Imagining the Spaces of Community Archives

Michelle Caswell, Joyce Gabiola, and Jimmy Zavala


Although much has been written on formal archival spaces as prisons and temples, little scholarship has addressed the settings of community archives. This paper asks: How do community members imagine the spaces that steward identity-based community archives? Based on focus groups with more than 70 community archives users at five different community archives sites across Southern California, this paper examines how members of marginalized communities conceive of the physical space inhabited by community archives representing their communities. The sites explored range from a prominent location on a university campus, to storefronts, strip malls, small cinderblock buildings, and digital spaces. Yet across sites, users spoke about community archives spaces as symbolic and affective locations. Many users described their community archives site as a “home away from home,” marked by intergenerational dialogue and a profound sense of belonging. The metaphor of archives as home particularly resonated with users who quite literally see their families reflected in the archives. For other users, community archives sites were described as “politically generative spaces” which foster dialogue and debate about identity, representation, and activism and enable the community to envision its futures. Still for others, community archives spaces serve as geographic landmarks and bulwarks against gentrification, asserting that communities “are still here” despite rapidly changing demographics and transformations to the built environment. Throughout, community members voiced anxiety about the sustainability of the physical space where the archive is located and imagined different futures with and without the community archives space. In listening to the voices of the community members they serve, our research indicates community archives warrant a shift in how we examine metaphors of space and time in relation to archives.


Michelle Caswell, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Archival Studies in the department of information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of Archiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory and the Photographic Record in Cambodia (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), winner of the 2015 Waldo Gifford Leland Award for Best Publication from the Society of American Archivists. She is also the author of more than twenty-five research articles published in journals such as Archival Science, American Archivist, Archivaria, Library Quarterly and The Public Historian. She has guest edited a special issue of Archival Science on Archives and Human Rights (2014) and has co-guest edited a special issue of the Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies on Critical Archival Studies (2017). In 2016, she was awarded an IMLS early career grant for her work on the affective impact of community archives. She is also the co-founder of the South Asian American Digital Archive (, an online repository that documents and provides access to the diverse stories of South Asian Americans.

Joyce Gabiola is a first-year doctoral student in Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles and an assistant researcher on the IMLS-funded project, Assessing the Use of Community Archives (PI: Michelle Caswell). Joyce received their MSLIS in archives management from Simmons College and has worked at MIT and Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center. Prior to diving into the archival sphere, Joyce worked in corporate immigration.

Jimmy Zavala is a current graduate student at UCLA pursuing a master’s in Library and Information Science. He holds a BA in Latin American Studies and an MA in History from California State University, Los Angeles. Jimmy’s research interests include analyzing the role of community archives in shaping community memory and providing marginalized communities with representation, empowerment, and access to archives. Jimmy’s research interests also pertain to examining the use of archives for social justice purposes.