John Carter Brown (1797–1874) was one of the first collectors of “Americana,” amassing a library of printed materials about the Americas from the late 15th century to the early 19th century. The collection’s silences are also unsurprising; among them, it can be challenging to find women authors or creators, or even subjects, in our collections.

“Archival silence” has become a shorthand for absences in archival records. It also refers to biases in collections, collecting habits, and institutions that occlude people and their histories, and the power dynamics that are as present in the materials and the institutions as they are in the economic, social, political, and other relationships and structures they document. Archives can and do, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot put it, silence the past.

A keyword search for “woman” or “women” in the JCB catalog, for example, will return only hundreds of items, with a 1799 Philadelphia imprint of William Godwin’s Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, author of “A vindication of the rights of woman” leading them, and a 1792 Boston imprint of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication itself coming in only at number 5. A simple search for “Sor Juana” will turn up dozens of volumes, some by but mostly about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–95), the Mexican writer, poet, and nun, but also referencing other nuns. Neither Wollstonecraft nor Sor Juana is included in the little-used subject category “women authors.” Even these two extraordinary women are quieted, not because we haven’t collected examples of their work but because of the way that work was cataloged and the way the search sorts it.

Archives are full of materials and collections that have clamored for our attention. Naming the shouting is an explicit acknowledgment that some archives or sections of archives have long garnered outsize focus, and it attunes us to how their volume has shaped our histories. As more archivists, librarians, and scholars are offering analyses of archives as active interpretive agents, it also suggests an approach to the role of institutions in the silence and shouting alike.