“Treat Them with the Reverence of Archivists”: Records Work, Grief Work, and Relationship Work in the Archives

  • Jennifer Douglas
  • Alexandra Alisauskas
  • Devon Mordell


In this article, we take up Geoff Wexler and Linda Long’s call to explore the ways in which records and recordkeeping are “bound up” in experiences of loss and grieving. Drawing on theoretical and clinical literature on bereavement, we introduce the concept of grief work and investigate some ways in which grief work can be performed through the creation, use, organization, and preservation of records. We illustrate our study of records work as grief work with examples from the Hamilton Family Fonds at the University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections, the Sylvia Plath collections at Smith College and Indiana University, and the Lara Gilbert Fonds at the University of Victoria Archives. Finally, we suggest some impacts – especially the ethical impacts – a grief work perspective might have on the ongoing development of archival theory and methodology. This article lays the conceptual groundwork for a larger, ongoing study on recordkeeping, grief work, and the concept of archival care.


Dans cet article, nous répondons à l’appel lancé par Geoff Wexler et Linda Long à explorer comment les documents et la gestion des documents sont imprégnées des expériences de perte et de deuil. Puisant dans les études théoriques et cliniques sur le deuil, nous présentons le concept de travail de deuil et explorons des façons par lesquelles le travail de deuil peut s’effectuer par la création, l’utilisation, l’organisation et la préservation de documents. Des exemples du fonds Hamilton Family aux University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections, des collections Sylvia Plath au Smith College et à l’Indiana University et du fonds Lara Gilbert aux University of Victoria Archives servent à illustrer notre étude du travail avec les documents comme travail de deuil. Enfin, nous évoquons certaines retombées, particulièrement au niveau éthique, qu’une perspective du travail de deuil pourrait avoir sur le développement de la théorie et de la méthodologie archivistiques. Cet article pose les bases conceptuelles de l’étude plus large et continue de la gestion des documents, du travail de deuil et de la notion de traitement archivistique.

Author Biographies

Jennifer Douglas

Jennifer Douglas is assistant professor at the iSchool (Library, Archival and Information Studies) at the University of British Columbia, where she teaches courses on personal and community archives, arrangement and description, and archival research and scholarship. Her research focuses on the roles of recordkeeping and archive making in the intimate and emotional lives of individuals and communities, and on archivists’ responsibilities to support, represent, and make space for these roles. She lives and works on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam people.

Alexandra Alisauskas

Alexandra Alisauskas is an MAS/MLIS candidate at the iSchool (Library, Archival and Information Studies) at the University of British Columbia, pursuing the First Nations Curriculum Concentration. Alexandra was previously an arts writer, researcher, and educator. Her interests include digital archives, archival ethics, and emotion in archival theory and practice. She lives as an uninvited guest on the unceded territories of the xwməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səlíl lwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) nations.

Devon Mordell

Devon Mordell is the Digital Scholarship and Archiving Librarian at the University of Windsor Leddy Library, located on the traditional territory of the Three Fires Confederacy of First Nations, which includes the Ojibwa, the Odawa, and the Potawatomie. Prone to bouts of academic wanderlust, she holds a BFA in visual arts (University of Windsor) and an MA in cultural studies and critical theory (McMaster University) and, most recently, obtained an MAS from the University of British Columbia. She is grateful to the incredible cohort of SLAIS graduate students and faculty with whom she had the privilege of brewing big ideas about archivy. Her research practice examines the use of digital technologies in providing access to archives through a critical lens with a utopian tint.

How to Cite
Douglas, Jennifer, Alexandra Alisauskas, and Devon Mordell. 2019. “‘Treat Them With the Reverence of Archivists’: Records Work, Grief Work, and Relationship Work in the Archives”. Archivaria 88 (November), 84-120. https://archivaria.ca/index.php/archivaria/article/view/13699.