The Wildly Growing Literature on Archives and Record

It used to be the case that keeping current with the professional and scholarly literature on archives, records, and related issues meant keeping track of a few journals, the publishing programs of professional associations, and a modest array of professional and scholarly publishers. That is no longer the case, as can be seen by book advertisements in the recent issue (September/October/November 2016) of BookForum. Below is a brief assessment of some interesting publications featured in this issue, mindful of the fact that I have not actually read any of these books.

English publisher Prestel is releasing in October (in the United States, November) John Z. Komurki, ed., Stationery Fever: From Paperclips to Pencils and Everything in Between, another homage to our love with paper and our increasing interest in collecting the artifacts from earlier information ages. The publisher’s website states, “Stationery Fever showcases the plethora of retro and fine office goods being produced and sold around the world. Organized like your favorite stationery store—pencils, pens, notebooks, erasers, greeting cards, school supplies, etc.—it features exquisitely photographed objects that transcend the decades since laptops took over most of our office needs. Each chapter highlights distinct objects and features a store that specializes in that category. Along the way, readers will learn the history of the lined notebook, the proper way to sharpen a pencil, and the story of how postcards came to be.”

Book burning, the deliberate destruction of texts, has had a long and infamous history. The University of Chicago Press recently published Kenneth Baker’s On the Burning of Books: How Flames Fail to Destroy the Written Word. It is a testament to the resilience of texts, even in an age when we persistently predict the end of the print book. The publisher’s description provides a glimpse into the rich history of such activities: “In On the Burning of Books, Baker explores famous moments throughout history when books have been burnt for political, religious, or personal reasons. Included among his investigations are stories from ancient China to the Nazis, from George Orwell’s Animal Farm to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, from Chairman Mao to the Spanish destruction of the Aztec civilization. Baker describes Samuel Pepys burning an erotic novel, and the personal fires of Lord Byron’s memoirs, Dickens’s letters, Hardy’s poems, and Philip Larkin’s diaries. Alongside these many examples are chapters on accidental book burning—and even lucky escapes.”

MIT Press, long a publisher of important books on information science and technology, recently released a volume on the symbolism of libraries edited by Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin. According to the publisher, “Fantasies of the Library lets readers experience the library anew. The book imagines, and enacts, the library as both keeper of books and curator of ideas–as a platform of the future.” “The book includes an essay on the institutional ordering principles of book collections; a conversation with the proprietors of the Prelinger Library in San Francisco; reflections on the role of cultural memory and the archive; and a dialogue with a new media theorist about experiments at the intersection of curatorial practice and open source ebooks. The reader emerges from this book-as-exhibition with the growing conviction that the library is not only a curatorial space but a bibliological imaginary, ripe for the exploration of consequential paginated affairs.” This is a reminder that the library, along with the printed book, is not dead or useless even in the digital era.

The pervasiveness and significance of writing is the subject of a new book from the University of Toronto Press. Laurence de Looze, The Letter and the Cosmos: How the Alphabet Has Shaped the Western View of the World examines “how the alphabet has served as a lens through which we conceptualize the world and how the world, and sometimes the whole cosmos, has been perceived as a kind of alphabet itself. Beginning with the ancient Greeks, he traces the use of alphabetic letters and their significance from Plato to postmodernism, offering a fascinating tour through Western history.”

So, the historical perspective and the sense of the value of texts and documents remains vibrant, at least in terms of scholarship, even if in many iSchools and library and information science programs it seems otherwise.

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Transparency and the Archivist

Transparency and the Archivist

Most archivists support broad access to government and other records. It is a principle embedded in their ethical code. It is a principle closely associated with their commitment to preserving documentation as a means of understanding the past and servicing historical and other researchers. Of course, there is a considerable range of opinion as to whether this is a commitment to a radical transparency, one supporting whistleblowers and others like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, or a fuzzier notion of broad access to documents vetted through a deliberate, conservative review and declassification process.

Archivists will find another opportunity in a week when Oliver Stone’s Snowden hits movie theaters. Stone, the controversial filmmaker who has dealt with records in the past and who is drawn to events susceptible to conspiracy theorizing, considers himself a historian but he is, in fact, a good storyteller (if one doesn’t mind the twisting of facts). Indeed, Stone has raised the ire of historians before, as is ably depicted in Robert Brent Toplin, ed., Oliver Stone’s USA: Film, History, and Controversy (University Press of Kansas, 2000). Whatever the challenges are in watching Stone’s movies, they generate lots of conversation, the kind that archivists ought to participate in as well as follow. The debates surrounding his films often reveal how the public, media, and policymakers perceive records and archives issues.

Stone’s new film on Snowden surely won’t disappoint, at least in terms of elevating the conversation about government secrecy and access to its information. We get a glimpse into the forthcoming film in Irina Aleksander’s lengthy essay in last weekend’s New York Times Magazine, “The Snowden Plot,” September 4, 2016. Focusing on the efforts to create the film and interview Snowden, Aleksander’s report features a rich array of secret agents, politicians, and other intriguing characters – all of which deserve a documentary of their own. As she tells it, “The Snowden story had all the ingredients of an epic Stone picture: politics, government conspiracy and, at the center of it all, an American patriot who had lost faith” (p. 28). So, yes, I approach this movie with caution but curiosity as to how it can be used to draw attention to the significance of archival work in our society.

Yet, I know many archivists will shy away from the kinds of controversies such a film spawns. I remember all too well the very divided reaction to Tim Ericson’s presidential address to the Society of American Archivists in 2004 when he urged a stronger activist role in combating government secrecy. If nothing else, a passive silence to the likely debates about the film suggests a missed opportunity. And there should be little question that archives and archivists won’t emerge in some way. Julian Assange, in his introduction to The Wikileaks Files: The World According to US Empire (New York: Verso, 2015), states, “While national archives have produced impressive collections of internal state communications, their material is intentionally withheld or made difficult to access for decades, until it is stripped of potency” (p. 5). This is hardly, in my view, how we want archives and archivists to be seen.

Besides, given the work that archivists do and the materials they handle, sooner or later one of us may find ourselves contemplating the path blazed by Snowden. I know that stating this in this way will anger some within our ranks, but inherent in this quagmire of political beliefs, professional ethics, and personal convictions is what makes records and archival work so important.