Sunshine Week ended yesterday.  It began in 2005 as a means to call attention to the public’s right to know what our government is doing and why.  Having spent the last three weeks pondering the role of social justice in the archival profession, I immediately recognized that this emphasis on transparency aligns with the emphasis on Accountability in the Core Values of Archivists established by the Society of American Archivists.  All of this leads me to wonder how well archivists are doing in embracing this value, so I look to several postmodernist thinkers for some insights.

In a 2001 paper delivered by Terry Cook at the Sawyer Seminar on Archives, Documentation, and the Institutions of Social Memory, he called for transparency in the appraisal of archival records.  Cook suggested that government and institutional archives place “negative entries” in record group inventories that would indicate the items that were not acquired and include reasoning for records included as well as for those excluded from the collection.  Similarly, he suggested that private archives should document collections that fell within the collecting mission of the repository but were not chosen to be accessioned.  Cook also suggested that the vita of archivists be made available to shed light on the grounds for their subjectivity (Terry Cook, “Remembering the Future: Appraisal of Records and the Role of Archives in Constructing Social Memory” in Archives, Documentation, and Institutions of Social Memory: Essays from the Sawyer Seminar, Francis X. Blouin, Jr., and William G. Rosenberg, eds. [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006], 178).

In a 2002 article for The American Archivist, Michelle Light and Tom Hyry applied a postmodern critique to archival finding aids and found them lacking in objectivity.  They intended to provide constructive criticism rather than just theory and proposed that a colophon be added to finding aids, providing a place for archivists (1) to document “their impact on the transmission and representation of a collection” and (2) “to record what they know about the history and provenance of
a collection and to reveal appraisal, arrangement, description, preservation, and
other decisions they made while working on a collection” and (3) “to record biographical information about a processor, as well as any perspective they would like to contribute to the finding aid” (“Colophons and Annotations: New Directions for the Finding Aid,” 65 no. 2 [Fall – Winter, 2002], 224).  They also suggested implementing Web-based annotations of finding aids, whereby users as well as archival staff could provide content about along with context and interpretations of a collection.  The application that most resonates with me is the idea that reference archivists could keep track of discoveries they make about collections or indicate how researchers have used a collection (228).  In talking with archivists at many different repositories, I have not found one that employs a reliable method for trapping this sort of institutional memory.

Heather MacNeil picked up on these points and others about archival description in a 2005 article in The American Archivist.  Although her focus is more precisely on authenticity, she also implored archivists to “lay bare the device” — or acknowledge the subjective role of archivists — as a means of underscoring archival accountability (“Picking Our Text: Archival Description, Authenticity, and the Archivist as Editor,” 68 no. 2 [Fall – Winter, 2005], 272).

If you note the article dates above, people have been talking for quite some time about transparency in archives, but this theory has not appreciably translated into practice.  Here’s a way that I think archival repositories could let the sunshine in.  Many places tout iterative processing — whether to address issues creating by MPLP processing or to highlight hidden collections or to incorporate feedback from reference archivists and users.  What I cannot easily find are repositories that maintain public access to each iteration of the finding aid or that identify the prompt for reprocessing.  I fully believe that these sorts of administrative records exist internally, but it would certainly “lay bare the device” to indicate to users, for example, whether a grant paid for reprocessing and what was changed.  Many repositories already include the name of the processor and the date when a finding aid was generated, so it would not be difficult to include a little more context.