n.the unintentional or purposeful absence or distortion of documentation of enduring value, resulting in gaps and inabilities to represent the past accuratelyCarter 2006, 217It examines archival silences, including how they are manifested, the implications of silence for the groups that are excluded, and the impact on societal memory in general.Jimerson 2009, 300The archival silences in colonial societies echo in indigenous communities around the world.Henderson 2010, 160That students of Canadian history know little about Doughty’s intimate and personal experiences archiving Canada’s past is further compounded by the archival silence that surrounds his life prior to his appointment to the Archives Branch.Theimer 2012First, when I hear the phrase “archival silences” my initial assumption is that it refers to gaps or “silences” in a body of original records (in which “body” can be defined in many ways).Decker 2013Some archival silences are not inherent in the records, but the result of a research process where sources can only speak selectively—either as a result of source analysis or of different sampling techniques.Klein 2013, 665Drawing instead on digital methods, this essay demonstrates how a set of techniques that derive from the fields of computational linguistics and data visualization help render visible the archival silences implicit in our understanding of chattel slavery today.Anderberg 2015, 552The second dimension of archival intelligence involves being able to cope with the inevitable archival silences and dead ends in primary source research and to develop strategies for reducing uncertainty and managing unstructured problems.Hobbs 2015, 31The continued “archival silence” of the Extension Service narratives is a loss not only to researchers seeking detailed family histories, but also to rural communities facing twenty-first-century economic, climate, and cultural challenges.Manoff 2016, 63Recent theorizations of archival silence signal a heightened and expanding concern with information that is lost, concealed, destroyed or simply not available for scholarly use. For a dynamic and interdisciplinary group of artists, scholars and theorists, archival silence serves as a productive metaphor as well as a kind of shorthand to refer to gaps, omissions and distortions in the historical record.Theimer 2016We all—or at least I certainly hope we all—now work as professionals in a world in which archives are actively engaged in trying to ensure no new archival silences are created, and that where silences exist in our understanding of the past, we do what we can to help researchers find the voices that survive to fill the void.Tansey 2016Being a records manager has taught me that nothing could be farther from the truth; because those with the most power within organizations are rarely the same individuals tasked with carrying out records mandates, there will always be archival silences despite archivists’ and records managers’ best efforts.Doolan 2016The gaps currently present in the archival record are referred to as archival silences. Whether these silences occur as the result of limited definitions, the choice of communities to withhold their archival collections, the process of record creation, the intentional exclusion of particular narratives, the unintentional exclusion of perspectives, or a host of other reasons, these silences have an impact upon the materials available to future archival users and the evidence of the past that will be available to them.Thomas 2017a, xxDrawing on the works of Foucault and Jacques Derrida, archival theorists have begun to see archives as places of power; it has become more accepted that archival silences are a proper subject for enquiry and to view the absence of records as positive statements, rather than passive gaps.Thomas 2017b, 176–177If Trouillot is right, then there will always be archival silences. What is important is that the silences are appropriate and properly managed and not the result of political pressure, poor processes or inappropriate use of technology and that they are recognized for what they are.Manoff 2017, 1–2The recent attentiveness to issues of archival silence in particular might be construed as a shift in focus from a more general question of the archive as foundation for the construction of knowledge to a more specific concern with those aspects of the archive that are invisible, irrecoverable and/or that underwrite and perpetuate governmental or institutional forms of violence. This engagement with archival silence also indicates an interest in theorizing and developing strategies to counter, mend, repair or simply acknowledge various forms of exclusion and loss.Farmer 2018, 289This groundswell of research has foregrounded a persistent methodological quandary for scholars of black women’s history: how should they address the paradox of simultaneously finding copious archival records on some black women, while also accounting for the deafening archival silence on others?Kostelic 2018, 561While a thread that runs through each of the chapters of The Silence of the Archive is the ways in which archival silences are created both intentionally and unintentionally, another uniting theme is that archival silences are to be expected and are unavoidable.Eadon 2019Declassification, which may initially seem to be the opposite of archival silence, is turned on its head by this particular research community’s suspicion of mediated information; the suspicion here being that the government (and the archivist-mediators that did the declassifying) is using declassification of a particularly interesting or weird collection as a tool to distract or detract from a different—more important, and more conspiratorial—event or subject.Miley and Read 2020However, archival silence can also be a political statement, reflecting the power of those who are able to control the archive and access to information.Orazem 2020That we, as a profession, continue to teach and write about Derrida’s thinking on archives, desire, power, and the law, without ever grappling with the ways he actually leveraged his archives to intervene in a legal proceeding centered on an alleged sexual abuse of power (on behalf of the alleged abuser), marks a fascinating and disturbing archival silence of its own.
The concept of archival silence has overlaps with allied fields that include digital humanities and history. Further, many who have written about it have pointed to Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s influence in developing the idea in his book, Silencing the Past: Power and Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995). While he did not use the exact term, the themes are visible in the following selections:“Silences enter the process of historical production at four crucial moments: the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of introspective significance (the making of history in the final instance). . . . Rather, they help us understand why not all silences are equal and why they cannot be addressed—or redressed—in the same manner. To put it differently, any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences, the result of a unique process, and the operation required to deconstruct these silences will vary accordingly” (pages 26–27).“Thus the presences and absences embodied in sources (artifacts and bodies that turn an event into fact) or archives (facts collected, thematized, and processed as documents and monuments) are neither neutral or natural. They are created. As such, they are not mere presences and absences, but mentions or silences of various kinds and degrees. By silence, I mean an active and transitive process: one ‘silences’ a fact or an individual as a silencer silences a gun. One engages in the practice of silencing. Mentions and silences are thus active, dialectical counterparts of which history is the synthesis” (page 48).