Archivists and the Records of Rights

By Sara White

The new David M. Rubenstein Gallery, part of the National Archives in Washington DC, will be opening an exhibit on December 10, 2013, called Records of Rights.  This will be a permanent exhibit of documents that are considered central to the history of civil rights in America. The press release about the exhibit states that it “showcases original and facsimile National Archives documents to illustrate how Americans throughout our history have debated and discussed issues such as citizenship, free speech, voting rights, and equal opportunity.” For example, it will include the Congressional resolution proposing the 14th Amendment in 1868, certification of the 26th Amendment, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. These documents illustrate America’s continual commitment to ensuring all citizens have their civil rights respected and their equality assured.

The exhibit presents the history of the United States as one of progress, moving ever forward from the unfulfilled promises of freedom and equality laid down in the Constitution and Bill of Rights towards true realization of them. It emphasizes three issues: slavery and racism of segregation after slavery; women’s suffrage and rights; and immigration restrictions and immigrant’s rights. While these are all important movements that have shaped our nation, the way they are presented must be delicate to ensure that the current state of affairs is not distorted. These fights for civil rights are not just part of our history, they’re part of our present. While there are multiple civil rights battles going on right now, such as the struggle for LGBT rights, the most prominent is the National Security Administration is violating the rights of Americans and people all over the world through their comprehensive surveillance and data collection programs. The information revealed over the summer by Edward Snowden detailing the extent of surveillance practices by the NSA has rightfully shaken beliefs in America’s respect for civil rights. As such, the opening of this exhibit raises some questions about the responsibilities archivists have to present as full of a record as possible in their collections. By presenting only civil rights victories of the past and not including an emphasis on current issues, this exhibit runs the risk of presenting a distorted view of American government.

The examination of the journey of how Americans have fought for civil rights does demonstrate that the nation has come a long way since it’s founding. However, while the victories of civil rights battles deserve to be commemorated, we should in no way encourage a view does not take into account current struggles over our rights. The NSA’s bulk collection of data is a violation of constitutional rights outlined in the fourth amendment, for privacy and freedom of association, all done in the name of protecting us from the great, nebulous threat of terrorism. These violations of privacy are not limited to Americans, but citizens of foreign countries and even other political leaders such as Angela Merkel. These programs, we are told, are to protect us from terrorist threats and that the information collected through them has been used to prevent attacks. Despite these claims, evidence suggests the information gathered has proven to be almost negligible in counter-terrorism operations.

David Lyon and Zygmunt Bauman discuss the role fear plays in getting people to accept such extreme measures in their book Liquid Surveillance, and the NSA’s stated justifications for their surveillance programs often exemplify these ideas. While the authors acknowledge that surveillance is not a new phenomenon, they discuss how it now permeates and seeps into our lives in previously unheard of ways. This, they argue, creates new and more intense feelings of insecurity. This sort of surveillance and the fight against terrorism forces people to conceptualize a nebulous Other, one who is not so easily identified as terrorists have no shared physical characteristics but come from a variety of backgrounds and locations. The sense of insecurity is increased as “there’s not knowing when the categories of risk may ‘accidentally’ include us,”[1] meaning that we begin to support more intense measures to catch the real threat out of fear that we will be somehow classed among their number. This sense of fear and insecurity has been an important tool in shaping the development of the state of surveillance, which is now a the forefront of the debate on civil rights.

The Society of American Archivists, in a statement on the Core Values of Archivists, asserts “By documenting institutional functions, activities, and decision-making, archivists provide an important means of ensuring accountability,” and that this accountability is “an essential hallmark of democracy.” In other words, preserving the historical record is essential to holding governments accountable and ensuring the future health of a democratic system. However, this same document says “archivists serve the needs and interests of their employers and institutions.” This Records of Rights exhibit presents some interesting questions about balancing these two responsibilities, as the archivists’ institution, in this case, is a federal institution. This exhibit has the potential to present a skewed picture of America’s commitment to civil rights, illustrating the extensions of rights through the country’s history while neglecting to account for the current state of affairs. The exhibit could potentially engender the idea that the struggle for civil rights is part of our past only and not an ongoing part of our present.  However, the archivists are serving the needs of their employer, and are therefore limited in their capabilities to make changes to the collection. Though, by serving their employer, they could be violating the mission of archivists “to preserve and make accessible a comprehensive and trustworthy American historical record.”

There are ways that the current rights issues could be incorporated into this collection. The press release details a digital, interactive section of the exhibit, which seems like the perfect place to produce a digital project that could detail current developments about this issue. Also, surveillance and privacy issues are not the only civil rights issues currently being debated, and another digital piece about the struggle for LGBT rights and the debate over healthcare, which is considered to be a right by some but not others. Additionally, as this is a permanent exhibition, this interactive area could be used to update new developments in these struggles as well as others as time goes on. While it is not possible to adequately represent every issue in one exhibit, the omission of current civil rights struggles, particularly over NSA surveillance programs, has a strong capability to skew the historical record. Archivists, as keepers of this record, should make an effort to include the information about the current state of affairs in any way they can in order to present a more comprehensive view of civil rights in America.


[1] Zygmunt Bauman and David Lyon, Liquid Surveillance. (Cambridge: Polity, 2013), 101.

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