Archives in the News: Retention, Repatriation, and Reproduction

Shaun Hayes is a member of the I&A News Monitoring Research Team, which brings us this Archives in the News Research post. Hayes is the Archives Program Specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and is passionate about sharing current news articles regarding archives and the profession with his students and others. 


Three recent news stories have highlighted the relationship between records important to their countries’ histories. The first, “Halting Auction, France Designates Marquis de Sade Manuscript a ‘National Treasure’,” appeared in the New York Times on December 19, 2017. The article details the history of the Marquis de Sade’s famous work 120 Days of Sodom and efforts made by the French government to cancel a planned auction of the original manuscript so that public funds could be raised for its purchase. Interestingly, the article cites the manuscript’s “sulfurous reputation” as one of the reasons for its designation as a national treasure.

The article “Morocco Retrieves 43,000 Archival Documents About Moroccan Jews From France describes the repatriation of archival documents created by Moroccan Jews in the late 19th and mid-20th centuries. This example of a country seeking to control records important to their national history differs from the example above in that it deals with the repatriation of records that had been outside of the country seeking control of them for some time, as far back as 1948. According to the article, a main impetus for retrieving the records stems from the 2011 Moroccan Constitution’s recognition of Jewish heritage as an integral part of Morocco’s heritage.  

The third article, “Gabriel García Márquez’s Archive Freely Available Online,” focuses on the online archive of Gabriel García Márquez‘s papers provided by the University of Texas Harry Ransom Center. The article alludes to the controversy surrounding the sale of Márquez’s papers to an archive outside of his native Colombia, or in Mexico, where Márquez spent a part of his life. A previous New York Times article illustrated the outrage in Colombia over the Colombian government’s failure to acquire Márquez’s papers. The more recent article seemingly brushes aside issues of the collection’s ultimate location by stating that “But now, the university’s Harry Ransom Center has digitized and made freely available about half of the collection, making some 27,000 page scans and other images visible to anyone in the world with an internet connection.”

The incongruous views about the importance of records remaining physically located in communities that claim ownership of them is interesting; in the first two examples, France halted an auction and plans to raise millions of dollars in order to retain ownership of de Sade’s manuscript, while Morocco spent years attempting to repatriate records related to its Jewish history. In both instances, the governments of those nations felt that accessing the records that were deemed to be of national significance was not enough and that efforts had to be made to retain or have them returned. In the third example, the Times suggests that simply having access to online versions of some of the records in the Márquez papers should mollify any concerns about the collection’s physical location.

What the Márquez article by Jennifer Schuessler fails to consider is the intrinsic value of the physical papers. The Society of American Archivists’ Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines intrinsic value as “the usefulness or significance of an item derived from its physical or associational qualities, inherent in its original form and generally independent of its content, that are integral to its material nature and would be lost in reproduction.” The intrinsic value of the Márquez papers can be found in their uniqueness as important examples of Colombian culture and history. This uniqueness is subverted when Colombians are relegated to simply accessing records that anyone else with an Internet connection can access as well.

This is not to criticize the Ransom Center for purchasing the collection, and it is certainly laudable how publicly accessible it has made some of the papers. What is most troublesome about the perspective of the Times‘ Schuessler is how she conflates issues of ownership and access. Ownership gives the owner power over how and when something is accessed; simply having access to something puts the accessors at the whims of the owners. This is a power relationship that is as old as time, and yet Ms. Schuessler suggests that one is as good as the other when it comes to records.

As archivists, we are well aware of the power that records can have as central aspects of a community’s cultural identity and as the rise of community archives demonstrates, ownership of these records can play a key role in ensuring that records are kept and maintained in ways that reflect community values and priorities. It is our job to continue to educate the public on the role that records play in strengthening and supporting social memory and culture and the vital role that the ownership of records can play in doing so.  

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