Monthly Archives: April 2013

Christine George is wrong. For a number of reasons. I keep going over them, and it’s exhausting, so I’m going to stop. The specifics of the Belfast case — how deeply Moloney screwed the pooch with the oral histories; the flimsy case that none of his secret interviewees ever made it onto archives-bound tape; how Boston College pinky-swore confidentiality and then left Moloney out in the wind; how the “secret” tapes will ultimately be reviewed by the First Circuit in camera because SCOTUS denied cert — all make it a crummy test case for archivists’ privilege anyway, so it’s pointless to go on.

A couple things about the mode of delivery of George’s message though: First, having been dissed by the grownups at SAA, who remember the 1980s, who remember that the notion that no court can compel an archives to disgorge documents ever was first asserted by the FBI to conceal the fact that it had spied on Frank Wilkinson, an American leftist, she has turned to the Students and New Archives Professionals, who were perhaps born in the 1980s. The tactic here is to redraw the bounds of debate by addressing herself to an audience of innocents.

Second, by talking about doctors and lawyers, George addresses herself to archivists’ ancient professional insecurity — we’re a discipline dominated by women, ergo paid less than “men’s” work like doctoring and lawyering; our “science” for about a hundred years has consisted of advice about filing; our “literature” for about thirty years has consisted of complaints that there is no serious archives literature; USFW — and that’s a deep nerve to pluck. Saying that once you establish archivists’ privilege, archivists will finally get the respect they deserve is equivalent to when that one guy took that other guy to the top of an exceeding high mountain and promised him things.

Third, it’s disingenuous to claim that establishing archivists’ power over documents — finally guaranteeing that we have forever the hermeneutic power and the right — makes history more free. Actual dissidents, the world over, are or for Chrissakes should be more worried about being trampled underfoot today than about being misunderstood tomorrow. Let’s talk later about the struggle. It’s important to remember that grand juries and states’ attorneys are also part of the society whose history we’re here to preserve. Archivists don’t get to tell society that our compelling interests trump its compelling interests. Archivists’ privilege, by George’s account, is the only thing guaranteeing that we’ll get donations of records made by dissidents. I dispute that. But on this we all agree: The privilege would make archivists into rulers, turning our work from serving society to serving the archons.

Washington National Records Center stacks, via NARA, #4477179

Washington National Records Center stacks, via NARA, #4477179

Haven’t heard anything about archivists’ privilege in my feed, but I’ve heard plenty about academic freedom and research confidentiality. Which isn’t germane to the Belfast Project, since it was undertaken with the express intention of creating a body of archival material accessible to future generations of scholars, and was not meant to be the sole fiefdom of select researchers, but selah.

Let’s talk about the dissertation repository, which John Lowman among others sees as an information silo: you can put into it whatever you want because only you and your favorite people will be able to access it.

Yeah, confidentiality is not what an institutional repository does. Go ask SHERPA, which explained how to put things into IRs long ago:

If material is confidential or sensitive, then it is not put it into a repository, in the same way that it would not be published in a journal. Repository use is for material that authors want to see disseminated, cited and made public.

Go ask Victoria in Melbourne:

Material which contains confidential information, or of which the promulgation would infringe a legal commitment by the University and/or the author should not be included in the repository.

Where universities safeguard confidentiality in their IR policies, they do so with the express intention of protecting patentable research. People in the social sciences and humanities, who are making the vast majority of the records held in archives, aren’t going to be sued in the same way as people in hard sciences get sued because there isn’t any real money at stake. Dow Chemical is not going to bring the hammer down on your post-Althusserian reading of the Wife of Bath. Anyway, the presumption of research confidentiality comes from the relatively short history of capitalizing knowledge.

Which makes the Social Science Scholars’ brief in Moloney especially pitiable. Running the intellectual apparatus of knowledge management against the grain — using “bad” capitalist confidentiality in the service of “good” liberal academic freedom — doesn’t work with oral histories. Go ask Virginia Raymond.

Oral histories are not journalists’ sources. They are formal documents made for posterity. Real historians use informed consent. They take great pains to protect their narrators. They don’t pinky-swear confidentiality. They don’t screw the pooch and then invent a new kind of privileged communication to undo the screwup. They don’t let the tape recorder run when old men start talking about crimes which have no statute of limitations, or whether Gerry Adams had operational responsibility for all IRA activities. They especially don’t deposit those documents in an archives.

The telling of history from primary sources cannot be done in secret. Primary sources of historical telling cannot live in secret. History done in secret is surveillance.