As archivists surface and reckon with harmful theory and practice, how can we awaken to transcend past legacies? This article introduces and reflects on the concept of “archival debt,” defined as resources owed to address problematic legacy issues in an archival repository resulting from past practices, policies, and strategies that prioritized the protection and validation of institutions over democratic access and responsible stewardship. As a concept, archival debt amalgamates the myriad issues we now grapple with as a profession, including harmful or inadequate description, performative or competitive collecting, languishing backlogs, failure to recognize staff potential, shortsighted fund management, neglected constituencies, a lack of documentation, and poor project management. It is a debt we acquired by promoting or acquiescing to the hallmarks of patriarchal white supremacist culture, like power hoarding, objectivity, individualism, and defensiveness. Despite the great strides archivists have made towards correcting these harms, they continue to represent a weighty liability that we are struggling to repay and which hinder our ability to evolve as a profession.

Through this discussion, the authors seek to examine the implications of archival debt on the profession and to consider ways that we may relieve ourselves from this debt, in order to instill intentionality into archival practice, awaken community-centered care, and generate new visions for archives.