I don’t think anyone here would argue with the statement that the main responsibilities of archivists are preservation and access. But is that all? Are archivists mere custodians, as Sir Hilary Jenkins said? Or do they have a greater responsibility to the public–not just maintaining the “official” historical record, but making sure that record is complete and unbiased?
In a speech to archivists in the late 1970s, Howard Zinn described this problem, arguing that the government, the military, large corporations, and the rich have the greatest power and influence in our society, and their records are the often the ones that make it into the “official” record of history. Archivists who believe they are “just doing their job” help reinforce this institutional bias by not questioning it, and thereby becoming complicit. He cited the Oral History Collection at Columbia University as a prime example:
“It will spend much time interviewing members of the Eisenhower Administration, based on a $120,000 grant from the National Archives. Has the Project interviewed Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer of Ruleville, Mississippi, or Eldridge Cleaver or Dave Dellinger? Did it go to the Poor Peoples’ March and interview the people camped out there in the mud? Has it interviewed Vietnam veterans in the rehabilitation hospitals? Does it go into the ghetto around Columbia University?”
Societal attitudes about inclusiveness and diversity have certainly changed since the 1970s. There are now archives documenting the achievements of people in the gay community, as well as scholarly reports on the biases inherent in the construction of some records (such as court documents). But responding in full to Zinn’s example–and accusations–would go one step farther. Today that might mean an archive pursuing and/or sponsoring an oral history project in which they interview people at Tea Party rallies, people who have been foreclosed on, or people who have been unable to find work for over a year.
Now that we’ve entered the digital age, the issue of Archival “activism” has become more complicated. There is, for example, the still-rather-controversial idea of archivists taking an active role in record creation. The idea is that with so many records now born digital, archivists within larger organizations (corporations, governments, universities) should set the guidelines for the creation of these files, so it’s easier to preserve them, rather than just trying to figure out what to do with dozens of different file types after they’ve already been created, used, and handed over to be archived.
There is also the question of all the different types of media being created now: public figures like artists, journalists, and politicians are using social networking sites and building personal web pages. Do these merit archival attention? Should the National Archives download a copy of President Obama’s Facebook page, or the Speaker of the House’s Twitter?
What do you all think? Should archivists take on more active roles? Should they seek to gather information rather than just recording it? Should archives revise their collection policies to address digital media, or even take part in the creation of it?
Zinn, Howard. Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest. Midwestern Archivist Volume II, Number 2 1977 p. 14-27, http://www.libr.org/progarchs/documents/Zinn_Speech_MwA_1977.html