Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Archives and Justice, Present and Past

The relationship of archives, archival work, and the archival mission to justice continues to be a growing topic of inquiry around the world. A recent 2006 publication from the Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority, Arkiv, Demokrati og Rettferd, RBM no. 28, ISBN 82-8105-034-9, is one example of this growing interest. No, I don’t read Norwegian, and most of the essays are in that language, but two of the contributions (by David Wallace and Tom Connors) are in English. David Wallace, a former doctoral student of mine, sent me a copy of the publication (thanks David).

Wallace’s essay, “Historical and Contemporary Justice and the Role of Archivists,” is a thought-provoking exploration into why the avoidance by archivists, records managers, and other records professionals in having an open conversation about the “various ethical and moral dimensions” of their work is problematic (p. 23). Wallace deftly skewers standard approaches to professional ethics by contending that ethics codes need to be “based more affirmatively on human morality as our core professional value, and not on what we do and do not do to records from a professional practice orientation or the paramount adherence to the law” (p. 24). In that concise statement, Wallace has nailed one of the fundamental weaknesses in professional standards, suggesting why I personally believe that ethics issues will be the dominant topic of discourse for the next generation.

Connors’s essay, “Secrecy vs. Access: Government Information Policy and Politics in the George W. Bush Administration,” is a detailed cataloguing of this administration’s efforts to limit access to government information, invasions of personal privacy, and manipulation of information. Connors also contends that there are “serious legal, political and ethical issues” records and information professionals need to face. He also worries that the recent dialogue about “transparency and accountability” in government circles are more rhetorical than precise terms.

While writings by individuals such as Wallace and Connors suggest new attention to ethical and moral issues in the records community, we should never forget that such matters are not really new. The pioneering African-American historian, John Hope Franklin, has given us evidence of this in his memoir, Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), ISBN-10: 0-374-29944-7, where he provides ample examples about the racism and discrimination that made it difficult for him to gain access to the holdings of government and other archives. Franklin describes a situation in 1937 where he went to the North Carolina state archives and had to wait several days before being allowed to use archival materials because “in planning the building the architects had never anticipated that any African American would ever do research there” (p. 83). He was eventually placed in a small room away the main research room. Franklin describes many acts of kindness to enable him to do his research, but his memoir is a very moving portrait into how social injustice has often been ignored as a professional issue by individuals such as archivists and records managers. What commentators like Wallace and Connors are now asking is whether we will continue to ignore the contemporary versions of such problems.