I’ll conclude this three-week arc of posts about social justice in the archival profession by considering three responses: (1) what Rand Jimerson wrote in response to Mark Greene’s article, (2) a letter to the editor written by Michelle Caswell, and (3) a letter to the editor written by Mark Greene.

Jimerson focused on five main arguments by Greene with which he disagreed.

  1. He took umbrage at the designation of “crusade” for his goal of social justice within the archival community.  Jimerson wants the profession to take a stand in support of “the goals of democratic accountability, inclusiveness, open government, and social justice” (336).  But he’s clear that the cause of social justice is a personal choice rather than a professional obligation.
  2. In response to Greene’s concerns about politicizing the archival profession, Jimerson explained that he sees a difference between political issues (e.g., democratic accountability, open government, diversity, access to information, etc.) and politics (e.g., electoral campaigns, partisan issues, etc.) (337).
  3. Jimerson maintained his position that objectivity — based on methodology and professional standards — is the correct aspiration for the archival profession.  Where Greene favored neutrality as a goal, Jimerson entertained the possibility of partisanship so long as it comes in the name of documenting the marginalized, suggesting that we might need the “archival equivalent of affirmative action” in order to ensure the preservation of “the full spectrum of opinion and experience in society” (339).  In this context, he suggested a definition of social justice as “an attitude or set of principles and methods for achieving a more balanced and diverse documentation of society in all its complexity” (340).
  4. Where Greene worried that the push for social justice could damage the individuality of archival institutions, Jimerson responded that he was issuing an invitation to social justice, not a mandate for it.  He also clarified his support for corporate archivists and others who may not be able to take up the cause of social justice.  To explain his support of public access over private interests, Jimerson concluded that “public interests should trump institutional secrecy” (342).
  5. Jimerson argued that his push for social justice expands the role of archivists, not confines them to some cookie-cutter role as feared by Greene.  He suggested that archivists have a responsibility to four groups: employers, donors, users, and society (343).

Jimerson concluded with reference to the Core Values as defined by the Society of American Archivists.  He implored archivists to embrace these professional values above any personal values.

Michelle Caswell had three bones to pick with Greene:

  1. She criticized his lack of definition for social justice and offered this clarification: “most conceptions of social justice entail the more equitable distribution of life chances, a thorough unveiling and analysis of power, and greater opportunities for self-representation” (605).
  2. She contended that records are not neutral but “are discursive agents through which power is made manifest” (605).
  3. She resented his focus on the writings of Jimerson and Verne Harris, arguing that there are ignored voices in the social justice debate while those of “the senior white men” are privileged (606).

In an unprecedented move, The American Archivist published Jimerson’s response to Greene’s article and Caswell’s “riposte” to Greene alongside his article.  Given the unusual circumstances, Greene also had a brief letter to the editor included, in which he replied to Caswell’s criticisms.

  1. He contended his definition of social justice is “the goal of effecting change in the legal, political, and cultural status of marginalized communities within a given society” (607).  He went on to reiterate his position that it is possible to be an activist archivist without embracing the social justice mandate.
  2. He referenced other writings in which he established his belief that records are subjective and malleable but rejected the notion that “all records are instruments of power, much less of oppression” (607).
  3. He pointed out that Caswell overlooked some of the varied voices he did cite in his article, while others she suggested should have been included had not even published by the time Greene submitted his article.

I’ll conclude by trying to carve my position in this debate. In attending the brown bag lunch discussion of Mark Greene’s article at last August’s meeting of the SAA, I was struck that some of the loudest voices who criticized him — for being an old white man and therefore privileged and therefore not fit to speak for the archival profession as a whole — were also very dismissive of anyone who disagreed with them.  They had convinced themselves that Greene’s attitudes were somehow reflective of his physical make-up and abhorrent to all other types of individuals in the profession and were perfectly willing to criticize his article with only a soupçon of reasoned argument.  While I don’t necessarily agree with everything that Greene put forth, the reaction against him actually served to push me more towards his stances.

Perhaps this whole debate actually boils down to word choice.  Whenever I hear the phrase social justice, I can hear the chorus from Les Misérables and see someone waving the flag on top of the barricade.  I imagine I’m not alone in this sensation — otherwise, I’m at a loss as to how people can get so worked up over scholarship.  I was not a part of the task force that proposed the SAA Code of Ethics, so I don’t know if they considered using the term social justice, but I find their use of social responsibility to be more à propos.  Maybe I’ve watched too many Westerns, but social justice conjures up for me an image of archival vigilantism, and based on what I heard in the SAA discussion, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the loudest voices being the ones to define what justice means for my profession.  Consider the fact that we live in a country that can’t agree whether or not capital punishment is appropriate, with thirty-two states practicing the death penalty as a form of ensuring justice while eighteen states and DC have abolished the death penalty.  Justice is a concept fraught with complications.  Social responsibility, on the other hand, sounds more staid and reasoned and, most importantly, institutional.  It rests on the obligation of acting for the benefit of society as a whole.  On a personal level, I have spent my life trying to improve conditions for the less fortunate.  But on a professional level, I think efforts for social responsibility must be institutional, not personal.  For one thing, most people don’t stay in one position for their entire career, so if the impetus for social activism is personal, it could easily be short-lived in that location.  But if a repository embraces social responsibility as a part of its mission, that focus can be sustained.  Secondly, I recognize that my own life experiences cause ideas to resonate differently for me – for example, after having studied in Prague, Czech writers are much more interesting to me because I have a connection to some of the places and ideas about which they write.  While on the surface this is not problematic, if my personal interests were to forge my professional priorities, this would engender a potentially whimsical focus.  I agree with Jimerson that archivists have a “high calling,” and I believe that we owe it to our employers, donors, users, and society at large to, in the words of the SAA Core Values, “improve the overall knowledge and appreciation of the past within society.”

Last but not least, I want to congratulate Mark Greene and Randall Jimerson for their conduct.  In a world rife with inane banter and personal attacks, I applaud them for being able to engage in a scholarly debate without resorting to name calling or petty accusations.  These are attributes that need to be more widely embraced, not jettisoned just because they happen to come from “old white men.”

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