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?

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