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Chapter 5 February 1, 2010

Posted by Kate T. in Chapter 5.

Chapter 5 presents a case for archives as agents or servants of “the public good,” focusing on four themes:

  • Accountability of political and social leaders,
  • Open government,
  • Social justice, and
  • Diversity and identity.

The discussion of these topics is supported by references to the uses–and misuses–of archives and records by individuals, governments, corporations, and political entities. I was familiar with many, but not all, of these examples, but I still found this chapter engaging.  I would be surprised if anyone argues that archives don’t derive power from their inherent ability to support these four goals (although, please, by all means, argue away!).   Although I don’t think I’m quibbling when I note that there’s a difference–not made clear in the text–between the power of records and the power of archives. For example, the records preserved on the backup tapes in the PROFs case, the Enron records, the Nazi records seized by Allied troops and the records of the Khmer Rouge prison system were never selected for preservation in an archives–quite the opposite. These were active records, still under the control of their creating organizations prior to being seized. They may have subsequently been transferred to archives, but they did not continue to exist because of the conscious decision of an archivist. (I think this issue has been raised in regard to previous chapters as well.) Does this detract from the larger argument about the power of archives?  I don’t think so, but what do you think?

For me, this was the most successful chapter so far, probably because the examples used are concrete and drawn primarily from recent history. And of course because I’m drawn to the notion of archives being used for the public good. What was your reaction to this chapter?



1. Eric Ketelaar - February 2, 2010

On p. 271 RJ states that the archivists’ practice of managing records according to the provenance of their creation “aiutomatically priviliges the colonial rulers and their bureaucracy over the perspectives of native peoples”(earlier RJ has made similar statements with regard to women’s voices). Could it be done otherwise, I ask. In the discussion on pp. 271-273 RJ seems to rely on the user rather than on the archivist to bring “the other” in the records to the surface. Isn’t that too easy an escape?

Eric Ketelaar - February 3, 2010

I discovered, when reading Chapter 6, that myy comment on Chapter 5 of Feb 2 does not do full justice to Jimerson: Chapter 6 contains the “new ethical imperatives” based on a “new concept of archival ethics” I was looking for when reading the preceding chapter. More when we discuss that chapter 6.

2. Kate T. - February 2, 2010

People might also be interested in this comment thread on “Terror and the Record” on the “New Tactics in Human Rights” blog:


3. Alison Stankrauff - February 3, 2010

I also keyed into the mention of the power of records and their role in warfare – and warring factions… I don’t think, though, that this detracts from the larger argument about the power of archives…

If anything, I think perhaps just the opposite because those same records can become quite damning – they can become agents that help to incriminate those who commit atrocities – and make record of it…

And that very point led me to a portion of this chapter that I found particularly interesting – the discussion of destroying records to get rid of records that prove a state or regime to be dictatorial/repressive/cruel, etc. That archives become in this way a very hotly contested arena of a struggle between remembering and forgetting.

4. Josh Zimmerman - February 3, 2010

You’re right. He doesn’t clearly distinguish between archives and records, but I don’t think this focus on active records detracts from his overall theme of the power of archives. If you take the records life cycle view of this chapter, archives being one of the possible dispositions of records, then his incluson of these examples is apt. I guess I just viewed this chapter as an extension of his other ancient, medieval, and early modern examples of archives/records.

In regard to Eric’s comment about RJ putting the burden on the user (271-273), I would say that RJ’s book is all about reading the archives against the grain and I would argue that archivists have been reading archives with the grain for some time now…we know context and records creation.

What I found fascinating about this chapter is one of the last cases he presents (Delgamuukw vs. British Columbia pg. 273) and the discussion of oral tradition vs. written records. This case might have been better suited in the memory chapter in order to really contrast memory and archvial records. It made me think of the Perry and Lord’s work on homeric epic and oral tradition. Unfortunately, the Milman Perry defence doesn’t stand up in many courts (none, probably).

Like Kate, I liked this chapter for its solid examples, but more as an illustration that archives can be both a cause and solution for evil doings.

5. Lincoln Cushing - February 4, 2010

I too liked the concrete examples. I also felt that some things were left somewhat fuzzy, for example the relative roles of oral historians and archivists. In some of these examples the real stars are the oral history folks who have come in and captured memory in a form that fills the gaps in the archive; all the archive did was serve as a repository.

I especially liked the introduction of alternate/oppositional archives (women, people of color, LGBT, etc) but this needs MUCH more expansion. I find these community-based institutions to be very vital and important, yet they too are largely marginalized. How many archivists from such institutions are members of SAA, or are engaged in this discussion? I suspect not very many.

I also felt something was lacking in Jimerson’s repeated message that archivists should be in the vanguard in making archives tools for social justice (p. 237, 243, 245,..). Of course I (and I suspect others in this group) agree with the concept, but I there is a huge gap between such goals and the actual practice/power of archivists. This dichotomy needs more discussion.

I loved the mention of Nixon (p. 247), my favorite president. I’ve linked here a recent story about how the Nixon Presidential Library opened approximately 280,000 pages of textual materials. Why now? Well, because they had to. 5,500 pages were declassified, in whole or in part, as the result of mandatory review requests from individual researchers. Activist users make activist archives. Such critical research (p. 271, 274) reveals the sorts of allies we need to make our work bear fruit.

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