In January 2015, I began a weekly journey through the annual meeting addresses of the presidents of the Society of American Archivists (SAA).  Because the 2015 speech of Kathleen Roe has not yet been published, I have to take a hiatus from these reviews.  But I have enjoyed the discipline of reading some archival literature on a weekly basis, so my next assignment will be to pick a topic and do a deep dive to determine what thought leaders have written.

With my training as a historian, I determined the first topic should be archives and history.  In a nutshell, what’s up for debate is whether historical research should influence the holdings and priorities of archives and whether training in the historical method is necessary in order to be a good archivist.  With the genesis of SAA coming out of the American Historical Association, there was a good bit of historical influence in the early years of the organization, but it has waned over the years.  Some SAA presidents addressed this topic:

For this week, I’ve chosen to begin with Howard Zinn.  Zinn was an historian and social activist, teaching at Spelman College (1956-63) and Boston University (1963-1988).  Where most of the literature seems to come from the archival perspective analyzing our relationships to historians, Zinn was an historian unafraid of calling archivists to task for what he deemed sins of omission or commission.  In the early 1970s, Zinn was a voice challenging archivists to develop more inclusive collections and to become better advocates.  In 1970, Zinn wrote “The Archivist and Radical Reform,” and in September of the same year, he read a paper at the SAA annual meeting entitled “The Activist Archivist” — but I have not been able to find those sources, so instead, I’ll review his 1977 article from The Midwestern Archivist entitled “Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest.”

Zinn focused on three topics in this article, the last of which is most relevant for my purposes here (14):

  • “the social role of the professional in modern times”
  • “the scholar in the United States today”
  • “the archivist here and now”

Zinn considered the archival profession an “inevitably political craft” (20) and listed seven analyses of archives:

  1. Wealth and power determine what is preserved in archives — which means the records of government, business, and the military predominate (20).
  2. The government censors or withholds altogether much information.
  3. Archival collections tend to come from rich, successful, old, politically active, white men.
  4. Written archives are more dominant than oral histories, which preferences literate segments of the population.
  5. “The emphasis in the collection of records is towards individuals rather than movements, towards static interviews, rather than the dynamics of social interaction in demonstrations” (21).
  6. Collections emphasize the past and the non-controversial.
  7. “Far more resources are devoted to the collection and preservation of what already exists as records, than to recording fresh data” (22).

All of this added up to what Zinn considered archival bias, which he asserted resulted in protection of “governmental authorities from close scrutiny” and the glorification of “important people, powerful people, military, political, and business leaders, [keeping] obscure the lives of ordinary people in the society” (24-25).  However, he stopped short of accusing archivists of intentional wrongdoing — terming it “passivity” rather than “malfeasance” (25).

Zinn concluded with two proposals for archivists (25):

  • campaign to get all government documents open to the public
  • “compile a whole new world of documentary material about the lives, desires, needs, of ordinary people”