As I explained last week, the pending discussion of Mark Greene’s article at the August 2013 meeting of the Society of American Archivists prompted my reading of Rand Jimerson’s book Archives Power.  I then read a preprint of Mark Greene’s article “A Critique of Social Justice as an Archival Imperative: What Is It We’re Doing That’s All That Important?” in order to participate in a lunch-time discussion during the SAA annual meeting.

In his article, Greene explicitly identified himself as an activist archivist and one who is professionally committed to diversity of archival holdings, researchers, and workers.  Yet he articulated two distinct dangers in embracing social justice as an archival imperative: doing so could damage the profession (1) by being “overly politicizing” and (2) by “weakening both our ethical standing and our power” (303).

Greene pointed to South African archivist Verne Harris as the earliest and best-known proponent of this social justice imperative — a distinction agreed upon by Rand Jimerson.  Greene then proceeded to pinpoint some of the oversights in Harris’ arguments.  Where Harris acknowledged but glossed over the danger that in embracing social justice archivists could lose their identity as “impartial custodian” and “honest broker,” Greene succinctly questioned, “Whose justice?  Justice for whom? (307).

Greene identified Randall Jimerson as a “well-known and well-respected” archivist who “has promulgated the most widely disseminated and comprehensive formulation of social justice archival practice.”  He immediately suggested a point of agreement with Jimerson in that they both believe “that what archivists so matters profoundly to the larger society” and that “archivists wield significant power” (308).  But while both agree that corruption can accompany this power, they disagree about its origin, with Jimerson arguing that archival passivity leads to corruption while Greene fears that there are corrupt systems and values on both sides of the social justice debate (309).

Jimerson drew a distinction between objectivity and neutrality that Greene could not embrace.  Jimerson emphasized the importance of objectivity, suggesting that archivists should give up the pretense of neutrality, while Greene advocated that “objectivity must give way to transparency, wherein historians and archivists are responsible for understanding and making clear their agency in formulating the content and meaning of archives” (311).  Greene argued that without neutrality, “archivists and their institutions will become completely politicized” rather than “becoming a counterbalance to the existing power structure” (312).  Greene incorporated a response by Kathy Marquis to an early draft of this article, embracing her vision that the neutrality of archives is imperative for collecting from all parts of the political spectrum and also her suggestion that the personal activism of archivists does not have to mirror the collecting priorities of their repositories (or vice versa).  Greene explained, “As long as I managed to convince individuals of both the left and the right that I am either neutral or a respectful, polite, non-ideological opposite, I succeeded in winning donations from across the political spectrum” (312-13).

Greene also acknowledged that the push for social justice leaves archivists who work for corporate archives or other private institutions in a sort of “ethical limbo” — for while there may be a preference for open access, the laws of our country protect private property, so no amount of professional jockeying can mandate the disclosure of records from private organizations or individuals (314-15).  So does this mean the archivists working in such positions would necessarily fall short of the archival imperative for social justice demanded by Jimerson and others?

Greene inserted a pragmatic side to his criticisms as well.  Where Jimerson gave short shrift to collection development and appraisal, Greene contended that the social justice imperative would “almost certainly result in the acquisition and preservation only of records with a clear social justice purpose” — both because embracing this imperative would identify archivists with one side of an issue and because limited resources might hamper the efforts that would be required to engage the other side (317).  He concluded that “the ethics of social justice would tend to undercut the individuality of repository missions” because all repositories wishing to be considered ethical would pursue the same records rather than focusing on their own institutional missions (319).

Greene ultimately suggested that archivists should be discouraged from pursuing a professional path of social justice:

“as long as one person’s social justice is another’s injustice; as long as nothing in our ethics demands serving society as a whole (unless such service is within one’s institutional mandate) or playing the role of an internal whistle-blower; as long as we wish both the political left and the right to view at least some of our repositories as neutral ground, where one set of records (and ideas) is not consciously privileged over others; and as long as such perceived neutrality is essential to earning the voluntary commitment of private donors to make their records publicly accessible; then for just as long must we reject social justice as the end of all archival effort” (323).

Greene concluded that our perception of the value of archivists has to be defined with an eye to the users, for even without pursuing social justice, “our mandates come to the same thing, in the end: service to our users” (325).  Rather than leading the social justice crusade, the responsibilities of archivists should be:

“to pursue, acquire, and make available the records that will, among other things, allow social justice crusaders to show that injustice has occurred.  Without the work of the archivist, it would be impossible to present proof.  If we believe in the goal of something called social justice, we can be proud that our profession ensures that relevant documentation survives.  If we don’t believe in social justice so-called, we can still be proud that our archives preserve memory and meaning for all facets of society” (328).

With all of this in mind, I will return next week to conclude this series on social justice by looking at the responses to Greene’s article and elaborating my own evolving notions.