Two weeks ago, I reviewed the chapter written by Fran Blouin in the 2011 book published in honor of Helen Samuels, Controlling the Past: Documenting Society and Institutions.  This week I turn to Rand Jimerson’s chapter from the same volume entitled “How Archivists ‘Control the Past.'”  Jimerson revised a similarly-themed 2007 conference talk at the International Council on Archives’ Section on University and Research Institution Archives, and after submitting this essay, he also incorporated parts of it into his 2009 book Archives Power.  My earlier review of his 2005 SAA presidential address includes a brief biography.

Jimerson provided context for Helen Samuels’ 1986 article in the American Archivist, “Who Controls the Past.”  Jimerson asserted that rather than posing a question, Samuels used this quote from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as her title to demonstrate “a direct connection between archival documentation of the past and the potential political power and societal influence of archivists” (363).  Jimerson provided a brief overview of the history of archives to underscore the idea that “official government records should be created and used to protect the rights of all citizens, not just the political, social, and clerical leaders” (364).  He also summarized the relevant themes of Orwell’s fiction and nonfiction, which showed that

“personal memory could expose the falsity of collective memory and historical accounts of events that he had witnessed.  However, without records (archival memory), the necessary corroboration could not exist” (365).

It was in a February 4, 1944, “As I Please” column for the Tribune that Orwell wrote, “History is written by the winners.”  Although Orwell didn’t write specifically about archives, Jimerson contended that his interests in authenticity and truth mesh with the purpose of archives: “Read from an archival perspective, Orwell clearly seems to suggest that trustworthy recordkeeping and archival systems could even preclude the rise of totalitarianism” (370).

Ostensibly Samuels’ article title prompted the exposition on Orwell, but at the end, Jimerson more directly related his analysis to archival appraisal and Samuels’ contributions in the realm of documentation strategy.  Jimerson argued that archival principles and functions emerged from hierarchy and power; therefore, archivists should alter these basic functions in order to overcome biases and to document more adequately marginalized populations:

“Archivists may need to consider going beyond their custodial role and filling in the gaps, to ensure that documentation is created where it is missing, and to address the needs of those outside the societal power structures” (375).

Jimerson also identified as one of her “great breakthroughs” Samuels’ idea that archivists need to cooperate with librarians, museum curators, and other information professionals in order to provide information and document society (377).

Jimerson concluded with several challenges:

  • “archivists have a moral professional responsibility to balance the support that archives have often given to the status quo by giving equal voice to those groups that too often have been marginalized and silenced” (377)
  • archivists should take “decisive steps to counter the biases of previous archival practices” (377)
  • archivists should join with librarians, museum curators, records managers, and other information professionals in committing “to the values of public accountability, open government, cultural diversity, and social justice” (378)
  • “By shaping the documentary record of society, archivists indeed control the past and thus the future, at least to some degree.  Unless they recognize and accept this power, thoughtfully and transparently, they will fail to meet their most significant professional and societal responsibility” (378).