Monday, March 23, 2009

"Do we need archivists in Ghana?"

American archivists have long struggled to explain why it's important to preserve historical records of enduring value. We're not the only archivists who struggle to do to so. Sammy Dzandu, an archivist in Ghana, recently undertook an (admittedly unscientific) poll concerning the importance of archivists in Ghanaian society. He found an all-too-familiar mixture of ignorance and indifference:
According to one of the interviewees, once something had become useless, the best thing to do was to discard it. It was therefore not necessary to employ archivists, whose duties were to take care of unwanted things.

Another person said archivists should not complain of unemployment because there were many waste-management companies and since archivists were expected to manage old and unwanted things, those companies could readily employ them.
After outlining what archivists do -- identify, acquire, preserve, and provide access to records of lasting value -- he succinctly tackles the popular misconception that archivists work with useless old things:
. . . Medical researchers use archives to study the patterns of diseases. Historians and genealogists rely on archival sources to analyze past events to reconstruct family histories. Authors also use archives to acquire a feel for the people and times about which they write. Businesses use archival records to improve their public relations and to promote their new products. Engineers do not joke with their archival drawings and manuals especially when it comes to maintaining their equipment. Legally, archives are used to establish claims to lands and other privileges. Unfortunately, some people do not attach any importance to records and for that matter, those who manage them.

There have been land and chieftaincy disputes in many parts of the country resulting in loss of lives and property. Such disputes could be prevented or minimized if proper records were kept. How could we tell whether one is really qualified to be an heir to a throne or a skin if the necessary legal and historical records . . . are non-existent? It is not surprising that many people take advantage of our inability to keep proper records to forcefully but cunningly snatch our properties from us.
Mr. Dzandu's explanation of Ghana's need for archivists might be a bit startling to many American archivists: when the subject of land disputes arises, we tend to think of protracted legal battles, not bloodshed. However, the situation that he describes would doubtless be familiar to people living in many, many places throughout the world. Good recordkeeping is an integral component of the rule of law, and those of us who live in societies that have long drawn upon the documentary record when resolving disputes sometimes take for granted the relative peace and stability that we enjoy. We shouldn't.

Kudos to Mr. Dzandu for making the case for the importance of archives in such visceral terms -- and kudos to all of the Ghanaian commenters who have voiced their support for his position.

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