Randall C. Jimerson
Society of Archivists
Bristol, England

September 1, 2009



Archivists have begun to recognize the power of archives, which arises from three central sources: the archivist’s authority and power to shape society’s collective memory; the archivist’s responsibility and control over preservation and security of records; and the archivist’s role of interpretation and mediation between records and users. Having examined these sources of archives power, I believe that the archival profession should actively engage the political issues of our times. In supporting open government, public accountability, accurate remembrance of the past, and documentation of society’s diversity, archivists should respond to what Nelson Mandela refers to as the call of justice.

My remarks today center around three stories.

1) We begin with a fable:

The newspaper editor needed one more community interest story for the next day’s paper. Noticing an announcement of the Society of Archivists Conference in Bristol, he sent seven interns and junior reporters to find out what archives are and what purpose they serve. Each went to a different archives in the city, but when they met to discuss their findings, arguments broke out at once.

The reporter who visited the City Archives declared, “Archives exist only to protect the legal rights of citizens and administrative needs of government.” Another reporter returned from the County Historical Society, convinced that archives create the “collective memory” of the local community, celebrating the role of prominent citizens. “You are both wrong,” argued the intern who had spoken to the City College archivist: “Archives provide research materials for educational purposes.”

“Anyone in the city can use the Public Library Archives to find genealogical information,” said another. “No way! The public can’t use archives, because they serve only the institution that pays for them,” said the reporter from the City Manufacturing Company Archives. The intern who had interviewed the archivist at First Church of the City declared that archives connect people to spiritual values and beliefs. “No,” insisted the reporter who had visited the Black Cultural Archives Center, “the chief value of the archives is to create a sense of community heritage and identity.”

“Enough!” cried the exasperated editor. “If you knuckleheads don’t know what archives are like, I’m going with a story about the City Zoo’s new baby elephant.”

As archivists debate their professional identity, it often seems that they mistake one part of the profession for the whole. Like the elephant of the ancient Buddhist fable, the archival profession seems to consist of diverse and seemingly contradictory parts. Rather than define the profession in narrow terms, it is time to understand its commonalities and collective identity. It is pointless to insist that the archival elephant resembles only a rope or a tree—an institutional archives or a manuscripts repository. In one of Walt Kelly’s Pogo cartoons, Porky states, “Ever’body got their own way of lookin’ at anything... Din’t you ever hear the story of the blind men an’ the elephant? ... Each one was partly right.” To this the great philosopher Pogo responds, “Yeah... an’ each was mostly wrong.”

Archivists in the United States have been struggling to define their role in society—and their identity as members of a profession—for the past century. Are they some type of historians, or a subset of librarians? Do they assist administrators, or protect legal evidence, or guard cultural heritage? Each effort to define archives and the role of archivists is at least partially correct, but only by recognizing the common characteristics among the various parts of the archival elephant can archivists understand their true purpose. Common bonds unite the archival profession, even though separate groups define their own purposes and roles in different and (at times) seemingly contradictory terms. Archivists must not let their differences divide them, as they serve the broad and diverse needs of society. In doing so, their work should be informed by a sense of social responsibility and a commitment to personal morality and professional ethics.

2) The second story is a reverie:

In my dream I am entering a temple. Its ornate façade and tall spires give me hope. I will find enlightenment here. I push open the massive door and enter. The door clangs shut behind me. I am in a dimly lit room with high windows that prevent the sunlight from reaching me. Despite the heat outside it is cool here. A security guard approaches. The temple has become a prison.

The guard tells me to surrender my pens and put my briefcase in a locker. I sit at a table, filling out forms to prove my identity. Guards and security cameras watch me constantly to prevent escape or theft. I realize that I am hungry. A young woman hands me a menu. The prison is now a restaurant.

“What do you want?” the waitress asks. The menu she hands me does not list food items, only the names of food creators—Associated British Foods, Fortnum & Mason, Loxtons, Nestle, Voyager Foods. “May I suggest a local specialty?” She pulls down a menu for traditional British foods.

Soon a cart arrives laden with several boxes. My food must be inside. I open one box at a time—correspondence, reports, and financial ledgers. In the last box are recipes. Fish and chips. Steak and kidney pie. Bangers and mash. Shepherd’s pie. No food, only the promise of food.

The waitress recommends shepherd’s pie. She brings me a box filled with potatoes, minced mutton, onions, garlic, peas, carrots, and other primary sources of nutrition. After all this, I still have to cook my own meal.

* * *

Changing images of the archives, as sites of power. The temple reflects the power of authority and veneration, to shape social (collective) memory. The prison wields the power of control. The restaurant holds the power of interpretation and mediation between records and users. These represent the trinity of archival functions: selection, preservation, and access.

[The Temple]

In the archival temple, records of human activity achieve authority and immortality (or at least its semblance). Archivists make value-laden decisions with momentous implications for the knowledge that the future will have of the past. As historian David Lowenthal explains, a few precious relics gain recognition as “rare or sacred like Dead Sea Scrolls or Shakespeare first folios,” treasured for “their talismanic worth as tangible witnesses to some personal event or personality.” In deciding which documents will be saved for future generations and which will be excluded or destroyed, South African archivist Verne Harris contends, “The appraiser is a co-creator of the archival record.” By preserving some records and not others, archivists affect society’s collective understanding of its past, including what will be forgotten.

[The Prison]

The second site of archival power is the archival prison. From security doors to lockers for researchers’ belongings, from closed stacks to reading room surveillance cameras, archives often resemble prisons or fortresses. If the most common architectural metaphor of archival facilities is the temple, a secondary model emphasizes security and protection. The records are imprisoned (for their own security, of course), but so are the researchers, who must consult records in closely guarded chambers under vigilant surveillance.

Eric Ketelaar compares the archival reading room to Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, “a prison where the inmates were kept under constant surveillance (pan-optical) by guards in a central control tower.” Both in their design and operation, archival reference rooms echo Bentham’s goal of panopticism, ensuring security and control. In entering the archives, researchers undergo a variety of “policing measures,” such as signing a register, displaying identification documents, reading research rules, leaving their bags and personal belongings outside the reading room, maintaining silence, and undergoing constant surveillance. The user of archives becomes an “‘inmate’ of the search room.”

[The Restaurant]

The archivist’s power of interpretation appears most strongly in the image of archives as a restaurant, where those hungry for truth or knowledge seek nourishment. Archival power governs the research process, from the finding aids that may at first appear to be strange and exotic menus, to the one-on-one consultation by which archivists mediate between user and document. This separates the reader from direct access to the record. The researcher remains in the dining room, as a consumer of information, while the most important work of the restaurant takes place out of sight in the kitchen.

In the archival restaurant, the waitress explains (interprets) both the menu and the types of food offered. She keeps and preserves. She ensures safety. She provides a comfortable dining experience. She offers advice (narrates the record), but often only when requested. It is a service role, but it comes with a measure of power and requires a reassuring smile if one wants a generous tip.

These are the sources of archives power. Before considering how archivists should use this power, we turn to another story.

3) The third story arises from the oppressive apartheid regime in South Africa.

At the ceremony launching the Centre of Memory and Commemoration Project on September 21, 2004, Nelson Mandela stated, “In our view the work of archives in the South Africa of today is potentially one of the most critical contributions to restoration and reconciliation. All of us have a powerful moral obligation to the many voices and stories either marginalised or suppressed during the apartheid era.”

However, if archival records can symbolize healing and reconciliation, they also can support and perpetuate oppression. Mandela reminded the audience: “Under the apartheid regime it was a common practice for the authorities to take documents from those they regarded as enemies. Sometimes they used these documents as evidence in court cases. Sometimes they used them in various forms of intimidation. Sometimes they simply destroyed them.” Documents became tools of control.
The new Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Dialogue seeks to overcome the silences in the official archives, to revive and preserve the voices marginalized during the colonial and apartheid eras. “We want [the Centre] to be part of what we have called the processes of restoration and reconciliation,” Mandela declared. “And, most importantly, we want it to dedicate itself to the recovery of memories and stories suppressed by power. That is the call of justice: the call that must be the project’s most important shaping influence.”

Mandela warns: “The history of our country is characterised by too much forgetting. A forgetting which served the powerful and dispossessed the weak. One of our challenges as we build and extend democracy is the need to ensure that our youth know where we come from, what we have done to break the shackles of oppression, and how we have pursued the journey to freedom and dignity for all. … This is what archives are about.”

Mandela adds: “The struggle against apartheid can be typified as the pitting of remembering against forgetting.” “Anyone who has explored the world of archives will know that it is a treasure house, one that is full of surprises, crossing paths, dead ends, painful reminders and unanswered questions. Very often, the memories contained in archives diverge from the memories people carry with them,” he acknowledges. “That is its challenge. And its fascination. … Engagement with archives offers both joy and pain.”

* * *

In August 2005 the Mandela Foundation hosted a colloquium in Johannesburg dedicated to exploring the theme of “Memory for Justice.” Nearly one hundred participants representing more than thirty institutions attended sessions focusing on memory as a powerful catalyst for social change, the social power exercised by archivists, systemic shortcomings in archival user service, the role of archivists in striving for historical and contemporary justice, and South African experiences of memory construction in the wake of the apartheid era. From this dialogue emerged key propositions and questions, for archival institutions, for practitioners, and for society as a whole. Among these statements, summarized in the report of the colloquium, a few examples illustrate the range of issues examined:

• Those who work with archive should be guided primarily by a concept of and commitment to justice.
• Prevailing relations of power and influence in societies (even in democracies) tend to disadvantage certain voices. The call of justice sounds two imperatives: 1) to proactively enable participation and access; and 2) to construct the archive beyond the normative assumptions circumscribed by power and the status quo.
• The archive … is best understood as a contested terrain for memory construction shaping contemporary understandings of society.
• Injustice is routinely documented by those who perpetrate it.
• The archive provides a powerful resource for restorative justice.
• Disclosing what was hidden (and what remains secret) is but a first step. … What is the next step beyond creating a more accurate version of the past?

And how does that—can that—shape and connect to contemporary struggles for justice?

The challenges raised in these statements amounted to a manifesto for a new conception of archival ethics. No longer seen as neutral and passive centers for historical documentation, archives would be reborn as active participants in the social, political, and intellectual struggles to achieve social justice and personal freedom for all peoples. What the Johannesburg conference proposed amounted to a redefinition of archives and of the role of archivists in society.

[Records for Oppression and for Liberation]

As this story about Nelson Mandela demonstrates, archives express and hold numerous oppositions: memory and forgetting, suffering and hope, power and accountability, confinement and liberation, oppression and justice, conformity and diversity, silence and vocality. Archives can serve the interests of entrenched power, but they can also empower the marginalized groups in society. Since ancient times archives have been used to bolster the prestige and influence of the powerful elites in societies. Archivists have a moral professional responsibility to balance the support given to the status quo by giving equal voice to those groups that too often have been marginalized and silenced. We can see many precedents for this professional imperative. Examples of the use of records and archives to redress social wrongs and support the causes of justice and community consciousness among marginalized groups are growing more numerous. Archivists can become active agents for change, in accordance with their existing professional principles, by taking active steps to counter the biases of previous archival practices.


[Archives for All]

Archives provide a basis for empowering all citizens in a democratic society. They preserve documentation that serves as an authentic record of human activity, which can corroborate or invalidate appeals to precedent and heritage. Archives thus serve as one means of holding accountable public leaders in all sectors of social interaction. If archivists—and those who provide support and authority for their work—accept the challenges and opportunities afforded by the power of records (including textual, visual, sound, and electronic media), the archival record can support the goals of democracy, open government, social justice, and diversity. Archives can meet the needs of all members of society.


[The Illusion of neutrality]

The starting point for archivists responding to the call of justice is to recognize that neutrality is an illusion. However much they protest their impartiality and neutrality, archivists cannot avoid leaving their own imprint on these powerful sources of knowledge and identity. Since the emergence of “scientific history” in the nineteenth century, historians have relied on archives and other primary sources to create and buttress their interpretations of the past. Archivists have been viewed—indeed, extolled—as impartial, neutral, objective custodians of evidence. Sir Hilary Jenkinson stated the archivist’s ideal of impartiality, neutrality, and passivity in 1922:

The Archivist’s career is one of service. He exists in order to make other people’s work possible. … His Creed, the Sanctity of Evidence; his Task, the Conservation of every scrap of Evidence attaching to the Documents committed to his charge; his aim to provide, without prejudice or after-thought, for all who wish to know the Means of Knowledge. … The good Archivist is perhaps the most selfless devotee of Truth the modern world produces.

Jenkinson’s appeal to nineteenth-century canons of positivism–even after exposure to the twentieth-century thinking of Einstein and Freud–seems in retrospect “a stunningly reactionary statement.” Yet nearly a century later this is still the ideal held up to archivists by many of our colleagues. Even if archivists were to accept the possibility of such neutrality and passivity, do we really want to be obsequious Uriah Heeps, handmaidens to history? We should have more self-respect than this. If we pride ourselves on our humility we may end up like the man given a small medal for being the most humble person in town. He had it taken away when he was seen wearing the medal in public.

The archivist’s role unavoidably engages in politics. Archives establish and reinforce power relationships in society. We cannot remain neutral or passive. In 1970 Howard Zinn, the radical historian, told an audience of archivists that the archivist’s “supposed neutrality” was “a fake.” Zinn added that archival collections were “biased towards the important and powerful people of the society, tending to ignore the impotent and obscure.” Such bias derives from the basic assumptions of archival practice. It is not conscious or deliberate. It is endemic.

The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss clearly linked written documents to economic and political power. “The only phenomena which, always and in all parts of the world, seems to be linked with the appearance of writing … is the establishment of hierarchical societies, consisting of masters and slaves, and where one part of the population is made to work for the other part,” he stated in 1961. Since the era of ancient Sumeria, archives have consolidated economic and political power. Archives, libraries, and museums have never been neutral. Throughout western history they have served the interests of the state and its elites. As library historian Matthew Battles declares, libraries have always been “a battleground for contesting ideologies.” The same is true for museums and archives, indeed for any institutions responsible for the cultural heritage of societies.

Recognizing this power that archivists wield in the universe of knowledge, some have been tempted to seek pseudo-scientific methods of distancing themselves from their decisions. They want to believe in their neutrality. When exposed with their hands on the controls, they may wish to echo the Wizard of Oz, who told Dorothy and her friends, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

This control by archivists reflects the power of the political state in controlling archival resources. Peter Fritzsche connects this archival power to institutions of social control. He contends that “the archive is widely recognized as one of an array of disciplinary institutions such as hospitals, prisons, and asylums that manage the technologies of power that are indispensable to the maintenance of social collectives and the enforcement of social norms.”

The authority that archivists exercise within their domain partakes in political power, since access to information and knowledge conveys such power. Yet it is a power often unrecognized by most members of society, who do not see or understand the role archivists play in the contested realms of power distribution and control. Although public controversies, such as the fight for control of Richard Nixon’s White House tape recordings, occasionally bring documentary sources to the forefront, archivists seldom share the spotlight. However, archival records often provide a means for holding public leaders accountable and for documenting significant societal events.

[Objectivity is not Neutrality]

Archivists who choose to respond to the cause of social justice can do so in their professional roles in selecting records for preservation, ensuring evidence and accountability, and opening the archives to diverse perspectives and multiple voices. This process begins with a commitment to accurate, reliable, authentic, and broadly conceived documentation of institutions, societal groups, and individuals.

Before entering this discussion, however, it is necessary to distinguish between the often-conflated terms neutrality and objectivity. In an extensive critique of the development of the American historical profession, Peter Novick contends that the “ideal of ‘objectivity’ … has been the key term in defining progress in historical scholarship: moving ever closer to the objective truth about the past.” Because this “myth of objectivity” both sets an impossible goal and also precludes historians from advocating social or political causes, Novick rejects the ideal as “not just essentially contested, but essentially confused.” Only by denying the validity of objectivity can Novick justify historians’ engagement in public policy debates.

In a highly critical review of Novick’s book, Thomas Haskell argues that the central fallacy that Novick and others perpetuate is to conflate objectivity with neutrality. Haskell defends the validity of the concept of objectivity, while attempting to rid it of “unwanted connotations” such as neutrality, selflessness, and passivity. “Objectivity is not something entirely distinct from detachment, fairness, and honesty, but is the product of extending and elaborating these priceless and fundamentally ascetic virtues,” Haskell contends. Historians (and others) can be objective without forsaking engagement in discussions of values, politics, or social policy. The historian’s “primary commitment” to truth does not prohibit political advocacy, Haskell states, but it does “set intellectually responsible limits to it,” so that one cannot claim “the privilege of lying or obscuring the truth for good causes.”

Sustaining intellectual and professional principles—such as “respect for logical coherence, fidelity to evidence, detachment, candor, honesty, and the like”—must accompany any advocacy for moral or political values. These criteria provide a context within which professional debate can occur.

When the future of human society is at stake, neutrality is an abdication of responsibility. Amid the chaos following the Second World War—which infused fascism, concentration camps, and atomic bombs into the public consciousness—George Orwell argued, writers could not ignore politics. The daily news aroused “an awareness of the enormous injustice and misery of the world, and a guilt-stricken feeling that one ought to be doing something about it, which makes a purely æsthetic attitude towards life impossible.” All public activities exist within a political context. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel argues, no one has the right to abstain. “When the life or death—or simply the well-being—of a community is at stake, neutrality is criminal, for it aids and abets the oppressor and not his victim.”
Remaining true to professional standards of objectivity—accuracy, fairness, and honesty—does not require neutrality on important questions of societal values.

[Responding to the Call of Justice]

Archivists can perform only a limited range of actions to further the goals of social justice, diversity, accountability, and public service. They cannot achieve these goals or even make significant differences through their own efforts. With a commitment to ethical behavior and purposeful action, however, they can contribute to broader societal interests. Some progress can already be seen in the establishment of human rights archives in the United Kingdom, the United States, and several other countries. Even archivists in repositories not dedicated to a social action agenda can contribute to these goals of inclusiveness, accountability, access, diversity, and social justice. It is an ethical choice that each individual can make, based on personal values, institutional constraints, and willingness to take risks.

Many archives and many archivists will not be able or willing to accept these challenges of responding to the call of justice. Some archivists will be constrained by institutional policies, by their reluctance to endanger their job security, by time constraints in the face of new initiatives, or by their own ideological or personal opposition to such concepts. There should be no stigma or criticism for archivists who do not accept these recommendations as personal or professional goals. By the same measure of tolerance, archivists who do embrace these concepts should be accepted as practitioners of a shared professional identity.

For archivists who do choose to respond to the call of justice, there are many opportunities—some large, others small—to act on these principles. Here, briefly, are some ideas to consider:

• Welcoming “the stranger” into the archives, by seeking to include previously marginalized groups in archival documentation;
• Ensuring diversity in the archival record;
• Selecting and appraising archival records based on clearly articulated criteria that are transparent to donors, researchers, and the public;
• Listening for oral testimony, both by including oral sources from a variety of cultural traditions and by creating oral histories for silent or neglected groups in society;
• Making archival description systems sensitive to cultural diversity and to the hidden or coded values in our language and terminology;
• Providing inclusive reference and access, open to all members of society freely and equally;
• Embracing new technologies, such as Web 2.0 social media tools, which seek to make information more fully democratic and interactive;
• Supporting public advocacy, both on behalf of archival and documentary concerns and in support of open government, public accountability, and democratic values;
• Becoming whistle blowers when confronted by efforts to undermine these principles or to destroy records or compromise the accuracy and reliability of archival sources; and
• Ensuring the availability of archives of the people, by the people, and for the people.


Responding effectively to the challenges of using the power of archives for the public good will require a broad commitment by the archival profession to reflect on underlying assumptions and biases, and to overcome these through a renewed commitment to democratic values. There are risks involved in such changes. It will be difficult to commit archivists and their profession to a more inclusive view of social responsibilities. But the stakes are too high not to accept these challenges. Historical examples of abuses of power, control through manipulation of the archival record, and efforts to limit access to vital information show the dangers of misusing the power of archives and records. Archivists should commit themselves to preventing the archival profession’s explicit or implicit support of privileged elites and powerful rulers at the expense of the people’s rights and interests. They should commit themselves to the values of public accountability, open government, cultural diversity, and social justice. Then archivists can truly say that they are ensuring archives for all, and employing their professional skills to promote a better society. In doing so, we can use archives power to promote and help to secure memory, accountability, and social justice.