Social Justice in The American Archivist (!)

I’ve been home with the flu, which has provided time to catch up on some reading (ok, also television. But that’s not for this blog.) The latest issue of The American Archivist crossed my desk about a week ago, and I was pleased to see an article worth writing about here: Randall Jimerson’s “Archives for All: Professional Responsibility and Social Justice.”

But first, a note. I’d love to link to this article here, but despite the fact that this is supposed to be the first issue of AA published online, I can’t find the online content anywhere. Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s the archivists, but I had no success finding their new online holdings.

Even if the article is available digitally, it’s still locked down for three years to subscribers (SAA members). Because it’s not widely available, I think it’s even more important to draw attention to Jimerson’s article. Jimerson is a former president of the Society of American Archivists and the editor of one of the major anthologies used in archival education. The fact that he’s writing about social justice and archives is a big step for the Archival Establishment in the U.S. (notoriously slow to wake up to archives and social justice – the Australians and Canadians are way out ahead of us.) So, first, three cheers for a social justice article in The American Archivist!

Jimerson addresses some aspects of social justice in archives quite well. He’s eloquent and thorough on archives’ role in accountability: a hot topic right now considering ongoing U.S. government recordkeeping scandals. He also revisits amazing and important work done by U.S. and international archivists, including ongoing attempts to use records to hold the U.S. government responsible for the Tuskegee syphilis study, and Verne Harris’ work using records to bring justice to oppressed groups after apartheid in South Africa.

Jimerson also makes a great argument against the supposed, impossible neutrality of archivists and archivists. He couches this argument, however, in a discussion of the difference between neutrality and “objectivity.” This difference seems a bit contrived to me. Jimerson would like to see archivists be objective rather than neutral, but the small difference between these terms seems like a semantic distinction that will not translate well into practice. Archival objectivity may be just as impossible as archival neutrality. I’d like to see archivists own their biases, limited standpoints, and political agendas, and better, mitigate them by increasing non-archivist participation in records collection and description. I’m not sure that calling for ‘objectivity’ is so different from calling for neutrality.

My major criticism of the article, however, arises when Jimerson gets to the “diversity” part of his platform. Jimerson calls for creating “racial, ethnic and community-based repositories” (p. 266) and “collecting and preserving the records of ordinary people,” (p. 269) which I support and advocate. But creating more collections that document people of color is the end of Jimerson’s vision of diversity. There is no talk of the marginalization of existing “diverse” collections within current repositories; of the political economy of funding for “diverse” collections; of the power imbalances when outsider archivists decide what records to collect and describe; of the ethics of removing collections from creating communities and placing them in elite institutions. There is also no discussion of documenting the ever-shifting nature of race, ethnicity and identity (hardly static entities), no discussion of democratizing participation with archival materials, and no discussion of the risks of tokenizing through “diversity” collecting.

Calling for “diversity” is not a nuanced view of archival social justice; it’s an easy platitude. Archivists must move away from advocating diversity in favor of rethinking and transforming archival practice. We must question – and then reconfigure – entrenched structures of inequitable cultural collection, description, and preservation.

-Katie

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Filed under archives, racism, The Profession

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