Farewell to AERI, or Last Words on the Archival Mission

Prelude

            During the week of July 9th, I attended my last professional conference, the Archival Education Research Institute, in Toronto, Canada. This was my ninth AERI conference, that is, I have attended all of them. It seemed fitting, therefore, to offer some final comments on the state of the archival profession and the challenges it faces. My paper, “The Archival Mission in the Post-Truth Era,” was one of a number at the conference considering this topic. What is here is a variation of my more formal notes that I drew on for a rather informal commentary.

Introduction

The archival mission – to preserve crucial historical evidence for purposes of memory, accountability, and justice – has faced many challenges, from a lack of resources to inaccurate image to plain neglect, but perhaps not one as drastic as our present one. Whereas the other challenges have been difficult to cope with, hindering our ability to support our mission, what we are now facing is one that stabs at the very heart of what archivists do. Emerging from the bitter, divisive political campaign of 2016 has come a focus on, rather a belief in, “alternative facts” (what some bluntly call lies), ushering in a new era of “post-truth” (a far cry from what we glibly called the Information or Digital Age). While we have had some scholarship addressing this and some activist movements to save data and evidence threatened with destruction, archivists and other records professionals have, for the most part, been quiet. We cannot afford to be silent.

It is not difficult to muster the evidence for this new challenge; indeed, the problem is that every day brings with it new lies, exaggerations, and unsubstantiated claims, making it difficult even to summarize what is going on. However, we can just glimpse back a few months ago to understand what is happening. The April 3, 2017 issue of Time magazine featured a dramatic cover, asking “Is Truth Dead?”  Inside there was a lengthy essay by Michael Scherer about Trump and the President’s problems with truth. In this same week, the Los Angeles Times began running a series of editorials on Trump and his problems with truth.

This wrestling with the notion of truth is a far cry from the influence of post-modernism on archival theory and practice, where we learned that records could be deceitful, dishonestly controlled and manipulated by their creators, and difficult to give up their evidence. In considering post-modernism, archivists learned how their efforts shaped the documentary heritage in ways that challenged traditional archival principles. The end result of such musings was a new vision of activist archivists, leading to new approaches and partnerships such as community archives movements, guerrilla archives projects to save records threatened by political agendas, and new, expanded ideas of the document and how to deal with it. Yet, we know that at the core of postmodernist thought has been a rejection or suspicion of truth, something that certainly can undermine what archivists do, if we are not careful.

One historian, Daniel T. Rodgers, thinks we now have “an open marketplaces of truths, and it is not a happy state.” It seems to me that archivists, with their long training and experience in records and their nature, are in a good position to challenge and resist the emerging culture of lies and half-truths. I believe we are in a new crisis requiring archivists to re-embrace the idea of truth as a crucial part of their professional mission.

The Changing Archival Mission

Sometimes when archivists get engaged in debates about their mission, political and cultural challenges to it, and new philosophies and theories, they act as if the mission was handed to them in perfect form on stone tablets from on high. It is not as if the archival mission hasn’t changed over time. The origins of the field in the United States stems from the public archives and historical manuscripts traditions, both of which focused on collecting historical documents with an eye on preserving our history and supporting historical researchers and others (such as genealogists) requiring access to such records.

Ultimately, based on a couple of decades of experimentation at the National Archives, T. R. Schellenberg laid out a foundation for appraisal of primary and secondary values, evidential and informational values, that became the linchpin of archival appraisal and more broadly the archival mission (some would argue that this still is the foundation of the mission, and it is certainly for the appraisal function). Starting in the 1980s there arose concern about how well archivists were doing with their mission and the appraisal function. A strong effort appeared for profession-wide planning and new ideas about appraisal, such as documentation strategies and macro-appraisal, emerged. The profession was trying to be more inclusive, culturally sensitive, and cognizant of postmodern ideas about the nature of truth and evidence. More recently, there has been a growth in archival theory as well as in notions expanding the basic mission, such as social justice and community and indigenous archives, all of which have suggested a greater relevance to society and its complexities. As it turns out, archives, or if you prefer – the archive, means many things to different people, disciplines, and cultures.

It might be easy to attribute some of the current challenges posed by notions such as post-truth as the natural outcome of a fascination with philosophical and methodical ideas hatched from post-modernism. Post-modernism, complex and bewildering (made more difficult by often arcane academic writing), challenged most ideas related to truth, often rejecting it as old-fashioned and too limiting. Pauline Marie Rosenau describes it this way: “Almost all post-modernists reject truth as a goal or ideal because it is the very epitome of modernity.”

From my vantage within the archives community, I do not see any substantial cause and effect relationship (although I am always amazed to hear archivists state that they do not believe in any form of truth – if that is the case, why do they work to acquire and preserve records with evidence about the past?). I adhere to a very simple program – records contain evidence of the past and we need to do our best to preserve them in usable and accessible forms. We are in a crisis about truth, and this is an important time for archivists and their allies to step up their game.

Such concerns may be insignificant when compared to the particulars of the challenges we see in the United States. What will archivists do to intercede in the preservation of news sources and other sources complementing the media? Will archivists agree to accept, preserve, and make accessible leaked information even if it is deemed an unlawful act? Will the archival profession work with guerilla archivists, giving them space and an outlet in their publications and conferences? Will archivists, and their allies, join together to resist such efforts, even if makes them susceptible to being added to the hit-list?

What Do Archivists Need to Do?

I believe there are some fundamental things archivists can do to succeed in this new culture, if there is a collective will and sufficient courage to do so. And it can start right here in AERI. It should start here, led by the teachers and researchers building the professional knowledge and teaching the next generation of archivists. We need to be always mindful of this responsibility.

So, what is it that the archival community needs to do? We need to develop more effective descriptions of our mission (and that mission needs to encompass truth as part of it), to become stronger and more energetic advocates for our mission, to strengthen graduate archival education and continuing education programs to equip students for the real world they will operate in, to engage in public scholarship that deals with these challenges, to build stronger collaborative efforts with other professional, scholarly, and citizen groups resisting a culture centered on post-truth, and to not be fearful of politicizing the archival mission and practice, recognizing that archives are political by their very nature. Let me discuss each of these in a bit more detail.

Transform Advocacy to Deal with Political Issues. Through most of my career, advocacy has been a topic in professional discourse. It started off in a very benign fashion, stressing public programs, exhibitions, and other quiet, unassuming tactics to draw more public attention to the field and its repositories. But this was back in the day when we worried about matters like public understanding and the numbers of researchers coming to visit and use our resources. Such concerns now seem quite quaint, as new political and societal challenges have emerged. It is also essential to have access to government and corporate information in order to have transparency; read the Declaration of Independence and the original list of complaints against the King. There are specific matters archivists can address. We need to be more vocal about ending the Presidential Library system, a system that is highly flawed, more monumental than an effort to ensure the maintenance of records. We also need to be more vocal about having a National Archives that does not shy away from contemporary political issues threatening the creation, maintenance, and access to government records and their evidence. The scrubbing of government websites and daily refusals to provide documents are activities antithetical to the notion of an open, democratic society. We need an Archivist who publicly and clearly states why record are important and acts to affirm this importance at every possible opportunity, even at the risk of being replaced (something that most likely would happen with the current President).

Emphasize the Role of Archives in Democratic Regimes. Archives are located in every kind of government and culture, but they are most relevant in democracies, where the value of records as evidence and for accountability is at its highest, even if this poses many questions and other issues concerning the role of archives. The role of records professionals is even more important in the midst of the crisis now facing democracies, especially in the United States. Historian Timothy Snyder, in his provocative book On Tyranny, describes the current crisis we face in our nation, with a number of telling comments, such as “Authoritarians need obedient civil servants, and concentration camp directors seek businessmen interested in cheap labor.” Snyder urges us to “stand out,” not just to follow along in the pack. This has proved to be difficult for many archivists and their allies. Some say we must be quiet and objective, so that we do not draw attention to ourselves instead of our records. However, this presents the very real risk of undermining our mission to preserve the documentary materials that allow us to understand the past and, hence, the present. We need to understand that our mission is to preserve documents for this purpose not to preserve our profession or jobs.

Throughout his brief tome, Snyder discusses the importance of knowing the past, arguing that a decreasing knowledge of history is a major factor in why so-called populist movements have taken hold and why politicians and pundits present lies as truth without hesitation or shame. Acknowledging the importance of the past and truth ought to make archivists happy. Indeed, a new element of the archival mission ought to be the role of societal fact-checkers. We present the documentary record in order to provide the materials for legitimate understanding of our history. At the very beginning of this book, Snyder states, “History does not repeat, but it does instruct.” That instruction is not possible without archivists working to preserve the records. And, in order to do this, archivists will need to work in more courageous and sometimes controversial ways. That message is about the best I can pass on to the next generation of archivists.

Embrace the Notion of Evidence and Truth. We can acknowledge the challenges truth presents as reflected in records but we run the risk of undermining our own mission if we toss it away. Archivists need to be aware that by embracing the goal for historical truth does not mean believing that they, and those who study the past, can achieve some kind of perfect objectivity or veracity; the work with historical evidence is messy and complex, subject to different and difficult interpretations. Archivists need to revisit their own intellectual standards and moral convictions in order to have a viable role in our society. Historian Snyder also urges us to “believe in truth,” something that is not particularly popular these days, even among some archivists. He writes, “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is not basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.” Snyder makes an argument that “post-truth is pre-fascism,” and his book is an exploration of why fascism can happen here. We know that there were archivists in fascist societies, happily plying their trade and serving the state.

Revisit Archival Ethics. I believe that the archival mission is about serving a greater public good, but this takes conviction and courage. It means that a code of ethics is not about archivists being law abiding but about knowing when the high road is breaking the law in order to preserve important documentation, such as what we have seen some doing with evidence about global warming. The recent resignation of one of the ethics watchdogs in the Trump administration, Walter Schaub, the Head of Office Government Ethics, emphasizes the dire need for a recommitment to ethical principles. A true ethics code must now incorporate into it a statement about resistance. If we think we should not be involved politically, recognizing that in our case records are political creations and exists within a political context, then we risk the possibilities of becoming irrelevant or, worse yet, pawns in the process of undermining democratic governance. Since we are the people responsible for preparing the next generation of archivists, we need to be more focused on this area and make it more of a priority than we have in the past. We need something better than a static, aspirational code of ethics. At the least, we can engage our students in wrestling with the ethical dilemmas and challenges we know they will face. They may not like this, indeed, they do not like it, but they need to hear about the real world they will be working in. To become an archivist is not to seek a quiet sanctuary, but it is to offer sanctuary to those seeking truth about the past and understanding of the present. We need our own war rooms.

Develop Graduate Curriculum and Research Agenda That Better Prepare the Next Generation of Archivists. It is logical here at AERI to focus on the educational preparation of archivists (I include research here since I have always seen research and teaching as inseparable). We have seen steady growth here, both in breadth and depth, especially with doctoral level work.  But there is something else we must now face in the post-truth era.  Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor of communications and media at Merrimack College, has an interesting, if disturbing essay about her efforts to teach her students about how to deal with fake news stories and false information. She relates how her compilation of fake sources went viral and the various threats and harassment directed at her for her efforts. She offers up an interesting assessment that is particularly relevant for the times we live in: “In an era of students’ secretly filming classes, guns on campuses, and professor watchlists, it feels like a scary time to be a professor – which means it’s an important time to be a professor.” This is no less true for professors in our field. But we can go farther. What we have here is an opportunity to push forward the archival mission in the academy by pushing our students to engage with these contentious and controversial matters.

What goes on in higher education is essential to the preparation of our future citizens. Frederick M. Lawrence, Secretary of Phi Beta Kappa, considering the value of a liberal arts and sciences education, argues that this can “prepare us for a meaningful life, a prosperous life, and a productive life.” Archives are the natural resources for having a broader, more nuanced view of our society and ourselves. 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 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. 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.

As we watch the Trump administration scrub the government’s websites, clearly in an effort to remove any vestige of what is counter to the president’s views and to make government less transparent, archivists and others need to be concerned.  Sarah Rumsey, in her book When We Are No More: How Digital Memory is Shaping Our Future, writes with a sense of urgency: “With every innovation in information technology that produces greater efficiency by further compressing data, librarians and archivists begin a frantic race against time to save the new media, inevitably more ephemeral.” Such a sense of urgency has been in place, in reality, for at least three decades, but perhaps in not so pronounced a way. Archivists need to recognize that they have a great relevance and responsibility given the need for governments and other institutions and citizens alike to create and maintain records. We are essential to open, transparent government and institutions. We should never forget this.

Conclusion

This is my last professional conference paper. I may continue to write and publish, but I am not certain even of this; I have a few projects I am finishing but I am not trying to create new ones. I need a time to reflect on what I want to do with the rest of my life, having spent 45 years of it as an archivist. At the moment, my intention is to read, paint, and volunteer in an animal rescue program. This may change, but I think I have given it my best shot, and it is time to move on. I also feel like I have left behind a stack of writing expressing my convictions about the importance of the archival mission.

I am not trying to be sentimental or emotional here, although there are many aspects to my career I will miss. I just want to leave you with two thoughts here. First, it is time for a new generation of archival educators to take over. You have much to offer, and this is especially important given the challenges we now face. Second, we need new ideas and efforts, and these need to come from you, not my generation.  I harbor no notions about how I will be remembered. I still recall when I proposed to the SAA publications board editing a volume of essays by an archival pioneer, Lester Cappon, who had been dead just two decades and who had been president of the Society of American Archivists, that there were members of that board who had no idea who he was or what he had done. Personally, I am not concerned about being remembered. But I am concerned that we have a vigorous, relevant mission and people who are committed to it. So, I leave that to you.

Postlude

In a sense, this is my farewell to the profession. I am mindful that Terry Cook’s death three years ago occurred when he was my present age. I think we are seeing a generational shift in the field, although I am concerned that there are not enough new educators to replace those leaving.

Some of us at AERI experienced an interesting moment, when a young African American colleague reported on death threats and racial slurs aimed at one of her colleagues at another university. This provoked some serious reflection on next year’s AERI, its tenth conference, in Tuscaloosa. I am reminded that you will be not too far from Birmingham (I looked it up, just less than 60 miles), the site of Martin Luther King’s letter to Christian pastors who were criticizing King’s 1963 protests in that city: “Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal,” he wrote, “so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” I am not King, but we need leadership, creativity, and light in the profession. And maybe nonviolent gadflies as well. AERI had many purposes – to establish archival education, strengthen research, and to bolster leadership. We need to create tension in our profession that enables the archival profession to speak more forcibly, be more visible, and carry more weight. We can accomplish this through our teaching, writing, presenting, and other activities. The seeds of this are here at AERI. Do it!

            This will be my last posting to this blog. I am focusing in the reminder of this year to my last courses and preparing for retirement.

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One thought on “Farewell to AERI, or Last Words on the Archival Mission

  1. Richard,
    Well, if it is your last paper you went out with a bang. To a retiree a decade or more older, you hit all the right notes about the archival mission and about modesty in one’s career. I do hope that archivists will continue to grapple with the significant issues you raise. I intend to keep a distant eye on the field just to see.

    Like

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