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.

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