Burnin' N Lootin' The Archive

A fundamental cultural tool or mediated action of research remains evidence, or what the academic guild refers to as primary and secondary sources. Historians generally agree that primary sources consist of diaries, journals, letters, speeches, and interviews of notable people as well as the newspapers, magazines, and official state documents of dominant institutions circulated during the specific time period under investigation. These “documents” are made more sacred when deposited in formal, officially recognized collections or archives housed in formal repositories. Additional primary sources for fields other than history include observation, survey, and interviews. Secondary sources are those statements by scholars or researchers that interpret recognized primary sources related to a specific topic. The history of a topic makes it possible to determine how certain researchers have made use of primary sources that have come to be accepted as evidence.

Not surprisingly, ideological contamination of primary and secondary sources operates at all stages of their production, circulation, and interpretation. Activist scholars and community-based researchers have contested what mainstream academics uncritically accept as primary and secondary sources, challenging the very notion of evidence uncontaminated by power. Critical researchers argue all tools necessary for historical analysis, including archives, data, and historiography, are contingent and the result of various layers of invention and investment. Even popular memory, whether solicited in an interview or documented through audio or visual media, can reflect strategic selections about what is or is not important in narrating a person, project, or event.

Uncovering information that is little known or not yet recognized as such can be arduous. Therefore, the hunting and gathering stage of research requires new tools to engage alternative social archives, or the local wisdom and situated knowledges not always represented in dominant repositories or formal academic studies. More militant research approaches have generated primary sources through such techniques as the drift, dialogue, and the situation.