Community Is Not Neutral

This article originally appeared as the President’s Message in the March/April 2022 issue of Archival Outlook.

In my last column, I referenced the “beloved community” as coined by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. What a fraught word, community.

In the new version of SAA’s strategic plan, you’ll see multiple references to “community,” a word that means everything or nothing. If I were to draw you a map of all of the communities I belong to (an exercise I had to do once in a workshop—I challenge you to try it and see what you discover), it would be straightforward in some ways and strange in others. I belong to the community of archivists. I belong to the community of my workplace. I belong to the community of my neighborhood—New York City’s Upper West Side, but please don’t mistake me for a Yankee! After forty-two years in the South and a degree in Southern studies, I closely identify with the community of “Southerness,” even when it challenges my love.

Community is important to humans. It’s how we organize ourselves and how we find connection and solace. I will bowl alone, but I prefer it with people who also love the sound of a ball striking pins and the taste of draft beer in a wax cup.

Community is also how we divide and abuse others. Those inside “our” communities get a pass, and those outside are denied their needs and humanity.

Archivists have been as guilty of this as any other human community. We push out those who we think don’t belong, whether based on their skills and education or our judgment of their recorded history as somehow outside what we do.

I was reminded of this recently when I read an op-ed in The New York Times called “The Battle for the Soul of the Library.” To be kind, the article is a bad faith argument for why librarians should be neutral. The context is the wave of book bans we are seeing across the country in reaction to the false threat of critical race theory.

Were the librarians who denied access to books to their own neighbors being neutral? Or those who prevented other librarians from being successful at their profession? What about the archivists who refused to document the contributions of certain people, or created hostile educational and work experiences for their fellow archivists? If we claim neutrality, then we uphold evil institutional and personal communities.

Not all archivists look like me, think like me, or have my educational background. The materials under my stewardship are a privilege to collect, not a necessity for my own vital information or my personal liberation.

Earlier this year, SAA released a statement in support of a campaign by Don’t Shoot PDX to reclaim the Albina Arts Center in Portland. This center has been a community touchstone for arts, activism, and archives for decades. Due to mismanagement by the state of Oregon, the records held by the center, and the center itself, are threatened with destruction.

Please consider supporting this important work by signing their petition, contributing to the organization, spreading awareness, or, if you live in Oregon, encouraging your elected officials to maintain this resource for the community of people for whom it is essential.

The work of loving and protecting records is not neutral, nor is the work of loving and protecting people. Self-determination is a power that has long been denied to many communities, and it will take our collective action to listen and act. Let us all be beloved. Let us all be community.

2 responses to “Community Is Not Neutral

  1. Laura W Carter

    Courtney, excellent article and food for thought.

  2. Thank you for this blog post. It seems like the op-ed once again conflates neutrality with objectivity. Courtney is correct (as others have noted) that by virtue of making any choice, archivists are intentionally or unintentionally choosing not to allocate resources towards an opposite activity. (I.e. choosing to spend time to document student groups means less time collecting administration records.) So archives can’t be neutral. However, one can still not be neutral but endeavor to exercise objectivity in his or her actions, understanding that because of unconscious bias, lived experience, and just, like, being a human being and not a robot, total objectivity is impossible. Objectivity is also not incompatible with archival activities often attributed to “activist” archivists such as inclusive collection development. For instance, if your stated goal as a university archives is to document university life from all perspectives, choosing to prioritize collecting the records of student groups over the administration, while definitely not a neutral act, is objectively aligned with your collection development priorities. (One can argue in good faith as to whether making that choice successfully advances your collection development goals more than traditional collection development, but that’s a separate debate as what we are talking about here is intent not the outcome of that intent.)

    I acknowledge there is overlap between neutrality and objectivity, but I think we would do well to try to decouple them, because striving for objectivity, defending objectivity, challenging ourselves to remain objective are all much more important and harder to accomplish than archivists merely accepting of our lack of neutrality, which has become commonplace in our profession though apparently is unknown to the op-ed writer who parachuted into our allied field of librarianship for a minute.

    Also, if you follow the guy’s link to the ALA’s Bill of Rights, in no way does ALA call the offending part “neutrality” as the author asserts.

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