When I was preparing for last week’s blog post, an endnote caught my eye, and I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to read/write about archives and camels.  So I continue my consideration of the wisdom of Scott Cline.  Cline wrote this piece in 2012 for the American Archivist, and he took the title from the prophet Isaiah, who was describing the riches that would result if the people maintained their covenant with God.

Cline used this concept of covenant as his basic premise, and he elaborated with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ explanation of a covenant of faith:

“A covenant of faith is made by ‘people who share dreams, aspirations, ideals.  They don’t need a common enemy, because they have a common hope.  They come together to create something new.  They are defined not by what happens to them but by what they commit themselves to do'” (296).

Cline pointed to the creation of the Society of American Archivists in 1936 and contended this was accomplished through associational covenant.  He expanded this notion to argue that the relationships of archivists with donors, users, colleagues, and others are covenantal and should be formed on the basis of the concepts of genuine encounter, sacred obligation, and piety of service.

  • Genuine encounter.  Cline pointed to guidelines such as the Code of Ethics for Archivists, the SAA Statement on Diversity, and Core Values of Archivists as “covenental declarations” archivists can use to guide their encounters.  He encouraged archivists to follow philosopher Martin Buber’s model of connecting with the world through an I-You relationship — rather than focusing on experience, the I-You values the other being and allows for genuine encounter.  Cline elaborated on this notion with an idea of theologian Eugene Borowitz: “It is in the construction of personal relationship, which requires positioning the self in the context of others, that we accept obligation without sacrificing selfhood and autonomy.  This is the sociality of the self, the placement of the autonomous self squarely in the context of social responsibility and living in reciprocal respect” (290).  As archivists seek to understand the context from which we approach our work, we can strive also to understand the context of our “You,” thereby engaging in genuine encounter.
  • Sacred obligation.  Cline referenced German philosopher  Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative and suggested “Relationship is the key to authentic covenant and, ultimately, covenant is a relationship of moral responsibility” (291).  He noted his use of sacred is intended to be read as “devoted exclusively to one service or use; entitled to reverence and respect; highly valued and important” (292).  He also pointed out the necessity of acknowledging and mitigating the possible effects of the unequal power archivists wield over others when exercising responsibilities such as appraisal and access.
  • Piety of service.  Cline contended justice is at the root of piety of service and is significant to the archival covenant.  By justice, he means “conformity to the law and the extension of equity” (294).  Cline looked to Aristotle’s concept of the good life, “the life one would like to live consonant with conscientious sociality and in full possession of political rights and responsibilities” (295).  Cline asserted “the common good is the archives’ raison d’etre” because archives can provide people “the tools they need to reason about the common good and to cultivate civic virtue” (295).

Cline concluded with a reference to historian Gordon Wood, who argued:

“‘Ideas or meanings make social behaviors not just comprehensible but possible.  We really cannot act unless we make our actions meaningful . . . ‘” (295).

Archival covenant makes our work meaningful, so we should embrace Cline’s challenge to incorporate the concepts of genuine encounter, sacred obligation, and piety of service into our work.  To me, the other implicit — but very vital — element of a covenant is that it implies a long-term vision, and I contend archivists need to spend a little more time looking at the horizon (rather than the rear-view mirror) for direction.

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