“‘To the Limit of Our Integrity’: Reflections on Archival Being”

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I’ll conclude this trilogy of Scott Cline reflections with a look at his 2009 article in the American Archivist.  He took inspiration from a number of SAA presidential addresses:

Cline based his title on a Hugh Taylor quote:

“‘Only by exploring and extending our professional reach to the limit of our integrity, as I have tried to do, will we escape that backwater which, though apparently calm and comfortable, may also be stagnant with the signs of approaching irrelevance’” (339).

Cline used integrity as one of the four values deemed critical to archival being, which he defined as “ the manner in which we are engaged in the world, both individually and collectively, as archivists and as a profession” (333).  He argued authenticity – “the intersection of how we think about our lives and our commitments to certain courses of action” (333) – is critical to our archival being and is facilitated by four values.

  1. Faith. Cline posited archival faith is not religion-based but instead,“archives assumes a genuine faith in humanity, a faith that there will be a future and generation to which archives will matter” (334).  He referenced the work of geography professor Kenneth Foote to confirm the notion that the permanent preservation of records is an act of faith.
  2. Radical Self-Understanding.  Cline looked to Jewish philosopher-theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel to define radical self-understanding: “‘it is thinking about thinking . . . a process of analyzing the act of thinking, as a process of introspection, of watching the intellectual self in action’” (337).  Heschel incorporated the term radical to emphasize the roots or origin of something, and Cline boiled this concept down to two questions: “why do we engage in this work and what does it mean?” (337).  Cline went on to emphasize that this value needs to be collective rather than individual.
  3. Intention.  Just as with radical self-understanding, the value of intention requires a community effort.  Cline incorporated the Hebrew concept of kavannah, which Heschel defined as “‘the direction of the mind toward the accomplishment of a particular act, the state of being aware of what we are doing, of the task we are engaged in’” (339).  Cline clarified that archival work in particular must be outward and future-directed.
  4. Integrity.  Cline concluded where his title began, with Taylor’s notion of integrity.  Cline referenced philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre for his idea that “values appear or come into play only when the individual is at some level engaged” (340).  Cline urged archivists to reflect on “the central question of moral philosophy posed by [Immanuel] Kant, ‘What ought I to do?’” (340).  Summing it up, Cline concluded, “an outward-focused engagement with the world is an obligation, and that our individual and collective work in self-cognition, awareness, and the ethical must be focused toward the other ‘at every moment’” (341).

Running throughout this article was a story of an innkeeper that was recounted by philosopher Martin Buber.  A student who yearned to learn the mystery of serving God was sent by his rebbe to an innkeeper, and over several weeks what he gleaned was that the innkeeper “‘seemed only to attend to his business’” (335).  While the student failed to see the import of this, the moral of the story was that we must live our lives and accomplish our work in intentional and meaningful ways and with an outward focus.  Only by doing this can archivists maintain our relevancy and avoid stagnation.


“‘Dust Clouds of Camels Shall Cover You’: Covenant and the Archival Endeavor”

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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.

“Archival Ideals and the Pursuit of a Moderate Disposition”

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Several years ago, Scott Cline wrote an interesting piece for the American Archivist about what inspires archivists and how best to avoid the frustration and disappointment that can result from unrealized ideals.  He set the stage with a quote from a 1859 speech by immigrant journalist and politician Carl Schurz:

“’. . . ideals are like stars; you will not succeed in touching them with your hands.  But like the seafaring man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them you will reach your destiny’” (445).

Cline used as his definition for ideal the entry from the Collins English Dictionary: “a conception of something that is perfect, especially that which one seeks to attain; a person or thing considered to represent perfection; something existing only as an idea” (446).  He recognized some of the great archival minds who’ve written about ideals, including:

  • Hilary Jenkinson, who emphasized “truth, objectivity, neutrality, and servitude in defense of the archival record”
  • SAA president Elizabeth Adkins, who focused on diversity
  • SAA president Morris Radoff, who spoke of unity in the face of a schism between archivists and records managers
  • SAA president Rand Jimerson, who challenged Jenkinson’s assumption archivists should never interpret records

For his part, Cline explored “how we can contend with our limitations and our inability to achieve our ideals, while still providing value through our work, and how we can respond when our ideals bump up against real-world obstacles” (447).  Recognizing that ideals are not always attainable, he reflected on the existential notion of the “anguish of freedom,” or the knowledge that each decision eliminates other possibilities.  Cline identified this as a challenge especially for appraisal archivists who are “in a perpetual state of choosing and rechoosing and thus experiencing the anguish of freedom” (448).  Cline turned to a professor in Leadership and Policy Studies for guidance in overcoming disappointment — Deborah Kerdeman explained:

“’Trying to live up to ideals, even as we live through disappointment, requires what I call a moderate disposition. . . .  Cultivating a moderate disposition . . . is an ongoing exercise in self-examination’” (448).

Where Kerdeman didn’t provide a roadmap to this moderate disposition, Cline suggested three concepts to lead archivists toward this goal:

  1. Enlarged Thought.  Cline looked to German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who defined enlarged thought as attempting to “seek common human understanding” by overcoming the subjectivity of our own opinions and engaging “the universal standpoints of others” (450).  Cline suggested archivists are well suited to enlarged thought because of the abilities necessary for analyzing records, developing collection policies, and providing access to diverse groups of users.
  2. Gratitude.  Cline asserted that the appropriate response to the existential “anguish before the here and now” is to live a life of gratitude.  He cited Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote:

    “’What is the truth of being human?  The lack of pretension, the acknowledgement of opaqueness, shortsightedness, inadequacy.  But truth also demands rising, striving, for the goal [and here he means the ideal] is both within and beyond us.  The truth of being human is gratitude. . .’” (451).

    Cline suggested archivists should be grateful for “the ability to employ imagination, to conceive a perfectibility that may never come, and to be guided by it” (452).

  3. Reverence. Cline asserted that embracing enlarged thought and feeling gratitude lead to reverence.  Simply stated, “Reverence, thus, is an antidote to anguish” (454).

One thing I love about reading Scott Cline’s work is his demonstrable grasp of so many ideas and influences both within and without the archival realm, and this article is no exception.  In the end, he concluded the importance of a moderate disposition for archivists lies in allowing us “to view ideals as a process rather than an outcome” (454).  Taking on the challenging ideals while acknowledging our limitations can be accomplished through a moderate disposition because it “requires us to probe the meaning of our work and interrogate our convictions and actions” (454).  But doing so is only possible with self-examination.