Good Citizens Need Archives (And Archives Need Good Citizens)

Frederick M. Lawrence, Secretary of Phi Beta Kappa, had an interesting essay in the Winter 2016-17 issue of The Key Reporter (I read my wife’s copy – she is the smart one and the member). The brief essay was about the value of a liberal arts and sciences education, arguing that this can “prepare us for a meaningful life, a prosperous life, ad a productive life.” Good objectives. Another entry in the long line of essays and books about the value of such an education, Lawrence’s essay made me think another way about the importance of what archivists do (or aspire to do).

Lawrence states that there are “three sets of skills” equipping people to be effective citizens. “First, a private citizen must be able to turn raw information into knowledge.” This is something I have thought a lot about because I have been in a school of information sciences for a long time, a place where it is likely you will hear tributes about the importance of information, with claims that are often exaggerated. We recently changed our name to the School of Computing and Information, a name that has practical merit. But wouldn’t it be interesting if the name was School of Computing, Information, and Knowledge? Archives fit right into this, providing the raw materials of historical insight, waiting for researchers to mine their assets. It is hard, at the moment, to discern any sense of value for knowledge of the past in our society, but common sense ought to dictate that we need to have a long view of our present moment. We need to know where we came from, the factors that shaped the present. Reacting immediately to events with knee-jerk responses with no sense of the bigger picture or potential consequences is not a particularly smart way to live and work. Archives are the natural resources for having a broader, more nuanced view of our society and ourselves.

Lawrence then adds, “Second, a private citizen must be able to evaluate arguments.” There is a strong literature about how archival materials can be used in the classroom to aid in the development of critical thinking skills. Since these raw materials of history are often both complex and seemingly contradictory (often providing different versions of the same event), it is up to researchers to evaluate the merits of their veracity. This may prove to be more difficult as we progress into the new year. We live in a time when politicians, some claiming to be journalists, and others fabricate or exaggerate news reports or just basic facts, so the ability to discern real from fake evidence is more important than ever. Archivists ought to be in an ideal position to provide good advice about such evaluation, given their experience in appraisal, selection for preservation, and other similar functions. Yet, this will require our field to be more open and outspoken than ever before, and doing this will undoubtedly expose us to criticism. The days of just focusing on the memory and other merits of establishing and sustaining archives may be over. And this will be hard for many in the field.

Third, Lawrence states, “a private citizen must be able to engage in reasoned debate with others.” I don’t know about you but I haven’t witnessed much in the way of reasoned debate in our country in the past year or two. People yell at each and talk over each other, mostly demonstrating the inability to listen to each other. We can practice being more civil to each other at our own conferences, but this is by no means enough. For those among working in larger repositories with greater resources, perhaps we can sponsor real debates and other events about controversial historical and other issues. Some presidential libraries have done this, but I am not sanguine about this in the new political climate. University archives could sponsor lectures and conferences about the value of public and other forms of education. Museum archives could focus on the importance of the arts in our society. Military archives or archives with large war-related holdings could sponsor discussions about the follies of war and the importance of diplomatic solutions. Archives with a mission to document science and scientific knowledge could hold meetings about climate change and the importance of preserving the documentation related to this important matter (already there are efforts underway to do this). Just as many political cartoonists may be happy about the topics being handed to them by the incoming administration, so archivists might also be able to see an agenda being readily handed to them. Rebecca Solnit, a favorite author, in her recent essay in Harper’s, states, “In periods when progressives don’t hold federal power, the work of rights and racial justice is largely relegated to the state and local levels. In the Trump era, this change of focus becomes imperative – if we advance at all, it will be through actions taken in our own communities, on city councils and in neighborhood assemblies and on the streets” (“The Monument Wars,” Harper’s, 334 [January 2017], 13). Given the intricate interweaving of archival repositories and archivists into local communities, exemplified by the recent focus of many on community archives, it seems logical that we would be part of this.

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