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. . . .







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