Last summer, the SAA announced they were planning to hold at the annual meeting a brown bag lunch discussion of a forthcoming article by Mark Greene — one in which he commented on social justice as an archival imperative.  Greene explained that he primarily wanted to spark a debate within the profession on a topic that has received fairly one-sided attention.  So I’m going to take him up on that challenge.

Because Greene predominantly referenced Rand Jimerson’s work, I decided to read Archives Power (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2009) so that I could be well-versed in its arguments and be better able to evaluate Greene’s critique of it.  (However, from my attendance at the brown bag discussion, it became obvious to me that exposure to the literature is not a prerequisite for having a strong opinion on this hot-button issue.)  Rather than doing a traditional book review, I’ll use this space to incorporate some of Jimerson’s points that I found most compelling.  In the coming weeks, I’ll evaluate Greene’s article and try to establish my own viewpoint.

Jimerson offered three metaphors to explain the power of archives (3-10):

  1. the temple, which shapes social memory
  2. the prison, which preserves and secures records
  3. the restaurant, which interprets and mediates between records and users

I like the metaphors in principle — though a vault might be a more appealing comparison than a prison — because they provide an easily accessible means to comprehend the purposes of archives.  And Jimerson didn’t argue that these are mutually exclusive depictions of the power of archives.

Jimerson cited Verne Harris’ identification of three major discourses that have defined roles for archivists (9):

  1. western positivism (e.g., the Dutch men), which looks at archivists as “workers with the record”
  2. Enlightenment (e.g., Hilary Jenkinson), which looks at archivists as “keepers of the record”
  3. postmodernism (beginning with Hugh Taylor), which looks at archivists as “narrators of the record”

Although, once again, these roles are not exclusive, many archivists and certainly most theorists tend toward one.  Considering the possibility of an audience that might not be well-versed in archival functions, Jimerson went on to outline the responsibilities of archivists (10-18):

  1. appraisal, or deciding what to preserve
  2. arrangement and description, or organizing and controlling records
  3. reference, access, and use

Jimerson used a thought-provoking quote from Cicero to introduce his chapter on the development of archives:

“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.  For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?” (24)

Perhaps it is my background as an historian or perhaps it’s my love of textile metaphors, but Cicero’s idea strikes me as one that defines my own motivations as an archivist.

In his chapter on the historical role American archivists, Jimerson included a quote from archivist J. Franklin Jameson to historian Henry Adams about the contribution of archivists: “‘I struggle on, making bricks without much idea of how the architects will use them, but believing that the best architect that ever was cannot get along without bricks, and therefore trying to make good ones’” (106).  I tend more toward the helper role than one who needs the spotlight, but this statement might be a little too self-effacing even for me.  However, I do appreciate the principle that archivists need to be aware that there is a bigger edifice being constructed with their work.

In the chapter “Resisting Political Power,” Jimerson incorporated Czech author Milan Kundera and British author George Orwell as voices contending against authoritarianism, explaining that in some societies, “remembering unpleasant truths is illegal.  Thus, memory becomes a political act, charged with social meaning.  Historians and archivists work in a public arena, which is unavoidably political.  Every choice we make – about what documents and evidence to save, what to include in our research, and how to frame the questions for our interpretations of the past – reflects our own personal and collective perspectives on the world” (131).

Jimerson continued with a focus on memory in the following chapter, defining four planes of memory: (195)

  1. personal memory
  2. collective memory
  3. historical memory
  4. archival memory

Jimerson expanded on the idea of archival memory to be “constructed memory.”  He explained, “Because archives confer significance and authority on the documents they house, this power can shape the perspectives that we have on individuals and social groups.  Far from being a neutral repository for recorded memory, archives (and archivists) actively mediate and shape the archival record” (216).   Jimerson ended the chapter with a section entitled “A Responsibility for Tomorrow,” arguing that “the weight of the archivist’s responsibility surely lies more with the future than with the past.  It is the promise of future usefulness that justifies the archival enterprise” (234).  I personally appreciate this notion of future usefulness because I believe it places a proper emphasis on access and use of archival records.

The final two chapters (and the conclusion) introduce the more contentious arguments in Jimerson’s work.  In the chapter “Serving the Public Good,” Jimerson recounted the work by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Dialogue, contending that “the archival record can thus foster the work of reconciliation, healing, and social justice.  The first step in this process is to remember the past in order to overcome oppression and to hold former leaders accountable for their actions” (239).  (Interestingly, in the prior chapter, Jimerson cited Michael Kammen’s Mystic Chords of Memory, where historian Kammen argued that “‘memory is more likely to be activated by contestation, and amnesia is more likely to be induced by the desire for reconciliation’” [225].  So the role of archives in encouraging reconciliation is far from resolved.)  Jimerson’s quotes of Elie Wiesel certainly offer compelling evidence of the importance of memory as a servant of justice, such as “‘Justice without memory is an incomplete justice, false and unjust.  To forget would be an absolute injustice in the same way that Auschwitz was the absolute crime.  To forget would be the enemy’s final triumph’” (243).  Jimerson broadly contended:

“Archival protection of records thus serves the vital need to ensure social justice and protect citizens’ rights.  By holding public leaders accountable to the people, by documenting the rights of citizens and the lives and voices of marginalized groups, by ensuring public access to essential records, and by providing a secure repository for reliable and authentic records, archivists and the archives they preserve contribute to the public interest.  Archives for all become archives for justice” (267).

Yet before concluding this chapter, Jimerson acknowledged the inherent complications of activist archives, citing several civil rights repositories “that seek to shape the public discourse on civil rights and sometimes even attempt to advocate a particular interpretive vision of the movement.  Such efforts may blur the line between scholarship and political partisanship” (275).

In the chapter entitled “Responding to the Call of Justice,” Jimerson expounded on his vision of the proper role for archivists.  In keeping with documentation strategy, he explained an idea of archives that actively seek out records that can provide the fullest representation of society, contending that “it may no longer be enough to select and acquire records that have already been created.  Archivists may need to consider going beyond their custodial role and to fill in the gaps, to ensure that documentation is created where it is missing, and to address the needs of those outside the societal power structures” (303).  He suggested that ensuring diversity is not only a concern in archival appraisal but also in description and access.

Jimerson’s conclusion asserted the need to codify archival ethics.  In making this argument, he turned to philosophy to explain that “deontological theories seek to establish the morality of an action based only on the act itself, with no consideration of its consequences” while “teleological theory reverses this orientation, focusing on ends rather than means.  In these formulations, the moral act is that which would produce the most desirable consequences, regardless of the ethical aspects of the actions taken” (345).  Jimerson found among archivists too much of a focus on the former without enough consideration of the latter.  He concluded with this analysis:

“Responding effectively to the challenges of using the power of archives for the public good will require a broad commitment by the archival profession to reflect on underlying assumptions and biases, and to overcome these through a renewed commitment to democratic values. . . .  Historical examples of abuses of power, control through manipulation of the archival record, and efforts to limit access to vital information show the dangers of misusing the power of archives and records.  Archivists should commit themselves to preventing the archival profession’s explicit or implicit support of privileged elites and powerful rulers at the expense of the people’s rights and interests.  They should commit themselves to the values of public accountability, open government, cultural diversity, and social justice.  Then archivists can truly say that they are ensuring archives for all, and employing their professional skills to promote a better society.  This will be a valuable application of archives power to secure memory, accountability, and social justice” (362-63).


Has this sparked your curiosity about the concept of archives and social justice?  If so, come back next week, when I’ll reflect on Mark Greene’s article.  The following week, I’ll look at some of the dialogue that has been prompted by Greene’s article, including Rand Jimerson’s response that was published alongside Greene’s article in the last issue of The American Archivist.