I arrange, I fetch, I heal

Curating some lobster, NARA identifier #548767.

Curating some lobster, NARA identifier #548767.

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.

  1. Chris Bray said:

    This claim is entirely false, and I challenge you to provide evidence for it:

    “Moloney used the 1990s oral histories to WRITE A BOOK CALLED I KID YOU NOT A Secret History of the IRA.”

    Moloney used a lifetime of reporting in Northern Ireland to write “Secret History.” He used material from the BC collection to write another book, “Voices from the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland.” The latter used recorded interviews from just the “two men” of the title. Both had died, ending the restriction on the release of their archived interviews. Moloney used interview material that was available to any researcher who wished to use it.

  2. Hi, it’s Ed Moloney here, the subject of at least part of your tirade. You know, it is always worth checking facts before you publish a post, assuming of course you don’t want to make an idiot of yourself. The book ‘A Secret History of the IRA’ was based on four years of specific research and a career covering the IRA as a beat in Northern Ireland. It was published in the Fall of 2002 but written during 1999-2000 and delivered to the publisher in the summer of 2001. The Boston College archive was begun in early 2001 and by the summer of 2001 had barely a handful of interviews completed. “A Secret History…” was effectively completed before the BC archive began, although it later turned out to eb a useful guide to the researcher.

    The Boston archive was devoted to the general experiences of IRA activists during a lifetime in the organisation. “A Secret History….” was essentially my attempt to explain why and how the IRA journeyed into the peace process. Although the two subjects would occasionally and in later years overlap, the two projects were entirely different and substantially separate, which you would know if you were at all familiar with the subject matter, something that is painfully obvious you are not.

    There was a book published in 2010 derived from the BC archive called ‘Voices From The Grave” which was a co-production of Boston College, which shared half the royalties, and myself. It is embarrassingly clear that in your eagerness to compose your post you failed to undertake basic research. Can I suggest Amazon.com and key in my name, remembering to spell it correctly, of course. If you do that the details written above will be clear to you.

    I suggest you read my response to another error-strewn commentary on the BC subpoenas, this time from the Society of American Archivists (SAA), for the details behind that. The SAA produced a piece of research, laughingly called a Background Paper, which shares the same level of incompetent research as distinguishes your writing. You will read in my response, inter alia, that the book was produced in no small part because it was the specific wish of the IRA interviewee featured in the book, Brendan Hughes, that his life story be published as soon as possible after his death.

    Let me just say that this whole affair has highlighted two deplorable features of modern American academe. One is their willingness to click heels when the State orders them so, a trait that is evident in their refusal to stand up for confidentiality rights and their willingness to throw researchers and interview subjects to the dogs if it suits their interests. No wonder America is in such intellectual decline. The second, is a complete inability to conduct simple basic research. In that respect, if not the first, you, sir, are a perfect example of the species.

    Here is my reply to the embarrassing SAA: http://www2.archivists.org/news/2013/discussion-of-boston-collegeira-oral-history-case – i strongly suggest you read it before you write about this subject again.

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