A Matter of Life or Death: A Critical Examination of the Role of Records and Archives in Supporting the Agency of the Forcibly Displaced


  • Anne J. Gilliland University of California, Los Angeles




Archival Studies, Forcible Displacement, Migrants, Records, Recordkeeping, Refugees


Having the necessary documentation to cross borders, claim refugee status or benefits, settle elsewhere or return to sites of origin may literally be a life or death matter for people who have been forcibly displaced by persecution, war, or natural or economic disasters. This paper argues that government and other organizational archives that hold necessary records are not epistemologically or structurally oriented to address the immediate needs of the forcibly displaced and other "non-citizens" who reside in liminal spaces and temporary shelters or who move across multiple jurisdictions or nations and often resort to "irregular" forms and uses of records to survive. For the archival field to play a proactive role in supporting the survival, resettlement and recovery of the forcibly displaced, theoretical, organizational and practical reorientation is required. Such reorientation should be based in transnational and transinstitutional thinking and proactive humanitarianism that engages at the level of affected individuals and their everyday lives. It should also account for records generated or deployed in exigency or in other forms of radical agency.

Author Biography

Anne J. Gilliland, University of California, Los Angeles

Anne J. Gilliland is Professor and Director of the Archival Studies specialization in the Department of Information Studies, Director of the Center for Information as Evidence, Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, and a faculty affiliate of the Center for Digital Humanities at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). She is also an Honorary Research Associate at the Centre for Global Research, RMIT University in Melbourne and Director of the Archival Education and Research Initiative (AERI). Her interests relate broadly to the history, nature, human impact, and technologies associated with archives, recordkeeping and memory, particularly in translocal and international contexts. Her recent work has been addressing recordkeeping and archival systems and practices in support of human rights, recovery and daily life in post-conflict and diasporic settings; the role of community memory in promoting reconciliation in the wake of ethnic conflict; bureaucratic violence and the politics of metadata; digital recordkeeping and archival informatics; and research methods and design in archival studies.