Towards a Social Justice in ARM bibliography

First, let’s get this out of the way: I bet Matt Yglesias feels pretty stupid right now. Hahahaha ohhhh I’m going to be depressed. (Yes, I have a political bias. I’ll try to tamp it down for this post.)

Anyway! With White House pages on key issues disappearing (though not permanently! Thanks, NARA), information lockdowns being passed down to entire agencies (at least temporarily), and the possibility of science from the EPA being subject to political review before release, one’s mind tends to drift to questions of an archivist/records manager’s ethical responsibility in an institutional setting. (Didn’t you already write this post, Brad? Yes, I did, on multiple occasions, but this one’s different, I promise.) Yes, you have a responsibility towards your institution/government/whatever, but what is your responsibility towards society? Are archivists, particularly in records management roles, obliged to serve as whistleblowers? Do we save records of historical import on our own volition, despite orders (or, at best, strongly-worded suggestions) from the Powers That Be to show them the business end of a shredder? What do we make of reports that a top advisor to the president is actively avoiding creating a paper trail?

Well. I Have Opinions about all of these things. Unfortunately for me (but fortunately for you), an official group blog for a component group of a professional organization is not the place for them. But those sublimated opinions have to go somewhere… in this case, I thought, “why not take a look at what the professional literature has to say about these issues?” I put out a Twitter call for recommendations, did some poking around on some of my library’s databases, and the result is a brand new category on the RM bibliography, which I am tentatively calling Institutional Records and Human Rights. More on this after the jump.

…Yeah, there are a LOT of articles out there about this. (Though, I must say, a surprisingly small number of articles on Records Management and Human Rights/Social Justice from authors and journals in the United States. Let’s get on that, guys.) To prevent myself from falling too far down the rabbit hole, I’ve chosen to limit my scope to books and articles, in English, that deal with records of nation-state actors on questions of justice, and the appraisal, acquisition, preservation, and use of those records in pursuit of justice. This is, it must be said, still a very broad scope– including articles on records of indigenous Australians,  on the trustworthiness of government archives in “transitional justice” regimes, and  on the political-economic implications of selecting e-records for long-term preservation. But I may at least be able to finish this list before I turn 40. (At least until I start citation-mining the articles on the list and find new ones to explore.)

This is a work in progress, so feel free to peruse/share/suggest additions in the comments– this is an important topic, and I want the bibliography to reflect the full range of scholarship if I possibly can. If anything, the 50-odd articles I’ve selected here are sort of a “seed” to keep the list growing (hence “towards” a bibliography.) That said, a few notes about these selections:

  • I have only actually read a few of these so far; many are on the list on the strength of their abstracts. If you are familiar with an article that you don’t think is appropriate for a list on this topic, let me know that too.
  • Included on this list are a few articles with which I emphatically disagree. I include them to provide a full picture of the scholarly conversation, but please do not take any article’s presence here as an endorsement of its contents. (Particularly given point #1, above.)
  • I am deliberately eschewing discussion of community archives in this list, except where they are in an article as a counterpoint to official state-sponsored record keeping systems. This is, after all, a records management blog.

Thanks in advance for your feedback– happy reading!


2 thoughts on “Towards a Social Justice in ARM bibliography

  1. Preserving records about social justice, learning from them, is a part of civic literacy as well as studying a naiton’s history. Yet, as I wrote last year at my blog, teaching civics presents more challenges than in the past:

    Social Justice issues, by their very nature, often result in records that reflect struggles or challenges over civil and human rights for the marginalized, under-represented, officially disempowered or the abused. But those records, or those preserved through RM and other methods, may be limited for various reasons. There is the potential for many archival silences.

    In some records creating organizations, there is a marked tilt in preserved records towards the powerful. In others, a more balanced picture can be preserved in records.

    There also may be unresolved (unresolvable?) tensions between preserving history as it was and learning from how issues were handled. And a desire by the PTB to present a safe, sanitized version of events.

    What do you see as the primary challenges to preserving social justice records, Brad? And also the challenges to discussing them in the first place, as they relate to the RM profession?

  2. Brad H.

    No small questions here! Keeping in mind that I am, in part, compiling this list to get a handle on these questions:

    1) In the context in which I’m using the term, I think the challenge is recognizing that the records you are preserving are “social justice records” in the first place. I doubt the Stasi intended for its records to be widely released and parsed through to show the extent to which they surveilled and oppressed East Germans. To take an example closer to home (and related to the Hangout that RMS did last week with Snowden Becker), police unions actively attempt to suppress release, and in many cases the very retention, of body camera footage, because the footage that is of interest has a materially deleterious effect on the union’s members. Which, to be fair, protecting their members IS what unions are supposed to do. But we as records professionals need to be aware that in making that disposition decision, we are also eradicating a record of abuses of the state against the powerless. I think it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that records, ultimately, are created to fulfill a function, and while it’s nice when the administrative value and historical value match up, it doesn’t always work that way. Which is where the records professional, at whatever point on the records continuum, needs to step in. (It is also why, incidentally, I find Mark Greene’s reducto ad absurdum in his 2013 article that “social justice archivists” should actively destroy records of oppression so infuriating.)

    2) Honestly? I think it’s fear. The fact of records managers by definition working in institutional contexts means that they potentially have the entire weight of the institution coming down upon them if they take some of the actions suggested in the answer to #1, above. Is it worth it? There are whistleblower protections if an institution is doing something egregious, but a lot of the ethical issues faced by a records manager in these kinds of scenarios are going to be juuuust legal enough to create a real moral dilemma. Apartheid was legal. Slavery was legal. The Nuremberg Laws have “law” in their name. These are extreme examples, but that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s not the obvious decision points, it’s the little things that slip by until the frog is boiled to death, to mix my metaphors a bit. And I can see where records managers in particular may have a tough go of it, because we have to make these decisions with *active* records. Are we prepared to go out on a limb, as some of the info professionals in these articles have done? Well… I suspect we don’t know until we’re faced with the opportunity.

    Anyway. These answers subject to change as I work through the list above. I suspect this won’t be the last I write on this issue.

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