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On power and powerlessness documenting personal rights     

1. The provenance of this piece is multifaceted. Part of it is connected to the experiences I made while working at the Hordaland Inter-municipal Archives (IKAH) in the 1990s. The great majority of the public requests for archival materials at IKAH, came from people searching for documentation of their own personal experiences, as former clients in the public social security or child welfare system, as pupils and the like. The encounters with these people, in person, by telephone, or indirectly through the traces of them that were found in the records – and in some cases through a complete absence of traces – form an important part of the context of this text.

2. Another part of this provenance is connected to my job at ABM, the Norwegian Archives Library and Museum Authority, where I was until last autumn. This job opened new roads for me, and one of these led me to Liverpool, to the conference on “Political Pressure and the Archival Record” in July 2003. Here I met colleagues from different countries that were engaged in the issues about archives and justice, and that made a profound impact on my own thinking. One of these colleagues, Verne Harris from South Africa, was invited as a keynote speaker to the national conference of the Norwegian association of local and private archives in 2004. His keynote kicked off a – by archival standards – lively debate on archives and justice. In August 2005 I was invited to speak about this issue at a colloquium on memory and justice at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg. In South Africa I met colleagues that are working in a society permeated by the energies of numerous struggles for justice, where the societal power of the archive is more evident than here.

3. I’ve spoken frequently about issues about archives and justice, some will probably say to often. Most of my talks have explicitly addressed issues about documentation of personal rights and the archivist’s role encountering the individual that has suffered injustice, the other, the stranger in the archive. This talk will serve as a (preliminary) conclusion of what I’ve said earlier on these issues.  

4. Initially, there is one thing I want to point out: The archivist’s role in the documentation of personal rights is to be an archivist. It is not our job to pretend to be lawyers or social workers. It is not for us to decide whether the documentation we are able to find will be sufficient to get reparation or not. It is neither our role to engage in client counseling. We cannot grant people justice. But we can use our knowledge to locate whatever documentation there is to be found, so that the individuals may have their cases tried at the proper authorities. Our role, then, is to supply documentation and put this into the societal and administrative context. And this role is indeed difficult and challenging. 

5. The first challenge is to find the documentation. The fonds that could be used for documentation of personal rights are often defective. There are several reasons for this: The public record-making regime of the 1950s and 60s were different from today; public administration did archive less information than what is customary now. A great number of the institutions in social service sector were private at that time, with an even sloppier record-making regime. And quite a lot of the records that actually were made have been lost, due to negligence from the public owners of the records, or because private institutions have been closed down and their archives destroyed, or as a result of the Data Inspectorate’s recommendation to destroy personal files in the early 1980s.

6. This example shows us that records are expressions of power. “Archives represent the dominant power’s selective memory,” Kaisa Maliniemi Lindbach writes in her report from the project “minorities in public archives”. She continues: “The dominant power decides what will be archived and what is worth archiving. Thus, the archiving process is not an objective act, but it serves somebody’s aims. The voices of the poor, the oppressed and the marginal are often absent.” (http://www.llp.no/assets/files/Forprosjektrapport.pdf)  

7. How should we respond when individuals asking for documentation of injustice approach us? Operatively there are two alternatives: The first one is to handle the enquiry in a formally correct manner, without providing any extra service, just like we handle any other enquiry we get. 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 made available for the user. If they can’t be identified, the story stops here.

8. The other alternative is to go further, for instance using our archival expertise to uncover the record-making regime of the time of the document creation: what administrative procedures may have been used? What kind of information might have been archived in the first place? Is it probable that any of the records might have been lost? Could be any information in other archives? And: Is it possible to reconstruct any of the missing documentation from the few traces that may be found? Doing this will take time and resources from other important tasks at the archives. What is the right thing to do?   

9. This challenge is fundamentally about our relationship to the other, the stranger. The individuals that come to the archives to get documentation of their personal rights are strangers to the archives, in several ways. They represent a new kind of users, which compared to an archives’ traditional users signifies something new, something unknown, something strange – and sometimes even frightening. They approach us with their demands for justice, with their angst and their hopes, with their wants and their desires; they are coming to change their lives. And the archives are strange to them; they know little about what may be found in archives, about how to use the finding aids and how to use and interpret the documents. And these people are even strangers in the archives, because their lives are poorly documented – and sometimes totally absent – in the records.

10. This challenge is deepened by the fact that the archivist holds a position of power in relation to the user, because she controls access to the information he 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 archives, and she can – within certain boundaries – decide how much of her time and knowledge she will share with him.

11. Most archivists that are working with issues concerning documentation of personal rights are employed by national, regional or local government archives, which are integrated parts of our public administration system. This implies that they are subject to an indirect pressure to serve this system and reproduce existing power relations. This pressure may affect the decisions and priorities we make in our daily work; some things have to be done, while other things can wait. Karin Gjelsten has demonstrated how this also may affect classification and registration in recordkeeping systems. (http://www.abm-utvikling.no/publisert/ABM-skrift/2006/arkdemret_web.pdf)

12. Furthermore, the archival institutions may also be tied – directly or indirectly – to one of the parties in a case. The actions of the archivist may cause a municipality to pay reparation.  

13. The public administration act and the freedom of information act give the citizens a fundamental democratic right to access public records. This legislation represents an important guideline for archivists when people asking for documentation of personal rights encounter them. But what does it really mean to give equal access to archival information?  

14. In Mal d’Archive Jacques Derrida writes that ”effective democratisation can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and access to the archive, its constitution and its interpretation”. Equal rights to archival information can’t be reduced to equal right to access, but must also include equal right to benefit from the archive. To achieve equality it is necessary to develop unequal and differential services. People with little or no experience with archives will have a greater need for help and guidance than the experienced reading room visitor. They may need help to identify the actual records; the individual will not always remember the name of the institution or in which municipality it was situated. Some will need assistance to understand the content of the records. And it is frequently people that approach the archives for documentation of personal rights that have the greatest need for assistance from the archivist.   

15. When we have such documentation, we are confronted with another challenge: How do we present the documents to this person? We will have to consider if there is information he is not allowed to see according to law, and if there are things that need further explanation. Because we don’t know this person, such considerations will always be difficult. There are no simple answers to these questions.

16. And when there is no documentation to be found, the archivist faces another challenge: To find and give an explanation why this is so. There are basically two possible answers: that the circumstances in question have not been documented or that the records have been lost. And how are we supposed to explain either of these possibilities to a person who may be dependent on this non-existing documentation to win justice? Neither to this question there is an easy answer. 

17. Archivists working with personal rights issues will always hear the call of justice. The challenges we encounter in this endeavour are essentially about how to answer to this call. If archives shall contribute to justice, we will have to take a stand. We have to acknowledge that the hard to kill notion of the archive as a neutral by-product of administration and the impartial archivist will have to be rejected. I will once more borrow the words of Kaisa Maliniemi Lindbach: “Record-making and archive creation are expressions of power”. Those who think they can remain impartial between power and powerlessness will end up as the pawns of power.

18. I will finish this piece by quoting my colleagues, Verne Harris: “(—) the structural pull in all recordmaking is towards the replication of existing relations of power, with the attendant exclusions, privilegings, and marginalisations.  Archivists cannot avoid complicity.  But we can work against the pull; and for me it is a moral imperative to do so. (—) those who have power – the elites – use “the archive” as an instrument of power – whether they be elites in repressive states, emerging democracies, or established democracies, whether they be elites in state bureaucracies, corporate executives, intellectual establishments, or church hierarchies.  If justice is not to be forgotten in the process, if “use” is not to become “abuse”, then archivists and other recordmakers are obliged at the very least to trouble such use.  For me, responding to these (three) imperatives marks the beginning of a just politics in archives.  And the beginning of an appropriate professional ethics.” 

(This is a translation of my talk at the Norwegian Archives Meeting in April 2007)       

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One Response to “The good Archivist”

  1. Henk Buijks Says:

    During my practice of 25 years as a regional archivist in the south of the Netherlands I met many equal situations!
    This is a good example of practicing democracy!


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