I started the day with “What, Why, How? Archival Meaning in a R/Evolutionary Age” which featured three excellent papers exploring meaning, purpose and collective identity for archivists. I especially liked Scott Cline’s paper which explored what he called “archival being” the core values of which are faith, radical self-understanding, intention, and integrity; and illustrated via one of Martin Buber’s Hasidic parables, and quotes and thinking from Abraham Joshua Heschel, among others. He called archives/archiving a “faith-based profession,” calling to mind Verne Harris’s assertion that as archivists “we find ourselves in a terrain that is about belief rather than analysis.”

A bit later, the Global Issues Forum picked up on some of the same themes, especially the premise that archives must be recognized as loci of political power (Derrida: “There is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory.”) The framework was the Key Propositions and Questions that emerged from the 2005 Memory for Justice colloquium at the Nelson Mandela Foundation. It’s an important document, summarizing and synthesizing key themes in the emerging discourse around social justice and archives. In this framework archives:

  • are sites of ambiguity over clarity, where meaning is contested and fluid;
  • acknowledge the political forces that are ever present and shape and influence scope, content, and policies;
  • can no longer retreat to a position of supposed neutrality;
  • can be agents of change and restorative justice;
  • should be mindful of which voices are privileged and which marginalized, through practices of selection, appraisal, description and access;
  • are sites of power in how they shape and construct memory and history

Because I’m an archivist working with collections which are explicitly advocacy-oriented, I was very curious to hear responses from a wider array of archivists. I was a little disappointed in the open forum that there wasn’t more…I don’t know, concrete experiences from other contexts, opinions, pushback? I would also like to hear more about the paradox, in the Colloquium document and alluded to by David Wallace, that archivists are both powerful in their ability to construct memory, but relatively weak in social and political terms. (Do most archivists perceive themselves as wielders of power? ) Panelist Anthea Josias (at U Mich, formerly at the Mandela Foundation), spoke of the need to foreground archives as societal forces, and to more actively engage communities through their active participation.

I was disappointed that Verne Harris was unable to appear on the panel, as had originally been planned. But the speakers all had interesting perspectives, and I really appreciate Rand Jimerson for facilitating these conversations, and for promoting a new conceptual framework for archival ethics (which he spoke on at the session this morning).

John Dean was a great keynote speaker, funny, extemporaneous, flattered his audience, knew who his audience was, unabashedly political (are there republican archivists? there must be, right?). He spoke about the politicization of the presidential libraries, the Nixon library in particular, and Bush’s repeal of the 1978 Presidential Records Act by executive order. Someone asked him who he would vote for in November, and after identifying himself as an independent, and by nature bipartisan, he said: “I would never vote for another republican until they clean up their act.” (big applause).

There were other good if less inspirational sessions today; but I’ll leave off here to turn my full attention to Barack.

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