Archivists on the News: “Hidden in Plain Sight”: Institutional Amnesia and the Archives

Archivists on the News is a series where archivists share their perspectives on current news topics. This post comes courtesy of Alex Bisio, Lead Processing Archivist and Assistant Librarian at the University of Oregon.

Late February’s news cycle was dominated by yet another political scandal. Rather than the now familiar chorus of collusion, corruption, and congressional gridlock, this state-level scandal turned the national conversation toward personal accountability and the pervasiveness of racism in American culture, particularly in the recent past. The governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, was discovered having allegedly appeared in blackface with a classmate dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan at a medical school party, which was documented in a photograph that was later published in the school’s 1984 yearbook.  Northam first confirmed and then denied that he was the individual in the yearbook picture. It was later discovered that two other individuals in the Virginia government had their racist actions preserved in their own college yearbooks.

White America took yet another moment to be aghast at the “revelation” that even as recently as the 1980s blatant celebrations of racism have been, and still are, incredibly common on college campuses all over the country. In this case, it could be cynically said, white America may have been more aghast at the revelation that evidence of these celebrations can easily be found by anyone at any college library or archive.

Indeed, this event in Virginia politics sent scores of student journalists to their own libraries and institutional archives, where many learned not only about past campus culture’s ties to racism, but about where that information could be located. “These documents are easily available,” wrote the editorial board of the Minnesota Daily, the student newspaper at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, “All yearbooks are available publically, free of charge, in the basement of the Anderson Library. Examples of racial bigotry are hidden in plain sight and no one really talks about them.” 1

Students weren’t the only ones who were prompted to start looking at how evidence of racism has been preserved in the historical record on college campuses. Administrators at several universities, possibly eager to “get out in front” of a potential scandal of their own, were quick to make statements condemning their institution’s racist past. A few universities have set up taskforces of administrators, faculty, and librarians to specifically examine yearbooks, both digitized and print, for what one university euphemistically termed “images of concern.” 2 It is unclear, however, what will be done with the images when the reviews are completed. Other institutions preemptively published statements regarding the potential for offensive content in their holdings while defending the practices of preserving their history. 3

Perhaps surprisingly, none of the institutions that reviewed yearbook content suggested removing historical student publications from the web or the stacks. On the contrary, many were vehemently opposed to doing so. “The offensive and racist images in our yearbooks cannot be erased any more than they can be forgotten. They are a permanent part of our record,” wrote Emory University President Claire E. Sterk in an email to her campus community, “Much as I despise what those images represent, I think it is important that Emory’s yearbooks continue to be accessible online.” 4

Certainly, it is encouraging to see college students and administrators working with librarians, archivists, and historians to confront the sins of the past rather than bury or deny them. However, the documents that reveal evidence of the often racist, sexist, and classist culture that has flourished in some of the most hallowed halls of higher education in America, were never hidden. College and university archives have been actively maintaining these kinds of documents and making them available to the concerned, or simply curious, for decades. Archivists are, furthermore, becoming more visible participants in these important conversations about the preservation and presentation of American history and culture. Is the specter of scandal, and the desire to control the media narrative surrounding that scandal, really the only time stakeholders will highlight the value of archival resources and demonstrate how institutional archives inform, and sometimes complicate, the place of campus culture in broader conversations about race, sex, and class in American history?

While it seems as if little has truly resulted from February’s media frenzy, (Ralph Northam, for example, has refused to resign from office) we can hope that white Americans will not settle back into a kind of collective amnesia about racism’s fervent hold on American institutions, even the progressive intuitions that claim to know better. We must also hope that if and when this kind of scandal floods media outlets again, that people in higher education, particularly administrators, will not suffer from the same amnesia. If we are genuine about our commitment to confronting the history of prejudice and inequality on American college campuses and dealing with the legacy in a tangible way, we cannot act surprised that these problematic documents exist and attempt to deal with the fallout as a public relations crisis. We cannot distance ourselves from the past and forget about the pain we have inflicted, only to remember when it is politically convenient to do so.


“Editorial: Acknowledging Racial, Discriminatory Historical Practices on UMN Campus.” The Minnesota Daily. February 17, 2019.

Samsel, Haley. “In Review of Yearbooks, American University Officials Uncover Fifteen Photos ‘of Concern.’” The Eagle. February 12, 2019.

“Offensive Content in Our Collections.” UMD Special Collections & University Archives (blog), February 26, 2019.

Stirgus, Eric. “Emory University to Create Commission to Review Racist Yearbook Photos.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 20, 2019.

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