Designing for Decolonisation: Equitable and Representative Professional Networks

As we approach the Adelaide conference, Designing the Archive, I’ve been thinking about how we design our professional networks and collaborations. We sometimes take them for granted as monumental institutions or fixed patterns, but we create them and recreate them through our participation, and we can change them.

Some of them need changing.

Addressing the ICA AGM in Mexico City in 2017, Dr Esther Olembe, National Archivist of Cameroon, asked ‘Where are all the black faces?’. If we look at the composition of the ICA’s Executive Board, Programme Commission (PCOM) and section bureaus, we see a lot of white faces. I’m the Secretary to the Africa Programme, and I’m white.

The lack of racial diversity at the highest levels of the ICA definitely has to do with which people, institutions and countries can afford to be actively involved in ICA governance. This in turn reflects global and national economic asymmetries established through a long history of conquest and exploitation. So, it’s part of a much bigger problem, but what are we doing to make ICA’s structures more representative of its member countries or their cultures and communities? We can literally decolonise archives, as the Dutch national archives has been doing, but we could also be decolonising our networks and professional infrastructures.

The Design Justice Network Principles are a co-created statement of principles for ethical design that centres communities and seeks liberation from oppressive systems. We could use these principles to help us design record-keeping systems and processes, but we could also be using them to redesign our international professional relations and the mechanisms we have set up for technical cooperation. 

For example, thinking about the principle that acknowledges that ‘everyone is an expert based on their own lived experience’ and another, which seeks to ‘honor and uplift traditional, indigenous, and local knowledge and practices’, raises a question about the diversity of our Expert Groups. How are we judging expertise? Through publications in scholarly journals, with all the barriers to contributing to and accessing them? Through international work experience that has not been possible for many of our colleagues?

The ICA has been doing some good work on this problem. At its April meeting, PCOM examined its own homogeneity and is taking steps to diversify: that conversation is likely to continue in Adelaide. FIDA, the Africa Programme and some other ICA activities have arguably demonstrated a commitment to the principle of centering ‘the voice of those who are directly impacted’, but there are many in the ICA who still have not recognised the current imbalances as problematic. We need more conversations about this, during International Archives Week and into the future.

Dr Esther Olembe with Dr Claude Roberto at ICA Mexico 2017. Photo credit: Claude Roberto

In another example of how we design our networks, we’ve chosen to set some of our standards through the International Standards Organisation (ISO), but many of our colleagues can’t afford to participate in that work. Is there anything of the Indigenous in our standards? Anything of the (non-European) traditional? The seventh Design Justice Network principle is that we “share design knowledge and tools with our communities”, but many of our colleagues can’t afford to buy copies of the standards. This includes national institutions and the universities educating the records professionals of the future. We need to think about the knowledge we’ve inherited, the unpaid labour we contribute to developing new knowledge, if existing networks really facilitate collaboration that is fair and representative, and how we want the products of our collaborations to be shared.

In a period of self-examination in the Association of Commonwealth Archivists and Records Managers, we are questioning what it means to organise around administrative traditions as they become less of a defining feature of record-keeping in a digital world. One value we can see in this is as a vehicle for addressing the archival legacies of colonialism, such as the Migrated Archive. Perhaps even networks that bear the imprint of colonialism could be re-engineered to address historical power biases and work against present day inequities.

In 2020, I will be stepping down as Secretary to the Africa Programme, a role I was invited to take because I had the time and resources to co-ordinate between PCOM and the Africa-based project leads. If PCOM approves a second phase of the programme, we will be looking to make sure that not only the project leaders, but the co-ordinators for PCOM are African. But we recognise this requires people with time and resources, which brings us back to the question of economic inequality and its colonial roots.

The problems are systemic, complex and interconnected, and we’ve barely started to unpick them. Let’s use International Archives Week to reflect on our networks and think about how to design colonialism out of them.

By James Lowry, Co-Director, Liverpool University Centre for Archive Studies