Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup

Postcustodial and Decolonial Archiving

This essay focuses on postcustodial archiving and how it can be used to decolonize the archive.

Published onMar 14, 2022
Postcustodial and Decolonial Archiving

Postcustodial adj. (also post-custodial): relating to situations where records creators continue to maintain archival records with archivists providing management oversight even as they may also hold custody of other records. -Society of American Archivists, The Dictionary of Archives Terminology


Community archives and collections, such as those represented by the Rare Book School- Andrew W. Mellon Diversity, Inclusion, and Cultural Heritage fellows included in this project, contest the historical narrative by documenting underrepresented stories and putting into practice decolonial methodologies. This essay will focus on my work at the Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage Program (Recovery) and how we have used postcustodial archiving as a decolonial method, specifically providing the example of the use of Memos of Understanding (MOU). This case study is US-based and considers how the Recovery Program’s methods seek to preserve and center the historical legacies of Latinx communities.

Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage Program

The University of Houston’s Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage Program (Recovery) functions as a community archival program that engages such methodologies. Founded by Nicolás Kanellos in 1991, the program seeks to recover, preserve, and make available the written legacy of Latina/o/xs in the United States. Kanellos created this program to begin to fill the gap in the historical record–a record that portrayed a general image of Anglo American progress in the United States and erased the histories of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and their contributions to the nation-state.

Under the guidance of Recovery’s Brown Foundation Director of Research, Carolina Villarroel, the program has nurtured connections with the Latina/o/x community in Texas, as well as throughout the country. Decolonial postcustodial methods at Recovery involve community members well beyond the initial donation of collections. Donors maintain the hard copies of their collections (unless they choose otherwise) and also receive digital copies of their materials for preservation. They participate in the description of their materials by providing details, notes, and oral history interviews.

Decolonial and Postcustodial Archiving

Colonial structures of knowledge have long centered imperial narratives, usually written by Western European white men that uphold hierarchies of race, gender, sexuality, and class. The narratives continue to perpetuate white supremacy and continue to erase communities of color from the historical record. Archival practices that uphold these colonial structures are those that continue to center narratives written by Western European white men. This can and does occur through practices such as collecting practices and metadata (descriptions, Library of Congress subject headings).

Postcustodial archiving can be a way of decolonizing traditional archiving practices through decentering the traditional archival practice of ownership. F. Gerald Ham coined the term “postcustodial” (originally hyphenated) in response to the 1980s’ dawning of the computer networking and the impossible task of archiving and managing born-digital information. He presented a set of postcustodial practices during the 1980 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists to address such concerns (Ham, 1981). During this presentation, however, Ham did not argue for archives to completely renounce custody. On the contrary, he suggested that archivists needed to develop new strategies for record keeping that did not rely solely on custody of physical materials (Ham, 1981). While postcustodial methods can be used for decolonizing the archive, the term did not originate as an attempt to challenge structures of knowledge and power. Instead, it was merely a response to information management in the age of personal computing and required more–not less– involvement by archivists in the creation of records (Cunningham, 2010).

Thus, traditional archival practices implemented without decolonial praxis results in the reinforcing of colonial structures of knowledge. Consequently, institutions maintain control over the historical narrative and create what María E. Cotera (2015) describes as “an invisibilizing feedback loop.” Cotera writes:

Indeed, traditional archival methods often nourish an invisibilizing feedback loop in which one’s access to power determines one’s presence in the archive, and one’s presence in the archive shapes historical knowledge, which, in turn, informs the system of valuation that structures the priorities that govern collecting and preservation in institutions. Those father away from mechanisms of power–women, the working class, ethnic and sexual minorities–are rarely represented in institutional archives. Consequently, their lives and interventions are rarely the subject of historical meaning-making. (Cotera, 2015, p. 785)

Decolonial praxis requires methods that decenter institutions as the arbiters of knowledge and recognize the need to not only represent BIPOC communities’ histories, but also to involve them in the process of archiving. Speaking of transnational postcustodial collaborations, T-Kay Sangwand (2018) notes that “global south partners often have expertise informed by lived experience in addition to formal education and are most attuned to the social and political implications of their appraisal decisions in local communities” (n.p.). Similarly, Recovery’s work has demonstrated that community partners provide invaluable context to collections through descriptions, historical background, and feedback on how to share the information with others. Community-based archives with the goal of dismantling colonial hierarchies are not just attempting to “document a more representative view of history, nor just to recuperate a forgotten past as filtered through the identity categories of the present” but rather work “to mobilize traces of the past” in all its dimensions (from trauma to joy and celebration) in order “to build a more socially just future” (Caswell, 2014, p. 41). Decolonial archiving allows us to deconstruct the records of white supremacy by insisting on BIPOC presence in the past, present, and future.

Memos of Understanding

As part of Recovery’s decolonial approach to postcustodial archiving, the program implements detailed memos of understanding (MOUs) at the time of the donation, as well as continued conversations with the donors. These MOUs help to define the relationship between the donor and the archive/institution and to lay out the terms of donations by specifying, for example:

  • The relationship between the archive/institution and the donor(s)

  • The responsibilities of the archive/institution

  • The effective date

  • If the collection can be shared publicly

  • If any part of the collection should remain private (and any time constraints on the privacy)

  • If the donor will maintain the physical assets

  • The process for making amendments to the MOU

  • The process for terminating the agreement

MOUs can be customized to reflect the relationship and to take into account the donor’s concerns or specific requests. At the time of the donation of the Alonso S. Perales Collection, for example, the family requested that the papers be processed as quickly as possible, included in the University of Houston Libraries Special Collections, that a national conference be held to encourage scholars to conduct research using the newly-available documents, and that Arte Público Press publish scholarship from the conference in a book.

Decolonial methodologies also require archivists to rethink how to maintain and share collections. While traditional models center academics as the primary consumers of records, Recovery’s decolonial approach considers how to make these collections public-facing in accessible ways. Some examples include interactive exhibits, digital projects, public events, pop-up archives, K-12 workshops, Wikipedia edit-a-thons, and more.

Recovery’s approach to postcustodial and decolonial archive is an understanding of the archive as “an active space of exchange and ‘encuentro’ between the present and the past” with “the potential to enact new strategies of alliance and a new praxis” (Cotera). We believe that the archive “is a bidirectional action, a space to develop new ways to experience, and interact with scholars, practitioners, community members, and students of all ages, working with the materials and their owners, if still living” (Baeza Ventura, et. al., 2020). Advocating for applying decolonial methods to postcustodial practices, in conclusion, can move archiving toward the goal of reparative justice by including underrepresented communities in the production of knowledge. 


Baeza Ventura, G., L. García Merchant, L. Gauthereau, and C. Villarroel. (2020, Nov. 9-13) US Latino DH Recovering the Past, Creating the Future. [Paper presentation] Digital Library Federation Forum. Virtual. 

Caswell, M. L. (2021). Inventing New Archival Imaginaries: Theoretical Foundations for Identity-Based Community Archives. In In Identity Palimpsests: Ethnic Archiving in the U.S. and Canada. UCLA.

Cotera, M. E. (2015). "Invisibility Is an Unnatural Disaster”: Feminist Archival Praxis After the Digital Turn. South Atlantic Quarterly, 114(4), 781–801.

Cotera, M. (2018). Nuestra Autohistoria: Toward a Chicana Digital Praxis. American Quarterly, 70(3), 483–504.

Cunningham, A. (2010). The postcustodial archive. In J. Hill (Ed.), The Future of Archives and Recordkeeping: A Reader (pp. 177-194). Facet. doi:10.29085/9781856048675.010

Ham, F. G. “Archival Strategies for the Post-Custodial Era.” The American Archivist, 44(3), 207-216.

Sangwand, T.-K. (2018). Preservation is Political: Enacting Contributive Justice and Decolonizing Transnational Archival Collaborations. Knowledge Creation, Dissemination, and Preservation Studies, 2.

Further Reading

Becerra-Licha, S. (2017-Oct. 23). “Participatory and Post-Custodial Archives as Community Practice.” Educause Review.

Caswell, M. (2010), "Hannah Arendt's World: Bureaucracy, Documentation, and Banal Evil," Archivaria 70, 23-26.

Drake, J. M. (2016, April 6). RadTech Meets RadArch: Towards A New Principle for Archives and Archival Description. [Paper presentation] Radcliffe Workshop on Technology & Archival Processing, Cambridge, MA, United States. 

Eagle Yun, A., Zavala, J., Tribbett, K., & Vo Dang, T. (2020). Transforming Knowledge, Transforming Libraries - Researching the Intersections of Ethnic Studies and Community Archives: Final Report.

Gauthereau, L. (2018, Aug. 7). Post-Custodial Archives and Minority Collections. Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage Blog. 

Williams, S.M. (2017). “Power to the People: Documenting Police Violence in Cleveland.” Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies. 1(2).

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?