New Suns highlights a range of perspectives on relationships between technology, data, and community. Topics span aspirations toward equity, historical reflection, contemporary engagement, cross domain collaboration, infrastructure, labor, and more.

Cultivating Archive Glow: Relationships, Justice, and Sustainability

An interview with T-Kay Sangwand and Thomas Padilla
Night sky in joshua tree.
Monday, August 16, 2021

T-Kay Sangwand is a Certified Archivist who has worked extensively on preservation partnerships with cultural heritage and human rights organizations in the US, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. She is currently the Librarian for Digital Collection Development at UCLA where she manages the Library’s collaborations in Cuba; previously, she was the Archivist for the Human Rights Documentation Initiative and Librarian for Brazilian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She holds a MLIS and MA in Latin American Studies from UCLA. In 2017 she was named a Fulbright Specialist in Library and Information Science and in 2018-2019 she was a Fulbright Scholar working with the federal Ministry of Culture in Mexico City. She is currently a 2020-2022 Rare Book School / Mellon Foundation Cultural Heritage Fellow

Thomas: Thank you for taking the time to kick off New Suns. You’re engaged in efforts that span decolonial digital collection partnerships on a transnational level, contributive justice, and postcustodial archives. Over the course of this conversation, we’ll touch on each, but before we do I’m wondering if you can talk a bit about what experiences brought you into the cultural heritage profession and toward efforts of this kind? 

T-Kay: Hi Thomas! Thanks so much for inviting me to kick off New Suns. It’s truly an honor. 

I used to attribute my attraction to libraries to my mom - a result of all the time I spent in public libraries with her as a kid. She was an elementary school teacher and was really invested in and supportive of my reading. My dad is from Thailand and I recently learned that he worked in the library of one of the Buddhist temples he grew up in. I think my family roots definitely contribute to my love of libraries. 

As a high school student I was drawn to the Claremont Colleges radio station KSPC 88.7 FM because of its fiercely independent ethos to play local and indie label music not heard on commercial radio stations. I ended up befriending many of the DJs who took me behind the scenes and taught me how to produce a radio show. That experience was so influential that I ended up applying to the Claremont Colleges and throughout my undergraduate study I held many roles at the station, including hosting a weekly music program. I often thought, “Wow, if we don’t preserve and play this stuff, who will?” The archival impulse, though I didn’t recognize it as such at the time, followed me to graduate school.

Working at my college library during undergrad led me to consider library school as a next step. I originally envisioned becoming a subject specialist librarian for Latin American Studies (what I studied in undergrad + my second masters degree) but this all changed when I took Anne Gilliland’s introduction to archives course at UCLA. She taught about archives from the perspective that they are powerful tools for community identity and social justice struggles. As someone who had studied social movements in Latin America and was finding ways to participate in community organizing efforts in LA, this archival discourse deeply resonated with me. Through archival praxis it felt like I had found a way to meaningfully contribute to social justice. 

Thomas: Your first full time library position was as a Human Rights Archivist at the University of Texas Austin (2009-2015). It is increasingly common to aspire to social justice in our work - it is less common to deliver on that aspiration. How did you approach enacting social justice in your role? What challenges did you encounter? What lessons did you learn that the rest of us should know? 

T-Kay: When I started off as Human Rights Archivist at UT Austin social justice still felt like a niche, though burgeoning concern of the library and archives world. It had not yet permeated professional discourse as it has today. When UT Austin received grant funding to initiate the Human Rights Documentation Initiative (HRDI) in 2008, it envisioned following a more traditional custodial model of human rights organizations sending items to UT Austin for digitization and potentially for safekeeping. My supervisor Christian Kelleher proposed the postcustodial model as an alternative, and in retrospect, I believe HRDI really pioneered postcustodial praxis rooted in social justice principles. As the Human Rights Archivist, I was responsible for actualizing this postcustodial praxis by building non-extractive collaborations with human rights organizations that centered their agency and priorities, and redistributed the larger institution’s resources in more equitable ways. 

With postcustodial partnerships, I learned first hand that there is never a “one size fits all” approach and implementation will necessarily depend on the partner’s priorities and available resources as well as the broader sociopolitical context. For example, privacy is a key issue when working with human rights archives. Depending on the organizations’ objectives privacy can be approached very differently. For example, the Genocide Archive of Rwanda (GAR) made the decision to restrict survivor testimonies that discussed rape and other forms of sexual violence in order to protect the survivor’s privacy. In contrast, the National Historical Police Archive of Guatemala, which contains documentation of the country’s civil war and genocide of indigenous peoples, made all their archival records public as a statement against the silence and impunity that have typically characterized that period of history. As the Human Rights Archivist, my role was to support the partner’s decision and to advocate for and help build the infrastructure needed to enact their decisions. 

While each postcustodial partnership is necessarily different they should all be built on trust. It is necessary to invest the time needed to establish human connection. Relationship building is often seen as the sole purview of the curator or archivist, but it is important to build relationships between all team members as this enables stronger partnerships and more expansive approaches to challenges. In the case of the Genocide Archive of Rwanda, the Head of Library Systems traveled with us to Rwanda and was able to meet our postcustodial partners as well as witness the larger sociopolitical context that shaped available technical infrastructure. As a result we were able to develop more sustainable archival infrastructure. These trips strengthened interpersonal relationships between staff at the HRDI and GAR and allowed for folks to connect on a personal level beyond “archival expert” and “genocide survivor.” 

Some of the biggest challenges I’ve encountered doing this work are, unsurprisingly, more structural. Academic institutions are quick to fund postcustodial projects through grants but less willing to restructure budgets to sustain postcustodial partnerships after the grants are over. It’s also common for institutions to engage in practices of “curatorial blackface” (and brownface) to secure such grants or pursue postcustodial and community-based relationships. These issues are deeply steeped in the neoliberalism that underlies the structure of academic institutions. 

With a job title such as Human Rights Archivist, it’s easy to make connections between social justice and the job responsibilities, and I recognize that my experience as an archivist for transnational postcustodial collaborations is niche within the archival and information studies field. However, I strongly believe that we have the responsibility to ground our work in social justice no matter our role in the field. Enacting social justice in our work is an imperfect process, not a checklist or a destination. We can always ask ourselves: 

How can our work center the agency and voices of people who are excluded from the historical record or from institutional decision making, positions of authority and influence, and allocation of resources? How can we redistribute resources in equitable ways? How can our collaborations move us towards healthy interdependence and/or cultural autonomy as opposed to extractive-ness and institutional individualism?

I continue to be inspired by friends and colleagues across the field who ground their work in justice based practices, from critical cataloging, reparative description, radical pedagogy and archives, prioritizing BIPOC collections for digitization to organizing for better labor conditions, researching working conditions and mental health issues in the field, and theorizing disability and archives

Thomas: Thank you for sharing so much hard earned wisdom with us T-Kay. New Suns is inspired by the epigraph to Octavia Butler’s unfinished novel Parable of the Trickster, “There’s nothing new under the sun but there are new suns.” As you think about structural challenges to postcustodial work in libraries and archives, what new suns can we imagine - places where these structural challenges are largely resolved? How would our communities work together? How would we sustain the work? What kinds of positive impacts would we make? 

T-Kay: I love the Octavia Butler reference! 

Honestly, it’s hard to imagine resolving these structural challenges without actively working towards abolishing capitalism and the interlocking structures of inequality that uphold it, such as white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, etc. Obviously that’s not going to happen in our lifetimes, but I think we can start by identifying concrete ways to re-distribute power in order to center and uplift both people who have been marginalized in our profession as well as within the historical record. I really appreciate Michelle Caswell’s “Teaching to Dismantle White Supremacy in Archives'' precisely because she and her students offer concrete actions that archival workers can take in regards to archival work (i.e. appraisal, access/use, description), but also in their professional lives (i.e. hiring, funding) and in archival education (i.e. syllabi design, citation practices, student and faculty recruitment). This article was a major reference for me as I wrote “Preservation Is Political” because so many of the suggestions resonated with the postcustodial practices that I had implemented in a transnational context. 

As I said earlier, I truly believe that everyone, no matter their position in the field, has the responsibility to ground their work in justice-based practices and we are seeing this particularly among students and workers. While we saw many academic institutions scramble to assert their place in anti-racism struggles during the US’s racial reckoning in 2020 after the highly visible police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Toni McDade, these efforts seemed mostly performative - authoring public statements on broad anti-racist commitments, creating anti-racist reading lists, highlighting “diverse” collection materials or rushing to purchase / digitize more, implementing rote land acknowledgements, and even funding new positions to address “equity, diversity, and inclusion.”

When rushing to highlight and build “diverse” collections, I urge institutional leaders to ask themselves if they have staff with the right expertise and experience to create meaningful intellectual access to these collections. I also urge them to ask themselves if those staff positions are permanent and compensated fairly. When creating EDI positions, I hope that institutional leaders are also asking how the rest of the staff, especially those in management positions, will incorporate anti-racist and anti-oppression practices into their existing work, hiring processes, and accountability measures. When receiving grants to engage in community partnerships, I urge institutional leaders to plan (prior to receiving the grant or in the early stages) for how they will reallocate parts of their budget to sustain community-based work after grants end. I also urge academic library leadership, which is 89% White, to examine how they are invested in, consciously or not, in upholding structures that benefit them and marginalize others. Tema Okun’s updated “White Supremacy Culture Characteristics” is a great place to start.

In addition to changing the material working conditions for BIPOC information workers, I also want us to work towards a reality where marginalized communities can autonomously steward their own histories and funding for community-based or global south collaborations isn’t tied to large global north institutional partners. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is making strides towards this for US-based work, but there are more limited funding opportunities for global south institutions and they usually require knowledge of English or other colonial languages to even apply. And of course, if funds are received, global south organizations are expected to adhere to global north standards of expertise and linear progress in order to implement “successful” projects. 

The inequity of resources and infrastructure between global north and south institutions are directly related to colonial and neocolonial histories (I detail this in the case of Cuba in “Preservation Is Political” and these patterns are recognizable across Latin America and in other regions subject to US intervention). We need to move away from a charity based funding model and towards models that support some form of reparations and multiple visions of archival liberation. There are numerous pieces that speak to the liberatory power of marginalized groups recognizing themselves in archives and stewarding their own histories and I particularly love how Nancy Liliana Godoy describes this power -- “the deep connection between archives, memory and community” -- as “archive glow.” This is the power I want to embody in archival work. 

Thomas: In my work on responsible operationalization of computational methods in cultural heritage, I see many institutions trying to do “the right thing” - i.e. “do good, don’t harm”. I think this is good, but sometimes it feels like the challenges are bigger than a handful of institutions in a collaboration. In your work, what are challenges best met by a larger community? What are those large communities? What kinds of work do they do to advance our work?

T-Kay: Over the past twelve years of working as a librarian and archivist, I’ve consciously dedicated my efforts towards preserving from and with historically marginalized groups, primarily through building postcustodial partnerships in an international context. I think the slogan by disability rights activists, “Nothing About Us Without Us”, perfectly sums up the guiding principle for the collaborations I’ve co-lead with global south partners. 

While I hold valuable archival knowledge and expertise, my role is not to dictate to partners how to preserve their materials, but rather to work with them to preserve their historical record in ways that are sustainable and meaningful to them, as they are experts in their local contexts and histories. As a Fulbright Scholar in Mexico City I served as the archivist for the community-based project to document Day of the Dead and funerary practices in the burrough of Xochimilco. I worked with the community organizers to curate a selection of photos for publication and exhibition. Initially, I had selected a photo of two women honoring their ancestors at a cemetery because of the gender representation and the clear depiction of place. However, the community organizers informed me that this image should not be included because it would cause interpersonal tensions between members of the immediate community surrounding the cemetery due to who was depicted. Having spent nine months working on the project and participating in the majority of the field documentation events, I was familiar with the documentation and the broader context in which it was created, but I never would have been privy to these social dynamics as an outsider. I appreciated how the organizers prioritized preserving community ties, especially in such an intimate space as grieving and celebrating ancestors, over representation in the historical record. 

It’s possible that that decision may change over time. Archives are never static - they are living entities - particularly when used by their originating communities. When working in a variety of geographical and social contexts in which we are outsiders, some of the most important qualities we can cultivate as memory workers are thoughtful and critical listening skills as well as humility about the things that we have yet to learn.

Thomas: Lastly, whose work do you want more people to know about and why?

T-Kay: Oh wow, there are so many people to name that I admire and respect. In the archival world, I am always inspired by the work and writings of friends/colleagues Michelle Caswell, Kim Christen, Dorothy Berry, Stacie Williams, and Nancy Godoy. I’m grateful for Shannon O’Neill, Audra Eagle and Theresa Polk for always being available for conversations about ethical archival praxis. Community-based archival organizations such as Texas After Violence Project and The Blackivists are doing incredible work with a vision towards prison abolition and black histories and futures, respectively. We Here is the BIPOC information worker community space we need. I’m currently a Mellon / Rare Book School Cultural Heritage Fellow and I have learned a lot from the work of our two cohorts. I also love the Los Angeles Contemporary Archive’s IG. They always have a great combination of off the beaten path archives news, job postings, and info about their new collections, like their latest, Private Practices: AAPI Artist and Sex Worker Archive. I recently read “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor” by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang for Rob Montoya’s CalRBS course “Book History and Librarianship through Post- and De-colonial Lenses”. It was deeply uncomfortable in a necessary way and is really challenging me to re-think how I’ve framed past work as decolonial. It should be required reading for all settlers.

Outside of the library / archives world, I am inspired by the many creative folks that I DJ with at dublab, an LA-based online radio station (now FM as well) that’s 21 years strong. Over the past two decades, dublab has amassed a significant audiovisual archive of underground and well-known DJs and musicians. This archival impulse is also reflected in some of the station’s multimedia projects, such as the Ashram Tapes dedicated to Alice Coltrane’s musical and spiritual legacy. I’m particularly excited to bring my archival background to dublab as a Humanities Advisor for the second season of the Deep Routes audio documentary series funded by California Humanities.   

I’ve also been savoring adrienne maree brown’s work and Pleasure Activism is at the top of my recommended reads. I also love her podcast with her sister, How to Survive the End of the World and their incredible plenary conversation with Chani Nicholas on queer astrological technologies at the 2020 Allied Media Conference. And I have to say AMC’s #RadLAM track really set the standard for the types of archives conferences I want to attend. The program decentered major institutions and instead foregrounded BIPOC practitioners who were all engaging in different forms of liberatory memory work. #RadLAM was explicitly “centered in a healing justice, anti-oppression and decolonization framework” and aimed for participants to leave the gathering with “a deeper connection to a network, new visions of their role as knowledge keepers, and inspired to plant seeds in their own communities.” This is the archival future I want to co-create and live in!