Archives and Current Events: Social Movements, Archival Access and Collecting

Recently in a class I provided my students with a rough case study involving a higher educational institution that asked the students to from an ethical stand point what to do with unsolicited materials that had records related to an alumni group that were both embarrassing to the institution and racially charged. I asked several follow up questions after discussing the pro’s and con’s restricting access to this question, but during class I suggested they deal with this case study in light of current student protest at the University of Missouri and Yale and does that relate to records a university collects and chooses to restrict. Many of the students found the idea that these records should be made avaliable compelling especially if the group that directly created these records had some responsiblity for raising funds for the institution. I prodded a bit about issues that could be related to systemic racism that would be relevant.

This in class exercise got me thinking, ethically speaking how should we deal with issues of access versus restriction when responding to current events, namely events embroiled in controversy. Archivist are no strangers to dealing with the ideas of social justice and documenting under-represented and marginalized groups. Randall Jimmerson’s Archives Power makes a fairly strong call for archivist to become activist social-cultural issues that are relevant and current. We should also keep in mind Mark Green’s rebuttal of this in American ArchivistRoughly stated, Green worries that archival objectivity will be impact in how collections are acquired and promoted.

So this debate has precedence in the archival field, but I want to at least begin thinking about the issue of activism in archives from a different perspective. So these are questions that arise for me at least.

  • When a collection previously restricted collection shows examples of systematic persecution of a group, do you release portions of it when current events dictate it necessary or maintain restrictions?
  • When a collection that documents persecution has relevance to a modern  social movement, how active should an archive be in promoting use of these materials?
    • In this scenario, what would constitute activism and what would constitute objective archival actives
  • When a modern social movement needs to be documented, but the participants have become overwhelmed by the attention their movement has acquired, how should archive approach documenting these movement. Also how should archives approach documenting reaction and opposition to these movement.

Just some thoughts for a Friday.

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