Monday, August 13, 2012

SAA 2012: archives and social justice

Of all the sessions I attended at this year's annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists, “In Pursuit of the Moral Imperative: Exploring Social Justice and Archives” was the most thought-provoking and satisfying. I had the option of attending not one but two electronic records-focused sessions during the same time slot, but this one promised to speak to the deeper convictions that I bring to my work. I enjoy working with records and messing around with digital stuff, but these things are only the means to an end: doing whatever I can, in my own very small way, to help build and safeguard an equitable and open society.

Imagine my surprise when the cartoon above popped up on my Facebook feed this morning. I've often referred to appraisal as the “archival superpower” – the ability to determine who is or is not reflected in the historical record – and in its funny way this cartoon really drives home the extent of the power we wield. (Thanks to Russian Serbian archivist Arhivistika for posting it to her Facebook feed, archivists around the world for making it go viral, and my colleague Suzanne for sharing it with me and all of her other friends.)

All three presenters are still graduate students at Simmons College, two of them were presenting at a conference for the first time, and all of them gave polished presentations that adhered scrupulously to the session's time limits. Some of my more seasoned colleagues could take a lesson from these rising archivists.

 Noting that archivists often link their work to social justice issues but don't define “social justice” with any precision, Erin Faulder asserted that archivists need to move beyond their usual focus on human rights and governmental accountability and think of social justice as an everyday archival concern. Citing the work of philosopher Iris Marion Young, whose theory of social justice moves beyond issues of equal access to and distribution of resources and asserts that the profession would benefit from examining the work of philosphers and political scientists who have attempted to define social justice. Drawing upon the work of Axel Honneth, who asserts that recognition of an individual's dignity is a prerequisite of social justice and that injustice is the withholding of this recognition, she noted that archivists are the keepers of materials documenting this recognition (or lack thereof) and that our collecting efforts in and of themselves help to legitimize individual identity Faulder also asserted that archivists should look to the work of Iris Marion Young, who moved beyond issues of equitable access to and distribution of economic resources and asserted "social justice concerns the degree to which a society contains and support the institution for the realization of these values: (1) developing and expressing one's experiences, and (2) participating in determining one's actions and the conditions of one's actions." Young stressed that oppression is always contextual and that it often takes the form of myriad small actions, and Faulder noted that the processes of oppression that Young identified – economic exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism and violence – almost always leave records behind.

Faulder ended with a provocative question: what if we sought to document the social forms of oppression, not identities, and started pointing out to political scientists and philosophers that our records support their theories?

Amanda Strauss focused on the work of Chilean archivists who have sought to document the extrajudicial killings, torture, and other human rights violations that took place during the seventeen-year dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet and its broader implications for archival practice. As Strauss noted, the Chilean archivists engaged in this work recognize that it is inherently political -- some Chileans still are still ardent defenders of the Pinochet regime -- and many of them are actively involved in the Chilean human rights movement, which has placed great emphasis upon documenting the regime's abuses. Noting that social justice is based upon the premise that every person has inalienable rights (among them the right to be recognized as a person before the law, not to be tortured or punished unjustly, and to be free in thought and worship), Strauss offered her own definition of social justice. Drawing upon Norwegian archivist Goodman Valderhag's assertion archivists can collect the records that enable courts, tribunals, and legislatures to pursue social justice, James O'Toole's conception of a moral theology of archives, Latin American liberation theologians, she asserted that for archivists, social justice means service to the society one documents.

As a concrete example of this sort of service, she cited the Museum of Memory in Santiago, Chile, which actively seeks to collect materials that shed light upon the people who actively committed abuses, those whose quiet consent allowed the regime to keep operating, and those who suffered at the hands of the regime. In an effort to ensure that all Chileans have access to its holdings, the museum has created numerous traveling exhibits that bring documents out of the stacks and into spaces in which a wide array of people can access them. Strauss argues that this practice challenges “the archival temple” and makes it plain that these documents are owned not by the archives but by the Chilean people themselves and that the acquisition of human rights archives is, in the final analysis, not about the archives but about the men, women, and children whose rights were violated by the regime. Strauss concluded that the call of justice requires that archives be open, and although I can think of more than a few instances in which withholding specific records would better protect the rights of individuals, I generally agree with her. I'm also heartened by her closing assertion concerning the nature of archival power: if social justice requires that the archivist serve the community, allowing the community to create the archives allows for the sharing of power between the two. Archives should be places for discussion and the finding of common ground, not remote temples staffed by people oblivious to the ways in which their collecting activities may reinforce or subvert existing inequalities.

 Jasmine Jones focused on the development of community-based North American archives documenting the Ukrainian famine of 1931-1932, which are spaces for debating – on the Ukrainian emigrant community's own terms – the contours of their experiences and fostering transgenerational memory of what transpired. These archives were established because of the archival silence that surrounded the famine: the Soviet government, which pursued agricultural policies that caused the famine, actively sought to obscure its role in causing the famine and restricted access to archival records documenting its policies and their impact upon the Ukrainian people. Even after the Soviet Union collapsed and its archives were opened, the continued silence of the Russian government has prompted Ukrainian emigrants living in the United States and Canada to continue documenting the experiences of famine victims and survivors.

Jones emphasized that the Soviet conception of multiculturalism required that one identify as primarily Soviet – and that doing so required that one suppress one's past and normalize one's conception of self so that it matched that articulated by the state. However, one does not forget trauma, tragedy, or the details of one's struggle to survive, and the men and women who started gathering materials documenting the famine were trying to take back their own sense of self-direction by rejecting Soviet conceptions of culture and self and claiming their status as survivors.

As Jones pointed out, the Soviet regime was able to keep the true causes of the famine under wraps until the 1970s. As a result, the community-based archives established by Ukrainians living in North America were for decades the only repositories that contained substantial bodies of material documenting the famine and its impact. Moreover, these archives also collected records and other materials that documented life in Ukraine before the famine; some mainstream repositories collected a few Ukrainian materials, but only the community-based archives reflected the multiplicity of Ukrainian voices and experiences. The Soviet Union's collapse led to the opening of some Soviet archives, but large quantities of records are still off-limits to researchers. As a result, the community-based North American archives remain an essential source of information about one of the greatest human rights abuses of the 20th century; the predominance of oral histories and eyewitness testimonies within their collections may pose some methodological problems, but the fact remains that these materials played a key role in shaping discourses that countered the official Soviet explanation of the famine's causes.

Jones concluded by citing David Wallace, who has stressed the need for archivists to be aware of the conditions under which knowledge is produced and to reach out to community-based archives.

I'm of two minds about community-based archives. In some respects, I see the emergence of community-based repositories as a sign that the archival profession has failed to serve a segment of the community to which it is answerable. Community-based archives documenting the lives of LGBTQ people dot the landscape because until very recently, mainstream repositories either didn't want to collect materials documenting the lives of “those people” or were afraid that donors or other stakeholders would object. The emergence of community-based archives documenting the Ukrainian emigre community is a sign that mainstream archives weren't paying attention to the emerging emigre communities in their midst – in no small part because their staff lacked the language skills needed to do so.

At the same time, I'm always awed by the passion and commitment that community-based archives display. The LGBTQ people who established community-based archives were convinced that LGBTQ people had worth and a history that was worth documenting, and the Ukrainian emigres in Canada and the United States established their own archives in part because they were not willing to allow the Soviet Union to define their sense of self or paper over their experiences. For community-based archives, gathering the historical record isn't a workaday activity but a political, psychological, and moral imperative. Moreover, community-based archives help to broaden the reach of archival knowledge. Most of the volunteers who start community-based archives aren't professional archivists, but, at least in my experience, most of them want to care for their holdings properly and actively seek out advice and those that don't may have good reasons for not doing so. I also know several top-notch archivists who were pursuing other careers when they began volunteering in community-based repositories, realized that they had a real passion for archival work, and ended up getting graduate degrees in history or library/information science.

During the question-and answer segment, a couple of interesting issues came to the fore. The first centered upon how to avoid coming from a place of privilege, and all of the participants emphasized the need to be aware of how one's own background shapes one's experiences and the need to respect differing experiences and perspectives. Moderator Terry Cook made what I thought was a particularly important point: some communities may experience our ways of acquiring, preserving, describing, and providing access to records as small actions that contribute to their oppression, and we ignore this possibility at our peril. Another hot issue: how do archivists help people come to grips with their mixed histories of both being oppressed and actively oppressing others? Faulder suggested that Young's focus on the processes of oppression may help us stay focused on the records documenting these processes and remind us that we cannot pick a “side” and that we should document people's experiences as broadly as possible. Jones emphasized that we need to promote the idea that our repositories are home to a multiplicity of voices.

Terry Cook followed up this question by asking the panelists whether we should document the lives of neo-Nazis, homophobes, murderers, and the like. Jones concluded that we should focus on documenting all voices, refraining from telling people what to think, and give people the tools to make their own choices. I'm not perfectly happy with this answer. I have no problem, in select circumstances, with archivists asserting that they document some governments, organizations, or individuals precisely because these governments, organizations, or individuals were, in an explicit and sustained manner, actively committed to engaging in the processes of oppression. However, this is an argument that should be deployed with great care and restraint; for example, it's an appropriate approach for documenting Pinochet-era Chile but not for, whatever its failings, the present-day Chilean government. I think that, in most cases, Jones's position is the prudent one.

 I'll end this post with Terry Cook's provocative closing statement. When Chilean human rights activist Ariel Dorfman gave the 2010 Nelson Mandela Lecture, he asserted that communities give themselves the chronicles they need and that nations whose stories depend upon the suppression of some voices are building their foundations upon sand. We need to start thinking about archival documentation in the same way.


Anonymous said...

Pity that SAA promotes such people as Jasmine Jones whose political prejudices and personal political agenda preclude them from doing objective scientific research.

Dr Natasha Khramtsovsky

Ingmario said...

Very interesting post, but I have some reservations about the "truth" of records of government, especially dictatorial ones...
In his book "The File" Timothy Garton Ash describes his Stasi-file and the people who contributed to it, the "Inoffiziëlle Mitarbeiter" (Unofficial Employees). One of the things he notices is that a lot of the information in the file is kind of true, whilst other information is absolutely not true. But the files are so vast and detailed that it's almost impossible to not believe what's recorded in them.
Another thing is that after "Die Wende" and the opening of the Stasi-files there was somekind of whitch hunt for IM's: if you had worked for the Stasi, you were almost expelled from society. But Garton Asj also describes the case of a man who was forced by the Stasi to spy on one of his friends. He told this friend that the Stasi forced him to it and together they "invented" the information for Stasi-file. But who would believe this, when one of them or both are dead?

l'Archivista said...

Dr. Khramtsovsky: I found Ms. Jones to be acutely sensitive to the context, nuance, and partiality inherent in all archival records. She is convinced (as am I) that the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s was one of the greatest of Stalin's many crimes, but she is no blind defender of the Ukrainian people (she briefly discussed the importance of documenting Ukrainian involvement in Nazi human rights abuses) and firmly believes that archivists should document the multiplicity of all human experience. I have every reason to believe that she would welcome efforts to document the experiences of Soviet officials who worked in Ukraine in the 1930s -- even if doing so produced archival documentation that contradicted the experiences of the Ukrainian emigres who settled in North America.

Mr. Koch: I share your belief that government records are not always to be trusted, and I believe that all three of the panelists who spoke at SAA would agree. All of them stated or implied that government records are necessary but not sufficient documentary sources, and Ms. Strauss and Ms. Jones explicitly emphasized that both government and non-government records were essential to making sense of what happened in Pinochet-era Chile and Stalin-era Ukraine.

Rgscarter said...

It is wonderful that SAA provides a venue such people as Jasmine Jones whose personal politics (although I cannot pretend to know the first thing about based on the summary here) inform her research on the community archival collections which offer testimonies to counter the "objective" Soviet accounts of the Famine. The Famine, which the United Nations - including Russia - and other international bodies recognize, and the collections she spoke about, exist/ed, regardless of one’s own personal beliefs/opinions about the causes of the Famine. The records documenting the experiences of people should be examined as carefully and critically as Soviet or other accounts.

With that out of my system, thank you for your summary of the session – which is one of the ones I am sorry I missed, as I was unable to attend the conference.

In response to your concern that the emergence community-based archives "as a sign that the archival profession has failed to serve a segment of the community", I will say that over its relatively short history, Western archives were established to records the actions and transactions of the State or other government bodies, and corporations. The notion that they should serve the broader community – the Canadian Total Archives, for example – is a relatively new idea. State/institutional archives were not equipped to capture the archival legacy of many societal groups and, particularly for minority and marginalized groups, they would not want the state to control their history. The emergence of community-based archives in this sense is a great step forward, as it has allowed for autonomy and control along with preservation of these groups’ records. Not all might be up to our professional standards, but is their prerogative to preserve (or not) their records as they see fit. When members of the group approach us for advice we should be happy to help, otherwise it is patronizing to attempt to impose our methodologies and practices which may be at odds with that of the community. Ideally, there would be opportunities for government bodies to offer financial and/or professional assistance to community archives for those that wish to seek it out (as we had, until recently, in Canada through the National Archival Development Program, which directly & indirectly, offered both).

Terry, whose provocative comment follows Verne Harris, is right to ask if we should document those we find abhorrent, if only to understand them. This is the first step in countering their hate. For example, the author Steig Larrson maintained a large collection of research materials, and published on, extremist right-wing groups in Sweden as an attempt to highlight and fight the ideologies of these groups. Not all archives, however, need to take up activist causes (although, I do agree with you that all should strive for social justice in their work, no matter what their institutional mandate) and the acquisition strategies of most will be dictated by the collecting policies of the archives. A true Total Archives which fully documents all the nuanced facets of our society, sadly, is as much of a figment as objective scientific research in archives.

All the best,

l'Archivista said...

Rodney: Thanks for your informative and incisive comment. You are absolutely correct in highlighting the governmental and corporate roots of Western archival practice. However, the "new social history" and the changes in archival theory and practice that it helped to propel first emerged half a century ago. If, in this day and age, a community feels that it has no choice but to establish its own archives, then we are indeed falling down on the job.

However, if a community seeks to establish its own archives because it wants to maintain autonomy and control over its own records, I'm absolutely fine with that. Now that I've had a bit of time to reflect on what I wrote yesterday, I realize that I sometimes overemphasize the perspective of people who have felt ignored or rejected by "mainstream" archives and sometimes overlook that of people who consciously decide to remain outside the mainstream. For example, the Lesbian Herstory Archives has decided, among other things, not to hire professional staff (volunteers from all backgrounds are welcome), to refrain from seeking funding from sources outside the communities it serves, and not to keep its holdings at any academic institution. It has every right to retain its independence and to organize and manage its collections as it sees fit.

I share your belief that, in the final analysis, we'll never be able to create a Total Archives that fully reflects the complexity and nuances of society, but, dang it, we can at least try to ensure that the documentary record is as comprehensive as possible.

l'Archivista said...

In re: the origins of the image that precedes this post, C in DC has informed me that Rachel Donohue created the original design one or two years ago and that she may have had it printed onto stickers that she distributed at SAA. The person who created this version of the image made some changes; for example, Donohue's version used "she" instead of "they."

Slobodanka-Sasa said...

Only one small correction. Arhivistka not Russian-site blog, but Serbian. I am glad that our post was your inspiration for this article. I think that archivists should be at the service of people, the human community, not the government and politicians.
Greetings. Slobodanka Cvetkovic, arhivist from Serbia

l'Archivista said...

Ms. Cvetkovic: Thank you so much for correcting my error. I don't read Serbo-Croatian or Russian, and when I visited Arhivistka, I saw the Cyrillic text and erroneously concluded that the blog was written in Russian. I won't make this mistake again.

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For the record: the deleted comments were all spam for UK accounting firms (or, more likely, scammers posing as various UK accounting firms) or German porn sites.

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