How I Started – Michelle Caswell

My Long and Winding Road to Becoming an Archivist and Archival Studies Scholar

I took a circuitous path to my career as an archivist and archival studies scholar. I come from a working-class background; neither of my parents graduated from high school. I did not grow up knowing what an archivist was and certainly did not have becoming an archivist as my career goal. When I went to college, I thought I might become a professor of some sort, but archival studies, or information studies more broadly, was not on my radar.

I had always had an interest in South Asia, so when I got to college (which was Columbia University in New York) I took several South Asian religion courses and became a religion major. I thought that I might be a professor of South Asian studies or religious studies, but coming from a working-class background, I had no guidance or role model to help pick a profession. I went straight from college to graduate school, earning a master’s degree in Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School, focusing on world religions with an emphasis on South Asia.

Michelle Caswell

After I graduated, I fell into my first career in non-profit marketing and fundraising. I worked for art museums, refugee-based social service agencies, and universities, writing grant proposals and website text and marketing materials. I felt like I was doing some good in the world, but I was not passionate about that work. I noticed that my friends who were librarians seemed to be happy with their jobs. I decided that I would go back to school to earn a master’s degree in library and information studies, hoping to become a bibliographer specializing in South Asia at a research university.

I attended a very traditional MLIS program, where those of us enrolled in the archives track were trained to be archivists in the dominant mode of professional practice. We were taught how to acquire materials based on institutional collection policies, how to arrange them following their original order, how to describe them to accurately reflect their contents, and how to provide good customer service at the reference desk. We were not taught to examine why we were following such procedures, or how to locate their theoretical foundations in dominant Western intellectual lineages, or what the implications of such practices are for individuals and communities for whom dominant archival practices have never worked (and in many cases have been designed to work against). We were not given space to examine what our role is, actually and potentially, professionally and personally, in maintaining—or disrupting—damaging systems of documentation, classification and access. In short, my archival education was devoid of an analysis of power.

What I learned in my archival studies classes was profoundly dissonant from my own experiences, ideals, and professional motivations. In pursuing a career in LIS, I was looking for a way to channel my intellectual and professional energy towards exposing and eliminating inequities of power and resources based on race, class, and gender. I came to the program and to the field with that commitment already in place. Yet, my MLIS program only furthered the kind of cognitive dissonance I had often experienced in classrooms and solidified that, if I wanted to dedicate my career to pursuing social justice aims, I would have to forge my own path.

While I was getting my MLIS degree, I worked part-time as the assistant bibliographer for South Asia at the University of Chicago. There, I met Samip Mallick. Samip and I started talking about South Asian American history, and we quickly found out that no one was collecting materials documenting this community. Always the go-getter, Samip responded, “Let’s just do it.” So, we started the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA). Ten years later, we steward the world’s largest collection of materials documenting South Asian American history. My work with SAADA has brought together all of my disparate interests, skills, and experiences, including archival skills, knowledge of South Asian cultures, skills in nonprofit marketing and fundraising, and critical thinking skills. It is has been a labor of love, but I have gotten more out of it personally, professionally, and intellectually then I have put into it without a doubt.

SAADA site
Homepage of the SAADA website

Despite (or more accurately because of) my negative first experiences with archival studies, I realized that there was a huge opportunity to make a difference in the field; there is so much work to be done shifting this field away from its oppressive roots and imagining new liberatory ways we can connect people to records. I also realized that I loved doing research and writing and decided to pursue my Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Library and Information Studies, with a minor in Languages and Cultures of Asia. Through participating in the Archival Education Research Initiative (AERI), I was connected with an international cohort of graduate students and faculty committed to building transformative research and theory in the field. After I graduated with my PhD, I was hired as an assistant professor of archival studies in the department of information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, where I just got promoted to Associate Professor with tenure.

University of California, Los Angeles campus (image courtesy of Wikimedia)

I do research in archival studies that straddles the empirical social science paradigm (research that investigates what is) and the critical, analytical humanistic paradigm (research that imagines what should be). I also do research that is both very local, exploring the impact of community archives in Southern California, and global, looking at transnational forms of memory and recordkeeping in communities impacted by human rights violations.

As a teacher, I aim to empower my students to think very critically about archival theory and practice, addressing not just how to be an archivist, but why we bother in the first place. I also encourage them to imagine otherwise, to think of and enact more liberatory forms of archival work. It has been immensely gratifying to see my students graduate, get jobs, and already begin to transform the field.

I would like archival work to be more relevant and more visible to more people. I want kids from working class backgrounds not only to know what archivists do, but to want to be archivists when they grow up. Then I want to them to have clearer paths to becoming archivists than I had.

Michelle Caswell PhD, Associate Professor, University of California, Los Angeles

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s