Fighting for the Future: Archival Work in the Post-Truth Era

By Michael W. Harris

On Saturday as I sat in a local coffee shop working on coursework for library school, I was also constantly updating my Facebook feed and checking in on my friends around the country who were marching in protest of the comments, policies, and intents of the incoming US Presidential administration. These friends were joined by even more people around the world (including Antarctica) in what is now clearly the single largest day of protest ever seen in global history. It was millions of voices crying out with a single intent: we will not be silenced.

I sat there and wished that I could have been with them. I ultimately turned down a friend’s offer to accompany them to Denver for many reasons: schoolwork, a creeping cold, a general aversion to congregating in groups larger than 5-7. But I do think I might look back with some regret. However, in between being inspired by my many friends protesting in Denver, Kansas City, St. Louis, and even D.C., I was also reading a speech given by archivist F. Gerald Ham from 1974 that has reminded me of why archival work is so important, especially right now, and it energized me once again for my newly chosen profession.

You can read that article here (complete with my annotations…though they may look wonky depending on your PDF reader), if you like, and I would highly recommend it for any archivist who has never read it. I would even recommend those outside of the LAM professions to take a look through it.

After reading it, I wrote these words as my discussion post for the class (Appraisal of Archives and Manuscripts). While some of the context might be lost if you haven’t read the article or if you are not in the archival world, I think that the general sentiment might be appreciated by all (I have done some light editing from my original post):

I find it prescient that I waited until Saturday to sit down and do my reading for this class. As I have read and listened, I have also been scrolling and updating my Facebook feed, seeing videos and photos taken and shared by my friends crowding city centers in protest for equality and dignity for all. And as I scroll, I read the words of Ham and am reminded of [Howard] Zinn and also Terry Cook (whose work [from the 80s through 2000s] I have encountered and loved in prior classes) and their calls to archivists since 1970s: for us to be activist partners in the preservation of the historical record of all people. And this begins with appraisal and the decision of what has “sufficient value” that we deem it worthy of addition to our collections.

And I am sorry if this posting gets a bit political, and I do wear my leanings on my sleeve, but the confluence of such things is striking. Part of why I am proud to be getting into this profession is this spirit. That archivists have a powerful and important role in how we shape the past for the future, and as Ham points out, we cannot allow ourselves to be led by the fickleness of historian’s research, political leaders, or fame and celebrity. We must resist “the politicization of our profession,” as Ham quotes Colman, though we might face the charge that by becoming more active in the shaping of the record that that is exactly what we are doing. But to sit back and do nothing in terms of building a robust and varied archival record would be to cede that record to those who would distort it to their aims.

No, we cannot do that. Archivists are the custodians of history, and we must embrace that as a duty and charge. And custodians are guardians and protectors. We are truth keepers and fact checkers. And this begins with appraisal and making these decisions in cooperation, not competition, with other archivists. And in what is being called a “post-truth era,” being able to effectively counter falsity with archive verifiable facts will be more important than ever.

The truth might have taken a beating recently, but as long as we preserve it in the archive, it will eventually win out. This is why the work of groups like the Internet Archive are so key to preserving the digital record of our most prominent leaders.

The arc of history is long, but it does bend towards truth. And that begins with us, archivists, in the appraisal process.

Yes, I did crib a bit from MLK at the end, but if you are going to steal, might as well steal from the best.

When I reflect on just why I am so excited to be getting into the archival profession, this aspect of it, more than anything else, makes me the most excited and proud of my decision. I always felt like I did not know how to become an activist for my beliefs in the classroom without descending into cliché. I am not the like some of my good friends who have been able to deftly blend their research with their activism. And I am also not comfortable with large groups. I get anxious and exhausted easily by them and then I just turn grumpy and unpleasant.

But in archives I believe can do my part in addition to other means of making my voice known via donations to organizations that I believe in and by voting for leaders that I believe will fight for those beliefs. This might be the most satisfying part of my decision to go into archives…other than getting to play with cool documents and books on a daily basis.

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