‘Why Archives Matter’ a review

A guest blog by Dr. Alice Prochaska, co-chair of the ‘Why Archives Matter’ webinar and member of the BRA’s Archives Advocacy Group

The Shock of the Record:Archives and Truth webinar series addresses the world-wide crisis of misinformation in what we might term an era of post truth.  A recent article in the New York Times refers to the babble of orchestrated mendacity. Cynicism about public sources of information is rife.  We need to know what we can trust, how to evaluate the information that is produced in a proliferating range of forms, from traditional print to broadcast and social media and the exponentially proliferating born-digital archives that are served up, often without any kind of mediation, by an infinite number of organisations and individuals.  In all this, the importance of records and their evidential value is frequently not recognised. In the first seminar, Why Archives Matter, three distinguished panellists reflected on their own experiences and affirmed the importance of archival evidence. 

Professor Sir Richard Evans, a leading expert on the Third Reich and former Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, considered why conspiracy theorists still insist in believing that Hitler survived in 1945, despite the overwhelming evidence that in fact he died in his Berlin bunker.  Conspiracy theorists have a deep-seated belief in their own rightness, even sometimes going to the extent of inventing evidence because they are sure it supports a correct view.   Thinking of the fundamental importance of archival evidence, and concerned about evidence destroyed (e.g. by the British government covering up atrocities that preceded decolonisation in Kenya), Evans would like ideally to see all archival material preserved.  His appreciation of the importance of all records was heightened by watching the many family and local historians who used the archives he was consulting in Germany.  Universal preservation is a controversial subject and one of the many electronic issues currently under discussion by archivists and record keepers globally. 

David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, saw Thomas Jefferson as the forerunner of the era of digitisation when he called for preserving the multiplicity of government records.   He described the problems facing the US National Archives (founded by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1935) in attempting to preserve essential material within a legislative framework that provides for preservation of the records of the federal government but not those of Congress or the judiciary.  Record Keeping isn’t sexy he observed, and it is difficult for non-historians to understand that there will always be different versions of history, and new questions to be asked.  Eternal vigilance is called for to ensure that records survive, and he confirmed in discussion that NARA has kept President Trump’s tweets.  In discussion, he highlighted what the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in the US does to promote public interest in the archives.  Their projects range from inviting every new member of Congress to visit the archives, and supplying facsimiles of records about their states to embellish their offices, to working closely with schools. 

Lord Daniel Finkelstein, Times columnist, government adviser and peer, focused on his grandfather Alfred Wiener, whose life’s work was guided by his belief in the power of truth.  Wiener had collected anti-semitic writings in Weimar Germany and tried in vain to persuade others to take seriously the threat that they represented.  In 1933 he moved to Holland, created a new collection and then moved to Britain with his collection in 1938.  The Wiener Library opened just as the second world war broke out.  It played an important part in informing the US and British governments about Nazi ideologues, and supplied evidence for the Nuremberg trials after the war.  One result of writing his grandfather’s biography is for Finkelstein also his deepened understanding of how important archives are for people discovering their own family histories.  

 A rich set of comments and discussion has continued on Twitter and elsewhere.  The 300th anniversary of the office of the UK Prime Minister seems like a good time to pay attention to the records of officers of state. Daniel Finkelstein, who has kept a record of regular conversations with prime minister David Cameron, bemoaned the carelessness there has been in keeping prime ministers’ records.  As one commentator observed, Walpole the first prime minister himself doctored the record of his own and his government’s dealings in the South Sea Bubble, to the extent of inserting new false accounts into the state papers.  One might add that even despite the rules laid down in the UK’s Public Records Acts, modern government ministers’ papers are not immune to selective disappearanceMeanwhile, public inquiries into the handling of the Covid19 pandemic will rely crucially on archives. 

 A strong thread in the discussion concerned conspiracy theories.  Richard Evans described how they can be ‘self-sealing, with those who hold such theories becoming sealed off from believing any contrary evidence, however compelling.  Conspiracy theorists target the people putting forward a more truthful version of events, rather than considering the evidence.   It is important for archivists to remain neutral in the way they preserve and present the sources.  But how can the purveyors of conspiracy theories, and still more the members of the general public who buy into them, be persuaded to open their minds to admit contrary evidence?  We need to find ways to draw in the sceptical towards trustworthy archives. 

Commentators pleaded in various ways, that archives must be properly funded, and that we need a public campaign to raise awareness of their importance.  David Ferriero’s description of the ways that NARA opens up the archives to the public and invites the public in was suggestive.  Friday fun days in the archives and school sleepovers among the foundational records of the state are among his innovations, and it is important to work with schools’ own curricula, rather than simply providing pre-selected packages of material.  Others spoke of the experience of showing original documents to school classes, and the inspiration of seeing and touching archives.  Daniel Finkelstein and Richard Evans both observed that personal genealogical research is powerful, and it is important that access to archives should be universal, not limited in any way to a research elite.   All of us who are interested in public civic education should mind about this.  This could be a topic on its own for a webinar series, as generations of archivists know from struggling to provide, with inadequate resources, the research services needed by schools and the general public alongside the professional support that academic researchers need. 

 A major theme underlying much of the commentary was the advance in technological means of producing, preserving and accessing archives.  As David Ferriero remarked, the digitisation of records originally produced on paper and parchment was but one stage in the continuing information revolution.  Most archivally important information is generated now on the Cloud and in other born digital formats.  The role of the archivist has been transformed more than once during our lifetimes, and the capture and preservation of information in multiple digital formats, on multiple platforms, presents one of the greatest challenges.   That role includes new ways of constructing the metadata or navigational tools for finding information, to build trust in reliable archives alongside scepticism of untested sources, and to identify the human agency involved in the creation of the archive, in whatever format it may appear. 

Our first seminar in the series has provoked widespread interest and some illuminating discussion, thanks especially to our three inspiring speakers.  To keep the conversation going, two more seminars have been arranged by the BRA, both in partnership with the Institute of Historical Research: Evidence Under Attack on 17 June and Truth and Trust on 11 November. Bookings are open for the June webinar. Everyone with an interest in the importance of archives and the role of archivists in the ever more challenging role of preserving records in all formats and making them available for all, is invited to contribute to the discussion.  You might also consider joining the BRA which is actively leading the debate on this crucial topic. The more publicity we can generate the better.