Euphemism as a Form of Forgetting: Interrogating Archival Description in Collections on World War II Japanese American Internment

Jeannie Chen


The traditional notion of archives as ‘neutral’ repositories and finding aids as unbiased directories of information can no longer hold true in a world where archivists must be aware of the convergence of multiple narratives, intersecting dialogues, and conflicting world views. Numerous archival studies scholars have brought to light and criticized this so-called “neutrality” which, despite new developments in the academic field, continues to endure in practice—that is, how archival collections are appraised, arranged, described, and processed on a daily basis.1 How can archivists help users of archives to interrogate the concept of “neutrality” when looking at archival descriptions? I propose that re-examining the descriptive language within archival finding aids is one way to do so.

This study focuses on the UC Berkeley Bancroft Library.2 In particular, it takes a closer look at a digital archival collection entitled, “War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement, 1942-1945.”3 I call into question the use of banal words as “evacuation,” “resettlement,” “administered,” and “relocation” in the finding aid, which represents an erasure of the trauma inflicted upon the Japanese American internees.4 The federally sanctioned practice of using “neutral” terminology to describe this tragic historical event meant that the U.S. government was able to systematically legitimize the unconstitutional imprisonment of 120,000 people, most of whom were American citizens.

Drawing from the research of archival studies, critical theory, sociology, and ethnic studies scholars, I suggest ways in which the words, stories, and language of Japanese Americans internees can be more fully represented to potential users of the collection in question. Not only that, I encourage readers to consider measures which can serve to better incorporate the words and thoughts of the people who are documented—but not truly represented—into the finding aid of the “War Relocation Authority Photographs.” The goal is to interrogate the role archival finding aids have played in perpetuating an illogical tradition in the field—one which upholds a single, consistent, dominant narrative and discourages inclusion of multiple viewpoints/interpretations of historical events.

What happens when we see finding aids not as ‘neutral’ directories of unbiased information, but as “inherently political statements”(Yakel, 2003, p. 1)?

Elizabeth Yakel, “Archival Representation,” Archival Science 3 (2003): 1-25



Jeannie Chen is a Master’s candidate in the UCLA Masters of Library and Information Studies (MLIS) Program, with an emphasis in Archival Studies and Asian American Studies. Prior to entering the MLIS Program, she graduated Magna cum laude with her B.A. in English Honors at California State University, Northridge (CSUN). Throughout her undergraduate and graduate studies, she has become interested in utilizing interdisciplinary approaches towards her writing and research: through the lenses of Post-Colonial Studies, Asian American Studies and Literature, Critical Theory, and more. In April of 2016, she received a graduate student travel award from CSUN to attend the 2016 Association for Asian American Studies Annual Conference, where she presented a paper developed from her undergraduate honors thesis, entitled “A Transgressive Machinery: The Mimicry of Automotive Spaces in Fae Myenne Ng’s Bone.” In it, she draws from Homi K. Bhabha’s notion of colonial mimicry to examine the fictional representations of Chinese Americans, and how automobiles as symbols of the ‘American dream’ are uniquely connected to the way these ‘foreign’ Americans negotiate their multiple cultural identities.

Now, as she concludes her second quarter at UCLA, she continues to see the connections in both her academic and professional pursuits, and is grateful to her undergraduate English Honors program for laying an excellent foundation for graduate study and research. Inspired by the work of faculty and professionals in the UCLA MLIS Program, she took the initiative to develop several key projects to process, preserve, and provide access to several archival collections at the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California (CHSSC), which is a largely volunteer-run organization in Los Angeles that has worked hard to document the history of Chinese Americans dating back to the 19th century. It is a societal imperative to help preserve the records of communities who are systematically left out of the dominant historical narratives. Therefore, she hopes that attending AERI 2017 will allow for more opportunities to meet like- minded academics and professionals, with whom she can exchange ideas, expand and challenge her own world views, and explore the possibility of conducting further academic research and study (i.e., a doctoral degree program) within the archival and information studies field.