Mind Your Own Business: Accountability and Archives

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Have you ever attended a Pecha Kucha? Pecha Kuchas are gatherings where presenters speak clearly and consisely on topics, aided by the limited presentation format — 20 slides with 20 seconds per slide. Six archivists delivered an extraordinary Pecha Kucha during The Society of American Archivists’ Annual Meeting in Cleveland. The archivists were:

  • Terry Baxter, Chair, Multnomah County Records Program
  • Libby Coyner, Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records
  • Adrienne Harling, Archives and Library Consultant
  • Shannon O’Neill, Barnard College Archives
  • Heather Oswald, Kennesaw State University Department of Museums, Archives, and Rare Books
  • Jennifer Waxman, Archives Consultant

The speakers grappled with issues around copyright, graffiti art culture, the “right to forget” movement, domestic terrorists, LGBT rights advocates, polygamists, and law enforcement. They were brave and vulnerable as they encouraged the packed house to “seek new ways to diversify the American record.” What follows is a taste of the event based on four of the presentations:

Accountability Matters

Terry Baxter offered the pros and cons of documenting domestic terror. As he exercised his thoughts on the use of power, he spoke of accountability.

“By documenting domestic terrorists, especially when contextualized by documenting groups they terrorize and groups they seek to change, archivists provide a more truthful and just record. The record can become the basis for societal reconciliation – a truthful acceptance of events and relationships, and open-hearted, insightful conversation about them, and mutually agreed upon solutions by those in power.” 

Accountability would become the theme of the session.

Documenting the Un-Documented

Libby Coyner spoke of the Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (FLDS). Her professional dilemma: she works for an institution that has very little information about this group, which is a community within the geographic location of its collection scope. 

The Arizona State Archives created a record survey to hone the collecting scope and attempt to identify under-documented communities. One category from the matrix is, “alternative communities” which might include the FLDS. One of the more frequent patrons of the archives — journalists — are interested in documenting the experience of former members, who in turn are afraid of retaliation. 

The professional and personal struggle for Ms. Coyner? Archivists and their dependence on provenance and its role in determining authenticity of the record versus the journalist’s respect for privacy. “Coming from a feminist framework I feel that documentation is important for accountability — yet what about the right to be wary of trusting the outside world? And who has the authority to document the community? Do we rely on police authority or the FLDS themselves?” 

As Ms. Coyner so eloquently stated, archivists cannot collect everything. Sometimes the gap in the record is the record itself.

Questions of Authenticity

Adrienne Harling stated, “The premise of this panel is that resistance to documentation inhibits the diversity of the historical record and that the archivist’s role is to find ways to overcome this hurdle, however indigenous communities are resisting the misappropriation of their cultural knowledge.” 

Learning Opportunities

She supports indigenous-led resistance that questions the authenticity of historical records because in indigenous cultures information sharing is not typically based on written records. Instead, they leverage “oral protocols,” which have been successfully used for generations. Indeed, the first written documentation was created by external parties — settlers — who not only vainly attempted to capture their observations, but also imposed their own folkways on the indigenous communities … thus perpetuating a constant “interpret-misinterpret” cycle. 

This cycle has sadly continued today as established, non-native institutions attempt to collect and advertise this misinformation of indigenous communities. To address the authenticity of indigenous records, Harling encouraged the audience to embrace more than one cultural framework in archival practice.

Lack of Transparency

Shannon O’Neill offered insight on how police departments in the US document their violence — and exclude important details that might expose gaps in their procedures — when the evidence is brought before civilian review boards. 

“We must first address the imbeddedness of the archive as a metaphorical construct of material site and practice within police work. Archives arise in partnership with disciplinary societies. The police create a lot of records that [should be] at our fingertips. The police employ a host of tactics from seemingly banal clerical errors to outright malfeasance.” 

O'Neill's contention is that the evidentiary documentation that external parties do get to evaluate is simply the tip of the iceberg. To underscore her thesis, she reviewed the websites of most police departments of major metropolitan areas, searching through their documentation posted for public review, using commonly used vernacular such as, “officer discharging weapon.” 

The most transparent departments? Houston, Baltimore and Portland. Reviewing records retention schedules, she found that most internal audit reports are kept for 75 years — but no mandate exists to deposit them into local repositories. She called the authenticity of police records into question. The rise of citizen archives, Ms. O’Neill asserted, is a direct response to the lack of documentation brought before civilian review boards. 

About the author

Mimi Dionne

Mimi Dionne is a records and information management project manager and Consultant/Owner of Mimi Dionne Consulting. She is a Certified Records Manager, a Certified Archivist, a Certified Document Imaging Architect, a Certified Information Professional, and a Project Management Professional.