Archivists on the Issues: The Neutrality Lie and Archiving in the Now

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Samantha “Sam” Cross, the Assistant Archivist for CallisonRTKL.

If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email archivesissues@gmail.com. Please note that opinions expressed in Archivists on the Issues posts do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Section.

 

Neutrality is a lie. The sooner archivists agree on that matter, the better the profession will be. It’s not even a good lie, considering the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Howard Zinn’s infamous 1977 speech to the archival community called us out, stating: “The archivist, even more than the historian and the political scientist, tends to be scrupulous about his neutrality, and to see his job as a technical job, free from the nasty world of political interest: a job of collecting, sorting, preserving, making available, the records of society.”

Echoing Zinn, archivists ourselves have revealed the facade of neutrality built into every step of the archiving process. Terry Cook, Helen Samuels, Mark Greene, and Richard J. Cox all consider appraisal “the critical archival act,” the step from which other aspects follow.[1] The selective nature of collecting and retention policies allow archivists to claim that they cannot collect anything outside of the established boundaries. Vernon Harris pointed out that even collection description is a byproduct of cultural and societal biases that construct their own narrative.[2] Last February, in an interview with the National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA), Jarrett Drake bluntly stated that “Archives have never been neutral – they are the creation of human beings, who have politics in their nature.”

Claims of neutrality distance archives and archivists from the Now. In his book, Flowers After the Funeral: Reflections on the Post-9/11 Digital Age, Cox anxiously critiqued the purpose of digital and physical collecting in 9/11’s immediate aftermath. From his perspective, the compulsion to archive as a means of remembrance negates the “necessary” distance that the archival act supposedly demand.[3] That distance is where neutrality lives, allegedly, a convenient barrier between archivists and the real world. However, as Randall Jimerson states, “neutrality is the abdication of responsibility.”[4] It deters active archiving and reduces archivists to passive recipients. In reality, archivists have the potential, if not the responsibility, to act and explore other options of collecting and serving their communities.

Easier said than done, but if we want to fight against the perception of neutrality, we have to make a greater case, as a profession, for active, deliberate archiving. A stereotype remains that archivists are basement-dwellers covered in dust, gatekeepers of documents that have long surpassed their use. In truth, archivists have been agents of political disruption and social activism since the beginning of our profession. But whereas archivists of the past were limited by fledgling technology, archivists today can utilize technology to our advantage for the specific purpose of archiving the Now.

While Cox reflected on emerging digital spaces with caution in 2003, archivists in 2017 embrace the tools at our disposal. The ubiquity of platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and tumblr has turned the average person into an amateur historian or archivist. We openly document ourselves via tweets, vlogs, and status updates. For those in marginalized communities, the opportunities for visibility – evidence of existence – are enormous.

One of the first online platforms to formulate a response to deliberately archiving digital content was Documenting the Now (DocNow), a suite of tools designed to help researchers mine social media datasets as well as collecting and preserving digital content. The group began in 2014 in response to the Ferguson protests and the Black Lives Matter movement that chronicled events in real time and disseminated information quickly via Twitter and other platforms. DocNow’s mission is to put archiving power into the hands of those within marginalized and activist communities, offering ownership and access that traditional archives cannot provide. That power allows communities to hold others accountable, bypassing distance and neutrality for active and speedy responses, whether from law enforcement or a global community of witnesses.

Archiving the Now has naturally extended into “guerilla archiving events,” intent on swiftly preserving content of all kinds. One example is the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative efforts to preserve public data regarding climate change in danger of disappearing under the current presidential administration.

Another is the Women’s March on Washington Archives Project. As stated by coordinators Danielle Russell and Katrina Vandeven, the Project evolved from a desire to “ensure the preservation of women’s voices and responses to politics and legislation in wake of the intensely controversial 2016 elections.” Though materials aren’t immediately accessible, the project goal was to make available for future research the evidence and first-person accounts. Had archivists not acted, those voices would be lost and efforts to understand marchers’ motives would be at the mercy of speculation.

Even the Internet Archive, a repository of online content, has positioned itself as a tool of accountability through the Wayback Machine and its recent endeavor to collect the 45th president’s online statements, interviews, and sound bites. Like DocNow, the Internet Archive made deliberate efforts to provide evidence and access for the explicit, immediate purpose of use by journalists and citizens. These are efforts of people who understand the luxury of neutrality and the power of inaction. If they chose to remain neutral, the historical record would remain ever incomplete. Keeping up with the current pace of “historical” events is no easy feat, nor will archivists capture everything. But as archivists choose to act, we leave a far more encouraging and greater history in our wake.

Samantha “Sam” Cross is the Assistant Archivist for CallisonRTKL in their Seattle office where she oversees the physical and digital documents and drawings of the global architectural firm. A graduate of Western Washington University, Sam has a Bachelor’s in History and a Master’s in History with an emphasis in Archive and Records Management. In her free time she runs and writes for The Maniacal Geek and hosts That Girl with the Curls podcast where she talks with guests and friends about geek culture, comics, movies, and whatever weird thoughts pop into her head.

 

Citations

[1] Terry Cook, “Documenting Society and Institutions: The Influence of Helen Willa Samuels” in Controlling the Past: Documenting Society and Institutions, Essays In Honor of Helen Willa Samuels, ed. Terry Cook (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2011): 2.

[2] Verne Harris, Archives and Justice: A South African Perspective (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2007): 142-143

[3] Richard J. Cox, Flowers After the Funeral: Reflections on the Post-9/11 Digital Age (Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, 2003): 4-5.

[4] Randall C. Jimerson, Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2009): 294

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