ARTchivist's Notebook: Seeing ourselves in archives
Seeing ourselves in archives
On giving away Auntie's things
(Irene Yamamoto, January 1978)
A year ago this week, my Auntie Irene passed away. At the end of September I donated her papers to the California State University Japanese American Digitization Project (CSUJAD) through the Gerth Archives and Special Collections at Cal State Dominguez Hills. The donation included her photographs and documents, but also those of my grandparents, spanning the 1920s to the present. As an archivist who has voiced support for community archives and for records remaining in their cultures of origin, I had mixed feelings about letting these papers go. Shouldn't I try to organize and preserve them myself so future generations of my family would be able to use them and connect to their past?
Of course resources and time are always a factor. There is no room in my small house to store the five banker's boxes of albums, envelopes, and loose documents, let alone keep them in climate-controlled, acid- and pest-free conditions. Even if I had the space, proper storage boxes and supplies are expensive. And where was I going to find the time to rehouse and inventory everything and create a finding aid?
I also thought about the value of the records. Would they be of interest to anyone outside my family? My aunt and my grandparents were kind, hard-working folks who made a solid life for themselves in Los Angeles after the multiple displacements of migration from Hawaii and incarceration in an Arizona concentration camp during World War II. They were not community leaders or famous authors or artists, or any of the other things that typically assure one's papers will be deemed historically valuable. My aunt worked as an advertising production artist; my grandmother was a seamstress, and my grandfather was a produce man in a supermarket.
(Irene, with her mother Grace Yamamoto, and sister Ellen in 1952)
I am grateful for projects like CSUJAD, which is something like a community archives housed within a traditional, academic one. Although of course they emphasize items related to significant moments in Japanese American history—WWII incarceration, the impact of the Alien Land laws, the redress movement in the 1980s—they also collect things from those in between times that everyday people mark: the arrival of a new baby, the purchase of a new car, birthday and anniversary parties, vacations. These materials lend a depth and humanity to Japanese American lives that isn't always found in the history books.
Seeing even the most quotidian stories preserved and made accessible is moving. It says to our community, "We matter. Our stories deserve to be saved and shared." Before the past gets written and published, it has to be preserved and made accessible. Archives aren't the only way to do this, but they can be an antidote to the exclusionary forces of history. That is, if we're brave enough to include the papers of seamstresses and produce men.
Thanks for reading! If you have any comments or questions about this issue, please feel free to get in touch. Or follow me on LinkedIn or Twitter @SharonMizota.
ARTchivist's Notebook is an occasional newsletter musing on the intersection of archives, art, and social justice by me, Sharon Mizota, DEI metadata consultant and art writer.
I help museums, archives, libraries, and websites transform and share their metadata to achieve greater diversity, equity, and inclusion. Contact me to discuss your metadata project today.