Guest blog: Where are the activist archivists?

by Ross Harvey | | | @TaksNz

Are archivists radical? Three public lectures sponsored by Monash University last week challenged archivists to become more engaged.

I presented the Whyte Memorial Lecture on 15 September with a mild call to arms that encouraged archivists to assert themselves. Two transfixing lectures on 17 September pursued this radical theme much more forcefully. They will stay in my mind and inform my thinking about archives for many years to come. They have completely changed my views of what archivists must strive to do.

The first speaker was Andrew Flinn (University College London) who spoke about research into community archives. The second speaker was Anne Gilliland (University of California Los Angeles) on recordkeeping in a digital, post-colonial world, specifically how to support inclusion in a digital age. Both speakers are eminent and influential archives educators and their lectures were riveting because of their radical content.

Flinn’s lecture, ‘Another world is possible’, addressed social justice issues in three themes:

  1. Recordkeepers as advocates for openness in government and corporate contexts
  2. Community-based control of archives
  3. The role of archival educators and research in critical examination and improvement of archives practice

Flinn argued for ‘research-informed education and practice that makes a difference’, seeking ‘fundamental change, not preserving the status quo’.

Gilliland’s paper investigated two themes:

  1. Social and ethical responsibilities of archivists and recordkeepers towards society’s least empowered individuals
  2. The need for recordkeepers to respond to grand societal challenges

Gilliland highlighted the role of recordkeeping in diasporas in reconstructing migrants’ memories, and made specific reference to the massive forced displacements in recent weeks. Gilliland posed the question: how can recordkeepers be a key part of addressing this, especially in a digital context? She heavily criticised the failure of recordkeepers to meet any of the aims of the Unesco Universal Declaration on Archives 2011 (‘open access to archives enriches our knowledge of human society, promotes democracy, protects citizens’ rights and enhances the quality of life’). She challenged recordkeepers to ‘confront [their] own complicities’. Recordkeepers have ‘failed the disenfranchised’. These are fighting words!

Gilliland continued with more damning indictments. Standard recordkeeping practice fails refugees by imposing unrealistic standards. Recordkeepers have failed in advocacy roles – an example was not speaking out against anti-terrorist laws. Current recordkeeping systems are too complex, too hard for the uninitiated. Digitisation of records is carried out for and on behalf of the elite, those in power, the oppressors. She concluded that recordkeepers have failed. New structures, new systems, and more flexibility are urgently demanded. She ‘exhorted’ recordkeepers and academics to use digital records and ways of working in support of all citizens of the world, especially the dispossessed. In Gilliland’s words, ‘all of our current archival ideas privilege those in control’.

The questions from the audience disappointed. They did not respond to the exciting although confronting challenges offered, but looked at the difficulties. I wondered at one point if Australian recordkeepers – those in the audience, at least – were moribund. The responses from Flinn and Gilliland emphasised education of new professionals who better understand the issues and are motivated by major societal concerns, collective action, individuals who can apply social justice mandates in their workplaces, and stronger professional associations. It is an ethical imperative to act.

These papers were highly stimulating. Gilliland’s will probably be the best I hear this year and most likely also for some years to come. But on reflection my feelings are mixed: can these major challenges be addressed by archivists currently in the workforce, with their strong conservatism? I rather think not. The hope has to lie with new professionals who are motivated by educators like Andrew Flinn and Anne Gilliland to address major societal concerns through collective action.

Andrew Flinn’s email signature quotes Aneurin Bevan: ‘We have been the dreamers, we have been the sufferers, now we must be the builders’.

So here’s my challenge to archivists: be the builders.