Archival representations of immigration and ethnicity in North American history: from the ethnicization of archives to the archivization of ethnicity

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Abstract

This article traces the representations of ethnicity and immigration in mainstream American and Canadian archives since the 1950s. It identifies three main periods of evolution of these ethnic archives: the era prior to the civil rights movement, the 1960–1980s and the 1990s and beyond. Relying on an understanding of archival collections as social constructions anchored in specific historical contexts, the article considers the various political, economic, social and technological factors that affected ethnic archives over time, especially as they relate to changing scholarly and popular conceptions of ethnicity in North America. It pays particular attention to the impact of historical scholarship in fields related to immigration and ethnicity and of postmodernist archival theories that challenge the traditional view of archives as evidence of the past. It suggests that the relationship between ethnic archives and their historical context is dialectical: not only are they affected by the context in which they are developed and managed, but they also have an impact on that context as they favor certain conceptions of ethnicity and types of ethnic groups at the expense of others. Both curators and users of archival materials should therefore pay closer attention to the history of the processes that went into the construction of these archives to avoid falling victims to the illusion of ethnic authenticity.

This article was developed from a presentation given by the author at the annual meeting of the French Association for American Studies held in Brest (France) on May 25–28, 2011. It builds on a previous article published in the Spring 2010 issue of The American Archivist.