Only yesterday did I notice the WITNESS Blog post, Archives for Change. Archivists Watch (AW) was conceived just before this particular WITNESS post was placed online at the end of September. And like the post, AW is partly dedicated to defining the work of a breed of archivists Grace Lile terms the “activist archivist” in her article.
I was glad to see an authority like Lile dare to use the term even if only half in jest. I certainly am in no position to chance such liberties, although the thought did cross my mind two months ago at AW’s inception. I should also credit the main proponent of this idea, renowned archivist Verne Harris, who I had the pleasure of seeing once at an informal talk given at the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto. That being said, I regret not having cross-posted on October’s WITNESS dialogue as Ms. Lile was kind enough to extend an invitation for me to guest blog on the site. I’d like to draw attention to Archives for Change, here and now.
To begin with, in the Iraq WikiLeaks article I posted from The New Yorker earlier in the week, I painted what is probably the popular view of the traditional archivist – a caricature of passivity and at the same time guardedness. A picture of just another civil servant following established protocol without question, an archivist whose loyalty lays first to the state or institution for which s/he works, and second to the citizens. There was a time when that fundamental archival principle of neutrality was supplanted and subsumed by this notion of the passive archivist. Now, many archivists looking to enact change by providing a means of redress by which to confront injustices have taken issue with previous notions of neutrality. This is not a new debate. And any archivist and records manager (professionals of the same pedigree, albeit working from opposite ends of the records continuum/life cycle spectrum) is no stranger to the debate of the evolving role of the archivist. In general terms, this debate lies between the passive or “neutral” Jenkinsonian archivist, and the emerging breed of active, or as Lile puts it, activist archivist.
The concept of the activist archivist thrives in the age of born digital documents where the gap between the creation of a record, its use, its final disposition begin to close, overlap, and blur. The prevalence of information production and use have forced those in the profession to reevaluate standards and practices and this has its obvious implications on social justice and public interest. Lile references Howard Zinn’s 1970 address to the Society of American Archivists in her remarks. I’m glad she does so, because his thoughts on modern archives and the duty of archivists parallel the principles and ideals behind AW.