I will fight no more about archivists’ privilege forever

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.

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