Social Responsibilities of Archivists

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,

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6 Responses to Social Responsibilities of Archivists

  1. I think this is a really interesting issue. As I am new to LIS, I don’t have much background in taking a firm stance here. However, I would think that as an archivist you would want to gather as much information as possible on your subject. If someone of note has gone public, say a political figure on twitter, wouldn’t you want to record that?

    J. A. Lee

  2. I think this is an interesting question, but am not entirely in favor of it. The traditional role of the archivist is to be a curator/keeper/custodian of materials. In some cases this is a very, very large job. Collections can contain hundreds of thousands of documents and the archive that has every one of those catalogued is a lucky one indeed. Most archives do not have more than one full-time staff archivists, and this person is doing more administrative work than anything else. For the sake of time, this is not plausible for most industry archivists.

    On a personal note, I am not going to school to become a historian, but to be a custodian of objects. If part of my job requirements were to go out a collect history, then I probably would have gone into museum studies. I am not saying that a more proactive role in the community should be ignored, but this is not a torch to be held by archivists. I think, especially in our combine program, that people have mistaken the roles of archivists and librarians. Though the two are similar, they are not the same thing.

    Lucie B.

  3. Yes, librarians and archivists are different and so are those who work in record management. Record/document managers work in a large corporations and government; they deal with enormous amounts of documents. And yes, I think in this ever-changing technical environment that they should have input on how records are created and stored.

    As to traditional archivists creating materials, I believe that it depends on the archive, its mission, its contents, and its resources. Since the 1960s, there has been a history of archivists recording oral histories. This is not, however, standard archival work.

    Traditional archivists, as Lucie mentioned, are custodians of objects. We do play a role in creating history because we choose what should be in collections and what should not be.

    And one last note, today a good collection policy of any archive should address digital media.

    K. Yockey

  4. You bring up a very interesting point and I think that there will definitely be a need for more digital archiving as the amount of information being published these days is being done on the Internet. I think the stereotype of an archivist being down in a dank basement somewhere with dusty boxes will soon change to that of one sitting behind a computer (probably still in a dank basement ;). Although there will always still be a need to archive the physical documents, there really does need to be a major shift in the archivist’s job description to fit more into the digital age.

  5. I agree that there should be a dividing line between archivists and records managers. The roles are very different and have differing requirements. For records managers, it would be a great advantage to standardize the types of documents they received. For an archivist, that would be losing some of the substance of their collection.

    I don’t know what to think about archivists actively gathering all kinds of resources. I agree that a less biased view is good, but it seems like that’d be an impossibly large task. You can’t gather the life history of every person in town, much less the country. You can’t even gather from a representative of each group. It’s a great idea in theory, but I really think it’s impossible.

    – J. Cox

  6. Allie B. says:

    I would have replied without pause that I think archivists should be more active in collection development until I read Lucie’s response to this post. I think it’s interesting to note that archivists are not historians but rather custodians of information. In the same way that librarians should not insert their personal agendas into their collection development, it makes sense that archivists are not necessarily intended to be the sole selectors of the information that goes into archives. Howard Zinn is, of course, a favorite of mine, and I think his points are powerful. But I also think Lucie made an excellent point in distinguishing between the role of historian and the role of archivist.

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