Who Needs Archives Anyway?

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by Beth Evans, Brooklyn College Library, http://library.brooklyn.cuny.edu

Beth is an electronic services librarian in an academic library that houses a special collections and archives.  "My job is important. It assures ease of access to a burgeoning collection of electronic journals and books and meets the information needs of a wide spectrum of readers with an extensive range of questions.  But my job is only part of what the library does.  I recognize the importance of the work my colleagues in the archives do in creating distinctive and unique collections that serve the few and the focused and preserve documents and other evidence of the past."

Timothy W. Rybac became distressed when he learned that Adolf Hitler’s personal copy of a city and state guide to the location of America’s Jewish population was going on the auction block in early December.  The existence of such a book, in particular when imagined in the hands of the man responsible for the genocide of six million Jews, is distressing, without a doubt.  But Mr. Rybac’s agitation came not from considering the nature of the book and imagining Hitler’s intentions. He was concerned, rather, that the book might wind up in the hands of someone not inclined to donate it to a publically-accessible archive.

Rybac, an historian, and author of Hitler’s Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life, strongly advocates open access to the historical record to assure that history may continue to be learned and understood accurately and completely through an examination of the primary documents and artifacts left by those who make the history.  Without a chance to learn that Statistik, Presse und Organisationen des Judentums in den Vereinigten Staaten und Kanada (Statistics, Media, and Organizations of Jewry in the United States and Canada) existed, that Adolf Hitler owned the book and, clearly, had read it, the true facts about the twentieth century holocaust against the Jews might come to fade, lessen in number and cease to bear witness to the horrors of the events.  We know that even with an overwhelming body of evidence to support an understanding that the holocaust did take place, there are some who would re-write history, claim that it never happened, and even go so far as to present a revisionist story of the time, backed by a body of disputable evidence.  If we cannot keep the true record of who was where when and who did what when, and keep this record open to all who seek to study it, then we will lose the stories of our past, the same stories that we need so badly to inform how we live our present.

Historians have always understood the need to study our past and archivists have always done a valiant job of keeping the remnants of the past intact. But it is not the historians and archivists who are likely to fall short in this admirable mission.  It is the average man and woman, the same individual Rybac feared would purchase Hitler’s directory of American Jews, who will fail to assure that history is preserved.

Several days ago I sat in a meeting of average men and women debating a personnel problem in their organization.  One anecdote was thought to make an indisputable case for the intractable nature of the employee in question.  The recollection focused on a long-standing, annual tradition in the organization, and focused in particular on how that tradition was conducted during the employee’s tenure. Some present recalled the tradition as having been carried out one way.  Others remembered differently.  The recollections of absent colleagues were quoted in defense of one position. And then in defense of the other.  The matter, apparently, could not be settled.  I listened to the verbal volleying for a time until it occurred to me that we could settle the matter with printed documentation that I knew existed. Programs from each year the event was held would show us whether or not the annual occasion included the element in dispute.  Looking at the written record would settle the argument once and for all.  I offered my suggestion.  The room became still.  Those attending exchanged glances and the speaker with the keenest need to find the answer turned to me in exasperation.  “I don’t have time to look through all of those old programs.  Yes, I know they exist, but who wants to look through them?”  She turned from me, others began talking and the arguments roiled on as they had before.  The primary speaker continued on with a tale of how she had conducted her fact-gathering, seeking out the story from a long-retired predecessor, whose memory of events did not match at all the memory of a peer now present.  And was not it awful that the poor man had to be called out of his retirement to settle such a controversy as this?  The exasperation in the room increased and a file drawer in some corner of the room, a drawer that was likely to contain the answer, remained ignored.  Ironically, several days later I heard this same speaker sermonizing in a mournful way on the end of the diverse views and practices of Christianity that came with the imposition of the Nicene Creed.  The speaker was not without precedent in commenting that what came to be included in the New Testament was history written by the winners.  The records of the losers are destroyed.  So it is good that we keep the records.  But do we consult them often enough and when needed?

Why does the average man or woman shun an archive?  Why does an individual never think to turn to an archive or help to build an archive, but prefers instead to covet an historical object to himself, or trust his memory or the memory of others to come through with needed facts?  Donate that rare and unique book to an archive, fill the archives with the books written by both the winners and the losers in history, but most importantly turn to an archive to verify the truth and you will find that single bit of historical fact that will clear the air of confusion and move a conversation forward.  Fail to add an object or document you may own to an archive or ignore the presence of an archive constructed with thought and care that welcomes your exploration, and you will be closing doors on so many minds, beginning, most unfortunately, with your own.