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.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Archives and Slavery

Brown University has been in the news in recent years for its efforts to deal with its legacy of involvement in the slave trade. A new report, Response of Brown University to the Report of the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, has just been released this month. This is a response to a report issued last October about this institution’s historic ties to the slave trade and stressing a commitment to memorials and social justice activities rather than monetary reparations or public apologies (see Elizabeth Redden, “Corpses in the Quad,” Inside Higher Education, October 19, 2006, for analysis about the earlier report).

In 2003, Brown University formed a committee of 17 to assist the university to “come to an understanding of the complicated question of the extent to which Brown University benefited from the Rhode Island slave trade” (p. 1). This university committee also had a specific archival mission: “We hoped that the Committee would demonstrate how we might explore and make ongoing use of important historical documents in our collections as well as identify outside experts to help us interpret this complex history and our place in relationship to it.” And it also demonstrates the connection of historical documentation to matters of accountability, as the intention was to facilitate the university community to be able to “debate the legal questions, moral issues, and ethical choices involved in issues of retrospective justice” (p. 1).

Now there is an official response to the committee from the various segments of the university community, posing specific recommendations. Some of these recommendations concern the role of archives. One recommendation reads as follows: “The Chair of the Committee, Professor James Campbell, will be asked to work with the directors of the John Carter Brown Library and the John Nicholas Brown Center for the Study of American Civilization to develop a schedule of exhibitions to make relevant archival materials available to the public. Funds will be provided to make such exhibitions possible.” Another recommendation is, “Fellowships will be established not only to assure that these exhibitions can be appropriately curated, but also to ensure that knowledgeable individuals will be trained to staff museums, libraries, and historic sites with holdings relevant to slavery and memory. The Department of American Civilization and the John Nicholas Brown Center are invited to submit a proposal for fellowships for this purpose” (p. 6).

Another proposal concerns the establishment of a Center for Slavery and Justice, with the recommendation that “this body should begin by examining the rich array of resources already available through the John Carter Brown Library, the John Hay Library collections, the Department of Africana Studies, the John Nicholas Brown Center for the Study of American Civilization, the Department of History, the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, and other departments at Brown in an effort to draw upon what is relevant to this effort” (p. 7). It will be interesting to see how these recommendations develop into real results to benefit the archives and special collections of this university, and how this university’s archival holdings might become more accessible to its local community.

This has not been the only recent news about slavery and archival issues. On January 11th, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) introduced legislation to preserve and make more accessible, through online services, genealogical records relating to the families of former slaves. There is also a new movie, Amazing Grace, about William Wilberforce’s crusade to end the English slave trade, with a number of interesting scenes involving records (including one disturbing one where Wilberforce’s friend and physician crumples up and throws into the fireplace a detailed letter about the West Indies slave trade because it was disturbing his sleep).