The Conversation Must Go On: Climate Change and Archival Practice

By Itza A. Carbajal
This post is part of our BloggERS Another Kind of Glacier series.

On September 20th, 2019, an unprecedented number of archivists joined together in person and online to reignite conversations around Climate Change, archives, and the role of archivists in the ongoing crisis. What initially started as a conversation in search of hope between two archivists, Ted Lee and Itza Carbajal, quickly grew into an archival community wide search for change (1). Archivists as part of the “Archives and Climate Change Teach Ins Action” engaged through teach-ins, marches, resource gathering, and on social media in an effort to talk in parallel with the estimated 4-6 million people striking as part of the Global Climate Strike movement (2). These global strikes, led mostly by young people from around the world and inspired by Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future student strikes, occurred in over 163 countries on all seven continents uniting for perhaps the first time the residents of this house called Earth.

What led Ted, myself, and others to seek a shift in the conversations around archives and Climate Change likely began with this simple question: “why must we (as archivists) act?” While a simple question, the “why” in the case of the Climate Strike Teach-Ins was in fact the impetus for me and for many others involved (3). When Ted Lee and I, both archivists and archival scholars, first set out to organize the archivist community through these Teach-Ins, we intended the actions to be 1) opportunities to learn 2) moments to converse and 3) sparks to previous conversations around archives and climate change. With over 9 teach ins, information translated into 5 languages, a comprehensive reading list, and a global twitterthon, the action #Archivists4ClimateAction undoubtedly sparked a lasting conversation.

In all frankness, I would say that we are no longer in the stage of why we would, but rather, why would we not. Not everyone in the house is aware of the growing fire outside and within our own walls, and as a result, the archival community must begin conversations like these. For those new to advocacy, organizing, or activist work, this first question is the starting line (4). Regardless of age, length of work experience, or other backgrounds, we all must start somewhere. The “why” in this question asks us to think about why it matters to act. In returning to the metaphor of our house being on fire, the initial question could be “why should or would I be compelled to act as a result of this fire?” In the case of Climate Change, some may feel more comfortable calling our work advocacy, either on behalf of the field, our jobs, or perhaps our overall environment: the world. Others may feel more compelled to frame their work as organizing or activism, the former focused more on coordinating people and the latter focused on calling attention to an issue. In all three cases, we are striving for some sort of change or solution to what we perceive as a problem. 

We had, I would say, already accepted our responsibility to act. Both as inhabitants of this planet, and as practitioners dependent on the survival of humanity in order to make sense of our work, we had an obligation to act. We adopted a strategy– starting a conversation– which was both intentional and logical. As neither Ted nor I were environmental or climate change experts, we knew that we could only advance the conversations so much. But we recognized that our interests and skills lay in teaching, a form of educational conversation. And that led us to our answer for the second question: “what can we as archivists do?” 

The Teach-In strategy addressed the discomfort Ted and I initially felt approaching this subject, which frankly still feels overwhelming and outside of our expertise. We felt that the using Teach-Ins would allow us, as educators, to immerse ourselves in a topic of our choosing with the intention of sharing that information with our participants. The Teach-In method also allowed us to disrupt the “business as usual” attitude and tendency for many in our field, thus aligning with the original vision of the 2019 Global Climate Strike. As archivists, record managers, curators, librarians, and LIS students paused or walked out of work to attend or participate in these Teach-Ins, there was a recognition that many of us still desire to learn even after completing our formal participation in educational systems such as graduate programs. Plainly, the Teach-Ins resonated with participants from archival backgrounds, workplaces, and programs.

Ted and I chose a strategy that played to our strengths: the Teach-Ins were our preferred method because they gave us a path forward, a way to participate in the conversation by using our existing skills in teaching and organizing. Looking at what we knew, and what we had to contribute, the Teach-Ins made sense. Your skills, levels of comfort, insights, and connections will vary, but for bad or worse, the problem of Climate Change will require us all to contribute in big and small ways. This brings me to the last question: “how do we (as archivists and an archival community) take action?” In response, I propose a follow-up question, drawn from the work we started with the Archives and Climate Change Teach-Ins as well the discussions that led to the formation of ProjectARCC: “how do we continue the momentum built during the Global Climate Strike, build on conversations held, and work towards the changes that our field and community needs?” My simple answer would be to find ways to keep on learning. What happens after you learn will be up to you. But, I believe, the answers will inevitably circle back to the initial two questions – why and what

As many recognize, Climate Change is neither a new topic nor is it in its early stages. Our house is on fire and for many it is starting to crumble. This blog post attempts to highlight the importance of starting and continuing conversations and actions around Climate Change and its relationship and impact on archivists and archives. The work did not end with the 2019 strike. That was simply the beginning.

Itza A. Carbajal is a Ph.D student at the University of Washington School of Information focusing her research on children and their records. Previously, she worked as the Latin American Metadata Librarian at LLILAS Benson after having received a Master of Science in Information Studies with a focus on archival management and digital records at the University of Texas at Austin School of Information. Before that, she obtained a dual-degree Bachelor of Arts in History and English with a concentration on creative writing and legal studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio. More information: www.itzacarbajal.com

Notes:
1. Itza A. Carbajal and Ted Lee, “If Not Now, When? Archivists Respond to Climate Change,” Archival Outlook, November/December 2019, |PAGE|, https://mydigitalpublication.com/publication/?m=30305&i=635670&p=8)
 2. “Over 4 Million Join 2 Days of Global Climate Strike,” Global Climate Strike, September 21, 2019, accessed October 6, 2020, https://globalclimatestrike.net/4-million/
3. “Climate Strike Teach-Ins,” Project ARCC Events, September 11, 2019, accessed October 12, 2020, https://projectarcc.org/2019/09/11/climate-strike-teach-ins/)
4. I couple these terms together for a reason as they most definitely mean different things and carry different implications, they are in my opinion similar in that they seek some sort of change.

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