Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. The following post is from Bradley J. Wiles, a PhD student in Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, School of Information Studies.
The COVID-19 pandemic promises to be a game changer in many areas of contemporary society moving forward. Aside from the devastating mortality currently unfolding, the most immediate impact involves severe disruptions in healthcare systems, economic activity, and supply chain management, all of which have short and long term consequences for communities depending on the depth and scale of the damage in a given location. A major outcome so far is that the pandemic has forced people and organizations to rethink and reconfigure daily interactions previously taken for granted, both as a response to stemming the spread of the virus in real time and in preparation for future disruptions. For many individuals and organizations, virtual interaction through networked digital technologies has been the main route of accessing or retaining some sense of normalcy during this trying time.
In some instances, the ability (and often privilege) to utilize online communications and cloud-based applications offer the only possibility of keeping employed, delivering education, receiving medical treatment, reaching out to loved ones, and participating in other aspects of everyday life. Although the drastic modification of these and other social activities is likely temporary, the pandemic demonstrates that the value of the internet to maintain social cohesion is beyond question (if often problematic) and that many people and organizations can no longer get by without it. Ideally, this era will spark productive conversations and activity on digital infrastructure development that extends from matters of life and death during the pandemic to more prosaic cultural interests in less extraordinary times.
For better or worse, the cultural world has experienced something of a digital flourishing during this extended social distancing period. Concerts, plays, lectures, book readings, and other cultural events that were previously accessible to limited audiences are now offered regularly and freely in real time via various conferencing platforms, social media outlets, and streaming services. Approximating normalcy, staving off boredom, and raising spirits seem to be the main motivations of these efforts, but these also serve to bolster online communities and their cultural correspondents by keeping the focus of cultural interests within the online environment where so much other activity already occurs.
For their part, many individuals and organizations in the archives sector have tried to maintain their regular duties and transition further to online delivery of services. A recent post in Atlas Obscura described several notable projects aimed at engaging new and existing user communities through the web. These and other ongoing institutional efforts reflect theoretical discussions and practical trends in the archives discipline that emphasize the growing importance of community-based initiatives to expand their scope and direction toward greater inclusion and representation, while also supporting the network of non-institutional cultural heritage interests in documenting an increasingly diverse society.
The proliferation of web-based technologies has helped facilitate the growth of independent community archives, as well as enabling traditional archives to establish more targeted documentation strategies and projects that incorporate the expertise, perspectives, and labor of non-archivist collaborators in everything from collection development to public programming to archival description. The prevailing notion is that archival work can no longer discount the people, groups, cultures, and identities reflected in the collections and that, whenever possible, those who might legitimately speak on their behalf should be involved. Often these are current or prospective audiences that can bring a fuller understanding to the collections–a process made more immediate and accessible by mobile digital networks and social media utilities.
Undoubtedly, sustained effort to engage new and diverse publics is a moral and practical necessity for all archives institutions in this emergent digital reality heightened by the pandemic, regardless of one’s location in the overarching network of cultural interests. The pandemic also offers an opportunity for American archivists and other records and information professionals to advocate on behalf of our institutions and our shared principles as a bulwark against the entrenched difficulties of reaching common ground on facts, evidence, and truth in a tribalist and politically polarized society. Journalist David Roberts has spent the past several years tracking this “epistemic crisis,” which he links to comprehensive right-wing attempts at undermining public faith in government, academia, media, and science¹. We see firsthand how dangerous this is in the current administration’s woefully inadequate, dishonest, and fatalistic approach to a national and global emergency.
However, this only tells part of the story. Various strains of the skeptical relativism that characterize the current social and political landscape are residual holdovers of intellectual movements originating in the academic left during the 1960s and 1970s. Although many of these movements were focused on peace, justice, equality, and liberation, they were fundamentally based on mistrust of institutions. It is most definitely a stretch to draw moral equivalency between armed protestors railing against social distancing measures in 2020 with activists marching to protest the Vietnam War in 1968, but the impulse to react and respond to real and perceived threats from powerful institutions transcends political identification and ideology.
The personalized information universes enabled by the web now make it easier for groups and individuals to coalesce around a narrow agenda or set of beliefs without having to engage in wider discussions that contradict these. Everybody has their own unfalsifiable truth and nobody can deny anyone else’s reality. In this setting, facts and evidence supported by verifiable information and reliable records are meaningless, or rather they hold only situational meaning and arbitrary relevance. Institutions are suspect because they are gatekeepers incapable of serving all equally or effectively.
Undermining an institution involves discrediting its experts, rejecting its animating ideas or mission, disparaging its central functions, and casting doubt on its social value and historical legitimacy. In most instances, this arises against an institution’s authority from an external oppositional standpoint, but with archives the opposition and skepticism frequently originate within the profession. This often takes the form of critical evaluation and deliberative efforts by scholars and practitioners to improve institutions. But there are several intellectual and activist strands that seem equally intent on categorizing mainstream archives institutions as just another tool of systemic oppression, an irredeemable cog in the larger framework of white supremacy, colonialism, misogyny, economic exclusivity, heteronormativity, etc.
Certainly, there are many instances over time that justify a skeptical or even pessimistic position on mainstream or traditional archives. There’s no doubt that the prominence of community-centered models based around intersectionality and social justice in recent disciplinary conversations reflects attempts to redress such historical marginalization. Although there seems to be general consensus in the profession that this is a net positive for archives, I don’t think anyone can determine with any certainty what the long-term impact of this shifting focus might be on the mainstream institutional networks or on the historical record more generally. That said, precarity related to funding, technology, and administration all present more of a threat to traditional archives than the muddled postmodern criticisms of scholars, but the lack of any comprehensive defense of institutions in the face of inward criticism and outward threats is still very unfortunate.
It is my belief that a positive defense of institutions must be made to internal skeptics and external parties that are unaware of the value that archives provide. This is not a “you’re either for us or against us” proposition, but rather a reminder of the important role that institutions play in cultural memory and democratic stability. If the past few years have revealed anything about power and authority, it is how easily norms can be discarded by unprincipled leadership. If the COVID-19 pandemic teaches us anything, it is that information, facts, and evidence are a matter of life and death. It should be clear by now that our institutions are largely responsible for holding the line against historical threats, both those posed by rare natural phenomena and others resulting from the epistemological free-for-all of the digital age. Archives institutions are flawed but essential social assets that still offer the possibility of finding common ground and preserving the truth.
¹ See the following articles for more reportage and details on Roberts’ view: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/3/22/14762030/donald-trump-tribal-epistemology; https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/11/2/16588964/america-epistemic-crisis; https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/11/16/20964281/impeachment-hearings-trump-america-epistemic-crisis