The Archival Perspective in the Fast Lane

Different professionals possess different ways of looking at the world and its problems and challenges. Examined closely, they often show differences and nuances, but looked at globally and we see the common features binding together members of a profession. Attendance at conferences and reading the professional literature often suggest more of the internal differences than the common assumptions, all part of the process of self-evaluation that goes on as necessary for disciplinary evolution and progress. If there was a common mission for the archival profession in the past, it certainly seems to have become more difficult to see. In the early 1970s, there did not seem to be so many questions and options as there are today. Nevertheless, I believe there are some essential elements that most archivists adhere to and that set them apart from other professionals, especially those in the information business. Risking confusion, it is useful to revisit these.

At first glance, most would likely argue that there are fewer aspects bringing archivists together than we seemed to have in the past. A half-century ago, most archivists assumed, quietly and without much discussion, that they worked to acquire, preserve, and make available records possessing historical value for researchers, generally historians, as they needed them. Now, however, there are many other competing missions, some competing with each other. Anne Gilliland, archival studies professor at UCLA, in a recent conference keynote states, that archivists must “be engaging with the compelling and very intractable issues of massive and growing forced displacement and transnational migration resulting from regional conflicts of unprecedented scale, ecological disruption and environmental disorder, and increasing global economic inequities. Such human crises can evoke emotions and provoke highly charged debates that can make some in our field, with its historically dispassionate and distanced approach based on reasoning about the need for professional neutrality uncomfortable when called upon to engage.” In other words, the world is more complex or, at least, we are more aware of its complexities. While Gilliland argues that there is stronger support for such an expanded mission or vision, I am not at all certain that most rank and file working archivists buy into this or, at least, think much about such issues. Personally, I think such ideas are extremely important but I am not convinced that they connect to what most archivists are concerned about on a daily basis. Some, myself included, work to change this, but it is always a slow and laborious, if not frustrating, process.

I do not think that we need to fuss about such matters, but that, instead, we can reaffirm our commitment to be the driving force in documenting our society and its institutions, grasping onto a wide array of reasons and values for why and how this is done. Social justice, accountability, community, and other such perspectives are part of the features that guide archivists in their work today. What is unique to our collective perspective is our focus on the long-term issues of documentation, seeking stability of the archival record in ways that we can clearly articulate. This is also what sets us apart from so many other disciplines, especially the constellation of information professions. Everything now seems to be based on speed, money, and change – with little concern for veracity (in this sense, the rise of journalistic fact-checking may not be an anomaly but a fundamental characteristic of our modern era). We are urged to buy the next computer with more power and greater dazzling features. What we have is never good enough, and the facts, however defined, never acceptable. Archivists look deep into the past and far into the future, as well as the present, the reason why Roman god Janus is a symbol of archives. We are searching for stability of the past, not that our understanding of it never changes, but that the raw materials allowing us to understand it can be maintained in a way that can read and interpreted when needed.

Arguing for this form of historical perspective may seem to be quite traditional, a throw back to an earlier time and different mindsets. This is not my intention. What I am suggesting us that in the midst of so many ideas, or what some have termed grand challenges, there is a common consensus floating about, one that we should be able to articulate clearly and forcibly. Whether we believe that our mission is supporting social justice or keeping public officials accountable, our main task is to identify and stabilize the core historical documentation. This does not mean we ignore the present. Indeed, crises and challenges that appear provide opportunities to discuss the archival mission. The flap about the Hillary Clinton emails and the leaking of classified government information is but one high profile example. Despite the manner in which the media tends to portray it, the classification of government records is not a science, but one that is marked by numerous variables, political issues, and other complex rationales. What is missing in all the discussion is a straightforward, rational explanation of how classification works (or doesn’t work). Archivists have the knowledge to do this, but they have been generally silent about the current political campaign issues. And we lose the opportunity to assert, in a practical way, the archival mission. How many opportunities will we get?


Archives in the Misinformation Age

Archivists have discussed for decades how society values or should value them, their mission, and the materials they manage and preserve. For a long time this conversation focused on how knowledge of the past was perceived and, more practically, how historians, usually meaning academics, used archival sources and understood the work of archivists. This remains part of the continuing dialogue about the role of archives in society, but we see signs that historians and other scholars are working to understand better the nature of the archival record, what it represents, and how it survives. Some of this conversation is part of the whiny insecurity that plagues lots of professions, but it is never something that should be ignored. Self-reflection of this sort assists us to challenge ourselves to be better, more articulate advocates for what we do and even what we believe.

Does this mean that the value of archives in our society is improving or making it easier to make the case on their behalf? Quite the contrary. It seems that the recent political campaigns, both national and local, have demonstrated that the present cultural context of archives makes it harder than ever to articulate a coherent, rational argument for supporting archivists and archives. Records, and the evidence and information they contain, seem to be something they want to ignore, if at all possible. It is hard to discover any interest by any party or candidate in the veracity of their statements. Moreover, it is rare to hear or read about what candidates actually support; instead, we hear or read about the supposed flaws of their opponents and even their spouses in ways that are often distorted. Most outrageously we hear candidates and their supporters deny their own comments, even when presented with irrefutable evidence of what they have said or done. There has always been some aspect of such fantasy in our society. The recent film about the Deborah Lipstadt Holocaust denier libel case, Denial, ought to remind us of this. In an interview the historian candidly states, “There are not two sides to every story. Certain things happened. It goes against deconstructionism taken to its ridiculous end. There are those people who will say everything is changeable, interpretable. There is something for interpretation of documents. But if you carry that to its illogical conclusion, and then you add an overlay of prejudice, you end up in the world of denial. You open the doors to 9/11 conspiracy theories, to vaccines cause autism, to the claim that Sandy Hook was made up by the anti-gun people to get more anti-gun legislation. Sometimes, if your mind is too open – someone said this – your brains fall out” (Marc Parry, “A Holocaust Historian’s Trial Hits the Big Screen,” The Chronicle Review, October 14, 2016, p. B10.

How can we promote the role of archives in what seems to be an age of misinformation (not the Information Age we often lay claim to), when our brains have fallen out? Archives are strongly connected to evidence and truth, even if the meanings of such terms have shifted in seismic ways, both within and outside the profession. For an extended period, most archival scholars and commentators wrote from a perspective heavily influenced by postmodernism, enriching our perception of the nature and purposes of records, but also eroding how we viewed the evidence they contained. It seems impossible to seek support for archives and archivists when we don’t seem to believe that truth or even the perception of truth are particularly relevant. While squabbles about access to tax returns, demands to see emails, and other such issues draw attention to records, does any of it really matter? Of course the problem goes much deeper than debates about esoteric philosophical or theoretical perspectives. Records and their managers have long been associated with red tape, bureaucratic inertia, and obstacles to efficiency and economy. It is hard to mount an effective argument about anything if our work and profession is seen as an obstacle. It is also difficult to try to be an informed citizen while listening to the media argue with the political pundits, with hardly anyone ever answering a question, confirming a fact, or listening to each other.

The current political climate brings more substantial challenges to the work of it turns out both presidential candidates are records (and ethically) challenged. Trump refuses to release his tax returns, long a custom for candidates for this office. He also will not allow access to outtakes and other materials from his reality television show “The Apprentice.” He blithely refutes every criticism, denying everything he has said or done even if presented proof about such matters. Should he win the election one wonders just what he would plan for his presidential library, already, in my opinion a troubled institution. Trump is the easy target given his thin-skinned personality that leads him to reverse regularly his comments or to characterize some as humor or locker room banter (which they are not). But we should not be any more assured with Hillary Clinton. Clinton, an experienced politician and statesperson, has long established the fact that she is no ally of archivists. Her well-publicized troubles with the State Department emails are not an aberration, nor the slippage of someone unfamiliar with the technology. In a 1992 New Yorker essay, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh quoted Clinton referring to the National Archives as a backwater, no consequence federal agency. Who needs to be concerned with it? Her continuing behavior suggests that she has not changed her mind about the value of records. Of course, she does not represent anything particularly new from the ranks of politicians. President Obama promised transparency in government, but his administration has been more secretive than most, including that of his Republican predecessor. None of this adheres to the kind of democracy envisioned by the Founders or captured in documents such as the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.

A natural response would be for archivists to throw up their hands in despair and except their lot in life, to be engaged in interesting but less than crucial work. I don’t think any of us want us to accept such a posture. We need to commit to a professional mission that challenges our society to recognize that government and other records are essential to holding individuals and institutions accountable to the citizens and that encompasses the capturing and preserving of every form of document, digital and analog, revealing miscreant politicians, business people, and others who we have entrusted ourselves. In the past couple of decades archivists have made great strides in expanding their mission – adding accountability, transparency, community, indigenous peoples’ concepts of evidence, memory, and ethics (and we can add many other concepts) to the mix of purposes. But we need to be more committed to this more complex mission and more vocal and articulate about it. As I begin to contemplate leaving my professional community of nearly forty-five years, I personally feel like it took me too long to arrive at this point of understanding my own vocation. But it is by no means too late for my students and many others to be better archival citizens. We just need to reject the soft, warm feel of being intimate with history through our records and embrace the more complicated role of documenting our present society, warts and all, risking ourselves and our programs to be more relevant.

More in the future on this topic. . . .






A Missing JFK Assassination Film

Everyone knows about the Zapruder film of President Kennedy’s assassination, and the controversy surrounding it and its ownership. Ine Gayle Nix Jackson, The Missing JFK Assassination Film: The Mystery Surrounding the Orville Nix Movie of November 22, 1963 (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2014) describes another, lesser-known film of the event. This chatty memoir, the author is Nix’s granddaughter, describes the nature of a film that has been missing for forty years (there are copies available) and raises questions about how federal agencies handled evidence about this murder. The book avoids wallowing in conspiracy theories, and it will be of interest to archivists and others interested in home movies and other film.