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.

Digital Humanities: Projects, Power, and Opportunity

By Sara White

As technology continues to advance and change, libraries are increasingly working to provide the digital services their users want and need. This is an ongoing challenge, and each institution responds to it differently. Columbia University, for example, has three digital centers on campus for their students and faculty. There is the Center for Digital Research and Scholarship, which offers a variety of services, such as running the university’s institutional repository, Academic Commons; the Digital Science Center, which has services such as offering the hardware and software used for advanced statistical analysis of scientific data sets; and finally, the Digital Humanities Center, where I was able to do a field observation on October 18.

Butler Library

Butler Library 


The Digital Humanities Center works to provide the technology and services to assist researchers and students of the humanities who are using digital sources or who are working on digital scholarship projects. I was able to spend the morning there with Alex Gil, the Digital Scholarship Coordinator at the Center, located in Columbia’s Butler Library. First, Alex gave me a tour of the Center, which has several PCs and Macs that have a variety of software programs for editing projects (such as Adobe Creative Suite and citation management software,) and different types of scanners (some better for text, some for images). This is just a basic overview of some of the facilities provided by the Center, but the full list of services can be found here on their website.

Alex also showed me the recently opened Studio at Butler. The Studio is a space designed to facilitate educational and digital scholarship projects. There are tables, whiteboards, and some tech (such as a projector) provided, but users are asked to bring their own devices as needed for workshops or events. Researchers from within and outside Columbia can use the Studio to have an event related to the purpose of digital scholarship. There is a host of events, such as a weekly tech brownbag lunch, which is a more informal discussion among the tech specialists within the library to come have lunch together and discuss any topic they choose within the realm of technology. There are also several workshops on different subjects, including an upcoming event on mobilizing collaborative learning with technology. The full calendar of events can be found here.

During my time at the Center I was able to see Alex work on a lot of different projects, and there are a couple in particular that I’d like to highlight. First, the launch of a website for a global digital humanities conference in Mexico City happening in May 2014 which he helped build. The focus of the conference is the advancement of digital humanities in academic and cultural institutions and the future of DH in these settings in a global context. To launch the site, Alex posted the link for the call for papers to Twitter, Facebook, and through email. On Twitter we were able to see how many people had retweeted the information, saved the announcement as a favorite, or replied to the original posting. Through this medium, we were able to see how the information was being shared and passed along by others in the digital humanities field, and how rapidly it made its way to different countries across the world. While launching the site, Alex emphasized the importance of utilizing the different methods of online communication such as Twitter, Facebook, and WordPress to be an active participant in discussions and to learn about upcoming conferences and new research in the field. These forums can be valuable tools for learning and sharing information both within the digital humanities community and reaching out to share research with the wider world.

Next, Alex told me about the Developing Librarian Project at Columbia. This is an ongoing project that began in 2012 and was designed to help train current history and humanities librarians in the skills needed to fully support digital research and scholarship. While it is a training program, it is also a digital scholarship project in its own right: the librarians are creating a digital history of the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. This sort of institutional support for continued professional development for librarians is quite valuable. As digital scholarship increases in scope and complexity, librarians will need to be constantly working to stay up to date with the changing technology. Programs like this, which help library staff train on the job rather than forcing them to find courses and workshops outside of work, have a host of benefits for both librarians and their users. When training is so accessible, librarians will be able to advance their skills and knowledge more and more. And, as the librarians gain this advanced tech knowledge, they are then better able to serve the faculty and student library users, so it is equally beneficial for their institutions.

As I was doing my observation, I couldn’t help but think about some of the ideas regarding archives and power that have long been discussed by scholars and theorists. In particular, ideas about archives as centers of power in which history is constructed, and especially those about archivists having power as they are the keepers of records which create this knowledge 1  Places like the Digital Humanities Center at Columbia work to make the technology for digital scholarship more accessible to users, for instance offering assistance with personal digital archiving for users. The Center, and other digital humanities centers, seem like they could help make more people active participants in libraries and in record keeping, thereby distributing some power traditionally held in the archive to the wider world. The DH Center and the open access Academic Commons run by Columbia’s Center for Digital Research and Scholarship may help mitigate restrictions on knowledge, which was previously limited to those within small and select academic communities.

However, while centers like this are potentially a powerful tool for opening access to previously restricted knowledge, I think the effects would be limited, at least at first. Most of the materials made available online through Columbia’s repository or through projects by the DH center would be of a high academic level, the knowledge contained within would still be restricted to those with the training and education to understand that sort of content. So, the content is available but the knowledge within is not necessarily accessible by a general audience. However, if more institutions such as public libraries or local nonprofits were able to offer similar training programs or projects as the DH center that includes content on a variety of subjects and accessible to those from a variety of backgrounds, a more noticeable shift could occur. Digital humanities can help to provide the tools that can be used to increase access to knowledge, but it is not a solution to the problem of restricted knowledge in and of itself.

While my observation was a bit different than some, as I did not interact with library users, I was able to learn a great deal about a variety of projects in the digital humanities field. I’ll be going back another day to attend a workshop at the Studio at Butler and am hoping to learn more about utilizing digital humanities in education and scholarship. While the amount of tech that I need to learn before I can really get involved in this field feels somewhat intimidating, the variety of opportunities that the field affords left me feeling very excited to study them.

  1. A good overview of different ideas relating to this can be found in: Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook. (2002). “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science. 2. 1-19.

Discussing Library Neutrality: Language, Concepts, and Finding Solutions

By Sara White

Discussion about the social role of librarians is increasingly common with the advent of the digital age, but these topics are not new. For instance, in 1972 the book Revolting Librarians, was independently published by a group of librarians who were idealistic about the role they should play in society and were fed up with the tendency of their superiors to try and stop political activism. This issue is central to the essay collection Questioning Library Neutrality, edited by Alison Lewis. While the book succeeds in presenting the potential risks that come from neutral librarianship, if a bit dramatically, it does not allow much room for debate on the meaning of neutrality, nor does it provide many suggestions for how librarians and students of library and information science can work to mitigate these problems. Overall, the collection provides an introduction to the concept of neutrality but the essays included often rely on strong language and scant evidence to substantiate sweeping claims, while neglecting to address current efforts being undertaken to create more active librarianship.

By being neutral, the editor suggests that librarians run the risk of “promulgating misinformation or worse.” 1 These concerns inspired her to compile this collection. It is comprised of 11 essays, each originally published in the journal Progressive Librarian and presented in chronological order from their original publication date. Her aim with this collection is to “stimulate further interest and debate about the concept of neutrality within the library community,” 2 and each of the articles within the collection is opposed to neutrality. While there are some issues with the book, it is a fairly short introduction to various aspects of neutrality and how it can manifest in libraries. The arguments may be a bit strong but overall it is a book that would be helpful for those new to the field as it is accessible to those unfamiliar with debates about neutrality.

There are many organizations that work for more freedom of expression within the library sector and encourage librarians to be activists both nationally and in their communities, none of which are discussed in this collection. These groups include Radical Reference, the Progressive Librarian’s Guild, and the Alternative Media Task Force. These are groups of activist librarians and each run different programs and initiatives to promote equality and support certain social causes. For instance, the Alternative Media Task Force works to include materials by alternative publishers in collections and Radical Reference examines corporate activity in the library sector and monitors it in case of unethical activity. However, none of the essays in this collection make note of any of these initiatives. The essays were originally published in Progressive Librarian, which is the journal of the Progressive Librarian’s Guild, and it seems unlikely that the authors would not know of any of these groups or activities. Adding examples of work done by these groups or others would have contributed a great deal to the arguments in each of the essays and to the collection as a whole.

Lewis concludes her introduction by claiming that “‘neutrality’ no longer means ‘impartiality’ or ‘objectivity,’ but too often lapses into ‘indifference.’” 3. This brief statement is the closest thing to a definition of neutrality in the entire collection. This lack of a definition is the most glaring weakness of the book. None of the essays include a definition of neutrality in libraries or what being a neutral librarian entails. The authors seem to define neutrality as maintaining the status quo and ignoring social and political issues, but it is never explicitly stated. Additionally, each essay uses harsh, negative language when discussing the issue. This conceptual ambiguity makes it difficult for readers to draw independent conclusions as the explanations force them to conceive of neutrality only in negative terms. For instance, in Sandy Iverson’s article, “Librarianship and Resistance,” she says that, by striving to be neutral, “librarians responsible for acquisitions may be recreating racist censorship in their daily practices of selecting from lists of materials produced by mainstream publishing houses and other organizations that perpetuate these patterns.” 4  Peter McDonald, in “Corporate Inroads and Librarianship: The Fight for the Soul of the Profession in the New Millennium,” suggests that that by striving for neutrality, librarians are being complicit in corporate hegemony and control of information. 5 And in “The Hottest Place in Hell: The Crisis of Neutrality in Contemporary Librarianship,” Joseph Good discusses neutral librarianship as being on par with Switzerland’s smuggling of “millions of Deutschmarks of stolen Jewish money, in the form of gold bullion, out of Nazi Germany during the height of the Holocaust.” 6 From all this, a reader can hardly draw any conclusion other than that neutrality is bad, but would not be able to say exactly what it is.

Another weakness of the collection is that most essays do not provide any workable suggestions or proposals of how to combat the negative effects they describe and how librarians can be more active. As mentioned above, there are many organizations working for more active librarianship, but these are not discussed. One essay in the collection, “The Professional is Political: Redefining the Social Role of Public Libraries,” written by Shiraz Durrani and Elizabeth Smallwood, is an exception. The essay focuses on the program called Merton Sense, which was designed for local youths to “connect young people, many of whom were from socially excluded groups, with their library service by actively engaging young people in designing the new service.” 7 The program resulted in the youths becoming engaged with the library and furthering their education, and was also beneficial for the library as it resulted in increased participation and interest from the local community. While the authors also neglect to define neutrality, the article offers an impartial examination of the problem and an example of ways it is being addressed in practice, which is more productive when addressing challenges to the profession.

This collection was meant to stimulate debate about the concept of neutrality in librarianship, but the uncompromising negative language of the authors combined with a lack of definition for neutrality greatly limit its potential impact. Also, without current projects to promote more activist librarians, the authors neglect an important aspect of the issue, which is taking steps to mitigate any harmful effects. Looking at and discussing those sorts of initiatives that encourage librarians to engage their communities and be more representative of different groups of voices would have been more productive than simply identifying problems without offering solutions.

  1. Alison M. Lewis (2008) “Questioning Neutrality: An Introduction.” Questioning Library Neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian (pp. 1-4). Duluth: Library Juice Press, (2)
  2. Ibid., 4
  3. Ibib., 4
  4. Sandy Iverson, “Librarianship and Resistance.” (2008) Questioning Library Neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian (pp. 25-32). Duluth: Library Juice Press, 27.
  5. Peter McDonald, “Corporate Inroads and Librarianship: The Fight for the Soul of the Profession in the New Millennium,” Questioning Library Neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian (pp. 9-24). Duluth: Library Juice Press, 10.
  6. Joseph Good, “The Hottest Place in Hell: The Crisis of Neutrality in Contemporary Librarianship.” Questioning Library Neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian (pp. 141-146.) Duluth: Library Juice Press, 142.
  7. Durrani, Shiraz & Smallwood, Elizabeth (2008). “The Professional is Political: Redefining the Social Role of Public Libraries.” Questioning Library Neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian (pp. 119-140). Duluth: Library Juice Press, 132.
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