Randall C. Jimerson delivered his presidential address at the 2005 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists held in New Orleans.  Jimerson began his archival career at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan (1976-1977) and then spent two years as archivist at Yale University (1977-1979).  He was university archivist and director of the Historical Manuscripts and Archives Department of the University of Connecticut Libraries (1979-1994), where he also taught and led the graduate program in History and Archival Management.  Since 1994, Jimerson has been director of the Graduate Program in Archives and Records Management at Western Washington University in Bellingham, also serving as professor of History since 2002.  An expanded version of the address he delivered was published in the Spring/Summer 2006 issue of the American Archivist.

Jimerson’s address was a portent of the arguments he developed more fully in his 2009 volume Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice.  He borrowed the metaphors of Eric Ketelaar and analyzed archives as temples, prisons, and restaurants.  Jimerson suggested these representations illustrate the “trinity of archival functions: selection, preservation, and access” (20).

  • In the archival temple, records achieve authority, immortality, and validity.  He cited numerous archival thinkers regarding the active role that appraisal requires.  He acknowledged that appraisal shapes “society’s collective understanding of its past, including what will be forgotten” (25).  Jimerson cautioned against conflating archives with memory but suggested “records of the past provide a corrective for human memory, a surrogate that remains unchanged while memory constantly shifts and refocuses its vision of the past” (26).
  • Control is the foundation of the archival prison.  From the physical control imposed by lockers, closed stacks, and surveillance cameras to the intellectual control created by the arrangement and description of records, archivists regulate access.
  • The archival restaurant is the locus of interpretation and mediation.  Jimerson contended that archivists cannot be fully objective regarding archives — “as archivists we cannot avoid casting our own imprint on these powerful sources of knowledge” (21).

He concluded the arc of these metaphors by saying,

“May our archival temples truly reflect values worthy of veneration and remembrance.  May our archival prisons minimize locks and security and emphasize accountability, preservation, and access.  May our menus be clear and understandable, and our table service efficient, thorough, and helpful” (32).

Jimerson’s challenge to archivists was to “embrace the power of archives and use it for the good of humankind” (24).  He clarified this notion as making “society more knowledgeable, more tolerant, more diverse, and more just” (28).  In order to accomplish this goal, he asserted that archivists must abandon “our pretense of neutrality” because only through recognizing our impartiality can we “avoid using this power indiscriminately or, even worse, accidentally” (28).  He also echoed Ketelaar’s advocacy for transparency in archival selection and access decisions.  Jimerson cautioned against sidestepping the social and cultural responsibilities of archivists while instead focusing myopically on technical issues.

Jimerson asserted that archives carry out a function of social responsibility by documenting and protecting the rights of citizens.  He pointed to the works collected by Richard Cox and David Wallace in Archives and the Public Good for evidence of archival records being used as agents of accountability.  He also echoed the words of Howard Zinn in challenging archivists to “commit themselves to ensuring that our records document the lives and experiences of all groups in society, not just the political, economic, social, and intellectual elite” (30).  Herein lies the power.