Conceptualizing Archives as Grief Work and the Implications for Archival Interfaces

Jennifer Douglas


This research presentation will introduce the conceptual frameworks and research questions that guide and motivate my most recent research project. This project draws on my recent research on recordkeeping by bereaved parents and builds on an exploratory study of materials shared in online grief communities (Douglas, forthcoming; 2016; 2015; 2014; 2013). That research characterized online grief communities as aspirational archives (Appadurai, 2003); in these online spaces, parents not only remember their children in the past, but also create a kind of present and future for the deceased where they are made real to other parents and where new memories continue to form. This type of memory work suggests new ways of thinking about the role of archives, for example, as a means of continuing the “social existence” (Mitchell et al, 2012) of the deceased and as repositories of feeling (Cvetkovich, 2003) and affect (Cifor, 2016). My continuing research seeks to further investigate these claims and to consider their impact on archival theory, methodology and practice, particularly by considering how thinking about archiving as a type of ‘grief work’ (a term regularly employed by bereaved parents to describe the effort of living with and working through their grief) can inform how archivists represent archives and make them accessible archives.

The project combines (1) an autoethnographic study of my personal experiences and archiving practices as a bereaved parent; (2) a feminist cyber­ethnographic study of online grief communities and the types of grief- and memory-work performed therein; and (3) a case study of the archive of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and the archival work that creates and supports it, in order to consider how foregrounding ideas about the archive as a means of continuing social existence, as repository of feelings, and as a site for grief work might require archivists to rethink conventional ways of representing archives and providing access to them.


Appadurai, A. (2003). Archive and aspiration. In J. Brouwer & A. Mulder (Eds.), Information is alive: Art and theory on archiving and retrieving data (14-25). Rotterdam: NAI Publishers.

Cifor, M. (2016). Affecting relations: Introducing affect theory to archival discourse. Archival Science, 16(1), 7-31.
Cvetkovich, A. (2003). An archive of feelings: Trauma, sexuality, and lesbian public cultures. Durham, NC: Duke University Press
Douglas, J. (2014, June 26-28). ‘Aspiring and conspiring: Archiving the stillborn online.’ Paper presented at Association of Canadian Archivists Annual Conference, Victoria, British Columbia.
—. (2016). ‘Treat them with the reverence of archivists’: Recordkeeping and online grief communities. Paper presented at the iConference, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. DOI: 10.9776/16550.
—. (Forthcoming). Letting grief move me: Thinking through the affective dimensions of personal recordkeeping. In Morra, L. M. (Ed.) Moving archives. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
—. (2013, June 13-15). ‘They were still here: Archives and online grief communities.’ Paper presented at Association of Canadian Archivists Annual Conference, Winnipeg, Manitoba.
—. (2015, April 24026). ‘They were still here: Archives and online grief communities.’ Paper presented at Personal Digital Archiving, New York, New York.


Jennifer Douglas is an Assistant Professor at the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies (SLAIS) at the University of British Columbia. She earned her PhD at the University of Toronto and her dissertation, entitled “Archiving Authors: Rethinking the Analysis and Representation of Personal Archives,” won the 2013 iSchools Dissertation Award. In 2014, her article “What We Talk About When We Talk About Original Order in Writers’ Archives” won the 2014 W. Kaye Lamb prize from Archivaria, for the article that most advanced archival thinking in Canada. Her research focuses on how and why individuals and communities make and keep archives and how archivists represent those ways and reasons. She has published articles on the principles of provenance and respect for original order, on personal recordkeeping behaviours, and on writers’ archives. Her current research focuses on the role of personal recordkeeping in grieving; on online grief communities as aspirational archives; on the ethical issues associated with researching and archiving intimate and vulnerable online communities; and on how conceptualizing relationships between archives, recordkeeping and grieving might inform archival descriptive theory and practices. From 2016 to 2019, she is the General Editor of Archivaria.