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.

Transparency and the Art World

With James Otter Grundvig’s book, Breaking Van Gogh: Saint-Remy, Forgery, and the $95 Million Fake at the Met (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2016), we have another study of art forgery. Whether you buy into Grundvig’s assessment is one thing, but he certainly makes a case for why there are now so many books and articles about this subject. Towards the end of the book, the author states that the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s efforts to avoid dealing with the questions about Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Cypresses are weakened by the increased availability of the public, journalists, scholars, and other researchers to get information about a particular art object: “Thanks to big data, cloud analytics, and other technologies, we live, work, and operate in an open-source, shared-economy, transparent society of the twenty-first century. The new generation of millennials, who continue to enter the work force, have a different view on society, opacity, and deception” (p. 224). A little later Grundvig states, “in the Digital Age, someone, some organization, or a group of art lovers, art historians, art researchers, or an investigative journalist like myself can shame those museums that have been and continue to be unwilling to cooperative, unwilling to be transparent, and unwilling to serve the public as they claim to do. Perhaps interested parties could join together and apply some shame and more pressure en masse by singling out those museums that claim to seek the truth but in reality sweep it into a dark corner of their storage vault” (p. 230). These comments are made in response to Grundvig’s difficulties in obtaining access to the Met’s reports and records related to this particular painting. The book provides something of a reminder not just to museum staff but also to archivists, librarians, and others (daresay, politicians as well) who operate in the public sphere.

All the News That Is Fit to Ignore

What the news means and how it is constructed has changed considerably in just a few decades. Not too many years ago, when print, radio, and television provided the news, we could determine how and when particular news stories were formed and reported (see Herbert J. Gans, Deciding What’s News: A study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time [New York: Vintage, 1979]). Today, news also comes to us from numerous cable news networks, Web sites, and listservs. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish “news” from gossip and conspiracy theories – indeed, some argue that you can deem it to be anything you want it to be. Sometimes it is also difficult to determine real journalists from anyone with no real background as a journalist who has set up a Website with an ax to grind. When we do watch or listen to news we often get less news and more just people arguing with each other in often uncivil and even confusing fashion. It is not surprising that “fact checking” has become a preeminent part of what passes as news. Some, including President Trump and many of his advisers and staff even state that a fact can have many different versions and definitions.

News and its outlets are under intense attack. Although President Trump is not the only politician or individual to question news and its providers, he is certainly the leader of its critics. In his mind, news is fake and an enemy of the state when it criticizes or disagrees with him. This is not how the Founders of this nation viewed the press. The first amendment to the Constitution declares “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Now, our President hammers away at news, particularly cable news, as the leading enemy of the state. Apparently obsessed with watching the news, the President fires back at every opportunity, especially via Twitter messages that often become the leading focus of news coverage. And his messages are often bitter, angry, and hateful (adding credence to the idea that he has not read or, if he has, does not understand the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence).

It is difficult now to watch the news, but, if we do, we need to understand what it is and how it is made. While President Trump attacks it from every pulpit made available to him, sometimes even when inappropriate, as not truthful (the basis of this being whether it is supportive of or loyal to him), the consensus of studies about news seems to be that its aim is to arrive at truthful representations of what is going on. Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert Kaiser state, “Good journalism holds communities together in times of crises, providing the information and the images that constitute shared experiences. When disaster strikes, the news media give readers and viewers something to hold on to – facts” (The News About the News [New York: Vintage, 2003], p. 4). Jack Fuller argues that news offers a “provisional kind of truth, the best that can be said quickly” (News Values: Ideas for An Information Age [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996], p. 5). Fuller also sees the pursuit of truth as essential to an open society and as the primary objective of the journalist. Alex S. Jones likewise states that “journalistic objectivity is an effort to discern a practical truth, not an abstract, partial truth” (Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy [New York Oxford University Press, 2009], p. 88).

The nature of news is that it is constantly evolving. The nature of the attacks on news today by political figures is nothing new, although President Trump’s campaign against it while fabricating lies, exaggerations, and conspiracies may be. This is especially evident in Trump’s use of Twitter. At times, I think, as do others, that we should just ignore the Trump tweets. Perhaps, one may argue, that if we do so, Trump would stop tweeting. However, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson makes the more important point: “It is sometimes argued that the media should spend less time on President Trump’s transgressive tweets in order to devote more attention to real issues, such as North Korea. In fact, it is necessary to focus on Trump’s tweets precisely because they shed light on the mind that is doing the deciding on North Korea. It is a distasteful exercise. But we cannot look away. We need to know the state of mind we’re dealing with.” Gerson then adds this jab: “Trump’s tweets reveal a leader who is compulsive, abusive and easily triggered. Trump describes all this as “modern day presidential.” Lincoln had his Gettysburg Address. Franklin Roosevelt had his Four Freedoms. But modern schoolchildren will learn the Mika bloody face-lift tweet.” [Gerson, “How to Handle an Unhinged President,” Washington Post, July 7, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-to-handle-an-unhinged-president/2017/07/06/88b2ec38-628b-11e7-8adc-fea80e32bf47_story.html?utm_term=.6899f5a9def4&wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.

At one time, we could discuss the power of news (Michael Schudson, The Power of News [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995]}. Now we have to understand that it is this power, to hold leaders accountable and to inform citizens, that generates its critics. President Trump constantly berates the “fake” news, while demonstrating he is the source of much that is fake. Perhaps we need to understand that there is a major difference between a “fact” and a “tweet.” Perhaps we have to let the archivists and historians sort it all out.

 

 

 

 

High Noon

Movie buffs know about the 1952 film, High Noon, a classic American Western depicting a gunfight between a beleaguered town marshal (Gary Cooper) and four outlaws intend on killing him as revenge for the arrest and conviction of their gang leader. What many viewers do not now recognize is the film’s commentary on the House Committee on Un-American Activities work on identifying Communist sympathizers, a topic of particular relevance today in the continuing debate about Russian influences on our 2016 elections and possible collusion between Trump supporters and that country. Cooper’s character, having cleaned up the town’s lawlessness, now finds himself abandoned by the town’s residents, reflecting those individuals who were naming names as a means to protect their own careers or not supporting those who were unjustly identified. Filmed in real time as the events unfold, the film is taut and suspenseful (something I confirmed by re-watching the film as I read the book).

Glenn Frankel’s High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017) provides an excellent examination of what was going on in the country and Hollywood during those years, focusing on the roles of the film’s principal figures – mainly filmmaker Carl Foreman, who was blacklisted, and actor Gary Cooper. The book is based on extensive archival materials and interviews, and it has a lot to merit its reading by both film buffs and those interested in the turbulent political times of yesteryear (reminding us that what we are experiencing today has counterparts to earlier periods and events). I selected this book as a diversion from the present, and then finding it directly related to current events. I recommend the book highly (as I do Frankel’s earlier book on The Searchers, another classic Western).

These days anything we can read, making us reflect about free speech and freedom of the press, is critically important. More about this in future postings.

Archives as Stories, Stories as Archives

Biographer, essayist, and novelist Tracy Daugherty’s book on writing – Let Us Build a City (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2017) – includes a passage that, in my mind, evokes the meaning and purpose of archives: “Stories, like building, are social sites and mediating spaces, meeting spots for writers and their readers, carefully constructed areas where private and public lives overlap. Entering an old building, we may hear creaks and mysterious settling – ghostly voices – speaking to us from underneath the smooth façade; may feel invisible others observing our most intimate acts. Similarly, we may wonder about the relationship between a story’s surface and its foundation: how do history and memory shape, support, or wrap a narrative?” (p. 16). Anyone who has read my blog or assorted essays knows that I connect stories and archives together in close harmony. I continue to worry that archivists are not always as creative or imaginative as they should be, opting to focus on the technical aspects of their work and missing the grander notions of what their holdings mean for society. If we think of archives as social sites, mediating spaces, meeting spots, and so forth, I believe how we view ourselves and our roles becomes more dynamic and relevant. Many archives have thought of their repositories as important places for conferences and consultations about the past and its role in the present, but, unfortunately, not to the extent where journalists, politicians, and policymakers naturally think of us. More often than not, when we are thought of it is in hackneyed stereotypes of places covered in dust or secret chambers where ghosts might roam. Despite many efforts over the past half century to engage with the public, we still have a long way to go to achieve that goal. But, perhaps, a better way to look at it is to see it as a continuing challenge and one that should be very interesting.

The Vagueness of Documentation in the Ongoing DOJ Investigation

Yesterday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified before the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee in its ongoing investigation about the Russian interference in our 2016 elections and the firing of former FBI Director James Comey. I watched the two-hour plus hearing, noting various issues regarding how documentary evidence was used, misused, or ignored. In doing this, I am reminded of how much advocacy work archivists have yet to do in order to educate our leadership and the public about the significance of records.

AG Sessions was asked a number of questions in which he said he could not answer because it would require answers about “confidential” conversations with President Trump. When additionally asked if he was claiming Executive Privilege, Sessions replied that that was a prerogative only the President could invoke. The Attorney General replied that he was not doing so, but that he was deferring so that the President could use this if he deemed it necessary to do so. When asked if the President had requested this, Sessions replied that he had not, but that he was following long-standing principles used by the Department of Justice. In the at times testy conversation that followed, it became clear that Sessions had not read any kind of written guidelines and was not particularly well-informed about such guidelines; the Committee requested that it be supplied with the written guidelines, although it was never clear just what these consisted of or the level of detail they might provide. He seemed remarkably ill-prepared in this area for his testimony.

All during the hearing, Sessions consulted documents that were referenced at various times (by both him and the various Senators). Some of the documents seemed to hold different import for different people, both in terms of their meaning and significance and according to the chronology of events. There is nothing particularly unusual in this (think of different historians and other scholars investigating the same topic using the same sources but reaching different conclusions), but it was also clear that there were fundamental differences in how a particular document was seen as providing evidence. For example, AG Sessions referred to the memorandum prepared by the deputy FBI Director as a critical evaluation of Comey’s fitness for duty and continuing as FBI Director. However, when asked about whether there had been another written evaluation of his work performance, there were major differences in how various Senators perceived what had happened, severe differences of opinion about Comey and the general workplace environment in the FBI, and the divergent conclusions about the primary reason why Comey was dismissed. This resulted in requests for additional documents and questions about who had said what and when.

This line of questioning also led to some additional tension between AG Sessions and some of the Committee members. When it was requested that Sessions provide additional materials, the AG replied that he would do so if it were “appropriate.” However, one sensed that the AG was not eager to comply, and it was also apparent that there was no consensus about what “appropriate” meant or who got to determine this.

Not surprisingly, the question of President Trump possessing recordings of Oval Office conversations also emerged. When asked if the AG knew if there were such recordings, Sessions replied that he did not. When asked if the existence of such recordings would require being preserved, the AG seemed unsure but tentatively replied that he assumed so. That someone in the position of being the chief legal officer for the federal government does not know about the relevant laws concerning Presidential records seems a remarkable oversight. Of course, it is an easy thing to chalk this up to the general high-handed fashion in which the Trump administration has tended to view legal precedents, traditional protocols, and, at times, commonsense administrative processes.

Whatever political persuasion an archivist might be, it is also necessary to commit to serious understanding of the laws and traditions governing the use and maintenance of public records. We also must understand that how we view such issues continue to change, as Michael Schudson, in his recent book The Rise of the Right to Know: Politics and the Culture of Transparency, 1945-1975 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017), ably demonstrates. When will we see expert archival witnesses commenting on contemporary records issues and cases? It had better be soon. The future of our profession and nation depend on this.

Sword Drill: Successful Academic Writing

As I have indicated in other posts, I read regularly books about writing, always with an eye to improving my own writing and to provide advice to others (especially students). Helen Sword is an academic who has written several books on the topic, most recently Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017). Not too many years ago, she wrote one of my favorite books, Stylish Academic Writing, also published by Harvard in 2012.

Sword’s new book draws on her own teaching of writing, interviews with one hundred “exemplary writers,” and a survey of more than one thousand academics. This is the source of the strength of this publication, lengthy quotations and observations based on her interactions with these people. Sword also draws from others who written about the writing process, as well as her own experience in writing: “I still academic writing to be a frustrating, exhilarating, endlessly challenging process that never seems to get a any easier – but that I wouldn’t give up for the world” (p. 7).

For those who have read other books on writing, they will find little that is new, except for the many cases drawn from the academy. Sword considers writing regimens, preparing a space for writing. “To be a successful academic,“ she states, “it is not enough merely to have mastered the craft of writing intelligibly. You must also be creative enough to produce original research, persuasive enough to convey the significance of your findings to others, prolific enough to feed the tenure and promotion machine, confident enough to withstand the slings and arrows of peer review, strategic enough to pick your way safely through the treacherous terrain of academic politics, well organized to keep multiple roles and commitments, and persistent enough to keep on writing and publishing no matter what” (pp. 65, 67). Do I hear an amen?

Throughout the book, Sword offers advice that is both practical and straightforward. For instance, she provides a useful orientation to collaborative writing ventures and its benefits. The book is amply loaded with examples, other sources to consult, and ways of resisting failure. This is a very useful guide, one that academics will find of value for their own work. Sword is sensitive to the fact that most academics are not taught how to write, and must learn as they go. This book is a good place to start.

Russia, Trump, Comey, and Records

I watched, along with millions of others, former FBI director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. I was interested in hearing just what role records might play in all this, and I was not disappointed. There were ample references to Comey’s memos and his leaking of them, his written testimony provided before hand to the Committee, and the possibility that there might be recordings of Comey’s meetings with President Trump (although, personally, like many others, I doubt there are recordings).

I also made note of one surreal aspect of the discussions following Comey’s testimony. As I watched various CNN commentators, I noticed that at times, the background in reports from Washington, D.C. featured a view looking down on the U.S. National Archives. So, even if we have not heard from leadership of that institution or seen references to it in the news coverage, the National Archives nevertheless loomed in the background of the present scandal. Repeated references by reporters and commentators to the Watergate crisis of forty years ago (and it is amazing to me how many individuals involved in that earlier investigation are still around) and the matter of those tapes nevertheless affirmed why the citizenry ought to be more aware of the importance of federal records laws and practices. And none of this makes any difference, or ought to, because of how you personally view President Trump and his administration.

It was a bit surreal. It got more so for me, as I finally got around that evening to watching the 2016 film Denial about the Irving v. Penguin Books Ltd case that played out in the British courts about historian Deborah Lipstadt’s characterization of Irving as a Holocaust denier. It was riveting cinematic interpretation, even if you get a much more complex sense of the case and the individuals involved by reading books about the case by Lipstadt, historian Richard Evans, and others. What I was struck by was the sometimes-eerie similarities (notably, the accusations of lies) between this case and what was happening yesterday and in the daily coverage of the investigations about possible Trump campaign collusion with Russians in the 2016 elections. Now, I didn’t go looking for this – I was merely taking a break from watching the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates blow games. But the constant reference in the film to lies and documentation almost seemed like it could apply to contemporary political news.

Now I need to go back and watch the 1976 movie All the President’s Men about the Watergate crisis. Former Director of U.S. National Intelligence James Clapper recently stated in a talk in Australia that “Watergate pales” in comparison with what is now going on in the Trump-Russia investigation. History will determine this, provided we have the adequate documentation held by archivists and their allies. What archivists do is important.

Distractions

In a brief essay in the May 29, 2017 issue of The New Yorker, writer Hallie Cantor describes the process of writing. At one point she considers one aspect of the writer’s craft that is seeming more odd in our super-connected world: “”In the afternoon, I typically take a long walk. I do not listen to podcasts. Why would I? The music of the natural world is podcast enough. As you may have noticed, a running theme in my process is that I am not afraid to be alone with my thoughts, Not al all.” Hollie Cantor, “The Writer’s Process,” New Yorker, May 29, 2017, p. 27.

Armed with our various smart devices, cable television, and other technological wonders of our age, we do, in fact, seem to be afraid of being alone. To be a writer or a scholar, one must, at some point, be content to be alone, allowing reflection on our world and what we are trying to write. While I try to watch and read the news, I am concerned with constant “breaking news” every half hour or more, that is often more distraction than real news. Involved with teaching graduate students, I have become even more concerned with how disconnected many of these students are from reading, in a careful and reflective manner, scholarly and professional books (or, in fact, books of any kind).

Despite decades of predications about the demise of the printed book, books continue to play important roles in society. They inspire, agitate, inform, amuse us – and more. They make us think. In recent years, a long stream of books about particular books and their influences have appeared. Two recent examples suggest our continuing fascination with books. Randall Fuller, The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation (New York: Viking, 2017) is a lively account of how Darwin’s book played a role in American philosophy and politics on the eve of the Civil War. Kevin Birmingham, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses (New York: Penguin, 2014) is a “biography of a book,” focusing on its censorship and political battles and literary and popular influence. Both studies attest to the fact that books matter and words are important.

 

Will Twitter messages engage us in any way similar to that of the power of books? Twitter, and other such social media and stuff is what we need to get away from in order to be alone with our thoughts.

 

 

A Presidential Reader? Not Likely

By all reports, our current President is not a reader. President Trump’s many gaffes in statements about American history and his glaring lack of contextual knowledge about political, religious, and many other topics all suggest he is not a reader or a reflective individual. Many of our Presidents have been avid readers. Kevin J. Hayes, George Washington: A Life in Books (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017) tells us about our first President’s interests in reading.

George Washington has generally not been recognized as one of the more intellectual founders of our nation, seen more as a man of action and practical application, but, in fact, he loved reading and owning books. He believed that studying was an important activity to be done through life, not just in his youth. As it was for many of the Revolutionary generation, Washington read with particular aims in mind, such as running his plantation, understanding politics and economics, but also for leisure and recreation.

For those interested in archives, Hayes provides many references to manuscripts and various sorts of documents. Washington’s library was full of pigeonholes where he stored personal papers extending back to his adolescence (p. 16). Washington maintained journals and was a dedicated letter writer, and his writing was clear and often powerful, no doubt a result of his reading habits. Washington was also a careful bibliographer, who kept a record of his book acquisitions and books given to him as gifts or as part of inheritances. Hayes describes how after the Revolutionary war ended, Washington brought back to Mt. Vernon a “vast amount of personal and professional writings, many carefully recorded in letter books, all with an eye towards helping to document the founding of the new nation (pp. 215-216). Even during Washington’s lifetime, individuals came to Mt. Vernon to consult his papers, along with painters and sculptors seeking to capture likenesses of the Revolutionary leader. And there was also publication of selections of his letters before his death. There is no doubt that reading had a substantial impact on Washington’s writing ability, enabling him to compose such classic documents as his Farewell Address. When he was on his deathbed, Washington instructed one of his aides to care for his “letters, papers, and financial accounts” (p. 312). Given our current President’s activities, it is difficult to imagine him doing anything but ordering the concealment or destruction of his archives; he is more fixated on seeing his name on hotels, golf courses, and other economic ventures.

All of this is quite a contrast to President Trump who seems to be obsessed with watching cable news, surrounding himself with advisors who will only tell him what he wants to hear, and reacting quickly and emotionally with Twitter messages when he feels offended or questioned. Trump has not and will not compose anything of worth; Twitter does not lend itself to that.

Among Hayes’s conclusions is this: “Books form an essential part of the history of the US presidency” (p. 287). At least they did until the present chief executive. We can get a sense of President Trump’s priorities by examining his just released federal budget proposal. As SAA reported, “ The Trump Administration on May 23 released a Presidential Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2018 (under the moniker “A New Foundation for American Greatness”) that would ultimately eliminate the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts. The proposal also would zero out FY 2018 funding for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and cut funding for the National Archives and Records Administration by $16.6 million.” There are a lot of other harsh realities in this budget, but I just want to emphasize this President’s utter disregard for arts and history, the result of a life of not reading (at least as far as I can tell). Rebecca Solnit, in her book about hope and despair, writes, “Amnesia leads to despair in many ways. The status quo would like you to believe it is immutable, inevitable, and invulnerable, and lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view. In other words, when you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change”; Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, 3rd ed. (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), p. xix. I contend that amnesia can result from a purposeful avoidance of reading and reflection.