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 Bision, 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.

Footnotes:

“Editorial: Acknowledging Racial, Discriminatory Historical Practices on UMN Campus.” The Minnesota Daily. February 17, 2019. https://www.mndaily.com/article/2019/02/o-editorial-acknowledging-racial-discriminatory-historical-practices-on-umn-campus.

Samsel, Haley. “In Review of Yearbooks, American University Officials Uncover Fifteen Photos ‘of Concern.’” The Eagle. February 12, 2019. https://www.theeagleonline.com/article/2019/02/in-review-of-yearbooks-american-university-officials-uncover-fifteen-photos-of-concern.

“Offensive Content in Our Collections.” UMD Special Collections & University Archives (blog), February 26, 2019.   https://hornbakelibrary.wordpress.com/2019/02/26/offensive-content-in-our-collections/.

Stirgus, Eric. “Emory University to Create Commission to Review Racist Yearbook Photos.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 20, 2019. https://www.ajc.com/news/local-education/emory-university-creates-commission-review-racist-yearbook-photos/fmIbZdVCMdt2jAhhpUsKtK/.

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Archivists on the News: The Archivist in an Accountable World

Archivists on the News is a new series featuring perspectives on current news. Our first post comes from Joel Horowitz, Special Collections Librarian at the Alexandria Library, Local History/Special Collections Branch. You can follow him on Twitter @PurpleArchivist.

“It is your duty to make sure that today’s radicals are not tomorrow’s employees.” So concludes the introductory video of Canary Mission, which seeks to document students and faculty expressing what it classifies as extremist views on college campuses. Users who have chosen to “defend freedom” are invited to submit video and social media evidence and open source records to their site because otherwise “a few years later these individuals are applying for jobs within your company.” Decades-old information has long been sought about political candidates, but preventive collection from college students with the stated goal of creating a blacklist or inspiring retractions is a significant step in that direction, and might face enormous challenges in proving authenticity in the face of politically motivated skepticism (Canary Mission would not comment on the length of time it plans to preserve information).

Canary-Mission
Header image from Canary Mission’s website

In a previous era, personal papers were exactly that, personal. In fact, they were often purged (or “organized”) to remove embarrassing material before becoming available to the public through a professional organization. Today, more and more of our personal records are available in real time, and our lives examined as we live them to be treated as public records by those who choose. SAA advocacy guidelines have long focused on the privacy of information in government hands and letting “public leaders,” “public officials,” and “agencies” be held accountable by citizens. But we must also consider the accountability of citizens by citizens according to their own subjective values through the collection of our records to be preserved for our lifetimes, if not beyond, in public view.

Moving in the opposite direction, some states have banned the practice of demanding access to the social media accounts of job applicants or even taking off-duty political activities into consideration. More notably, groups like Ban the Box have sought to limit the consideration of even criminal records in hiring.

But are there costs to a highly private society? Recent years have seen a rise in the practice of “doxing,” in which an ordinary individual is exposed to public retaliation for acts they performed anonymously or in private. It’s typically associated with outing people from Unite the Right rallies or otherwise deemed racists, but a similar approach has been used for other things like being a gamer or, in an earlier era, being gay. Obviously, the level of stigma attached to the many behaviors and characteristics people are reluctant to admit publicly vary, which can obscure how common they are. A less private “accountability society” could make some stigmas disappear (as gay pride has helped to do), while making others more impactful (as Canary’s slogan hopes). In this way, privacy can be a question of trust in social norms.

Historians of privacy remind us that it is in many ways a relatively new thing, a creation of the 19th and 20th centuries that earlier ancestors had limited knowledge or experience with as we understand it. Privacy as a right in the United States has its origins in an 1890 law review article. Balloting became secret in America only gradually over the second half of the 19th century, but is now covered by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet political parties and their allies have massive databases of public and corporate information that they will probably keep on us forever, eroding the privacy of our political opinions. In a lengthy 2015 piece, Greg Ferenstein argues that privacy was once rare because it was difficult and inconvenient to maintain and is likely to be abandoned if those conditions return, as he expects to result from advances in medicine and other personalization technologies.

Such an outcome is not inevitable, and Europe is at the forefront of cementing the current order through its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The European “right to be forgotten” is essentially a right to erase the history of one’s life, even when lived in public, so long as it is not yet vitally important to that public. Through the GDPR, Europeans are once again able to purge the modern version of their “papers” and present a curated, up-to-date, image of themselves, unless they fall under one of its exceptions.

China appears to be taking the opposite path from Europe. A place where social norms and social cohesion are highly prized, China is promising to restore “trust” in society by assigning a Social Credit Score to every citizen based on an analysis of available data. While a uniform government score based on our histories might prove tyrannical (and China’s isn’t yet), one could theoretically allow a variety of groups, interests, and communities to offer their own methods of scoring data, and each individual to choose the system whose opinion they value or need, which is not far from how we are privately evaluated today for things like credit, jobs, insurance, and dating. American society, too, is still grappling with the basic question of what, if anything, we should know about each other and when.

While a recent article by Ashlyn Velte on activist social media archives does point to emerging ethical debates and standards for donated materials, it may prove difficult for the profession to try to impose these standards on politically motivated collecting organizations pursuing goals many archivists support. Is it unethical for an archivist to participate in an accountability project or a public service for them to do so? Does it depend on the goals? The methods? Is it even our right to shape society so fundamentally by boycotting organizations that operate outside our guidelines, but within our laws? It isn’t clear the profession has official answers to these questions. But if these privately managed public digital archives might end up being assembled for long-term preservation by archival tools, archival methods, and ultimately digital archivists trained for the purpose, how can it not?

Editor’s note: I&A posted about the Right to Be Forgotten in 2016 in this research post.