The community based archive as a tool for activism

Author’s note: I wrote this paper for my major assignment in Mad People’s History, a course I took through the Chang School at Ryerson. My first dabble into the world of archives – fascinating stuff and a much different tone than the library literature I am accustomed to reading. I felt pretty good about what I wrote (my professor agreed and I got a great mark!), so I thought I’d share here.

The idea that nature is constructed, not discovered – that truth is made, not found.” – Donna Haraway.

According to the Association of Canadian Archivists, in response to the question, “Why archives?”, archives exist to ensure records of historical significance are preserved in order to help society understand their history. This is turn, allows society to learn from the past to create a better future (ACA, 2007). Traditionally, archives are the domain of public and private institutions, however, community based archives are increasingly being created and viewed as powerful tools for activism. In fact, the role of archivist as activist is the topic of in-depth study with a rich body of literature that explores this fundamental shift in the professional identity of the archivist. This paper will explore how the Psychiatric Survivor Archives of Toronto (PSAT) is an ideal example of the power of community-based archives and will discuss the ways in which such an establishment challenges the status quo and helps support an activist community and how they can be used to help create a better future for individuals in that community.

According to PSAT’s mission statement, “The Archives seeks to reflect the broad diversity of views that are expressed by all people with a psychiatric history however they choose to self-identify. (Psychiatric Survivor Archives of Toronto, 2015) The collection itself is made up of 14 fonds from across the world. Only two are described in detail via an online finding aid – the Collective Fonds and the MindFreedom fonds. The remainder are fonds about individuals, both alive and deceased, and for entities such as the Queen Street Outreach Society. The original order has been preserved in the accessioning, as per standard archival practice, however non-standard subject headings have been applied to the records, which is not customary archival practice. This is significant given some of the subject terms listed; for example, ForcedTreatment, PoliceBrutality and MadPride are all emblematic of a survivor-centered approach to archives.

Of particular note is the Collective Fonds (CF), one of the two that have been described in the PSAT Guide.

The CF is produced for and by the broader community of psychiatric patients/clients, ex-patients/clients, users/consumers, and survivors, prisoners, and detainees who have donated flyers, posters, poetry, writings, audio-visual media, realia, etc. The CF was started by former PSAT board member, Kevin Jackson, and has been highlighted here to encourage people to donate materials. Their contributions connect PSAT to many ‘mad’ communities and augment the older, larger accessions sent by more ‘established’ activists and organizations. (Psychiatric Survivor Archives of Toronto, 2015)

In a paper that examines three different community-based queer archives, the authors stress that an archive’s relevance to the community is founded in the reliance on the community for donations – this ensures that the collection reflects their interests (Wakimoto, Bruce & Partridge, 2013). PSAT’s Collective Fonds are crucial to its functioning as a community based archives, allowing PSAT to create its own collection mandate and raison d’etre, unshackled by the conventions and standards to which traditional institutional archives are beholden. Among the items in the CF are letters, poetry, zines and leaflets – all items that have one common thread – they are tied to the psychiatric survivor movement. Traditional archives are largely focussed on institutional history and official documentation – the items contained in the CF would likely not fit into this mould, and therefore, their preservation would be at risk without PSAT. As Caswell observes, “community-based archives serve as an alternative, grassroots venue for communities to make collective decisions about what is of enduring value to them and to control the means through which stories about their past are constructed.” (Caswell, 2014). David Reville stated, “My memory will fail me sometimes. I am hoping that those who remember more and different stories than I do will share them with me. The more shouts of “no, no, no, it wasn’t like that at all!” and “you’ve left out the most important part (person, event, idea)” the more complete history we will have.” (Reville, 2015) Archival documentation is crucial to create primary source material; it remembers when people don’t, or can no longer.

Archives have the power to tell the story of someone’s life. Particularly for marginalized populations, archives must be handled carefully in order to ensure that the stories are accessioned in a way that does not further marginalize. As evidenced in the Who Am I project, archival practice that does not take a survivor-centered approach can prolong trauma and re-open old wounds. This interdisciplinary research project explored issues of creating, storing and accessing records using tools from the fields of social work, history and archival studies and focuses on children in care. In interviews with survivors about the effect of mishandled records, one survivor expresses that she “would have liked to have some input in a story that’s going to be written about me.” (Centre For Excellence in Child and Family Welfare, 2011) The issue of agency in archival record management is more fluid in the realm of community-based archives as compared to institutional. In her paper that focused on survivor-centred approaches to human-rights abuse documentation, Caswell asserts that “The past victims of human rights abuse depicted in these records did not choose to be documented; the least we can do as memory workers is honor their ongoing sense of agency by centering them and their wishes in our present decision making processes…” (Caswell, 2014).

The conventional sources used to study madness in history have typically been from the institutional perspective – hence, the genesis of Mad Studies as we are learning it today. In a paper on historiographical trends in the study of madness, Wright and Saucier analyze the issue of using patient records as primary sources, among them anonymity requirements and the lack of perspective that these kinds of sources contain. After all, madness did not exist solely within the walls of asylums, nor are we assured that the privacy of patients and their families are being protected for a universally held cause – namely that of embarrassment to be associated with madness. (Wright and Saucier, 2012) Buchanan and Bastian, in their paper on the potential of community based archives in activist work, ruminate on formal approaches to history: “emphasis on producing a coherent interpretation limits our ability to understand the potential of archival records for developing more poetic and multitudinous accounts of “what might happen” … trajectories of where this information might lead the participants left unspecified.” (Buchanan and Bastian, 2015). PSAT has a rich and varied collection of records from the survivor community, formal and informal organizations, and it holds a multitude of formats. This variety in perspectives creates a rich resource for community empowerment, regardless of institutional affiliation or professional designation. One needn’t be a doctor or academic to access and use the archives to tell and re-tell history. A survivor has a safe place to preserve their own story (on their own terms), so that in the future, it may be part of a greater and ever-shifting narrative. This is the power of archives.

Linda Morrison, in Talking Back to Psychiatry, tells us what the consumer/survivor movement is not: “[it] is not a centralized national movement with well-defined leadership, membership, goals and objectives. It has no official leaders, no official hierarchy, and no ongoing organizational structure.” (Morrison, 2005, p. 58) Much like the movement itself, PSAT, as a community-based archives is non-traditional in that ownership and control over it is in the hands of a fluid group of people who have significant personal investment in its existence, and to see that it is used as a tool for progress. Schwartz and Cook, in their paper on the role of archivist as activist, posit that “They (archives) can be a tool of hegemony; they can be a tool of resistance.” and that they are “a reflection and often justification for the society that creates them.” (Schwartz and Cook, 2002). Indeed, as found in the study of queer archives, “In preserving their own histories, queer community archives protected and made visible that which had been considered unmentionable by mainstream society.” (Wakimoto, et. al, 2013) The sin of omission in record preservation can have the effect of erasure – making entire communities feel invisible. Marginalized groups are thus reminded that they cannot trust established authorities to collect and preserve their history. A community based archive, such as PSAT, takes control of their collection direction and therefore, achieve what Caswell recommends for the activist archive: “a multiplicity of formats and perspectives on past atrocities ensures that archives allow space for contestation, disagreement, and debate rather than reify singular or dominant metanarratives.” (Caswell, 2014)

To illustrate this dichotomy, we can look at the documented record appraisal practices of an official institution such as the Fairfield Psychiatric Hospital and the Bedfordshire Record Office. One can immediately see the advantage of an independent archive unshackled by the bureaucracy that drives decisions made via government records offices. The appraisal process leans toward doctor’s perspectives, worker’s reports and only preserves representative samples of patient records, while all others were destroyed. Personal life testimonies were only to “be retained for their Social historical content (information on employment patterns, population movement, housing, and ethnic minorities in particular).” (Collet-White and Ward, 1994)

The following statement by Schwartz and Cook has just been clearly illustrated: “…some can afford to create and maintain records, and some cannot, that certain voices thus will be heard loudly and some not at all; that certain views and ideas about society will in turn be privileged and others marginalized.” (Schwartz and Cook, 2002) PSAT has taken the narrative of the consumer/survivor movement into the communities’ own hands by virtue of its very existence. Community archives counter the inadequacies in the official record (Buchanan and Bastian, 2015) and thus create opportunity to challenge the dominant narratives of madness in society, and create the possibility for future dialogue as yet unknown. Caswell reminds readers that self-representation is key in the creation of the community/survivor-focused archive – this is embodied in the simple yet bold statement “nothing about us without us”. (Caswell, 2014) David Reville teaches Mad Studies students “the Consumer-survivor-ex-patient movement in constant flux – the history of it is recorded, but needs to be centralized for stories to be told. Many activists want to tell their stories; they have ideas about how they want to change things.” (Reville, 2009) Without organizations such as PSAT, those stories would be in grave danger of being lost to history.

Works Cited

Association of Canadian Archivists. Why Archives? (2007). Retrieved from

Buchanan, A., & Bastian, M. (2015). Activating the archive: rethinking the role of traditional archives for local activist projects. Archival Science, 15(4), 429–451.

Caswell, M. (2014). Toward a survivor-centered approach to records documenting human rights abuse: lessons from community archives. Archival Science, 14(3-4), 307–322.

Centre For Excellence in Child and Family Welfare, (Director). (2011). Who Am I? Making Records Meaningful [Motion Picture].

Collett‐White, J., & Ward, K. (1994). Appraisal of mental hospital patient case files: The Bedfordshire record office experience. Journal of the Society of Archivists, 15(2), 181-186. Retrieved November 23, 2015, from

Morrison, Linda J. (2005) Talking Back to Psychiatry: The Psychiatric Consumer/Survivor/Ex-Patient Movement. New York. Routledge.

Psychiatric Survivor Archives of Toronto. (2015). Mission statement. Retrieved from Psychiatric Survivor Archives of Toronto:

Reville, D. (Writer), & The G. Raymond Chang School of Education, R. U. (Director). (2009). Mad People’s History – presenting the consumer/survivor/ex-patient movement [Motion Picture].

Reville, D. (2015). C/S/X Movement: A Social Context for a Mad Movement. Mad People’s History, DST504 – Module 6 . Toronto, ON, Canada: G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education.

Schwartz, J. M., & Cook, T. (2002). Archives, records, and power: The making of modern memory. Archival Science, 2(1-2), 1–19.

Wakimoto, D. K., Bruce, C., & Partridge, H. (2013). Archivist as activist: lessons from three queer community archives in California. Archival Science, 13(4), 293–316.

Wright, D., & Saucier, R. (2012). Madness in the Archives: Anonymity, Ethics, and Mental Health History Research. Journal of the Canadian Historical Association. Retrieved November 11, 2015, from



One thought on “The community based archive as a tool for activism

  1. Pingback: Vol. 9, no. 17 |

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