“Strengthening Our Identity, Fighting Our Foibles”

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In putting together the list of writings by Mark Greene, I came across his 2007 inaugural presidential address.  He chose to kick off his SAA presidential term by delving into the identity of the archival profession.  He took inspiration from Maynard Brichford’s incoming presidential address in 1979.

Where Brichford wrote of “Seven Sinful Thoughts,” Greene wrote about “Five Frustrating Foibles” that he asserted are “diminishing our professional identity and our future” (2).

  1. We are too resistant to change.  Greene contended archivists are too comfortable with the “guardian” approach and, therefore, are reluctant to question established methods and practices.  Instead, he encouraged us to be agile in our processing and willing to modify our approach to finding aids, concluding, “we must make boldness and innovation hallmarks of our profession.  Change for the sake of change is chaos.  But change based on creative assessment of our mission and circumstances is energizing, inspiring, and essential” (4).
  2. We (still) don’t put our users first.  Greene asserted there’s a prevailing notion “that archivists are guardians and servants of the materials, not facilitators and servants of our researchers” (5).  He suggested users could gain greater involvement in collection development, appraisal, prioritization of processing or digitization projects, and annotations of finding aids.
  3. Frankly, my friends, we whine too much.  Greene summed this one up very well: “We must accept that our fate and future is in our own hands, and that improving our stature requires strong advocacy, led by each of us at our own institutions and led at a higher level by the national association, based on pride, strength, and clarity of message rather than grumbling, weakness, and the assumption that our importance is obvious” (7).
  4. Advocacy is not fully integrated into our daily and professional work.  Greene explained that advocacy needs to be a routine part of the archival profession and that “we must advocate for a profession that has a compelling and clearly understood institutional and social purpose” (8).
  5. We pay too much attention to the trees and too little to the forest.  Greene quoted Max Evans, saying, “‘we must be inoculated against the disease of mindless itemitis'” (9).  Greene asserted archivists suffer from this same malady, appraising at a very granular level out of a fear of disposing of a key document.

Greene concluded part of the forest archivists need to consider is our overall mission and goals.  He contended part of the solution is greater diversity and inclusion within the profession.  He parted by providing his vision of archives:

  • “Creativity should replace craft as we examine our daily work;
  • “Users should replace collections as we ask ourselves ‘why’ we do things a certain way;
  • “Pride in our role within our institutions and society should replace prickly sensitivity to perceived slights;
  • “Advocacy should replace insular navel-gazing about our practice;
  • “Commitment to professional unity should overtake the pull of fragmentation; and
  • “Change is the order of the day” (11).

In memory of Mark Greene

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The University of Wyoming is holding a memorial service tomorrow for Mark Greene, so he’s once again on my mind.  It seems trite to refer to the June 21st car accident that took his life as untimely.  But as evidenced by the many comments left on SAA’s page, Greene left an indelible mark on the archival community, and I can only wonder how many more people could have been inspired but for this accident.

When I was working on my master’s paper, Mark offered his time to assist me in my research about born-digital records.  Of course, I had already read his seminal work on “More Process, Less Process,” so I was awed to have the opportunity to interview him.  He spent nearly an hour on the phone with me discussing his work at the American Heritage Center and providing information on their policies and workflows for appraisal, processing, and access for born-digital records.

Until I started developing this post, I’d never stopped to think about it, but not long after the publication of MPLP — but long before I knew of Mark Greene — I presented a workshop at the 2007 North Carolina Council for Social Studies Annual Conference entitled “Doing More with Less: Simplifying the Teaching of U.S. History.”  I’m certainly not trying to suggest my archival intellect approaches that of Greene, but I do take some comfort in recognizing that we were thinking along parallel lines in different professions.  His 2013 article about social justice also prompted me to read Rand Jimerson’s book Archives Power so I could be well-prepared for a discussion of Greene’s pre-print at the SAA annual meeting in New Orleans.  May we all strive to bring the same passion, commitment, thoughtfulness, and creativity to our work — and may we also commit ourselves to mentoring others in the archival realm, as Mark would have us do.

I imagine I’m not the only one these days who wants to take the opportunity to learn a bit more from a man who gave so much to the archival community.  I found a CV on the American Heritage Center site that lists his publications and added citations for articles freely accessible online (plus some additional publications I uncovered):

Greene also presented a number of papers, but I can only find one available online:


“The Power of Archives: Archivists’ Values and Value in the Postmodern Age”


Mark A. Greene delivered his presidential address at the 2008 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in San Francisco, California.  He began his career as an archivist at Carleton College (1985-1989), and then spent ten years as curator of manuscripts acquisition at the Minnesota Historical Society.  He spent two years as the head of research center programs at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village.  From 2002-2015 , he served as director of the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming, where he currently serves as Senior Archivist Emeritus.  His address was published in the Spring/Summer 2009 issue of the American Archivist.

Greene’s basic premise was that defining a profession is the key to power, and “one of our profession’s weaknesses is that we tend to focus too much on our processes and not enough on our purpose” (18).  He claimed archivists exercise power “by shaping the historical record, by promoting freedom of government information, by protecting rights, by educating young minds, by affecting the way scholars apprehend and understand the materials in our repositories, by providing substance to powerful entertainment” (20).

Greene asserted that in order for archivists to translate importance into power, we must first define our values and then use our power.  He identified ten values that he believes are key to the archival profession — though he also challenged readers to debate his list and suggest additional core values for archivists.

1. Professionalism

He focused on “internalizing a common set of values, defining our importance,
and claiming power” as vital characteristics of the archival profession.  He pointed to former SAA presidents Rand Jimerson and Maygene Daniels for their thoughts on leading the public to value the archives profession.

2. Collectivity

Greene asserted that one of the contributions of archival thought is our focus on the aggregate rather than the individual — a notion of ours that could be modeled for other professions.  He viewed this value both through the prism of strength in numbers among the profession and as collaboration with allied professions.

3. Activism

He defined three elements to activism:

• “‘agency’ — our active shaping of the historical record” (25) — which he argued is most evident in the act of appraisal.  He went on to say that agency is “part of our ability to claim importance and relevance: we make decisions that define what our institutions and society can remember, attain, conceive; we actively shape the way that users encounter our materials and the way they in turn shape the past, including controlling what portions of the past are easily accessible to all and which are accessible only to our physical visitors.  We should be proud of these decisions, not shrink from them” (26).

• advocacy — which must be supported both through personal effort and financial commitments.  Here Greene looked to incoming SAA president Frank Boles for inspiration.

• “our deliberate decisions to give voice to the otherwise underdocumented individuals and communities in our midst” (25)

4. Selection

Greene explained the archival appraisal process succinctly:

“We select because we affirm the necessity of such appraisal and our professional ability to do it thoughtfully and defensibly (though not objectively and scientifically)” (27).  He went on to explain that the appropriate time for appraisal is “at the point of acquisition” (28).

5. Preservation

He was wary about including preservation as a core value, arguing that “use should almost always trump preservation” (29).  He concluded that the appropriate role for archivists is to “provide a professional assessment of what should be preserved and why” (30).

6. Democracy

Greene viewed democracy primarily through the lens of governmental accountability.  He also asserted archivists should be watchdogs for greater access to records.

7. Service

He argued that an archivist must first serve the needs of one’s institution and clients and then consider the greater social good.  He defined service as “the linchpin between access and use” (32) and suggested that archivists have a responsibility to market our repositories to our constituents.

8. Diversity

Greene interpreted diversity primarily as the need to have diverse holdings and users.  He argued that individual repositories must shoulder the responsibility of introducing archives to “underserved” communities and attracting minority populations into the profession.  He pointed back to SAA president Elizabeth Adkins for her promotion of diversity.

9. Use and Access

He suggested archivists “should do everything we legally, ethically, and practically can to promote, ease, and sustain use by whomever our user group(s) happens to be” (34).  Where the interests of rights-holders and calls for privacy and confidentiality compromise access, Greene argued archivists should at the very least fight for sunset provisions that will allow for eventual access to the materials after the death of the subjects.  He also acknowledged the symbolic use of archives, wherein people who may never themselves enter an archives still “‘use’ certain material simply by being proud or happy or secure that it exists” (36).

10. History

Greene cautioned that the legalistic bent of archival discourse in the 1990s negated the role of history for archives, thereby excluding “the very value that our institutions and society most often identify and cherish about our profession” (36).  He asserted,

“We preserve and make accessible for use the primary sources of history.  Through our active selection, our conscious choices in writing descriptions, and our role as mediators in reference, we help translate primary sources into sources of meaning for users” (38).

Greene’s conclusion brought home his point about the power of archives: “When values are shared, a new level of shared meaning evolves, leading to aligned, effective action and results — in other words, power” (39).  He also suggested a possible “elevator speech” that summarizes the archival profession:

“Archivists are professionals with the power of defining and making accessible the primary sources of history, primary sources that protect rights, educate students, inform the public, and support a primal human desire to understand our past” (40).

The end of the story: In August 2008, SAA followed up on his challenge to develop shared values by appointing a task force to determine the feasibility of such an endeavor.  This task force recommended moving forward, so in July 2009, another task force was chosen to develop a values statement.  In May 2011, the SAA Council approved a set of core values for archivists, and in January 2012, the SAA Council resolved to co-publish the Core Values of Archivists with SAA’s Code of Ethics for Archivists.

Mark Greene’s critique of social justice as an archival imperative

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As I explained last week, the pending discussion of Mark Greene’s article at the August 2013 meeting of the Society of American Archivists prompted my reading of Rand Jimerson’s book Archives Power.  I then read a preprint of Mark Greene’s article “A Critique of Social Justice as an Archival Imperative: What Is It We’re Doing That’s All That Important?” in order to participate in a lunch-time discussion during the SAA annual meeting.

In his article, Greene explicitly identified himself as an activist archivist and one who is professionally committed to diversity of archival holdings, researchers, and workers.  Yet he articulated two distinct dangers in embracing social justice as an archival imperative: doing so could damage the profession (1) by being “overly politicizing” and (2) by “weakening both our ethical standing and our power” (303).

Greene pointed to South African archivist Verne Harris as the earliest and best-known proponent of this social justice imperative — a distinction agreed upon by Rand Jimerson.  Greene then proceeded to pinpoint some of the oversights in Harris’ arguments.  Where Harris acknowledged but glossed over the danger that in embracing social justice archivists could lose their identity as “impartial custodian” and “honest broker,” Greene succinctly questioned, “Whose justice?  Justice for whom? (307).

Greene identified Randall Jimerson as a “well-known and well-respected” archivist who “has promulgated the most widely disseminated and comprehensive formulation of social justice archival practice.”  He immediately suggested a point of agreement with Jimerson in that they both believe “that what archivists so matters profoundly to the larger society” and that “archivists wield significant power” (308).  But while both agree that corruption can accompany this power, they disagree about its origin, with Jimerson arguing that archival passivity leads to corruption while Greene fears that there are corrupt systems and values on both sides of the social justice debate (309).

Jimerson drew a distinction between objectivity and neutrality that Greene could not embrace.  Jimerson emphasized the importance of objectivity, suggesting that archivists should give up the pretense of neutrality, while Greene advocated that “objectivity must give way to transparency, wherein historians and archivists are responsible for understanding and making clear their agency in formulating the content and meaning of archives” (311).  Greene argued that without neutrality, “archivists and their institutions will become completely politicized” rather than “becoming a counterbalance to the existing power structure” (312).  Greene incorporated a response by Kathy Marquis to an early draft of this article, embracing her vision that the neutrality of archives is imperative for collecting from all parts of the political spectrum and also her suggestion that the personal activism of archivists does not have to mirror the collecting priorities of their repositories (or vice versa).  Greene explained, “As long as I managed to convince individuals of both the left and the right that I am either neutral or a respectful, polite, non-ideological opposite, I succeeded in winning donations from across the political spectrum” (312-13).

Greene also acknowledged that the push for social justice leaves archivists who work for corporate archives or other private institutions in a sort of “ethical limbo” — for while there may be a preference for open access, the laws of our country protect private property, so no amount of professional jockeying can mandate the disclosure of records from private organizations or individuals (314-15).  So does this mean the archivists working in such positions would necessarily fall short of the archival imperative for social justice demanded by Jimerson and others?

Greene inserted a pragmatic side to his criticisms as well.  Where Jimerson gave short shrift to collection development and appraisal, Greene contended that the social justice imperative would “almost certainly result in the acquisition and preservation only of records with a clear social justice purpose” — both because embracing this imperative would identify archivists with one side of an issue and because limited resources might hamper the efforts that would be required to engage the other side (317).  He concluded that “the ethics of social justice would tend to undercut the individuality of repository missions” because all repositories wishing to be considered ethical would pursue the same records rather than focusing on their own institutional missions (319).

Greene ultimately suggested that archivists should be discouraged from pursuing a professional path of social justice:

“as long as one person’s social justice is another’s injustice; as long as nothing in our ethics demands serving society as a whole (unless such service is within one’s institutional mandate) or playing the role of an internal whistle-blower; as long as we wish both the political left and the right to view at least some of our repositories as neutral ground, where one set of records (and ideas) is not consciously privileged over others; and as long as such perceived neutrality is essential to earning the voluntary commitment of private donors to make their records publicly accessible; then for just as long must we reject social justice as the end of all archival effort” (323).

Greene concluded that our perception of the value of archivists has to be defined with an eye to the users, for even without pursuing social justice, “our mandates come to the same thing, in the end: service to our users” (325).  Rather than leading the social justice crusade, the responsibilities of archivists should be:

“to pursue, acquire, and make available the records that will, among other things, allow social justice crusaders to show that injustice has occurred.  Without the work of the archivist, it would be impossible to present proof.  If we believe in the goal of something called social justice, we can be proud that our profession ensures that relevant documentation survives.  If we don’t believe in social justice so-called, we can still be proud that our archives preserve memory and meaning for all facets of society” (328).

With all of this in mind, I will return next week to conclude this series on social justice by looking at the responses to Greene’s article and elaborating my own evolving notions.