Archival Neutrality and Archival Authority

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Earlier this week my friend and colleague Hannah Alpert-Abrams published the following article:

Tamy Guberek, Velia Muralles, Hannah Alpert-Abrams; ‘Irreversible’: The Role of Digitization to Repurpose State Records of Repression, International Journal of Transitional Justice

I want to highlight an important (short) passage on page 5, about the establishment of the AHPN as a public archive staffed in part by “former militants, communist and labor union members, civil society activists, and young people with family members who had been detained, tortured or disappeared during the most repressive years of the internal armed conflict.”

Citing Kristen Weld, the article notes that these workers “balanced their human commitments with ‘archival thinking.’” because they wanted to ensure AHPN records could be admissible as evidence in court cases; court cases which did indeed happen and held (some) people accountable.

At the UT iSchool we talked a lot about notions of “archival neutrality” or “archival objectivity” – the idea that archivists should adhere strictly to this same notion of “archival thinking” in order to accurately document events. The most heated exchange we read on the subject was in the (notorious) “Social Justice special issue” of The American Archivist from 2013, which highlighted some, uh, “strong professional disagreement” in the profession.

When we read articles from that issue in class virtually everyone came down against Mark Greene hard for asserting that archivists’ and records managers’ objectivity in recording government atrocities could help later human rights tribunals. That is, records’ admissibility in court must be tied to their having been created in an objective manner. Verne Harris pointed out that he’d rather see conscientious government records managers fabricating records to save people from harm in the first place.

Working at LLILAS Benson and the Human Rights Documentation Initiative, I can’t think of a single archivist working alongside me who would argue that archivists can be, much less ought to be, neutral. I don’t even know if I have any in my professional network; the debate seems so settled.

But the AHPN is situated interestingly alongside this whole debate: in one sense the records were created neutrally, by state agents who faithfully wrote down and stored evidence of what the police were up to. And as the article points out, AHPN staff, many of them victims of the very state whose records they were now managing, “followed strict archival standards and protocols for the [archive’s] restoration” in order to preserve the documents’ evidentiary value.

What I find so interesting about this is that there are two distinct, absolutely opposed groups of archivists and records managers ostensibly operating along strictly professional lines that some people might call “neutral” or “objective”. But of course neither of these groups is neutral or objective: they’re working either in service of real widespread atrocities or efforts to seek justice for those atrocities. Nevertheless they are adhering to some sort of professional ethic of honesty that ensures records aren’t altered.

I think anytime we debate whether archives are “neutral” we risk wasting our time and missing the point. Certainly people outside the profession need to know that they’re not and have never been neutral. I think we should literally always bring it up in public-facing media. My colleague Rachel Winston did this expertly in an interview released last week.

But we also need to think about why people should take us seriously as authorities when it comes to records, if we aren’t neutral about it. We risk missing an underlying question of where our authority as archivists comes from.

Older generations would say our authority, in fact, comes from our neutrality. But that can’t be it anymore, in fact we’re out there telling the public that we’re not neutral, as we ought to be. But we probably do need something to point the general public to in lieu of neutrality. I don’t know what that is though. Maybe we should frame our authority as deriving from our Archival Transparency or Archival Honesty.

As we’ve all heard a thousand times, we’re living in a “post-facts age”, in which publics (and increasingly, politicians) can just handwave away any facts they’re not interested in confronting as “fake” or “made up”. Frankly I’m worried that this isn’t a phase, that it’s just the inevitable result of the way ICTs have taken shape under late capitalism. I’m worried we’ll see these debates creep over time from being about “fake news” to “fake records”.

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If we as archivists, literal arbiters of what will constitute the permanent historical record, don’t have a clear & pithy term to point to when we’re accused of “bias” (as hollow as that word has become) as a way of invalidating our practice and cutting our funding, we might be in big trouble!

So I guess I’m not interested in debating archival neutrality or objectivity, especially not with people who would pretend it’s even possible. I am, however, interested in coming up with a unifying term for the honest work we put in each and every day in service of historical memory.

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