The (Unexpected) Emotional Impact of Archiving

Written by Wanett Clyde

Sitting down to work my first day as an intern in the archive department at WITNESS was exciting. I hadn’t started a new position in over two years and I was pleased to be taking steps towards transitioning from library world to the realm of archives. Though I anticipated that the material I was assigned would be difficult to view, I was completely unprepared for the emotional impact that watching human rights footage would have on me. The first digital files I viewed contained images of passionate people against a vibrant but tense Brazilian backdrop, protesting against the World Cup and its forceful arrival throughout the country’s urban areas. The police presence was heavy, but sedate. When things began to take a turn towards more aggression, confrontation and strife, I had fair warning in the notes that accompanied the footage.

As the weeks went on, I watched hours and hours of similar footage from Brazil. Until a particular day, where, without warning, the police presence swelled in the frame. Policemen on horses. And motorcycles. Policemen in cars, on foot, standing in clumps, braced in a line, idly swinging clubs, brandishing tear gas canisters, shouting abuse and dressed in increasingly intimidating gear. This was a prelude to an increase in violence in the footage. For the first time, there was a bloodied face. People were shoved and grabbed harshly. Protesters were sprayed viciously with tear gas, disappearing in a cloud of mist and screams. In a later video a child was overcome by the fumes, his mother using water to quickly wash out his eyes as she ignored her own pain. Officers fired rounds into crowded streets. They threw a young woman to the ground without apparent reason. She was carried several blocks, to a police car, in a billy club-aided chokehold. Her tears and screams, and the pleading of fellow protesters went completely ignored by the officers. On this day, I had turned down the sound and removed my headphones, deciding to give only one of my senses, my vision, to this madness. It made it easier, but only minimally.


I thought I had been desensitized to videos of police violence but the concentrated intake of so much brutality hit me like a physical force. A powerful feeling of unease and sadness stayed with me. When I look at Sandra Bland, I see Brazil. When I see a police officer sitting on a young Black girl outside a community swimming pool in Texas, I see Brazil. Although, it has since dulled over time, the echo of the initial trauma still remains.

That unease I experienced was difficult to put into words. I feel similar although perhaps less intense, feelings when viewing tragic news footage, reading a particularly moving story or talking of traumatic memories with friends. But the flavor of these feelings was unique. During a conversation, where I tried desperately to describe my state of mind, I was asked if I knew the term “vicarious trauma.” Vicarious trauma “is a transformation in the self of a trauma worker or helper that results from empathic engagement with traumatized clients and their reports of traumatic experiences.” Simply put, it is a term that captures how working in proximity to trauma can also affect the worker.

I have learned that my own tendency to over-empathize is not necessarily a universal trait. I do wonder, however, if my potential experience of vicarious trauma is something more common amongst archivists, librarians, historians and others who have a love of words, and history and research.  Are there accounts showing that those working in those fields have felt additional ill effects?

Some would argue that emotions have no place in archival work. The primary goals of any archive are to provide description, preservation and access. But I wonder, can your emotions inhibit your ability to accurately describe an artifact or video footage? At minimum it affects your ability to remain unbiased. To me this presented a question, in the field of archiving should we potentially be doing more to document and analyze the effects of dealing with sensitive archival material, historical research and the aspects of librarianship that feel more like social work? Are we missing an opportunity to add substantially to archival scholarship by exploring these depths? Should more be done proactively to prepare archivists for the unexpected emotional impact of archiving?


In the past, vicarious trauma had been exclusively used in reference to people who work directly in situations of trauma  – police officers, fireman, paramedics, even nurses and social workers, but in recent years the scholarship has expanded to include a wider breadth of occupations. It’s easy to make the connection between the experiences of a trauma worker and, say, a teacher in a tough neighborhood. But when you’re working with materials or footage of people who you have never met, those who are wholly unconnected with you, does vicarious trauma apply? Vicarious trauma is often confused, or used interchangeably, with compassion fatigue, burnout and the very generic work related stress. For me, it was hard to know. I thought to myself “am I just burnt out? Overloaded with compassion? Am I applying my feelings to issues and events I am more closely connected to such as the killings of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin- to what I am viewing on the screen a continent away?

In my mind the question remains. Did I experience vicarious trauma? Do these circumstances, the archivist in Brooklyn viewing footage of events long past in Brazil, compare to what trauma workers experience? I was unquestionably affected. In my opinion, the strength or severity of the impact is inconsequential and establishing a procedure to manage the emotional impact of archiving is essential.

Wanett Clyde interned with the WITNESS Archives department in the Spring of 2015. She works as a public librarian in Brooklyn, NY.

Featured image via Dfactory on Flickr. Screenshots from eyewitness videos of an arrest and of tear gas being fired during protests in Brazil.

Discover more from WITNESS Archiving

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading

Help WITNESS create more human rights change

Join us by subscribing to our newsletter.