Review of American Archivist Online – Emily Swenson
The American Archivist, a bi-annual publication produced by the Society of American Archivists, celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Society with a personal reflection written by Brien Brothman, which was entitled “The Society of American Archivists at 75: Contexts and Continuity of Crisis”. In “Contexts and Continuity”, the opening piece of the Fall/Winter of 2011 issue, Brothman reflects on the tribulations, achievements, and luminary figures of the past 75 years, or what he refers to as one prolonged period of the society’s “emergence”. He stresses the opinion that, while times have undeniably changed, archivists have been forever plagued by many of the same problems (i.e., lack of space, new technology, and political agendas etc.) that face archivists today. These problems, Brothman claims, are simply the “newest manifestation of the crisis” and not a set of previously unheard of obstacles resulting from the technological and informational boom of recent eras. Brothman’s reflection, however, is not a call for panic or defeat. It is simply a reminder that no matter the year or decade, archivists will be called upon to preserve the past for future generations while simultaneously dealing with an onslaught of challenges. Upon examining and analyzing Volumes 74-77 of the American Archivist (2011-2012), it is clear that the foremost challenges facing archival professionals today and henceforth center on new technology, the changing structure and face of the field, and ethical issues arising from controversial collections and/or collection policies.
A number of buzzwords seem to populate every volume, if not issue, of The American Archivist, most of them surrounding the importance and influence of technology in the archives field and other information agencies. While phrases like “digital age”, “digital era” and “information age” may be relatively vague, they seem reflect a societal stance that information today is ruled by modern and digital technology. Though many articles keep with Brothman’s school of thought labeling technology as simply the newest “crisis”, it is apparent that archivists realize the profound differences it has caused in the field. Multiple articles in each volume focus on the shift from paper to digital, hashing out problems like born-digital collections, digital curation, and the “explosive growth” of information and records. It seems that SAA staff and American Archivist contributors have come to the conclusion that up until around 2005, digital collections were brushed off as “someone else’s problem”, and that “problem” is now at the forefront of the archival community. A push for education, mainly via current and future graduate programs, is also a sentiment echoed through out many articles, seemingly calling for a definitive end to making digital information “someone else’s problem”. Accessibility to digital collections, and what that means in terms of Open-Access Publishing as well as cost and copyright issues, is also examined in a more philosophical light, begging the question “What does it mean to be an Archivist in an age of digital technology?”
This question is addressed throughout the volumes, and is arguably the most important overarching theme found within the two years of authorship. The pondering of what exactly it means to be an archivist is a building block, answer bank and continual source of inspiration for anyone involved in the field, not to mention the foundation of all other issues mentioned in the articles. Upon first glance, it seems that the essence of being an archivist itself and the “archives” as a “tangible” entity is threatened by the existence of digital (online) records. In the past, one of the main differentiations between archives and a library were that users had to go through an archivist to get materials, as the materials in question are generally rare, valuable and organized in a manner that would not make sense to a patron; in this case, the archivist is the expert. Does an easily accessible online collection diminish or change the role of the archivist? The general consensus seems to be that while it does change, it certainly does not diminish the role of the archivist. To the contrary, the archivist’s mission of providing “free and unfiltered access to scholarly and professional literature” has never been more evident.
While the effects of digital technology and the ever-changing role of an archivist are important conversation pieces, they do not necessarily provide the reader with an enhanced knowledge of the actual hot button “cases”, if you will, of today. Nevertheless, it is both technology and the changing role of archivists that creates the backdrop for conversation surrounding for controversial collections and collection policies. Each volume had one, if not more, large piece on a collection belonging to a minority and/or foreign group that was undergoing some sort of controversy. Volume 74 included a large peace entitled The Society of American Archivists and War, which focused on the 2003 invasion of Iraq by United States troops, and the subsequent removal and/or confiscation (and in some cases, destruction) or wartime records. A later issue focused on a set of over 6 million files belonging to the German Staatsicherheit, the state security force who, at one time, monitored East Berlin, and what their release would mean for both victims and perpetrators who were still alive. In the most recent article, the “seizure, retrieval and restitution” of hundreds of millions of Saadam Hussein’s documents is discussed, specifically the legality and morality in relation to the Hague convention. Each case is clearly unique, but the three cases all focus on not only the legality of seizure and holding, but how important the preservation of sensitive documents is to world history (as opposed to purely governmental and military purposes) and the dangers of releasing sensitive information too early.
The Hague convention was just one of many conventions, conferences and bodies of law referenced in the four volumes examined. Multiple articles dealing with archives taken in times of war referenced the1954 convention and the many changes made to it over the years. In terms of articles centering on digital technology, a study entitled Taking Our Pulse conducted by Jackie Dooley and Katherine Luce was heavily referenced, as were many publications by the Library of Congress. Finally, much of the data concerning what exactly it means to be an archivist seemed to come from the Society of American Archivists itself.
Though the bulk of Volumes 74 and 75 of The American Archivist reflect upon the past, especially the 75 years in which the Society has been created and has grown, the true focus of almost every article actually the future. While authors filled the pages with past and present day examples, not a single piece of commentary on a collection or report of new digital trends ended without prompting the reader to think about what the particular topic means for the future of the profession. It is undeniable that the archives field is in a new and perhaps most rapidly changing period in the history of the SAA, but the myriad the challenges facing archivists today seem to be intrinsic to the profession. This being said, the contributors seem to have a generally positive outlook on the prospects of new technology and sensitive collections, and are ready and willing to educate themselves continuously in the hopes of getting closer to the never-ending question of what it truly means to be an archivist.