More Information, Less Understanding, and Archives

Watching the election results was interesting, even illuminating. The reporters, commentators, and “surrogates” – all arguing with each other in often less than civil terms, certainly, from my perspective, dispelled any notion that living in the “information age” means that our citizenry is better informed. Indeed, there seems to be a stubbornness not to accept what one does not believe or want to believe no matter how much evidence contrary to such positions is presented, including even the candidates themselves. The idea of listening to or reading about various opinions and seeking common ground seems old-fashioned or, more problematic, impossible. Given the misreading and misinterpretation of polls and other data also ought to call into question the enthusiasm we have for Big Data and its uses. Many of us have discussed the nature of and use of data as transformative elements, often embracing them with a kind of religious fervor, but what we witnessed on November 8th should cause us to rethink such ideas. It may be just another example of the unintended consequences of technology commented on by many observers over the past few decades (and even longer ago).

There are, of course, other such consequences at play. As I have written about in my last couple of blog postings, archivists and others need to re-evaluate how they articulate their mission and the ways in which they advocate on its behalf. Speaking up on behalf of the importance of evidence and the need for records to be preserved so that we may understand the nature of the past seems like a much more difficult argument to make. Many of us wondered about how hard it must have been for the President to meet with the President-elect, given the vitriolic exchanges during the extended campaign. Imagine, however, the difficulties the Archivist of the United States or the Librarian of Congress might have if they met with the President-elect. Mr. Trump is not, by all accounts, a reader, so what would he and the Librarian of Congress discuss? And given the President-elect’s disdain for transparency, what would be the topic for a meeting with the Archivist? It is doubtful he has read, at least closely, the founding documents the National Archives houses and displays. Of course, it would not have been any easier if Clinton had won. Jeffrey Toobin in his statement, “Another Round,” in the November 14th “Talk of the Town” in the New Yorker gets to the heart of the challenge with both candidates: “Trump is a serial liar, a shady businessman, a bigot, and a sell-proclaimed abuser of women. Clinton has a sometimes unsteady relationship with the truth and a faulty devotion to information security” (p. 31). This is not a solid foundation to build information and records policy.

The information professions’ compulsion for all things Big Data must also be called into question. This recent election demonstrated how data can be misinterpreted and how it cannot be relied on above all other aspects of our digital age. On the other hand, as archivists, we must commit to preserving the data generated by the election as a means of understanding just what happened. Admittedly, one thing we learned is that all the evidence at hand, no matter what it indicates, will not persuade true believers to change their minds, including our incoming president who manages by his guts, shoots from the hip, and does not weigh facts. We must remember that the mission of the archivist is to select, preserve, and make accessible evidence for the long haul. Managing our documentary heritage for future historians and other researchers is very different than being blown about by the political pundits and other often biased observers and commentators, Our role is to document their activities so as to hold them accountable to future generations.

There are other things archivists might re-evaluate in the aftermath of this election. First, they should reaffirm to working with communities, indigenous groups, people of color and different sexual orientations, and other groups seemingly marginalized in this election. Our commitment is to all of society, not just elites and those in power, This past generation has seen archivists broaden their mission, and we need to reaffirm its importance. Archivists, at least many of them, have come to value accountability, evidence, memory, social justice, and the notion of a multi-verse – all elements they must hold onto and argue for in this new contentious era of nativism, racism, and injustice. While some archivists disdain any form of political agendas in their work, they must, nevertheless, acknowledge that they labor in a political world. Archivists have long understood that records and the archival repositories they reside in are shaped by power, and they must develop new ways of contending with this reality. Studying and understanding the nature of our documentary universe requires archivists to comprehend the political, social, and economic context leading to their creation and maintenance.

We can understand this better by recognizing the new role of social media and cyberattacks in our recent political campaigns. Just a few years ago, in the so-called Arab Spring, social media was heralded as the primary tool for a new democratic resurgence. Now we know that there were few lasting positive effects of its use, at least in terms of fostering democratic governance. Again, archivists need to focus on preserving, to the best of their abilities, the role of social media in political events and movements, but they also need to understand the limitations of the use of this media and what other traditional documentary forms can tell us about the recent political events. The archival community has always been a bit wobbly in how it sees itself working with new and emerging digital technologies. But this is only part of the challenge archivists face. They need to recommit to a stronger and clearer social mission, even if it is one that places them on a collision course with government leaders and others. Preserving the documentary materials is a task that is not about making us or anyone feel good. It is about holding each other accountable for their actions and empowering all portions of society, not just those in charge. This represents an intriguing challenge. I wonder if we are up to it.

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