Self-determination and archival autonomy: advocating activism


This paper explores the role of archival activism in supporting social movements linked to human rights and social justice agendas. Taking a records continuum perspective, it presents an Australian case study relating to the Stolen Generations, Former Child Migrants, Forgotten Australians and Forced Adoption communities to illustrate imperatives for advocacy and activism in support of the “archival autonomy” of communities. Framed by critical theory, the study identifies and analyses systemic problems in meeting the recordkeeping and archival identity, memory, accountability, redress and recovery needs of these key communities. The devastating impact of both finding and not finding relevant information is highlighted, along with how systemic and structural difficulties in seeking access to vital evidence can be re-traumatising. Using reflexivity and the Movement Action Plan as an analytical tool, the case study reflects on the activist role archival research and development projects can potentially play, using the Who Am I? and Trust and Technology Projects as exemplars. The paper explores how an extended suite of rights in records, stretching beyond discovery and access to appraisal, description and disclosure, and linked to records continuum concepts of co-creation and multiple provenance, and the emergent concept of the participatory archive, might support community self-determination in the context of human rights and social justice agendas, with particular reference to the rights of the child. Additionally, the paper explores a new concept of archival autonomy and its relationship to community self-determination. Archival autonomy is tentatively defined as the ability for individuals and communities to participate in societal memory, with their own voice, and to become participatory agents in recordkeeping and archiving for identity, memory and accountability purposes. The achievement of archival autonomy is identified as a grand societal challenge, with the need for archival activism to become an integral part of social movements on a local and global scale. The paper concludes with a proposed National Summit on the Archive and the Rights of the Child, envisaged as a vehicle for archival advocacy and activism leading to transformative action to address social justice and human rights agendas in Australia.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    Archival frameworks are the law, policies, cultural and ethical mores, archival theories and models which govern and structure archival processes and systems.

  2. 2.

    Australia has federal, state and local government jurisdictions, plus government, corporate, NGO and community sectors involved in child welfare and protections services.


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We gratefully acknowledge the Trust and Technology Project’s community and industry partners: the Public Record Office of Victoria, the Koorie Heritage Trust Inc., the Victorian Koorie Records Taskforce and the Australian Society of Archivists Indigenous Issues Special Interest Group, the Project’s Advisory Group and the eighty-one participants from the Koorie communities of Victoria who agreed to be interviewed as part of the project, along with thirteen archival service providers, managers and mediators. We also gratefully acknowledge the care leavers who were willing to share their stories in the Who Am I? Project and participating organisations: the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare, the Victorian Department of Human Services, Child and Family Services Ballarat, Berry Street, Anglicare Victoria, Glastonbury Child and Family Services, Good Shepherd Youth and Family Services, Kildonan Child and Family Services, Mackillop Family Services, Office of the Child Safety Commissioner, Victoria, Orana Family Services, Public Record Office Victoria, St Lukes Anglicare, Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency Co-op Ltd, Wesley Mission, Westcare (Salvation Army), CLAN, CREATE Foundation, Connecting Home, Link Up and Open Place.

Ethical standard

All authors declare that they have no undeclared conflicts of interest. The studies discussed in this article were carried out in accordance with the Australian Code of Conduct for Responsible Research.

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Correspondence to Joanne Evans.



See Table 1.

Table 1 Case study communities, national inquiries, national apologies and select statements on records and archives

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Evans, J., McKemmish, S., Daniels, E. et al. Self-determination and archival autonomy: advocating activism. Arch Sci 15, 337–368 (2015).

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  • Archival activism
  • Archival autonomy
  • Participatory archives
  • Human rights