Thursday, July 1, 2010

Review of Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice

Archives Power

My review of Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice by Randall C. Jimerson. (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2009).
Published in Journal of Academic Librarianship, 36(4), July 2010.

In Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice, Jimerson, past president of the Society of American Archivists and director of the Graduate Program in Archives and Records Management, Western Washington University, analyzes the influence that archives and archivists wield in contemporary society. He states that archival records “convey essential meanings about people’s lives, hopes, and aspirations, as well as the complex networks of agreements and connections that link humanity together in societal systems. This gives archives, and those who select and manage them, primal powers in society….Yet it is a power often unrecognized by most members of society, who do not see or understand the role archivists play in the contested realms of power distribution and control” (133, 140).

Grounded in historical and cultural theory, the book situates archivists as agents of social memory construction, rather than passive curators. The concept of archives as a location of social values emerges when studying the historical development of American archives, but his observations are universally applicable. He writes, “The American people have always had an ambivalent relationship to their history and to archives. Founded in part on the notion of escape from the shackles of European traditions and with the vision of being a ‘city on the hill’ for a utopian new world, the United States has often been future-oriented and indifferent to the past” (80).

Incorporating the published writings of literary figures and scholars in many disciplines, such as Milan Kundera, Nelson Mandela, and George Orwell, Jimerson calls for a renewed emphasis on archives as a means of securing accountability, open government, social justice, and diversity and identity. He provides a history of literacy, documents, records, record-keeping systems, and repositories and traces the development of the archival profession. Many of the current issues archivists face have been ones that they have grappled with since the 1930s: creating an archival identity, debating ethics, and promoting the profession to stakeholders and society.

Jimerson urges archivists to abandon their positivist rhetoric of neutrality and embrace the authority of records to promote social responsibility and democratic accountability. He writes, “Archives provide a forum to recognize and legitimize the role of disfranchised groups in society….By acknowledging and overcoming the tendencies toward privileging the records of powerful groups in society, archivists can provide a more balanced perspective on the past” (217, 232). The challenge is to make “the documentary record more complete than it has been, not to make it absolutely complete and flawless” by “fill[ing] in the gaps, to ensure that documentation is created where it is missing, and to address the needs of those outside the societal power structures” (298, 303).

Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice is highly recommended for information professionals who select, preserve, and ensure access to records of enduring value, as well as others interested in protecting social memory, cultural history, and the documentation of the human condition for future generations. Readers should also follow the lively discussion amongst archivists who participated in a virtual reading group of the book at readingarchivespower.wordpress.com.

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