Originally a part of the hiring committee for the position of archivist at the Haitian Studies Institute (HSI), Obden Mondésir began getting an inkling that building this archive might be a task he was well-suited for. Considering his Haitian roots, experience working as an archivist of oral history at Weeksville Heritage Center, and insight into archives such as the Coalition of Women Prisoners Collection at Barnard College, it soon became clear to everyone that he was the ideal candidate. We asked Mondésir about what it means to be an archivist, what drew him to the vocation, and what excites him most about the HSI’s archival potential.

When people hear the word “archive” or “archivist,” they might not know exactly what it means, but even if they do, you’ve likely come across all kinds of misconceptions. What does being an archivist mean to you, and how is your approach to HSI’s archive different from other archives you’ve worked in?

A friend of mine once joked that “archivists serve the bourgeoisie, while librarians serve the proletariat.” There are kernels of truth to this joke. Archives can be seen as intimidating, exclusive spaces because of the fetishization of the unique material records that represent the past for particular hegemonies based on race, class, and gender. Unlike libraries, archives don’t usually allow researchers the opportunity to browse; many require you to explain why you’re visiting beforehand, often asking visitors to leave belongings in a locker and, on top of that, placing them under the surveillance of staff. These factors add to the misconception that archives aren’t for everyone.

One of my favorite quotes to think about history and archives is from the late Haitian anthropologist and Brooklyn College alumnus Michel Rolph Trouillot, who said, “History is the fruit of power, but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.” Being an archivist means living up to this ultimate challenge and giving people the tools and materials to make this exposition of power by organizing historical records in a way that is accessible to anyone who wants to conduct research, in the hopes that it entices individuals to visit, to use the archives as a space for convening and closely analyzing records of the past. I am looking to challenge the misconception that the past is only for the elite and that knowledge of the past can be used to upend unequal power dynamics. Haitian history is full of revolutionary figures who demonstrate this both from the island and within the diaspora.

The HSI is focused on furthering the academic field of Haitian studies while engaging and supporting that same community. These archives show everyday Haitian community members that the historical preservation of accounts of their lives is valued.

What drew you to the life of the archivist, and why do you think it is an important role?

After college, I really wanted to live in West Africa and volunteered in the Peace Corps. Then I was an ESL teacher for four years. As I turned my sights on graduate school, I became intrigued by teaching students how to properly conduct research. I initially considered becoming a school librarian. I already had a background in history from my bachelor’s studies, and while I was in the library science program I simply fell in love with archival work—especially with oral history, which allowed me to directly engage with and document living historical subjects.

Archives play an important role in building knowledge. They affect how we see the world. Our understanding of the past is always changing, and democratizing access to it, as well as various methods of analysis, shapes our ongoing understanding of history, which changes our future. Many things are intentionally obscured in the telling of history due to racial, class, and gender power dynamics. Understanding the past can help us challenge these dynamics and create change.

How does it feel to be the first archivist for the Haitian Studies Institute, and how do you understand this responsibility in the wider mission of the HSI?

It feels wild to get to work with my heritage like this and actively build a knowledge source for others, although it was the main appeal for me. It’s an honor. As the first archivist, I am responsible for setting the infrastructure for the archives, from our collection’s development policy to the creation of the physical archives space. These records and historical materials will be made accessible to researchers, teachers, and students to build knowledge and analysis of Haitian culture and history, especially related to folks who are a part of the diaspora and are in the New York City area.

As a member of that diaspora, it’s moving to be the first archivist. My family has gotten much closer to my work as a result. Because I’m a native New Yorker, I still don’t have my driver’s license, so my parents helped me pick up a collection from a donor and chatted in Kreyòl with her!

There are a lot of projects or holdings that you are particularly excited about working on and bringing to the public. Can you give us an example of one and what it says about the HSI or Haitian identity?

One of the first collections I look forward to making available to researchers and the public are the papers of Daniel Simidor (aka Andre Elize). Born in St. Louis du Nord, Haiti, in January 1955, he emigrated to the United States in the 1970s and became a prominent intellectual, activist, and archivist. He was a member of the radical community in Haiti that protested against the U.S.-organized coup against Aristide and helped organize the shutdown of Guantanamo in the early 1990s. According to writer and activist Mitchel Cohen, “he was the pre-eminent force in mobilizing support for the independent movements in Haiti.” As an archivist, he provided 26 years of service to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, processing collections related to Black American and Caribbean history, co-curating two major exhibitions: The French Revolution in the Americas and Dechoukaj! Contemporary Social and Political Developments in Haiti, 1986–1988.

The three pillars of the HSI are community, research, and policy, and Simidor is an exemplar of all three.

What is your dream for the future of the HSI archive?

My dream is for HSI to be a fully-fledged and accessible archive and library, like Centro, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College (which has been in existence for nearly 50 years), and the Dominican Studies Institute at City College (which was founded in 1992). I hope that we can become an institute that inspires Brooklyn College students, the surrounding Haitian community, and the worldwide community of researchers interested in Haitian studies to come and access our collections and to learn how to document their history, through community archiving digitization and oral history.