Disintermediating the Past

A certain breed of archivists, myself included, feel a pull between two core principles. The first, access to the raw material of out public memory. And the second, a desire for all the past’s records to be filed away in boxes stacked neatly on shelves, never to be touched again. Or, at least, not in our lifetimes. The archivists work fulfilled “for the future” “for history,” for posterity and some vague future researcher who will never in our sight sully the hard work we have done of taking materials out of one type of box and putting them into another.

At the same time as we champion access as the end-all of archival work, the completed finding aid, the meticulously arranged collection, the mass-digitized BookReader object available online, we chafe at the actual presence of researchers utilizing “our” collections, ruffling pages, putting folders back out of order, or God forbid, writing with an ink pen.

To say that from an archivist’s point of view that history is unchanging is, at best, uncharitable, and at worst, a stereotype from which we struggle to throw off. We strive for access to all, to document all voices, to make materials available as widely as possible. And we struggle to control that information. To keep controversies away from ourselves, lest they endanger our own existence, employment, funding, and institutional standing.

To be clear, we do this out of fear. Fear of the collections we search for, advocate for, and manage. Fear of our own power in this age of information and reputation. Fear of our own powerlessness in the face of global late capitalism.

We are the guardians of public memory, the best advocates for change and social justice, and completely at the whims of a society that would rather forget the past and its lessons, lest it tell us we’re doing it wrong. That Nazism didn’t spontaneously die off in 1945. That the landscape of our planet is being changed by our actions. That the powerful exercise that power over the marginalized. We are the outsourced and obscured memory of the planet, bound by arcane laws of privacy and copyright, held hostage to the specter of neutrality, the sword of Damocles of funding swinging ever so constant and perilously over our heads.

Because we tell ourselves the past is another country, we distance ourselves from the creation of history. But the past is not another country, the past is now. The past is last year, last month, five minutes ago. The past is when I started writing this sentence.

And we need to acknowledge that fact. We need to get out of the way of history. Yes, we need to preserve records, and make them discoverable, and accessible. Truly accessible, regardless of means, of academic standing, of the privilege to take a week off of work and spend $3,000 to fly to Wyoming, or Texas, or the other centers of public memory in our vast nation. Researchers are coming now, and looking at the past of last year, last month, five minutes ago.

News is what the producer sees on his way to the office in the morning. So too is history what the archivist collects, describes, advocates for in her life.

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