Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Doonesbury, archivists, and partisanship

In case you missed it, a "Library of Congress archivist" was featured in the September 21 installment of Doonesbury. Violet McPhee, a repeat guest on Mark Slackmeyer's radio show, has brought a document that she describes as "an extremely valuable acquisition": the original copy of the "the founding document of the modern hate-speech movement--Newt Gingrich's famous GOPAC memo." This "Magna Carta of attack politics" tells "Republican candidates to smear opponents with words like 'sick, disgrace, corrupt, cheat, decay, pathetic, radical, traitor, anti-family, greed,' and so on," thus codifying "the toxic rhetoric that came to define an era!" The document even has "the original mudstains--so prized by curators!"

I've been a Doonesbury fan since I was about twelve, and I'm always fascinated when our low-profile profession is depicted in popular culture. Violet McPhee, an amply proportioned and bespectacled woman of a certain age, looks like a number of archivists I've known--and, in all likelihood, she looks like the archivist that I'll be about ten years from now. Garry Trudeau has obviously had some experience with archives, as evidenced by the nicely drawn tan clamshell box that houses the GOPAC memo; the memo itself is enclosed in a sheet protector meant to be inserted into a three-ring notebook, which is a bit off, but some repositories do use archival-quality sheet protectors of this sort.

Why McPhee needs to bring the document to a radio show is beyond me, but Garry Trudeau is entitled to a little artistic license. I also doubt that GOPAC's records are or ever will be at the Library of Congress or any other repository--when I was a student assistant at the M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives, I learned that, with the exception of the Conservative Party, which donated a great collection to the department, all of New York State's party organizations had tossed their older records--but it's not impossible.

I fully recognize that Trudeau is merely using the character of the archivist to make a political point. However, Violet McPhee's lengthy, overtly partisan description of the GOPAC memo brings to mind the real-world nastiness in which some of my fellow archivists have been indulging as of late. Don't get me wrong: I'm a lifelong Democrat who made a conscious decision to live in a "blue" state, and I'm impatiently waiting for the Obama campaign to send me the car magnet it promised me. However, as I've noted before, some of the statements that John Dean made at SAA's 2008 annual meeting and some of the "questions" asked by audience members crossed the line into naked partisanship. Some of the comments that have been posted to various archival listservs during the past couple of weeks have been similarly one-sided and provocative.

I realize that there is a close and hotly contested Presidential race going on, that the economy may well be disintegrating before our eyes, and that the current Presidential administration has proven itself to be no friend of records, archives, or governmental accountability. I firmly believe that the profession has the right and the obligation to draw attention to this--or any other--administration's records-related deficiencies and that individual archivists should be free to make known their support for a given party, candidate, or policy.

However, we're not doing the profession any favors by being openly contemptuous of people who happen not to share our individual political views. I strongly suspect that most archivists are Democrats, but there are a substantial number of Republicans in our ranks. All of the Republican archivists I've known have been committed, thoughtful, and smart people, and they deserve to get through the workday without being demeaned by their colleagues. A little spirited debate is one thing--heck, one of my Republican colleagues sometimes goes out of his way to get the debate going! Disdain and abuse are another.

Moreover, we need to remain mindful that, as inconspicuous as we generally are, we have awesome superpowers: we are the shapers and keepers of the historical record. As the SAA Code of Ethics states, we must use these superpowers appropriately, i.e., we must "exercise professional judgment in acquiring, appraising, and processing historical materials" and avoid allowing our "personal beliefs or perspectives to affect" our professional decisions. I would add that we should also strive to avoid giving the impression that we might allow our personal beliefs to color our professional decisions in ways that might damage or distort the historical record.

Again, I think it's a matter of degree: it's alright to express dislike of or disagreement with a given leader, organization, social movement, etc., but we also have to keep emphasizing that, individually and collectively, we are committed to ensuring that the historical record is as comprehensive and accurate as possible. I know it's really hard sometimes, but let's exercise a little restraint, okay?

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