Rob Christensen wrote an article for the News and Observer this week that reflected on the two people who have been honored by North Carolina with placement in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.  The statues of former Governors Zebulon B. Vance and Charles Brantley Aycock were placed in 1916 and 1932, respectively.  Christensen summed up the problem of choosing heroes: “Leaders who look like great men in one age may look quite different when viewed in a different era.”  But rather than judging historical figures by the priorities and morals of our own era, he suggests a useful set of questions for evaluating people against their own contemporaries:

  • Did they perform better or worse than did the other leaders of their age?
  • When faced with a difficult decision, what were their realistic options, given the standards and views of the time?
  • What would a moral person of the time do or think?

These sorts of reappraisals are common in the archival world as well.  Not so much in the sense of deciding whether to deaccession collections but moreso in the sense of reconsidering the research value of collections.  For example, repositories are increasingly recognizing that plantation records not only provide a window into the lives of wealthy whites in the antebellum South but also traces of the lives of enslaved persons.  Numerous repositories have invested the time and money necessary to update finding aids to reflect more completely the breadth of topics covered by their collections.

University archivists have also found themselves trying to reconcile the personal and business histories of founding families with modern sensibilities.  A session at the 2013 meeting of the Society of American Archivists was entitled “Journeys of Reconciliation: Institutions Studying Their Relationships to Slavery” and recounted the efforts taken at Brown, the University of Alabama, and William & Mary to deal with their institutions’ connections to slavery.  The results ran the gamut from a statue to a resolution to a fellowship program for MAT students to teacher in the inner city.  One of the most compelling insights came from the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice at Brown University, which included in its recommendations a call to tell the truth in all its complexity.

I suppose there could be another whole debate about whose truth.  But without making this more complicated than it needs to be, this recommendation encapsulates what I believe should drive the focus of archives.  While our role is not to define the truth, it is to provide the intellectual and physical access to the materials that can shed light on the truth.  Maybe along the way we can serve a researcher like Christensen who asks the good and hard questions.