The Archive is Politics: Neutrality is Not an Option

At the end of last month I had the opportunity to attend the annual conference of ARANZ (the Archives and Records Association of New Zealand) in Wellington. There were many interesting speakers who covered a wide-ranging field of topics, from archival theory and philosophy to new technologies and researcher perspectives.

I found the paper given by the keynote speaker, Dr. Randall Jimerson, particularly interesting and thought I’d share a bit about it here.

One of the archival tenets of yore is that the archivist is a neutral figure, somehow separate from, or above, politics. Dr. Jimerson, however, argues that “the archive is now recognised as a locus for political power struggles and for shaping cultural legacies.”

In a presentation which touched on Nazi record-keeping, U.S. political regimes and the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa, he suggested that the very act of keeping archives is a political exercise and that archivists need to recognise and acknowledge this – and chose whether or not they want to act on it.

Dr. Jimerson sees a choice lying before the archives profession: whether to stay with the neutral (dare we say passive?) model or to “seize the initiative to shape archival programs that meet the needs of all citizens, including those groups often excluded and marginalized in society.” In other words, work actively towards recording and preserving the voices of as diverse a range of humanity in our archives as we can – and facilitating ongoing access to those voices. He not only argued strongly for the active approach but also presented options to consider in what Nelson Mandela spoke of as “the call of justice.”

After the conference Dr. Jimerson was interviewed on National Radio and discussed much the same subjects as in his paper. This interview is available on the National Radio website. His book, Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice has been requested for the Library’s collection and I’m looking forward to reading it.

One thought on “The Archive is Politics: Neutrality is Not an Option

  1. Josh Zimmerman September 5, 2010 / 5:07 pm

    If you haven’t already seen it, there was a group discussion of the book a few months ago. You can follow along yourself, after the fact of course. http://bit.ly/84nyAJ

    I was (and still am) a student of Rand’s.

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