Aiming for Neutrality in Collections and Archives

By saarabi

In the article “Archives, Records, and Power: the Making of Modern Memory”, authors Shwartz and Cook explore the impact archivists have over power relationships, identity formation, and social memory through the acquisitions and preservations that take place in collections and archives.  The origin of archival use is important to understanding the framework of archives. Schwartz and Cook touch on the history of the archive saying, “Their origins lie in the information needs and social values of the rulers, governments, businesses, associations, and individuals who establish and maintain them.”  The authors go on to say this dynamic has been in place as far back as the Greek empire, and centers on power, specifically the power to shape history through what is preserved and what is omitted from a collection.

Though archives, and the people who work therein, are often positioned as neutral, they are very much a reflection of the needs and views of its founders. This is not a commonly-held or discussed reality of the field, at least to the common layperson.  Truth be told, up until reading these articles I had not questioned this widely accepted ideal of the archivist as being objective and without personal bias.  No matter how high ones professional standards are, it is nearly impossible to expect complete neutrality in a person – each of us has a background and experiences that form our views of society and our values, and it is extremely difficult to set these aside, or to know how our subconscious factors in.

Sometimes these biases are more evident, like which items are deemed worthy for inclusion in an archive,  and sometimes they are more subtle –  such as the way items are labeled and organized in collections.  In terms of the latter there are various factors at play that may hinder neutrality.  On a broad scale, the systems which are often used – Library of Congress Classification System and Dewey Decimal System – are shaped by Western philosophy and Christianity.  Holly Tomren points out in her paper “Classification, Bias, and American Indian Materials”  “the Dewey Decimal System is a top-down classification system … one need look no further than the 200 main class “Religion” to see that it is a biased system, where Christianity occupies numbers 220-289, and “other religions” are relegated to 299.”  Further, there are terms used in classification headings that are greatly biased, and, in some cases, culturally insensitive.  In Tomren’s paper she lists examples of these, one of which included “LIBRARY SERVICES TO THE SOCIALLY HANDICAPPED”, a result found when a Latina patron was searching for Latino access to library services.  Indeed, the manner in which organizational systems are designed can greatly reinforce the way groups of people, often minority groups, are portrayed in society.  As Hope Olson said in 1 from her 1998 article, “The problem of bias in classification can be linked to the nature of classification as a social construct. It reflects the same biases as the culture that creates it.”

Item selection and inclusion have a high impact on archives,  as Shwartz and Cook note, “Control of the archive..means control of society and thus control of determining history’s winners and losers. Verne Harris … has shown starkly how this has operated under the apartheid regime in South Africa and its captive national archives, and how this naturalized power may be different under post-apartheid conditions.”   Harris has a very specific vantage point on archives.  In his article “The Archival Sliver:Power, Memory, and Archives in South Africa” he sees archives functioning more as a “sliver” of social memory, not a fully encompassing, accurate reflection of periods of history.  While he does acknowledge the experience he had during that time in history was particularly extreme – including the government destroying public records to hide their wrong doings during the apartheid – he goes on to say, “I would argue that in any circumstances…the documentary record provides just a sliver of a window into the event. Even if archivists in a particular country were to preserve every record generated throughout the land, they would still have only a sliver of a window into that country’s experience.”  He continues that the record is: “…substantially reduced through deliberate and inadvertent destruction by records creators and managers, leaving a sliver of a sliver from which archivists select what they will preserve. And they do not preserve much.”  Harris’ take on this directly challenges the notion that archives are neutral spheres that purely reflect the reality of particular time periods.  It also shows that lack of neutrality in an archive can be on an individual level (the personal biases an archivist has), or on an institutional level (such as what records are being provided to archives by their creators, and what is being withheld or destroyed).  This is not to imply that archivists are purposefully engaging in deceitful activity, but to touch on the fact that archivists are human, and as such they operate within their particular, complex societies (and in which socially accepted norms and government agenda factor in) as well as their individual subconscious, which may lend itself to inconsistency in archival practices from one archivist to the next.  While this complicates the notion of neutrality of archives, just as importantly it touches on the fact that the way information is organized has the ability to constrain what can be viewed or accessed by the public.  Regardless of the intention, pieces that are left out of a collection, either purposefully or lost, can have a direct impact on the social memory of a country.

To be aware that archives are a part of  social construct, and that biases exist in archivists, is a strong step in moving forward toward a more balanced approach to archives.  It is important to recognize the limitations individuals and institutions have in presenting information, whether it be in context of classification systems, or attempting to fully encompass the reality of a period of history or a person.  In an assessment of archives and reality, Harris points out, ” if archival records reflect reality….They act through many conduits – the people who created them, the functionaries who managed them, the archivists who selected them for preservation and make them available for use, and the researchers who use them in constructing accounts of the past. Far from enjoying an exteriority in relation to the record, all these conduits participate in the complex processes through which the record feeds into social memory.”

  1. Olson, H.1998. Mapping Beyond Dewey’s Boundaries: Constructing Classification Systems for Marginalized Knowledge Domains. Library Trends, 47, (2)
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