Gudmund Valderhaug



My first encounter with the call of justice in an archival framework happened when I – as a new archivist at the Bergen City Archives – was asked to search for any possible records documenting the pension rights of a retired teacher. The person in question claimed that she had two more years of service than the National Pension Fund acknowledged, and she needed to have these years documented to get a full pension.

The provenance of the records in question was the school commission in a municipality that had been merged with the city of Bergen some ten years earlier. I found the records in their original building, unlisted, dusty and somewhat chaotic. There were several meters of documents to look trough, and I remember thinking that it could take me some days to get through this material… – so what if I didn’t find anything? What if she remembered wrongly and the Pension Fund were right? How much time could I afford to spend looking for documents that maybe didn’t exist? But then, if she was right, had I the right to refuse her justice? She needed hard facts to prove her case. And public records are usually considered to be hard facts, while our individual memories are not.  

So my first encounter with archival justice took place in an «classical archival setting»: On one hand a person trusting her memory and demanding what she thinks is her rights; on the other hand her antagonist, in this case a state agency relying on their records and claiming that she is wrong – and in comes the archivist, acting as the neutral instrument of society, trying to solve the case by finding evidence in the original and authentic records.  

However, this «classical archival setting» is a construction, built on certain ideological positions that are typical of the 20th century western positivism: the notion of the impartial archivist, the notion of the records as innocent by-products of administration, the notion of archival evidence and of records as “carriers of truth”.  In this landscape archives are writing – «material evidence in the form of writing», to quote the words of Sir Hilary in Jenkinson[1] – and the written record is considered to be more reliable than the individual memories. In the real world things are different; the archivist is not impartial, records are made by living people carrying certain values and prejudices and the records consequently reflect these, and the archival evidence is very often defective and unreliable.    

The “War Children’s” Memories and the Silence of the Archives  

The defectiveness and unreliability of records was actualised by the Norwegian Government’s White Paper[2] on reparation and compensation to the “War Children”, issued in 2004. The “War Children”[3] are the 10 – 12.000 children born between 1941 and 46 by Norwegian mothers and with German fathers. Their fate became a topic of public debate in the late 1990s, when accusations of systematic maltreatment and harassment by society were made public. This debate led to a research project organised by the Norwegian Research Council in 1998, which concluded that the “War Children” as a group had been victimized and illegally deprived of some of their civilian rights in the first decade after the Second World War[4].  As a result of this, the Norwegian Prime Minister publicly asked forgiveness for these acts in his New Year Speech in 2000.        

The White Paper proposed a system of individual compensation to persons who had experienced “grave suffering, loss or damage” due to infringement and persecution in their neighbourhoods, at school or by public officials. The size of the compensation should be made dependent on the documentation that each individual might bring forth – the better documentation the larger compensation and vice versa. When such documentation couldn’t be found, a smaller compensation might be given dependent on individual statements that made it credible that the person in question had experienced “grave suffering, loss or damage”. What is remarkable is that the authors of the White Paper did not try to define the concept «documentation», or consider the use of it, in a problematic context like this. They did, however, recognize that it would be accidental if any documentation of the individuals» childhoods might be found at all due to lack of archival records.  

Surely enough, the “War Children’s” organisations[5] reacted strongly against this proposal. They argued that it would be unreasonable to claim documentation in cases like this, because of the lack of archival records.  Instead, two of the organisations did propose an arrangement where compensation should be given according to each person’s individual story. The third organisation proposed a collective arrangement where all “War Children” should be given the same amount of compensation.  

However, the Government and the “War Children’s” organisations did agree on one thing: The archival documentation of the “War Children’s” individual histories is defective. This is true, and there are several reasons for this situation:   

Firstly, as shown by Kåre Olsen[6] in Comma 2004.1, the Norwegian society had a very negative attitude towards the “War Children” and their mothers during the first decade after WW2. The children were regarded as “the enemy’s offspring” and even considered to be a threat towards our national mental health. There were strong initiatives to adopt them abroad – on one occasion an Australian delegation was offered 8.000 children immigrants more or less across the table. In a situation like this, the “War Children” had no real social protection. It was not very likely that anybody would interfere to stop mobbing or harassment of “War Children” or report such acts to the municipal childcare departments or the school officials, even though they probably would have done this if the victims had been “ordinary» Norwegian children. Consequently, there will probably be an under-representation of cases concerning harassment of “War Children’s” in the archives of municipal childcare departments and school authorities. When public authorities did act concerning “war children”, the purpose usually was to remove the children from their mothers due to what was considered to be “poor upbringing” and send them to children’s homes or foster families.    

Secondly, and this is probably just as important: The archive is a selective memory. The archiving process includes a series of selections, starting with the creation of records and continuing through appraisal, arrangement and description and finally the use of archives. Dutch archival theorist Eric Ketelaar has introduced the concept of archivalisation to describe “the conscious or unconscious choice (determined by social and cultural factors) to consider something worth archiving”[7]. The record is “a trace of the event” – but it is not possible to archive “everything” about an event, the archiver must select what information that seems to be “essential” and discard what seems to be unnecessary and worthless. Such choices have differed in time and space, because the social and cultural factors have changed.  And this has exactly been the case in Norwegian record making during the last fifty years. Prior to the late 1960s, the Norwegian public administration regime was different from today. The existing legislation on freedom of information and transparency was not introduced until the end of the 1960s[8]. This legislation also made it mandatory that all decisions made by public bodies should be supported by relevant written documentation, i.e. archival records, which led to a considerable growth in the production of records. In the first two decades after WW2, however, the notion of what was considered worth archiving was different from today. Public case handling processes were not necessarily documented in detail and generally fewer records were made. And this was probably even more the situation in smaller organisations like schools, the childcare administrations and children’s homes, which were poorly staffed and had limited resources.   

The records that eventually were made, were not accessible for clients due to the lack of transparency and the recordmaking processes were largely beyond public control. While records generally are created to achieve certain purposes and therefore tend to give biased accounts of the events, the records that were made under this regime probably will be even less reliable as evidence. And some of the records that eventually were created at that time do not exist today. The main reason for this is neglect. In Norway both childcare administration and institutions and primary schools have been (and still are) municipal fields of responsibility. And the municipal sector did have a very weak archival tradition; all of the existing municipal archival institutions were established in the 1970s or later[9]. Consequently records have been lost or destroyed by accident. And of course, such a defective system has made it easier for people with something to hide to get rid of archival evidence.      

To summarise: The political climate and administrative system in the late 40s and early 50s had two important consequences: Most of the war children who needed help did not get it, because the public and the school and child care authorities usually did not act when “war children” suffered mobbing and harassment. Secondly, when the authorities did act and the children were moved to children’s homes, these actions were documented in a way we today would consider defective, or they were not documented at all. Eventually, some of the archives that were created have been lost or destroyed, due to poor management or even to hide someone’s acts.  This has led to situation where the archives usually are silent about the “War Children’s” individual histories. The children did not create their own archives, and their memories are not regarded as documentary evidence. What remains is an overwhelming archival silence.   

The Archivist’s Power 

In April 2005 the Norwegian Parliament approved the White Paper’s proposal of compensation to “War Children”, based on what documentation the individual might provide. So in the months to come some thousand people in their 60s will call on Norwegian archives to ask for possible documentation of “grave suffering, loss or damage” due to their previous status as “War Children”. They will be demanding justice, and will be coming to the archives – to quote Sir Hilary Jenkinson – “to know the Means of Knowledge”.  There is but one problem: in most cases those “Means of Knowledge” most probably do not exist.  What are archivists supposed to do in a situation like this? The archivist is the intermediary between the person asking for information and the archives where the information may or may not be found. This places the archivist in a position of power in relation to the user, because she controls access to the information the user needs. She knows more about the archives than he does, she knows where information may be found, she knows if he will get better answers at other archival institutions, and she can decide how much of her time and knowledge she will share with him.       

How should archivists react when we are approached by people asking for records documenting injustice, and we know that these records most probably can’t be found? I think that we in such cases have two options: We may handle the enquiry in a formally correct manner without providing any extra service, just like we handle any other enquiry we get at the reading room counter. In Norwegian archives this will include introducing the user to the finding aids and helping him identifying the records in question. If the records exist and can be identified, they will be obtained from the repositories and mad available for the user. If they can’t be identified, the story stops there. The other option is to provide extra service. As Ketelaar points out[10], the archivist can “interrogate the archive’s semantic genealogy” to uncover the conditions of record creation in the given period to try and find out what information might have been archived in the first place, if any of the records might have been lost, and if there could be any information in other archives. She can even try to reconstruct the missing documentation from the few traces that are found. In other words, she can set out to turn every stone to try and find what the client has asked for. Finally, the archivist eventually may have to sit down with the client and try to explain to him why some records are missing and what’s possible to reconstruct from those traces that do exist. Of course, such extra service will take time and resources from other important tasks at the archives. So what’s the correct thing for an archivist to do?     

One archival institution that has recent and important experiences from such matters is the Bergen City Archives[11]. In the early 1990s, some individuals made public allegations that they had suffered systematic neglect, maltreatment and even sexual abuse while staying in the children’s homes in the 50s and 60s. They initiated a campaign for reparation, which at first was denied by the city authorities. After years of heated political debate, however, there was set up an independent investigation commission in 2001. The commission’s report[12] concluded that there had been several and grave shortcomings in most of the children’s homes and that some children had been subject to sexual and/or physical abuse in some of the institutions. As a result of this, the city council set up a special reparation system and appointed a commission to handle all applications for compensation from former children’s homes inmates. This commission will investigate each case, including what archival documents that may be found, and make the decisions on the compensation that should be given.   

The Bergen City Archives did play – and is still playing – an important role during this process, both prior to the establishment of the reparation system and after. At the beginning of their campaign for reparation the ex-inmates approached the City Archives to get documentation of their past. The City Archives responded by spending substantial recourses on these enquiries.  Firstly, it was necessary to identify where possible records might be found. 50 years ago, the present City of Bergen was five different municipalities[13], each with their own school authorities, social and childcare departments and so on. The procedures for decision-making in childcare management also have been changed during these years, and different public bodies might have had a say in such cases. Finally, the children’s homes in question could be run by private organisations or by municipal, regional or state authorities. Consequently, the relevant documentation might be found in the archival fonds from some 30 different municipal bodies at the City Archives alone (and probably in several fonds at the Regional State Archives and the Regional Archives as well). And, as I have emphasised above, these records could be incomplete or lost.   

Secondly, because of this complicated and fragmented archival landscape, tracing one person’s childcare history could be a time-consuming business[14]. To be able to identify where the records concerning one person might be found, it sometimes was necessary to interview the individual to hear his or her personal stories. In some cases, such memories may be the keys that open the archives and make it possible to find documentation on why, where and when – why a person had been taken care of by the child care authorities, which children’s home a he had been in at, and when he had been there. As a result of this time-consuming and systematic labour, the archivists at the City Archives have accumulated an advanced competence on the administrative and archival procedures of the childcare authorities in the 20th century. Today, this competence has become an invaluable resource when it comes to reconstructing the histories of individuals when the archival traces are scarce.            

By giving priority to the enquiries from these clients, the City Archives undoubtedly helped this campaign to gain the momentum needed to create a situation where the city authorities had to set up an investigation committee and finally bring about the reparation system. We do not know what would have happened without the documentation provided by the Archives, but it is possible that the result could have been different. Similar initiatives in other cities did not succeed until after the authorities in Bergen had acknowledged their responsibilities and set up their reparation system.    

I think that this example shows us that the power of the archivist can be a social power. It is not limited to the reading room. It does not even start there; this power is present in all archival work, in appraisal, in arrangement and description, in giving access and in outreach activities. The archivist’s power can give people back their histories. And in such cases, I think that the encounter between the archivist and the user is the critical factor which will decides how the archivist’s power will be used and what influence it will have.     

The social archivist 

During the last 20 years there has been a change in the public use of archives in Norway – especially in the municipal archives. Back in the 70s and 80s the «typical users» were academics), family historians or people looking for documentation of property rights[15]. Today, a substantial part of the public requests comes from people seeking justice and reparation of individual legal rights. At the Bergen City Archives, 55% of the public requests i 2004 were about such cases. 50% of these came from former children’s home inmates as a result of the special reparation system; the other half covered other areas[16].   

What are the reasons for these changes? Of course, grass-roots initiatives like the ex-children’s homes people’s campaign in Bergen, the Foundation «Justice for the Losers» and the Wars Children’s organisations may claim some credit for this development. They have mobilised a lot of people to demand past injustice re-done, and in this process they have given archives publicity and made the public more aware of the archival functions in our society. But I will suggest that the basic reason for this changing use of archives is introduction of  the Norwegian Welfare State legislation from the late 1950s and 1960s, which granted the population the rights to a growing number of fundamental societal services. What we are experiencing is that the first generation of individuals who did not get access to these services then, now are seeking compensation for this and coming to the archives for documentation. For this very same reason we should expect that this development will continue and grow stronger in the years to come, and that documentation of individual social rights will emerge as one of the fundamental archival functions in the 21st century.  

In a democratic society a main societal objective for archives, and libraries and museums as well, must be to give individuals equal rights to information and knowledge, and to contribute to giving everybody equal opportunities to develop as active citizens and participants in a living democracy. Giving equal access to information and knowledge is a necessary aspect of societal justice. But what does it imply? Eventually, giving equal rights to archival information in an archival institution will be equivalent to developing unequal services. People have unequal qualifications to use and understand archives. People with little or no knowledge of what may be found in the archives, will need more assistance from the archivist than the experienced user. People with little or no knowledge of bureaucrat rhetoric will need special aid to interpret and understand the content of a document. Very often the people with the greatest need for archival aid also will have the greatest need for assistance from the archivist. In my opinion, the development of such services is a democratic obligation for an archival institution. The archives must accept that they are societal institutions, set up by society to serve society’s needs.

For the archivists, this involves working with and adapting to new users, for whom the archivist’s power may be decisive for their future lives. The archivist may have to respond to the challenges of justice (both as fulfilment of the democratic right to access and the rectifying of former injustice) more or less on a daily basis. But how should archivists respond to these challenges? In the ICA Code of Ethics[18] there are several references to the impartiality of the archivist. Code 1, which deals with the archivist relation to the archival material, states: «The objectivity and impartiality of archivists is the measure of their professionalism.» Code 6, which deals with the relation to the users, says: «They should offer impartial advice to all, and employ available resources to provide a balanced range of services.» How does answering to the call of justice fit with these statements?  In one sense, this does not fit at all. If «offering impartial advice to all» and providing «a balanced range of services» implies following the same rules and procedures and giving equal services to all, regardless if the user is a homeless person looking for documentation of his life or a well-respected academic researcher looking for research material, then the Code of Ethics could be an obstacle to social justice and democratic access to records. The archivist will have to spend more time with the homeless person to make sure that he gets the information he needs, because he will require more assistance to formulate the appropriate questions to identify the wanted documents and to understand the content and the context of the documents that may be found. The researcher probably doesn’t need such extra advice or services. So if we follow this literal reading of these statements, our praxis would favour the users who need the smallest amount of assistance, i.e. our traditional users, and exclude the user with the greatest need for our help (both as advice and documentation).    

Of course, there are alternative readings of the Code. Some would argue that the «spirit» of the code is that all users should have equal access to archival material. But the problem is that the Code doesn’t say this explicitly, and in stead focuses on the notions of objectivity and impartiality – concepts that are deeply problematic with regards to both the new social roles of archives developing in the world today and the anti-positivist critique of the last decade[19]. In my opinion these statements are ready for revision. They reflect out-dated concepts of the archivist’s social roles; she is no longer the handmaiden of historical research that in Jenkinson’s words existed only to make other people’s work possible. And archival theory and praxis no longer constitutes a supportive discipline for historical research, but emerges as an independent scientific discipline.  

The changes in the societal use of archives have led to the emergence a new archival praxis. The archivist cannot remain isolated in the ivory tower, but must engage in new social circumstances, such as the children’s home affair in Bergen, where the position of «impartiality» and giving a «balanced range of services» would have aborted the denied the former clients» campaign. Confronted with people who are seeking justice, it is impossible to remain neutral. The archivist’s praxis will decide; if she chooses merely to follow the procedures and rules of old she will contribute to the continuation of injustice. If she chooses to provide the extra services needed to document or reconstruct the history of the client, she acts as an instrument of justice.   

The new social roles of archives have also made apparent the need for an enrichment of archival theory. As the example from Bergen will show, the ability to reconstruct people’s histories from a few remaining traces could be a crucial service for those whose history have been lost or hidden. The ability to do this is dependent on comprehensive research into the circumstances of administrative procedures and record creation as an underpinning of an enhanced archival description. And, the new societal uses of archives may also lead to changes in appraisal theory and praxis. 

Let me for a short while return to my starting point, the retired teacher. Did she get her full pension? Yes, she did. I found evidence that she had worked as a teacher in those two missing years back in the 1960s. So justice prevailed, but by chance. The records that documented her employment were copies of her salary slips, records that should have been destroyed after 10 years according to rules of appraisal and destruction. But they weren’t, because the creating body had been dissolved some years earlier and the records left to oblivion – at least for some years.      

In this article I have focused on the how archival institutions and archivists should answer to the call of justice on the individual level, how to work with people who need to win back their individual histories, and how to document and reconstruct these. There are at least two important issues that I have not addressed. One of these is the option archivists may have to engage in the processes of recordmaking in order to secure sufficient documentation and thus minimise the risk of future impairment to people’s access to justice. Since 1967, Norwegian public administration has been subject to regulations requiring transparency and freedom of information and that decisions should be supported by relevant written documentation. Is it likely that this legislation has resulted in better, less partial records than before? How can archivists  and record managers use this legislation to support justice in recordmaking? A comprehensive discussion of these questions is  the scope of this artcicle. I will merely indicate that regardless of legislation, records will be made by people for certain purposes, reflecting the dominant social and cultural values, and reproducing the existing power relations. However, when legal structures make it possible to shift these power relations, they must be utilized to the greatest extent.     

The other issue is the role of archives and archivists in contributing to justice not only for individuals but also for victimized groups on the collective level. The individual – a «War Child» or a former children’s home client – may get economic compensation for “grave suffering, loss or damage” and some might argue that justice then has been done (even though a destroyed childhood can never be compensated with money). But this will not bring justice to the group as a whole; as long as its history remains untold and invisible and unrecognised by society, justice will be superficial. The emergence of real justice will be dependent on society’s willingness to show hospitality to the victimised, the marginalised, «the other», and in this effort the archives may have a special mission: To invite «the other» in, to give them the opportunity to record their own (his)stories, to archive these stories and make them available for use; thus giving the silenced voices the possibility to add to and rectify the archival heritages.    

(This article is bases on a talk I gave at the «Memory for Justice»-colloquium at the Nelseon Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg 18.08.2005) 

[1] «…it is to be noted that Archives are an actual part of the activities which gave them birth, material evidence in the form of writing», quoted from Roger H Ellis and Peter Walne (ed): Selected Writings of Sir Hilary Jenkinson, Chicago 2003, p 237[2] St.meld. nr. 44 (2003-2004) Erstatningsordning for krigsbarn og erstatningsordninger for romanifolk/tatere og eldre utdanningsskadelidende samer og kvener http://odin.dep.no/jd/norsk/dok/regpubl/stmeld/012001-040021/dok-bn.html (downloaded 2005.11.28)[3] For more information on the War Children, see Kåre Olsens article «The Jerry Girls of Norway and their Children» in Comma 2004.1, p 95 – 110[4] The Norwegian Research Council’s website, http://www.program.forskningsradet.no/vfo/utlysninger/utl004.php3, downloaded 2005-11-28 [5] There are three organisations representing the “War Children”: Norges Krigsbarnforbund (Norwegian War Children’s Association), Krigsbarnforbundet Lebensborn (The League Lebensborn of Norwegian Children of War) and Stiftelsen Rettferd for taperne (The Foundation Justice for the Losers).

[6] Kåre Olsen: «The Jerry Girls of Norway and their Children», in Comma 2004.1, p 102 – 104. The following account is based on this article.

[7] Eric Ketelaar: Tacit Narratives: The Meanings of Archives, in Archival Science Vol. 1 No. 2 2001, p. 133

[8] Public Administration Act (1967) and Freedom of Information Act (1970), see Norwegian Legislation Database (www.lovdata.no/info/uenga.html) 

[9] The Inter-Municipal Archives of Rogaland (1976) and Bergen City Archives (1979) being the first.

[10] Eric Ketelaar: Tacit Narratives: The Meanings of Archives, in Archival Science Vol. 1 No. 2 2001, p. 141 

[11] Url: www.bergen.kommune.no/byarkivet/

[12] The report (in Norwegian) is available at www.bergen.kommune.no/erstatningsutvalget_/ekstern/ , downloaded 2005.11.30

[13] In 1972 the City of Bergen merged with four other municipalities, Arne, Fana, Laksevåg and Åsane.

[14] This account draws on Marit Haugland’s presentation at the Norwegian Archive Council’s annual meeting i Bergen 2005.03.03, published in Norwegian on the Bergen City Archives Website (downloaded 2005.11.30) and on several interviews with Marit Haugland. 

[15] According to the annual reports from the Norwegian State Archives System, this is still the case in the State archives. (Årsmelding for Arkivverket 2003, Oslo 2004, p. 10

[16] Email from Marit Haugland, 28.04.05.  

[17] Quoted from St. meld. Nr. 22/99-00 Kjelder til kunnskap og oppleving, Innledning (Governmental White Paper on archives, libraries and museums) www.odin.no/kkd/norsk/dok/regpubl/stmeld/018005-044002/dok-bn.html, downloaded 2005.11.30

[18] www.ica.org/biblio/code_ethics_eng.html , downloaded 2005.11.30

[19] See for example Terry Cook and Joan M. Schwartz: From (Postmodern) Theory to (Archival) Performance in Archival Science Vol. 2 no 3-4 2002, p. 171-185.

4 Responses to “Memory, Archives and Justice”

  1. Klaus Says:

    Well, I cant agree more.

  2. music Says:

    very interesting.
    i’m adding in RSS Reader

  3. […] asunnoton ja historian professori saavat arkistossa saman kohtelun, onko se oikein? Gudmund Valderhaugin mukaan ei. Niin ICAn kuin suomalaisetkin ammattieettiset ohjeet kannustavat tasapuoliseen […]

  4. […] “Memory, Archives and Justice – a Norwegian Perspective,” by Gudmund Valderhaug. […]

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