You would think that the law librarians at Georgetown would be able to clarify some of the muddled thinking about archives certain archivists have been doing lately. Or whatever:
Many archivists have varying perspectives on this issue. Archivists have a professional duty to curate many types of materials, some of which contain confidential information. More thought provoking is the potential outcome of this case and how it will effect what people will be willing to archive in the future, inevitably impacting what will be remembered for generations to come.
First of all, commonly-applied restrictions on access protect donors of archival material from acccidental discovery of any crime carrying a statute of limitation. Our most frequently-used period of restriction is 50 years. Legal documents, case files, attorneys’ work product and so forth are all commonly closed for 75 years. Attorney-client privilege holds that these should be closed in perpetuity but that’s something you have to take up with William Rehnquist. In short, Ed Moloney et cie. aren’t asking archives to do a better job protecting archival material from discovery by researchers. Rational actors should already be convinced by current practice that we’re going to keep mere snoops out of their stuff for a long time. Without archivists’ privilege, donors’ privacy is already secure.
But that’s not the issue.
Moloney used the 1990s oral histories to WRITE A BOOK CALLED I KID YOU NOT A Secret History of the IRA. As I’ve tried to explain before, what the Belfast Project wants is access for researchers who are friends of the institution, and no access for “hostile” inquirers. Where publication fits into that scheme Moloney neither knows nor cares. So long as our researchers get to have it both ways — writing books from “privileged” material, and then asserting privilege once courts get inquisitive — in his mind and in Boston College’s, everything is fine.
Anyway, if you disagree, you have until tomorrow to send amicus curiae briefs to John Roberts.
And that’s all boring. What’s more “thought-provoking” is the notion that
Archivists have a professional duty to curate many types of materials, some of which contain confidential information.
which in a sense is wrong and in a sense is right. In the current sense of applying selectivity and taste to something, we don’t curate at all. Just ask Terry Cook. The last twenty years have been about appraising everyone in, because archivists now see appraisal and selection as truncating discourse and establishing one body’s power over another. Which, you know, I’m not unsympathetic to, though I think such an interpretation of our work relies overmuch on early Foucault and ignores infrapower, and just a little bit condescends to the oppressed, who if you read Rancière’s La Nuit des Prolétaires have been busily writing themselves into history with or without archives’ presuming to speak for them since at least the Bourbon Restoration.
The Latin root of curate means a lot of things apart from the obvious “care,” and “cure”; also “heal,” “arrange,” and “govern,” and more or less, “fetch.” These are good verbs to guide archivists. We can acknowledge that arrangement preserves access and that derangement obstructs it. We can see that curation governs collections, regulating who speaks and who can’t, so we’d better have a good idea of what we’re doing governing, and we’d better make sure it’s us and not dead donors and their unaccountable heirs doing the governing instead. Doesn’t fetching records for researchers heal the breach between “creators” and “consumers” of history? Thinking through these relationships, we can see archival practice as an unbroken stream from government, to arrangement, to care and feeding, to fetching, with really no room in there for abstract notions of privilege and property.