I just finished reading Randall C. Jimerson’s 2007 article “Archives for All: Professional Responsibility and Social Justice” — and I loved it! I can’t wait to read his book Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice. Here’s the article abstract:
Archivists should use their power—in determining what records will be preserved for future generations and in interpreting this documentation for researchers—for the benefit of all members of society. By adopting a social conscience for the profession, they can commit themselves to active engagement in the public arena. Archivists can use the power of archives to promote accountability, open government, diversity, and social justice. In doing so, it is essential to distinguish objectivity from neutrality. Advocacy and activism can address social issues without abandoning professional standards of fairness, honesty, detachment, and transparency.
Some personal background will tell you why I liked it so much. Politically, I sit on the very far left of the spectrum. Academically, I am of the critical theory and postmodern persuasion. In college, I was a social justice activist. So this article was meant for me. This post is an initial reaction from reading the article, so forgive me if these thoughts are not completely cohesive.
As “record keepers,” archivists have power. A lot of it. The archives profession is associated with the history discipline for a reason. We influence the context of how documents are perceived through our description, finding aids, etc. The (not so) simple act of choosing which records are preserved or accessioned is a huge exercise of power — it can determine if a narrative or event is ever remembered or known. Jimerson’s article includes many examples of how documents have held governments accountable. Because archives shape our historical memory, it’s important that we not only keep records of institutions and their leadership, but the “ordinary” everyday people as well.
Today, if someone isn’t online, if they don’t have a findable web presence, or if their online presence isn’t archived — will they cease to be remembered in the future? It’s a scary thought. We aren’t living in a completely digital world yet and can’t forget about those who only exist in the analog. I feel like so many archival institutions are busy either working on a backlog of unprocessed collections, digitizing already processed ones, or trying to figure out how to preserve electronic records. With the romanticism of technology and shifting focus towards digital preservation, I hope we don’t forget about our responsibility to preserve the paper records that are still being created. Not to say archives aren’t currently fulfilling that responsibility — it just seems like no one is talking about it. This hybrid world we live in seems to only create more questions about the future, and while we should anticipate and plan for it, we can’t forget about our responsibilities to the present.