Writings"Archives at a Time of Change – Radical Empathy"

By Inge Høst Seiding

Excerpt from Essay in the book, Displaced

Published in Displaced, Dogwalk Books, 2021

Archives at a Time of Change – Radical Empathy
David Kristoffersen’s story is an example of why we need to rethink the role of archives in society. Because archives mirror the state or administration whose documents they store, and being confronted by the contents of archives can mean reliving the experience of being under administration, being taken into the care of the authorities, or being displaced by the state. Archives are neither created nor stored with the care of the individual in mind. Historian Ann Laura Stoler, who has specialised in colonial history and the archives of former colonial powers, works with archives as historical documentation and part of the ‘toolbox’ of colonial powers. As she writes: “These colonial archives were both transparencies on which power relations were inscribed and intricate technologies of rule in themselves.”5 As Albie Sachs’ description of the archives in South Africa clearly indicates, the echo of the colonial administrators’ way of thinking and working still resounds in the vaults of the archives.
In Displaced we see fishing and hunting records from the area close to Nanortalik. In the Royal Greenland Trade Department registers of what they bought from hunters, the memories of the journeys, the village hunters, the food of childhood, and the feeling of home are severed and remote. One of the lists is the record of David’s father, Elisa Kristoffersen, from David’s birthplace Papikatsuk during the year he was in Denmark. The fishing and hunting record is as matter-of-fact as the notes in David’s medical records from Refsnæs. We only understand the sense of insecurity and loss felt by both David Kristoffersen and his parents, Henriette and Elisa Kristoffersen, when David Kristoffersen connects the documents with the reality in which they were created. Reading one’s own medical records can be far removed from the actual experience of being a patient. The records are not written for the patient, but about the patient. Their purpose is to document treatment for doctors and nurses. The path to gaining ownership of this information, as well as a sense of control over the memory of important events, goes through archives that do not contain the memories that those they concern continue to carry.
This realisation means archivists have to rethink their role and the role of archives in society. Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor address the issue with the concept of ‘radical empathy’,6 which provides the basis for a theory aimed at fundamentally changing working methods in archives. This is precisely ‘radical’ because it demands new ways of thinking, new legislation, and different frameworks for archivists to work within. Displaced invites us all to follow Caswell and Cifor’s thinking: “We argue that archivists have affective responsibilities to other parties and posit that these affective responsibilities should be marked by radical empathy, the “ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.” In the archival realm, we posit that
empathy is radical if we allow it to define archival interactions, even when our own visceral affective responses are steeped in fear, disgust, or anger.”7 This fundamental empathy should, as in many other places, be present in the relationship between the archivist and archive user, and it is here that it touches on some of the experiences embodied in David Kristoffersen’s story and the experience of many archivists: “Practising radical empathy with users means acknowledging the deep emotional ties users have to records, the affective impact of finding – or not finding – records that are personally meaningful, and the personal consequences that archival interaction can have on users.”8 Whilst this might seem obvious, most public archives are not designed for users looking for personal information. The people who use collections and archives are usually researchers or authorities with no personal mission. The assumption of who is expected to use archives is also reflected in the way archives are ordered and stored, for here too the rules mirror the authorities who have founded and shaped the archives, rules that can make it difficult for private individuals to find the answers they are looking for.
Read more in the book Displaced, Dogwalk Books, 2021. See https://dogwalkplatform.com/books/displaced