Category Archives: Archival issues

Guest Post: Terry Baxter, Multnomah County (OR) Archives

“Our ancestors are rooting for us.”
We Survived, Climbing PoeTree

Two of the most important things to human beings are justice and love. Neither can be fully defined, especially in the scope of this post. I look at love as the understanding that because we humans are interconnected, we act with empathy and compassion toward others, realizing that furthering their desires is important to the realization of our own. Justice comes in many flavors. My focus here is social justice, which can be defined as promoting fair and equitable relationships between individuals and their society, especially considering how privileges, opportunities, and wealth ought to be distributed among individuals. Love and justice bind us to each other with compassionate, fair, and just connections.

These bonds are not constrained by time. The seventh generation principle codified in the Great Law of Peace has been both commercialized and romanticized. Vine Deloria Jr. commented that we are actually the seventh generation, with the responsibility to bridge the worlds of our great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Rather than peering 200 years into the future, we bring forward the earliest memories of people we actually know and transfer them to descendants we will hopefully meet in the future.

Bridging the temporal spans between generations is what archives and archivists have always done.  I have to believe that our ancestors left us their stories to tell us what they felt important – why they did things and what meaning their actions would take in our lives. We have to be able to move our ancestors’ lives and visions forward to our descendants and one important way is to create archives. Archives are needed because very little that is important is achieved in a human lifespan – often not even in a multigenerational lifespan. We archivists purposefully both choose whose voices and what things they said or did to include in archives. Some would argue that you can’t preserve all the stories. While that may be true in an absolute sense, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work with as many people doing archivesque work as we can find to try to preserve and transmit as many distinct voices as possible.

The creation of archives (or story, or memory, or community) is an act of love, a way of saying:  Elders, you did this and it will matter to you, Offspring. Archivists commit to being the connective link, not just among those on the earth today, but among all people. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin stated in Toward the Future that, “Love is the only force which can make things one without destroying them. … Some day, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.” In Salvation: Black People and Love, bell hooks noted that, “Love is profoundly political. Our deepest revolution will come when we understand this truth.” Archivists are at the core of this revolution—finding stories, preserving them, sharing them. We don’t do this just for evidential or informational value. We do it to connect our species—past, present, and future—to each other in common humanity.

So what about justice, comrades?

We’ve all read the old saw “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” In Theodore Parker’s original abolitionist sermon, the first clause reads: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways.”  On our own, we humans can see only a few decades, maybe a century if we’re lucky. If we rely only on our own eyes to see justice, we often can’t see any bend at all, in fact maybe even a bend away from justice. Archives document that long arc, across generations, and present it for all to see. Using archives is an act of justice; a way of saying that we see you, we see your mistakes, we understand how and why you erred, we know more now and we can repair them to make us whole.

This repair requires the inclusion of voices that have traditionally been ignored an equitable footing. The Protocols for Native American Archival Materials is a useful model for seeing archives as underpinning socially just actions. It requires people to approach each other with open hearts and mutual respect, to make decisions based on shared and equal power (as much as possible), and to find solutions that are acceptable to all parties. Archives are key sources in reparative work like truth commissions, treaty negotiations, reparations efforts, and a variety of other community healing efforts based in the representation of all affected voices through time.

Lae’l Hughes-Watkins concludes in Moving Toward a More Reparative Archives“that engaging in social justice through reparative archival work in the form of the diversification of archives, advocacy/promotion, and then utilization within an academic archive has set a process in motion that has shown early signs of creating feelings of inclusivity within the archival space.”

Archives are relational through time. They bind us, for good and for bad, to our human relatives both in the past and in the future. Our ancestors are rooting for us. They have clamored to have all of their stories heard. Fought for a deeper and more truthful narrative of us humans. Archivists uncover those stories, add them to the sum of human understanding, and move them forward through time. Why? So that our great-grandchildren will know that their ancestors are rooting for them, too.

Terry Baxter has been an archivist for 33 years, currently at Multnomah County and the Oregon Country Fair. He lives in northeast Portland with two Jewells.

Some Remarks on the SAA Council’s Recent Statement on White Supremacy by Tanya Zanish-Belcher

My very first job as a young archivist was at the Alabama Department of Archives and History, where I learned to process and describe collections and also to grapple with the enormity, complexity and, quite often, the awfulness of American history. As a transplanted Yankee, it did not take me long to figure out the reason for the Confederate flag above the Capitol, or why the state holidays list included Martin Luther King, Jr./Robert E. Lee Day (still) and Confederate Memorial Day. I understood too well why the street on which I was fortunate to attend the dedication of the Civil Rights Memorial at the Southern Poverty Law Center also hosted a Ku Klux Klan march several years later. This is not isolated to Alabama, or even to one region of the country. The symbols of oppression and our violent past are all around us, as indicated in this list compiled by The Guardian:
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/17/public-symbols-landmarks-racist-confederate-flag

SAA traditionally has not commented on issues or events not related to archives or records, but have reserved our judgments for areas in which our archival experience means something. The recent events in Charlottesville point to the need for archivists to use our expertise to assist communities in researching and determining the meaning and value of the names, images, and monuments in their midst, and whether what those symbols represent is historical truth or something else.

The Council’s Diversity and Inclusion Working Group was created in 2014 to provide the Council with greater focus and direction in achieving the Society‘s strategic goals in D&I, explore meaningful new initiatives in this area, and coordinate the work of appropriate component groups to leverage their contributions into broader cultural competency for the Council, staff, and members. Now led by Courtney Chartier, its members include Steven Booth, Amy Cooper Cary, Meredith Evans, and Audra Eagle Yun. The group‘s highest priority in the coming months is to create a toolkit for archivists to use with local community members when they are faced with these hard issues. A number of individuals and SAA groups have already volunteered to assist the working group as needed, which is greatly appreciated. Courtney‘s team will submit a concept to the broader Council for discussion at its November meeting, a draft for review on the Council’s January conference call, and a final version for approval in May. If you have ideas or resources you think should be considered, please send them to me at president@archivists.org and I will pass them on to the working group.

I have been reflecting on some eloquent words by a friend, Mary Foskett, on Charlottesville, which I pass along with her permission:

“Throughout my week in Berlin, and even more since returning home, I have been thinking about what a difference it could make if we had more memorials and monuments, not fewer, to make us pause, take stock of our history, and commit to becoming our best selves as a people. Specifically historical markers noting the spaces and places and lives brutalized by our nation’s history of racism, bigotry, and white supremacy, and the courageous men and women who stood up against it, markers urging us on, together, to remember and to do better. Berlin has challenged me to contemplate more deeply the power of facing ourselves in the hope of becoming our best selves. Charlottesville reminds me that we haven’t a moment to lose. ”

As always, if you have questions or concerns, please share them with me at president@archivists.org  My next post, in early September, will be an expanded version of my Incoming President remarks at SAA’s Business Meeting on Friday, July 28.

Addressing Archival Issues: University of Oregon Records Release–and Beyond

In response to several member requests for SAA to consider commenting on the recent incident relating to the release of records at the University at Oregon, I sought advice from several groups, the Council discussed options, and we reached agreement on a response. For background on the issue and the Council’s response see http://www2.archivists.org/news/2015/saa-response-to-member-request-re-university-of-oregon-records-release-incident

I’m gratified to hear from members when they think that SAA should make a statement or respond to a current situation, as well as their thoughts on what we do or don’t “say.” Each situation that emerges poses challenges when a response is requested on behalf of SAA rather than by individuals. In the two most recent cases—the acquisition by the University of Texas at Austin of the García Márquez papers and the University of Oregon records release incident—there has been considerable traffic via email, twitter, and Facebook. Members and other archival colleagues have written that “SAA ought to do something.” Continue reading

Addressing issues of concern: University of Texas Acquisition of García Márquez Archive

In December, several members requested that SAA Council consider issuing a García Márquez statement regarding the UT decision to not disclose the purchase price for the García Márquez archive.   After seeking advice from the Committee on Ethics and Professional Conduct, the Committee on Advocacy and Public Policy, and pursuing a sometimes challenging discussion, Council arrived at the response posted on the SAA website today.   http://www2.archivists.org/news/2015/saa-response-to-member-request-re-university-of-texas-acquisition-of-marquez-archive Continue reading