Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of committee member Genna Duplisea, archivist and special collections librarian at Salve Regina University.
On a class message board during library school, I once remarked that Howard Zinn’s “Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest” (https://minds.wisconsin.edu/handle/1793/44118) was a “mic drop.” I felt his call to action across the decades. Working full-time while taking two summer classes had accelerated the pace of my life and my studies past thoughtfulness, but reading Zinn’s concise connection between archives, power, and justice reminded me why I had chosen to train as an archivist. This piece made clear the importance of “the relation between professing one’s craft and professing one’s humanity” (14). Returning to this speech almost eight years after I first read it, in one of the greatest times of societal, political, and public health upheaval I have experienced, I was stunned by how apropos his words continue to be.
Zinn’s essay, published in The Midwestern Archivist in 1977, draws on an address he gave at the 1970 SAA Annual Meeting called “The Activist Archivist” (https://americanarchivist.org/doi/pdf/10.17723/aarc.34.1.23527290p7mx1w33) He argues that insistence of neutrality as a value of professionalism causes a separation between work and belief and an assumption that the work of archivists is not inherently political (17). Archivists have made progress in embracing the understanding that archives are not neutral, though it is not a universally-held tenet. The maintenance of neutrality “leaves very little time or energy to worry about whether the [information] machine is designed for war or peace, for social need or individual profits, to help us or to poison us” (16).
In recent years, we have seen attempts to erase archival information in support of crimes against humanity and environmental degradation. The routine destruction of ICE records or the removal of Web information on climate change left over from a previous administration could be standard archival practices. However, if we keep our values separate from our assessment of these practices, our will will tend “to maintain the existing social order by perpetuating its values, by legitimizing its priorities, by justifying its wars, perpetuating its prejudices, contributing to its xenophobia, and apologizing for its class order” (18). Such controversies are not quibbles about efficient procedures; they are moves of powerful apparatuses with bearing on people’s lives.
During this pandemic, we all must pause; as Arundhati Roy writes in her recent essay, “The pandemic is a portal,” (https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca) this rupture forces “humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew.” We have an opportunity to ask whether the work of archivists resists or endorses harmful narratives, such as American exceptionalism, disease as a third-world problem, immigrants as dangerous, poverty as a just product of meritocracy, or science as suspect. We do not have to look for egregious prejudice to see the impact of archival information and practices on people’s lives.
Zinn remarks that problems in the United States are not problems of excess, but of normalcy; how prescient was his observation that “our economic problem is not a depression but the normal functioning of the economy, dominated by corporate power and profit” (19). We see the coronavirus rip apart people’s lives and livelihoods, and lay bare societal problems and structural inequalities. How do we make sure that we document these phenomena equitably, inclusively, and with careful attention to our own influence?
I take Zinn’s words as an argument not to return to “normal” after the pandemic, and Roy argues that nothing would be worse. The disruption of operations is an opportunity to decide how we want to remake our work. Zinn notes several biases in archives — the wealthy and powerful over the marginalized, the domination of the written word, past over present, preservation over documentation, among others — that are still challenges today. How do we want to contend with these biases in the future? To what, and to whom, do we want to give our attention? Archivists have roles to play in guiding for more equitable and activist documentation and access to information. Each of us will have to decide what that means, and I encourage everyone to take this strange time to meditate on how we can further humanize our work.