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.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Into the Tunnel

Recently, there has been some challenge to the notion that social justice is a part of the professional responsibilities of archivists and records managers. Anyone who has been reading my blog probably can figure out what side of the argument I come down on. I recommend anyone who is waffling about this issue read Götz Aly’s brief book, Into the Tunnel: The Brief Life of Marion Samuel, 1931-1943 (New York: Metropolitan Books, published in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2007).

Aly’s book is an in-depth analysis of the “ordinary victim” of the Holocaust, in this case a young Jewish girl killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Why Marion Samuel? A foundation called Remembrance annually awards a prize named after her, selected because she is a virtually anonymous victim of the Holocaust. When German historian Aly heard that he had received this award in 2003, he set about to discover all he could her. He used every sort of document – address and telephone books, government records, and oral testimonies – and recovered as much of her life as he could. The book reproduces relevant evidence from census records, family photographs, birth records, medical sources, corporate records, property and tax records, military records, and personal correspondence. All of this is routine government and corporate documentation, much of it administered by professional archivists and records administrators, and much of it used for the routine extermination of a particular group of people. I am sure of these records professionals also would have argued against social justice as an issue they should address.

Walther Seinsch, co-founder of the Remembrance Foundation and the Marion Samuel Prize, expresses appreciation to Aly in an afterward in the book that ought to cause most records professionals to rethink their working assumptions about issues affecting their technical knowledge: “We must research, document, and remember – especially because the liars, the relativizers, and those who want to simply stop thinking about the events all continue in their work. Creative and heartless, they seek to bend the facts: to forget, displace, varnish over, escape from the responsibility of speaking the truth. Ultimately, not speaking the truth means ignoring the victims, including Marian Samuel” (p. 110). Archivists and other records professionals who blithely step around notions like social justice are justifiably indicted in such an assessment, in my opinion.


At 11:57 AM, Blogger Dee said...

I just finished this book last night and will be passing it on. Not only does it highlight the original ethical issues related to record keeping, but also, it shows how individual stories can be teased out of very sparse documentation. This last bit is what fascinates me about the archives and is one of the reasons I will be recommending this book to my friends and family.


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