#thatdarnarticle – the Frank Boles article that wasn’t at #saa19

I began “To Everything There Is A Season” on my morning commute to Moorland-Spingarn Research Center yesterday where I work as manuscripts librarian. Moorland-Spingarn is arguably the #1 respository for African American (and African) history and culture, so perhaps we have an institutional bias. The center includes a library (where I am undertaking a major shelf-reading and weeding project), a manuscripts division (where i serve proudly as a processing archivist), a prints and photographs division, a museum, and the University Archives.

I took the short route to work, as I normally do on my morning commute, so I barely penetrated the article. But I got into it enough to raise it (and all the accompanying bruhaha on listservs and on Twitter) as a point of discussion at our regular 8 o’clock staff coffee gathering.

One of my colleagues had skimmed the article but promised to give it a second look. Several had seen the uproar on Twitter and various listservs. We each decided to go back and read the whole article before giving it a full discussion. Meanwhile, I also thought it might be useful to bring in one of our colleagues who was not at the coffee meeting but freshly returned from SAA19 in Austin, so I sent to the full group an email.

At the end of the day I took the long route home, several stops on the Green/Yellow Line, followed by several stops on the Orange/Blue/Silver Line, affording me time to read the whole article and the expansive notes (I so love reading the notes!).

Let’s begin with a quick and dirty summation of the abstract (that I would dare to guess most readers never go beyond). There is a humdinger that isn’t even buried there. It’s right up front, in fact, and I really dig that kind of honesty and forthrightness. Boles cites the following three ideas: “that archivists should create a universal record of human activity;” that “social justice should inform archival decisions;” and that”archivists have a “professional obligation . . . . to work toward a more equitable future but also toward a moral one.” Then he posits that these ideas are “generally not helpful to archivists.”

OK. I am still onboard. I find nothing personally objectionable with his analysis or his conclusion. We can’t all be keepers of a universal record. Who has staff or funding to cover the whole world? We cover our small piece of it, and we try to do it with both accuracy and precision, but still we fall short, and we have backlogs in processing and in cataloging. As far as possible, we err on the side of a complete record of our subjects. Social justice, insofar as it can be defined in the time periods we cover (i.e., from antebellum abolition movements to current times), is not our primary consideration. As the young folks say, it is what it is. Finally, I think it is safe to say our first and foremost professional obligation is to provide resources to researchers, faculty and students to aid them in their studies and in their future careers. Many of them, as many students have at this historic HBCU, will help directly to build that more equitable and moral future. We are here to set them properly on the path with a few tools they can use to process information.

And that’s just the abstract. But you see where I am coming from.

Here are a few points I underlined in the text of the article:

“Local autonomy and unique archival missions define the purpose of the profession better that assumptions of universal documentation . . .”

“Archives, in the opinion of the archival community, have been and remain underfunded.”

“More troubling that the issue of money is archivists’ inability to define what they would do if given all the resources they might want.”

Archivists cannot create Ham’s social mirror that includes 1) who and what we are seeking to document; 2) a comprehensive accounting of the records of humanity (all of it), and 3) agreement on what a representative record is.

The explanation of slavery, Prohibition, and abortion and the shifting sands of what constitutes social justice in each case, either contemporaneously or after the fact. (This part of the article goes on and on and can probably use some editing.)

I love the question, “. . . . how will archivists operating in real time decide what constitutes social justice?”

“Converting an archives into the moral preserve of the presiding archivist would violate existing norms of professionalism.”

And a new German word! Fingerspitzenfuhl, appraising records via an intuitive sense of knowing what to save.

The dog whistle-ness of the “if whiteness is normative” statement. We have had enough of that in the political sphere, of silly name-calling to score points, like calling voters “deplorable” or calling opponents “criminals” and “racists.”

I read the Jimerson and the Greene articles in my MSLIS program but I don’t remember the George article. Need to go back and check that out, especially the concept of “privilege.”

I agree with the direction of Boles thinking on the profession. i.e., if you want to save the world, get a job with a non-profit whose mission is to save the world. Many of them exist. But don’t try to use the archivists profession to somehow find and exhibit your expression of that impulse. (That section of the article can also use some editing.)

“Social justice is not a core archival value.”

Just highlights. Our colleague from Moorland-Spingarn who attended SAA19 told us that the article was at the top of the agenda for one of the section meetings he had planned to attend and that emotions regarding the article ran high. But the meeting was cancelled in advance so the discussion never happened. That’s too bad that free speech and free discussion were both not allowed. I’ll have to get more details, but from here, it sounds a bit heavy handed by the planners. I have seen similar heavy-handedness in comments on ARCAN-L, and while I have never lived in a totalitarian environment (though I worked in a government agency that was run like one), I have great respect for those who have and lived to tell about it. In the most recent submission to the Canadian list I read:

A group of activists keep calling for killing the freedom of scientific debate and more generally the freedom of speech for the sake of “greater good” (e.g. that nice “inclusiveness” that excludes everyone with the opposing view, and a bit grey-ish “diversity”) – and of course it’s them and only them who are qualified, by self-appointment, to judge, sentence and execute!

Been there, seen that in Russian science until maybe the beginning of 1970s. So far the West called that kind of conduct “totalitarian” 🙂 I remember some of those times, as well as several other cases worldwide, and I know exactly to which place this “yellow brick road” leads. You can have either science or safe space, but not both.

Of course, we want to have both at the same time. Perhaps that is our “privilege” speaking?

Again, there is a lot to capture from the notes. This discussion, though prohibited at SAA19, should and must continue.

ICYMI, here is a link to the Boles article.

postscript. I was surprised to learn (as I am rather new to this profession in this, my third career) that some notable archivists (of color, dare I say it) refuse to associate with SAA or take part in its activities because of overriding impulses toward universalism and diversity that have the unintended consequence of marginalizing the very people they profess to seek to include. i wrote about this in an earlier radlibchat post here.

postscript #2. Folks in my coffee group were OK with the article until reaching the adverse position Boles took on the Ramirez article, “Being Assumed Not to Be: A Critique of Whiteness as an Archival Imperative.” I haven’t read the whole Ramirez yet, but I came out agreeing with the position Boles took. We agreed in the coffee group to disagree, pending of course, my read of the entire Ramirez article.

I have encountered my share of racism in my 30-odd years of work, but it has never seemed productive to me or to my ends to descend into name calling, to, as my colleague here says, call a spade a spade (which can in itself be considered racist if you are sensitive to those things). End of postscript #2.

postscript #3. I am re-reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I try to read at least a chapter each night but some times sleep overcomes me. Capt Ahab hated that whale because he had lost a foot to it in a previous encounter. He hated the “whiteness” of the whale and over time he internalized that hatred until it became a part of his personality. Because that is what intense hatred does. He blamed everything that went awry on that white whale, Moby Dick. But did that solve any of his problems?

There is this tendency to blame “whiteness” for all our ills. It’s a tendency that is magnified in these times of political polarization where Trump has become our “white whale.” I remember in my MSLIS program studying Jimerson and the social justice in archives ideas, alongside opposing views. But it was a much calmer time and nobody went beserk about it. But back to the subject at hand, “whiteness.”

As I told my colleagues over coffee, we can’t blame white people for everything bad in the world. It gives them too much credit and denies us our own sense of, and indeed, practice of agency. Same whether it comes from white voices or from black voices. In fact, it may be a bit disingenuous coming from white voices who simultaneously may be the not-so-silent beneficiaries of the very practices they profess to condemn. End of postscript #3.

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