The PKI archives and the need for more inclusive descriptions by Rika Theo

31 August 2020 - 10:17

But it seems you do not realize, Meneer Pangemanann, that your report is not for the general public. Only a very few people in the Indies and in the world have read and studied it … You will never know, and indeed do not need to know, who else has read it.
Pramoedya Ananta Toer, House of Glass (New York, 1992), p. 24.

These lines were written in the novel House of Glass by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, an Indonesian author who spent many years in prison, first incarcerated by the Dutch colonial government and then by the Indonesian government. They can be read as an incentive for archival institutions and archivists to reflect on what they have done to make their various collections, coming from all over the world, accessible.

Many archival institutions in the Global North store a wealth of material that has been displaced from its original context. In much the same way as people, these archives have become dispersed for various reasons, from war and colonialism to seeking refuge in a safer place. Unfortunately, not all of these displaced archives are accessible in the countries they originated from. This implies that the archival institutions that store them can be complicit in recycling existing hegemonies in the societies these archives reflect.

Archival descriptions are key in this matter. The description of archival materials is important for their accessibility through a catalogue or finding aid: the way in which they can be discovered, understood, and used. Not only researchers with physical access to the archive depository should be able to find them. Archival institutions should also make an effort to reach those users to whom the records matter most, namely those who identify with and relate to them.

That description can help to improve inclusivity is a fact often overlooked. It is possible to create archival descriptions that pay more attention to multiple voices in the archives. In many archival descriptions, however, the subject of records, or the persons documented or represented in them, remain invisible. Descriptions tell what the records are about, yet often they reflect the record creators’ voices, while the voices of the people involved remain silent.

Inclusive access requires inclusive description. But first archivists need to realize that in the laborious routines of the description process, in their decisions on how to explain, what to name, and which words to choose, they wield power and control. Their decisions determine how records are represented, which affects the way in which they may be accessed and by whom.

Archivists are not neutral. They live within their society and culture, and their background affects their decisions and the language they use. Archival institutions and the power structures within them are another contributing factor to biases. These biases should be recognized and archival institutions need to be transparent about them.

I will illustrate how biases can work using an example: the archives held at the IISH about the PKI (Communist Party of Indonesia). IISH stores a wide – but fragmented – array of archival material related to PKI, possibly the most complete collection in Europe, ranging from PKI organizational documents to various PKI periodicals, Indonesian books on communism, speech texts, records from PKI's labor and women’s organizations, personal documents of PKI-related figures, and the oral memories of the victims of Indonesia's 1965 massacre of (alleged) communists. These archives have survived the burning and seizing of PKI-related materials by the Indonesian state. Indonesia still retains the MPR Decree No. 25/1966: a government provisional decree that banned communism (Marxism Leninism) in the country, making access to this sort of archives difficult if not impossible. Until 2014, consulting the KOTI (Supreme Operation Command) archives – containing the seized records of PKI's related organizations – at the ANRI, the national archives of Indonesia, was prohibited. As a consequence, researchers conducting archival research about the PKI and 1965 usually rely on the archives that are kept abroad, including those at IISH. Although this makes IISH's PKI archives a goldmine for research on these issues, Indonesian researchers must overcome geographic and language barriers before they can consult this material. Then, their next problem is how the archives are described at the IISH.

When I was assigned the task of compiling an overview of the PKI archives at the IISH, I discovered that they are scattered over various archival forms and described in English and Dutch only. Some have limited description in the finding aid, such as a lack of information about the creation of the archives, inventory lists, record subjects, or information about how the materials ended up at IISH. In absence of such information, it is difficult to determine the relationships between archival documents in the collection and the context in which they are brought together. These archival description problems also make this collection accessible only to researchers who are privileged enough to visit the institute.

Another example is the Tapols (political prisoner) Oral History Project Collection initiated by the IISH. Although archiving the oral history of a marginalized group is in itself an inclusive practice, the manner of archival description is pivotal in such a project, and in that respect, there is room for improvement. IISH's current description of this collection lists only the transcriptions based on the numbers of the tape. The names of persons interviewed are not listed, and no content summaries are given. While some interviewees are mentioned in the description at the collection level, others are not. This absence of information may be related to privacy issues concerning vulnerable people, which should indeed be considered. Nevertheless, a statement about the reasons for not mentioning the names is necessary as well as a content summary of each interview.

These often overlooked problems should be recognized and fixed in the pursuit of inclusivity. As I said, inclusive access calls for inclusive description. To achieve this, archival institutions need to recognize their underlying power structures that can – often inadvertently – silence certain voices, and to acknowledge various interventions to the archives and be honest about it. In this way, they will not only offer these endangered archives a place of refuge, but also make them accessible to more people, especially those closest connected with their content.

About the author:
Originally trained as a journalist, Rika Theo has written on a wide range of topics surrounding economy, politics and social issues in Indonesia. In the middle of her journalistic career, she was awarded a scholarship to study in the Netherlands. She completed her Master’s degree in development studies in 2010 and went back to Indonesia, continuing her work as a journalist. In 2014, she started her PhD in Utrecht University researching Indonesia-China student mobility corridor. After finishing her PhD and a short period work as a researcher in the Netherlands, she pursued her interest in archival study in the University of Amsterdam. As part of the master program, she started a research internship at the IISH’s Collection Department last February, which coincidentally lasted along with the Corona outbreak. The internship about the inclusivity of the archives came fruitful after all, resulting in several recommendations to improve IISH's archival description. This blog article is also derived from her research report. 

This photo of PKI in Padangpandjang, 1923, shows many people with numbers, but the description tells only two names, Zaïnoedin in number 1 and Hadji Datoek Batoeah in number 2. Photo from: Blumberger, Communisme aux Indes Néerlandaises, 1929. Collection IISH

PKI in Padangpandjang
Blumberger, Communisme aux Indes Néerlandaises, 1929. Collection IISH