In recognition of Archives Month (October) and UNESCO World Day for Audiovisual Heritage (October 27), Archiving Human Rights will explore the theme of activism, in its myriad word forms and meanings, as it relates to archives and archivists.  We’ll feature WITNESS staff, interns, and guest bloggers.  Are you an activist archivist?  Let us hear from you too!

In 1970, at the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists, gadfly historian Howard Zinn gave a seminal speech* in which he challenged one of the core foundational principles upon which modern archives practice was built, that of neutrality.  The whole notion, said Zinn, was a “fake,” a cop-out, a dangerously passive avoidance of the inherently political nature of the archival endeavor.  Neutrality allowed the archivist to perpetuate the status quo, to reflect and reinforce society’s economic and political disparities, and to preserve the interests of the rich, powerful, literate, or otherwise privileged, at the expense of the less so.

“The existence, preservation, and availability of archives, documents and records in our society are very much determined by the distribution of wealth and power.  That is, the most powerful, the richest elements in society have the greatest capacity to find documents, preserve them, and decide what is or is not available to the public.  This means that government, business, and the military are dominant.”

Zinn challenged his audience to question their own unwitting acquiescence to entrenched power, to campaign against government secrecy, and to acknowledge and confront the societal biases that ignore the marginal, the poor, the non-literate, and even the ordinary; in essence, to embrace an activist rather than passive mindset.

This generated a considerable amount of controversy at the time, but in the 40 years since, numerous writers and participants in archival discourse have invoked the word activist in calling for new approaches to a range of archival concepts and practices, including ownership, diversity, non-textual cultural heritage, information rights, community archives, the definition of the record, user participation, ethical codes, and the responsibilities of the archivist.  Author and former SAA President Rand Jimerson wrote:

“Archivists should use their power—in determining what records will be preserved for future generations and in interpreting this documentation for researchers—for the benefit of all members of society. By adopting a social conscience for the profession, they can commit themselves to active engagement in the public arena. Archivists can use the power of archives to promote accountability, open government, diversity, and social justice. In doing so, it is essential to distinguish objectivity from neutrality. Advocacy and activism can address social issues without abandoning professional standards of fairness, honesty, detachment, and transparency.” [emphasis mine]

So what then is an activist archive?  (Or its irresistibly rhyming and alliterative corollary, the activist archivist?)  There are many possible answers: the documentation engendered by advocacy groups or individuals in the course of their work (Documentation Center of Cambodia ); a collection deliberately assembled to reflect a history of social justice work (Columbia University’s Human Rights Web Archiving project); an organization using Freedom of Information Act legislation to declassify, collect, disseminate and analyze government documents (the National Security Archive); or an approach, in which archives engage actively and directly in the documentation and record-collection process itself (the Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive, i-Witness Video).  And, there are groups such as Archivists Without Borders and the Documentation Affinity Group which work globally and collectively to address a variety of archiving and documentation projects and challenges.

Our work at the WITNESS Media Archive fits many of these definitions: we manage and preserve the records of our own organization; collect and curate original documentation generated by grassroots human rights activists–reflecting not only the issues for which they advocate, but also the evolving nature and practice of human rights activism itself; work with activists to promote best practices in audiovisual documentation; and advocate for the value of archives as a critical activity serving social justice and human rights movements.

Archives and archivists are essential to preservation, continuity, and persistence of memory, but they are agents of transformation and change too. Stay tuned….

NB: Archives for Change was the first name of an SAA committee formed in 1971 in response to Zinn’s speech; it later became ACT, and later still, Progressive Archivists.

*Zinn’s address was subsequently published as “Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest” in Midwestern Archivist, Vol II, Number 2, 1977 pp. 14-27 :

3 thoughts on “Archives for Change: Activist Archives, Archival Activism

  1. thanks Aileen! I read your blog and would love to see your further comments on this topic. And stay tuned for a couple more guest posts in this thread in the next few weeks…

  2. I noticed this post only today and sorely regret not commenting on this earlier or participating in the dialogue for October. As a budding archivist/records manager I feel that this is a relevant and topical post, especially in light of the current WikiLeaks news and the ethical soundness of that act. I intend on featuring this article post and presenting further comments regarding it on my blog, Archivists Watch.

    p.s. Congratulations to you Grace on your award last week! I am an avid follower.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *