Archivists and “Preppers”

The readings for this week, especially Kimberly Springer’s article on Radical Archives and the importance of current-day activist groups making sure their materials are preserved for the future, reminded me of an article I read on Buzzfeed about “preppers”, people who build their lives around being ready for a crisis that fundamentally transforms life as we currently know it.  The link to the article is here, in case anyone is interested, but I’ll summarize it as well:

The article focuses on Lisa Bedford, the “Survival Mom”.  Lisa and her family live what might seem like an ordinary American suburban lifestyle, but Lisa has also stocked a bunker in her home with supplies for her family to survive for five years.  She also runs a website, “The Survival Mom”, which tells people things to do in their daily lives that will make them more ready for disaster.  In contrast to more militaristic and offense-oriented, mainly male, survivalists, Lisa’s survival strategies are distinctly more defensive, focused on keeping one’s family alive in the face of any kind of disaster.

On first glance, an article about preppers may seem to bear little relationship to all of the articles we read this week about archives, and I agree that there are many differences, but I’m more interested in exploring the similarities, and examining what a prepper philosophy might illuminate about archival work.  Springer’s article about radical archives struck me as different from the rest of the readings, and indeed the focus of many archives, because its emphasis is on preserving materials of the present for the future, as opposed to preserving materials of the past.  The collection policy for the LGBT Archives at William Way Community Center, for example, said that they don’t collect born-digital material with any regularity, which indicates to me that they are not yet focused on preserving LGBT-related materials from the present, many of which are digital.  In contrast, Springer focuses on suggestions for activist groups to take control over making sure their current digital materials are accessible in the future, even as technology rapidly changes and old file formats can no longer be opened.  I was especially struck by her recommendation that activists back up all of their files on three different hard drives stored in three different protected locations.  Although Springer is focused on the survival of records and movements, not of individual people, her concerns seem to overlap significantly with Lisa Bedford’s and other preppers’- we are too currently dependent upon the technology and conveniences of the present, and falsely act as if though they will be eternal.  Therefore, if we want to preserve something, whether it be ourselves or our movements, we need to prepare for when the world inevitably changes, be it through gradual technological progressions or a massive disaster.  Like Bedford, whose philosophy pushes up against an American way of life that fails to acknowledge its ephemerality, Springer’s archiving of the present pushes up against a view of archives that sees them as repositories of “history” or “the past”, a time mistakenly thought of as wholly separate from the present day.  On first read it seems silly, and even paranoid, to back up all files on three separate hard drives, or to prepare a bunker to sustain your family for five years- but when forced to reckon with the fleetingness of our current ways of existence, it starts to make perfect sense.

Reading about preppers, one of my main problems was that their philosophy assumes a certain amount of affluence.  While you don’t have to be rich to do what Lisa Bedford suggests on her Survival Mom blog, you do have to have enough disposable income to be able to stockpile extra supplies, and enough time to devote to setting up and maintaining a bunker.  The same criticisms, I think, can be leveled at Springer’s suggestions for preservation of activists movements’ materials.  While it is far less expensive, and less time consuming, to convert and back up an organization’s digital materials than it is to prepare an entire bunker, there is still an assumption that people involved in those movements have the time and resources to step back from their work, think about what is worth saving for the future, and take steps to preserve it.  Traditional archives are often built around the idea that the people who created the materials didn’t find them worth archiving- it’s people who come after, whose job it is to create archives of the past, that have the time and resources to do that preservation work.  I do think that Springer’s suggestions are important, and worth implementing if at all possible, but it’s also important to remember that sometimes it’s all a person, or a movement, can do just to exist in the moment.

Silencing the Past to Amplify It

This afternoon, I visited Eastern State Penitentiary as a part of my Praxis Independent Study “Art and Incarceration”.  The purpose of my visit was to look at the art exhibits installed there, which are one way in which Eastern State seeks to promote dialogue and reflection about incarceration today.  However, I kept coming back, throughout my wanderings up and down the various corridors, to thoughts about Eastern State’s role in telling and silencing historical narratives.  One of the art exhibits, by Cindy Stockton Moore, featured fifty portraits of people who were murdered by people once incarcerated in Eastern State Penitentiary.  The aim of this exhibit, according to Moore’s description, was to “create a more complete picture of the men and women imprisoned here, and the consequences of their actions,” since the victims of crimes aren’t often discussed in tours or exhibits today.


After leaving the exhibit, my friend who I went with said that, until seeing that exhibit, she hadn’t realized that she’d been putting herself in the place of the prisoners during our entire visit, that she’d been imagining what it was like to be incarcerated at Eastern State instead of imagining what it was like to be harmed by someone who was incarcerated there.  I said that I agreed, that I too had been focusing solely on the horrors of solitary confinement and a loss of freedom experienced by prisoners both past and present, but that I thought that forcing visitors to imagine the experiences of incarcerated people without a focus on harms they may have committed was valuable.  We live in a victim-centered society, in which the rights of victims- to compensation, to revenge- are often prioritized over the rights of prisoners, and are used to justify increasingly harsh punishments and restrictions on freedom.  In Pennsylvania, rhetoric about victims’ rights has been used to pass both the Revictimization Relief Act- which was declared unconstitutional for its restrictions on free speech- and House Bill 1089, which forces prisoners to pay restitution to the victims of crimes they committed.  I think that both people who commit harms and people who experience those harms deserve to have their stories heard, to be understood complexly and in the context of larger social structures.  But since we live in a society that privileges one of those experiences while demonizing the other, I think it’s valuable for an historical site to put aside the often-heard narratives in favor of amplifying the ones too often ignored.

All of which brings me back to our reading for this week, mainly Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s discussion of power and silence in the production of history.  Trouillot discusses how historical narratives are produced in a way that amplifies some stories and versions of history while silencing others, and through his examples- such as the story of Jean-Baptiste Sans Souci- attempts to bring voice to the silences of history and show the operation of power in the construction of narratives.  I could see how Moore might claim that, through her art exhibit at Eastern State, she is doing that same work, bringing voice to murder victims whose stories aren’t told, while the experiences of the people who killed them are immortalized in Eastern State’s state of stabilized ruin.  However, if Moore, or anyone, were to make that claim, based on Trouillot’s analysis of power I would disagree, because in a broader context of how prisoners’ and crime victims’ narratives are told, victims are not the ones silenced.  All of this leads me to wonder if silencing the past- in specific parts, and in specific contexts- can play an important role in uncovering other, more pervasive, silences.  If one silences an often heard narrative to amplify a faint echo of an often-forgotten other, I don’t think that silence is really a silence at all.