Stewarding Collections of Trauma: Plurality, Responsibility, and Questions of Action

  • Lisa P. Nathan
  • Elizabeth Shaffer
  • Maggie Castor


There are dedicated efforts around the world to steward material related to human atrocities, with aspirations to acknowledge, learn from, and perhaps lessen the probability of further harm. Yet for the archivists charged with stewarding these collections, there remain ethically fraught questions of how to do this work. Through this article, we identify systemic, structural challenges that confront efforts to ethically steward collections of trauma. Our scholarly reflections are grounded in the context of an institution being created to hold materials related to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). We reflect on ongoing discussions with those involved in the inception and development of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) and our review of court documents and media accounts related to the TRC and development of the NCTR. We call attention to the assemblage of socio-technical, political, and legal forces that influence the actions of those managing collections of trauma. We highlight how those involved in the NCTR’s development are participants in and descendants of Canada’s legacy of colonizing initiatives (as are we, researchers studying the NCTR’s development). To support those facing questions of action in this complicated space, we draw on the work of Iris Marion Young to inform archivists’ practice related to the issues of conflict, plurality, agency, and distrust that underlie the design and management of collections of trauma.

Des efforts consciencieux sont faits à travers le monde pour préserver la documentation liée aux atrocités humaines, dans le but de les reconnaître, d’en apprendre, et peut-être aussi de diminuer la probabilité de futurs torts. Pourtant, pour les archivistes chargés de sauvegarder ces collections, il demeure des questions épineuses sur le plan éthique par rapport aux façons d’accomplir ce travail. Dans cet article nous identifions des défis systémiques et structurels qui entravent les efforts de préserver éthiquement ces collections de trauma. Nos réflexions critiques sont ancrées dans le contexte d’une institution qui se constitue pour conserver le matériel lié à la Commission de vérité et réconciliation (CVR) du Canada. Nous examinons les discussions qui se poursuivent avec les personnes impliquées dans la création et le développement du Centre national pour la vérité et la réconciliation (CNVR), ainsi que notre étude des documents présentés en cour et des reportages des médias portant sur la CVR et le développement du CNVR. Nous signalons l’assemblage de forces socio-techniques, politiques et légales qui ont eu une influence sur les agissements des personnes qui gèrent des collections de trauma. Nous accentuons comment les personnes impliquées dans le développement du CNVR sont des participants dans les initiatives de colonisation du Canada, tout en étant les descendants de cet héritage colonisateur (comme nous le sommes aussi en tant que chercheurs étudiant le développement du CNVR). Afin d’appuyer celles et ceux qui sont confrontés aux questions d’action dans cet espace compliqué, nous nous inspirons du travail d’Iris Marion Young pour éclairer les pratiques des archivistes face aux questions de conflit, de pluralité, de l’exercice du pouvoir personnel et de méfiance qui sont sous-jacentes à la conceptualisation et à la gestion des collections de trauma.

Author Biographies

Lisa P. Nathan

Lisa P. Nathan is an assistant professor and coordinator of the First Nations Curriculum Concentration at the University of British Columbia’s School of Library, Archival and Information Studies in Vancouver. Dr. Nathan directs the Sustaining Information Practice Research and Design Studio. Through a series of projects, her team is developing the concept of sustaining information practices, ways of managing information that help diverse people address longer-term challenges (e.g., environmental adaptation, decolonization, social justice). Her work in Canada, the United States, Rwanda, and Tanzania has received support from numerous funders, including the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the National Science Foundation in the United States. She is currently the chair of the ACM SIG-CHI HCI & Sustainability Community. Dr. Nathan completed her PhD at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Elizabeth Shaffer

Elizabeth Shaffer is a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia’s School of Library, Archival and Information Studies in Vancouver. Her doctoral research focuses on the information policy and recordkeeping challenges of the social media technologies used by government. She is interested in investigating the role of policy in the interactions between emergent technologies and information/records practices. She is currently the Director of Collections at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, where she is the project head of multi-year initiatives that focus on the digitization, preservation, and pedagogical use of Holocaust survivor testimonies and collections, funded by Citizenship and Immigration Canada and the Estate of Paul Heller.

Maggie Castor

Maggie Castor received a Master in Library and Information Studies from the University of British Columbia (UBC), Vancouver, and a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Elon University, North Carolina. Maggie’s work centres on how to understand and constructively work with conflict. Projects have focused on thinking with the work of political theorist Iris Marion Young to develop insights into decolonizing information practices and de-hierarchizing mixed-role partnerships. Maggie is an Iris Marion Young Diversity Scholar. As part of a research project with the UBC Human Resources Department, Maggie is investigating Theatre of the Oppressed techniques as a way to develop capacities to address intercultural workplace conflict.

How to Cite
Nathan, Lisa P., Elizabeth Shaffer, and Maggie Castor. 2015. “Stewarding Collections of Trauma: Plurality, Responsibility, and Questions of Action”. Archivaria 80 (November), 89-118.