Tag Archives: Restricted collections in archives

Miners tested for black lung, 1974, via NARA, ARC#556566.

Miners tested for black lung, 1974, via NARA, ARC#556566.

When “the archives” does violence to a historic group, what do we mean by “the archives,” what do we mean by “violence,” and how does the violence get done? I’m asking Deborah Thomas because I don’t think she’s considered this stuff; to her credit, I don’t think any historian out there blithely “theorizing the archive” has, and Thomas at least uses “archives” as a singular, and has done research in them, and I trust does not use the nefarious verb “to archive” which we’ve somehow inherited from gamers backing up their playthroughs like “ZOMG I AM ARCHIVING THIS” and which is now accepted language and which as you may or may not see below because I don’t really know fully where this is headed elides the relationships of creation, stewardship, inquiry and justice which archivists are bound to make plain.

Let’s for a second pretend I didn’t ask any of the above, and let’s assume that we all speak the same post-Foucauldian language, that we can recognize a panopticon at 50 paces, or contend that my son’s Melissa-and-Doug safari truck is a metonym for the carceral bodies of Africans, and so forth. I like the figure of the archives as a prison, a lot. So I’m hip to this. And I also refer to my son’s toy as Caucasian wood-people pillaging the continent for trophies LET’S DRAG THIS PURPLE HIPPO INTO THE TRUCK so again, I think we’re all receptive to the carcerality and the panopticisms.

(I’m also skipping over what I think for @meau is another whole thing: ICA calls the collections or the archival holdings “the archives.” And how of course can boxes of papers “enact” anything? And even if you buy my “it’s structural, dude” position, doesn’t that let agents off the hook? To which, yeah, but it’s more like we agents — creators, donors, subjects, archivists — are the woven hook, and how do we get to be I don’t know a needle or a shovel or something? How do we take the overlapping ties of responsibility and rebind them to better ends? All of which is by way of saying, I use “archives” to mean the styles of behavior of archivists, their technologies of the self, and the cultural practices found in archives — meaning places, sites, institutions.)

With terms given, I can give you an example of how archives enact violence. I have a body of personnel files which contain Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory results for people applying for jobs in medicine, education, and so forth. Applicants knew they were being personality-profiled, but they couldn’t have known that their tendencies toward hypochondria, psychosis or homosexuality were being measured. (There are or could be nested layers of violence here: the MMPI and its descendants are copyrighted by the University of Minnesota despite being developed under a Works Progress Administration grant, which is theft; the original MMPI was keyed to rural, middle-class, white Minnesotans and so classed everyone who grew up poor, or in a city, or black as aggressive, psychotic and sexually deviant, which is slander. In this instance, the people being profiled were predominantly rural, white, and midwestern, so ignore first possible instance of violence above. But they were predominantly bookish, which in MMPI makes you sexually deviant. I am not even joking.) These folks are still alive. The creator-body I serve needs to hold these records as a liability shield; when a student or patient comes along 70 years later and says Dr. Florence Engobe was a deviant and deviated her, the creator-body needs to say, “We tried our best to flag deviants and keep them in the library WHERE THEY BELONG.” Subjects of the archives have a compelling case for excision of records from the archives and repatriation, because of the right to opacity. Agents of the creator body have a compelling case not to repatriate, because of liability. It’s a classic double bind.

What’s interesting is that this isn’t really what Thomas contends at all. Following the trend of the 1990s — I’m looking at you Terry Cook and your appraise-everything-in illness — she sees fragmentary or insufficiently evidentiary collections as violence. For which the contemporary response is to make sure that everybody makes all kinds of things and keeps them somewhere which is great so long as someone else is responsible for keeping them forever, which again, calls into question the original premise, because somehow a communal or participatory or relational archives will have gotten over its predisposition to violence. I’m just guessing here, because that’s a default position. Maybe Thomas is cooler than that.

See what happens there? Theorizers of “the archive” on the one hand lament the centralized power of archivists to deny entrée of materials into the archives, to marginalize peoples’ histories. On the other hand, the presumed solution is a unitary “archive” thought of the way college freshmen think of “the commons,” a revivified pre-lapsarian vault for all the stories of all the peoples.

There isn’t of course a way back because there never was such an Eden to go back to. Any anthropologist should have read David Graeber’s Debt, which one prays has dropped the final nail into the coffin of utopian socialisms, so that Thomas should anticipate my “it was ever thus”: archives are bodies of order made by creators in a position of dominance. Their structural position by itself enacts violence. They are this way because our civilizations order themselves through violence. (Which, you know, I’m also hip to the idea that we’re talking here about differentiated evils. Yoking Haiti to reparations for its revolution is far, far more evil than anything any archives could do. No comparison. PERSPECTIVE.) The question clearly isn’t, How do we make a big, peoples’ vault which appraises everything in and which nominally has no archons but for real though has like five or six Grand Wizards? because that’s the Interwebs. The question also isn’t, How do we get new things into archives to make them righteous? The question is, How do we arrange social relations such that archives are not structurally violent?


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.

President Nixon, H.R. Haldeman, and military aide boarding Marine One, 07/16/1972, NARA identifier #194438

President Nixon, H.R. Haldeman, and military aide boarding Marine One, 07/16/1972, NARA identifier #194438

Ed Moloney and Chris Bray have stepped in to pull this blog back from the brink of libel, for which I thank them. I’ve put a timestamped strikethrough on the offending sentence.

Bray points out that A Secret History of the IRA was not, as I wrote in all caps here, based on the oral histories in the Belfast project’s collection. Voices from the Grave used interviews with Brendan Hughes and David Ervine, who are in the collection; the embargo on those interviews ended with the men’s deaths, and those materials are open to “any researcher.”

Here’s every hit for “interview” in Secret History.

Here’s every hit for “interview” in Grave

The interviews footnoted in Secret History look to be entirely in Moloney’s personal collection, all conducted between 1998 and November 2000. Only one appears to have come from another collection, Anthony McIntyre’s May 2000 “Interview with former Belfast IRA member (B),” in an embargoed collection at Linen Hall Library. This blog does not dispute Moloney’s statement that the work for the first book was all done by the “summer of 2001,” which leaves only a little overlap with the BC start date of “early 2001.” It seems odd that the interviews for Secret History would have nothing to do with the BC project, given the proximity, but if the man who did the interviewing says that there was a firewall between his interviews as a journalist and his interviews as an archivist, this blog has to take him at his word.

It’s important to note that since virtually all the interviews in Secret History are with a reporter’s confidential sources, and since neither the Belfast project nor Linen Hall has public finding aids, there’s no way for this blog to confirm that none of the interviewees for Secret History ended up giving oral histories for the Belfast project. Links to public finding aids to these collections are welcome; please post them below.

It’s also important to note that, unless I’m terribly mistaken, I’ve never misspelled Ed Moloney’s name. Perhaps he has me confused with these folks, who seem to think he’s a Maloney. And, not to deepen the flame war, but I did stick your name into Amazon; your book was linked in the original post. Sorry you didn’t see it.

Ultimately, I think Moloney and Bray and McIntyre and this blog are in the grand scheme all on the same side. I oppose archivists’ privilege in no small part because the first body to assert the privilege in the United States was the FBI; having used all their FOIA exemptions to give Frank Wilkinson a 95% redacted version of his own file, the spooks invented “archival privilege” out of whole cloth, and the spooks lost. Archivists in this country thought the topic so skunked that it sat dormant for twenty years. The biggest archives in this country is NARA, and establishing archivists’ privilege means wrapping NARA’s collections in restrictions which are bound by their nature to be opaque, arbitrarily-enforced, and because of how privilege works in the US, permanent. It’s the FOIA exemption to end all FOIA exemptions. It’s Christmas for the secret police.

Finally, it’s worth remembering why we call it truth and reconciliation. There can’t be reconciliation without truth.

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.

Last year, Congressional Research Service published a thorough guide to statute of limitations terms for federal crimes. Since SAA’s bound to be looking again at restrictions on access in light of the president’s mild-mannered post about BC’s shenanigans, it might be of some use to see how restrictions on access already protect donors from unwitting confession of certain crimes:

You could release your donor’s financial records after six years plus one day, even if he’s nervous about having committed the following crimes:

  • 18 U.S.C. 1348 (securities and commodities fraud)
  • 15 U.S.C. 78ff(a) (Securities Exchange Act violations)
  • 15 U.S.C. 77x (Securities Act violations)
  • 26 U.S.C. 6531 (tax crimes)
    If you’ve got oral histories from the Klan, you’d really better sit on those for seven years plus one day, to allow these bad boys to expire:

  • 18 U.S.C. 247 (damage to religious property)
  • 18 U.S.C. 249 (hate crime not resulting in death)
    Sure their friends are maybe in jail, but every hate crime carries dozens of unindicted co-conspirators. Some of those people have to be family history buffs.

    Keep papers closed for eight years plus one day for pipeline tampering (49 U.S.C. 60123(b)), aircraft piracy (49 U.S.C. 46502), going to work on nuclear weapons at Natanz (18 U.S.C. 832), or kidnapping congressmen (18 U.S.C. 351).

    It’s ten years and a day for all kinds of embezzlement and bank fraud, but also for:

  • 18 U.S.C. 1542 (false statement in application and use of passport) (or conspiracy to commit)
  • 18 U.S.C. 1583 (enticement into slavery)
  • 18 U.S.C. 2442 (recruiting or using child soldiers)
  • 42 U.S.C. 2274 (communication of restricted data)
  • 42 U.S.C. 2275 (receipt of restricted data)
  • 42 U.S.C. 2276 (tampering with restricted data)
    It would be immensely helpful if we could rationalize federal statutes of limitations to eliminate the 20-year period for violations of 18 U.S.C. 668 (major art theft). Make it life or ten years, please.

    Ah yes, life. For heinous crimes, other than slave trafficking or recruiting child soldiers I guess, there is no statute of limitations. So if the guys in your oral history collections ever committed:

  • 18 U.S.C. 37 (violence at international airports where death results)
  • 18 U.S.C. 242 (deprivation civil rights under color of law where death results)
  • 18 U.S.C. 247 (obstruction of the exercise of religious beliefs where death results)
  • 18 U.S.C. 249 (hate crime resulting in death)
  • 18 U.S.C. 844(d) (use of fire or explosives unlawfully where death results)
    or the strangely phrased

  • 18 U.S.C. 1091 (genocide where death results)
    don’t worry, you can always rely on archivists’ privilege.

  • Nixon standing with Lyndon Johson outside the LBJ Library in Austin , Texas, 05/22/1971. NARA identifier #194358

    Nixon standing with Lyndon Johson outside the LBJ Library in Austin , Texas, 05/22/1971. NARA identifier #194358

    Archival privilege is an idea so totally poisonous to the core work of archivists that I have to write more, if only to ferret out anyone who’s in favor of it.

    Privileged communication, things you say to another person in confidence which a court cannot ever hear, flows from the Fifth Amendment’s protections of individual life and livelihood and its proscription of self-incrimination. Wives and husbands are one body, so you can’t be compelled to incriminate your spouse. You can’t get the unvarnished medical advice you need to preserve your body unless you talk to your doctor in confidence. You can’t get to the root of the psychological illness that’s killing you unless your therapy is confidential. You can’t secure the legal advice that will keep you out of jail if lawyers could be compelled to incriminate you. And you can’t reasonably be expected to have forthright deliberations in the Oval Office, the kinds of chats wherein geopolitical strategies designed to preserve the lives and freedoms of billions of people are hatched if you think your confabs will be leaked.

    In the case at hand, lawyers want to see if Irish partisans “confessed” to crimes in a series of oral histories. Communication here had no therapeutic purpose, it wasn’t initiated by the partisans’ seeking counsel, legal, spiritual or otherwise, and revealing the conversations won’t start World War Three. You could argue, as John Kerry did, that opening the oral histories in discovery would, in fact, cause the Irish equivalent of World War Three, but that would make you look stupid because the Good Friday accords have held for 15 years despite harsher shocks than this.

    What archival privilege amounts to in this case is archivists saying: Look, we know our confidence doesn’t ensure due process, or make people sane, or safeguard their health, or preserve national security. It’s just that we promised we wouldn’t tell anybody about all the torture and stuff. And these are our friends, and we’d really like to not disappoint them.

    And seriously, privilege is forever. Swidler says so. And if either party can assert archival privilege, archivists are suddenly faced with the prospect of maintaining physical and intellectual access to information no one will ever see.

    The fundamental misunderstanding is about history. Kerry’s and Boston College’s arguments are based on the idea that history is something that has passed on. Oh that, that’s ancient history. For the rest of us, the whole point of preserving primary-source documents is precisely to upset current events. History is a debt that can never be repaid. It is passed along, taught from generation to generation. It doesn’t stop running. It roots down the mountain, it overturns it overturns it overturns