Archives and Change

What follows is a draft of a text I prepared for a conference, not given because of continuing concern by the sponsors that my remarks are too political. The theme of this conference was change, and each presentation was to be limited to five or six minutes. My problem is the fact that archives and records are political by nature. For what it is worth, I am posting the text here.

I am an archivist. Many, if not most of you, have no idea what an archivist does. Tracing their roots back to the ancient world and having been established as a modern profession a century ago, archivists support the basic human impulse to remember. Archivists work to preserve records and the evidence in them and to document the past.

This seems pretty straightforward, but this is a profession undergoing great change and facing immense challenges in ways not imagined before. I want to discuss the changes I have seen in my career, covering 45 years, over much of the period we consider as the Information Age.

I entered the archives profession because of my interest in history, something I had acquired from visits with my father to battlefields, museums, historic houses, and historic sites and the gifts of many books starting in the late 1950s. As I got older, archival work, once I discovered it, seemed like the logical way for me to follow my interests.

In my career, I have had the opportunity to work with many fascinating documents, some quite famous – the 1649 Maryland Act of Religious Toleration, the original draft of Key’s poem “Star Spangled Banner” – and others less famous but just as compelling – an 1848 affidavit of someone claiming to be the last survivor of the Revolutionary War regiment the Maryland Line, an early nineteenth century letter describing a grisly grain mill accident and the community reaction to it, a first hand account of the famous eighteenth century evangelist George Whitefield preaching, and an 1863 diary of a militiaman during the battle of Gettysburg.

As I travelled around the world, I also got to see, and in some cases, touch, documents dating back more than several thousand years. Being an archivist gave me a ringside seat in experiencing the past.

I enjoyed making some minor discoveries, such as finding one of the earliest visual representations of Fort Wayne, Indiana in a civil engineer’s diary from the early nineteenth century. But more than making discoveries, I enjoyed connecting with the past. I have read letters, diaries, and receipts of many famous people, from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln and Richard Nixon, and very ordinary folks, women running households and men growing food, seeking to understand how the documents were created and why they should be kept.

It has been a satisfying and interesting career. And I have had considerable fun, meeting interesting people, dead and alive. But a lot has changed sine I entered the profession. Now archivists are concerned with new kinds of digital records, non-Western notions of evidence challenging how we define a document, and complex laws and policies affecting access to records. These also represent interesting work, some of it just as fascinating as my earlier work with old manuscripts. But some of it has been disturbing, since the new digital technologies are more fragile and the laws and policies seem more repressive; our memory of the past seems more endangered than ever before.

Now we are in a society absorbed by debates about post-truth, alternative facts, and fake news – threatening to make the mission of archivists irrelevant. Time magazine’s April 3rd cover asked, “Is Truth Dead?” Truth, at least as an objective, is the keystone of the archival mission. If truth is no longer relevant, why strive to save the evidence of the past?

This is especially crucial since we are witnessing efforts to destroy evidence and information. The most dramatic, recent example of this is to destroy or close scientific and other data related to climate change available on government websites, such as that of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Some archivists are now working to capture and preserve data and evidence that is threatened concerning global warming, the validity of vaccines as medical treatment, health care options, portals to government information ensuring transparency and accountability, and the cultural heritage of past civilizations.

Working behind the scenes, these people have been called guerilla archivists or the less exciting data rescuers, including both professionals and citizen allies (programmers, hackers, librarians, and others). The notion of the guerilla archivist is a new term, drawing from the Spanish word for war, emphasizing a social activism dedicated to saving documents and other evidence threatened by war, genocide, political oppression, and other threats.

Whatever the reasons for such efforts to scrub away such evidence, the point is what would our society be like without the means to having knowledge of the past? Whereas once archivists mostly feared the implications of technology, the world has been transforming itself in many other ways. Leaks of information from classified government records have made the work of archivists and other records professionals more daunting. Growing unethical activities by political, corporate, and other leaders have brought new notions into the archival mission, such as social justice. Across the world truth commissions have been established, working to gather evidence about genocide and other crimes that otherwise would have been lost.

The question archivists must now answer is not whether they transform their mission, but how they do so to deal with these growing challenges, becoming guerrilla archivists, and, as the medieval monks did a millennium before, capturing and storing the records that so many wish to destroy.

If someone asks you to join into a guerilla archives movement, even if it seems counter to all your presuppositions of what an archivist is or does, join in. The future of the past needs you. And understanding your world requires your help – no matter what your nationality, ethnicity, race, gender, or culture – since without the evidence of the past we cannot hope to achieve such understanding.

For now, my battlefield is in the classroom, where I strive to equip a new generation of archivists with the knowledge they need to cope in this new world. But we need more than the handful of professional archivists now working. Come join us.



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