Archives and Current Events: Social Movements, Archival Access and Collecting

Recently in a class I provided my students with a rough case study involving a higher educational institution that asked the students to from an ethical stand point what to do with unsolicited materials that had records related to an alumni group that were both embarrassing to the institution and racially charged. I asked several follow up questions after discussing the pro’s and con’s restricting access to this question, but during class I suggested they deal with this case study in light of current student protest at the University of Missouri and Yale and does that relate to records a university collects and chooses to restrict. Many of the students found the idea that these records should be made avaliable compelling especially if the group that directly created these records had some responsiblity for raising funds for the institution. I prodded a bit about issues that could be related to systemic racism that would be relevant.

This in class exercise got me thinking, ethically speaking how should we deal with issues of access versus restriction when responding to current events, namely events embroiled in controversy. Archivist are no strangers to dealing with the ideas of social justice and documenting under-represented and marginalized groups. Randall Jimmerson’s Archives Power makes a fairly strong call for archivist to become activist social-cultural issues that are relevant and current. We should also keep in mind Mark Green’s rebuttal of this in American ArchivistRoughly stated, Green worries that archival objectivity will be impact in how collections are acquired and promoted.

So this debate has precedence in the archival field, but I want to at least begin thinking about the issue of activism in archives from a different perspective. So these are questions that arise for me at least.

  • When a collection previously restricted collection shows examples of systematic persecution of a group, do you release portions of it when current events dictate it necessary or maintain restrictions?
  • When a collection that documents persecution has relevance to a modern  social movement, how active should an archive be in promoting use of these materials?
    • In this scenario, what would constitute activism and what would constitute objective archival actives
  • When a modern social movement needs to be documented, but the participants have become overwhelmed by the attention their movement has acquired, how should archive approach documenting these movement. Also how should archives approach documenting reaction and opposition to these movement.

Just some thoughts for a Friday.

Case Studies about Law and Ethics

Case Study 1: I Just want to set the World On Fire with Records

You’re a reference archivist at an institution that collects political paper collections. A journalist from a gossip website has asked to see portions of a collection of a recently retired Senator. This part of the collection has been sealed for ten years according to the deed of gift. Keep in mind these are not the official records of the senate, but the personal papers/office records of the senator. This doesn’t mean that there are not materials that could be deemed federal records or state secrets. The collection was minimally processed due to it restrictions, and this former Senator is embroiled in a civil suit with a former staffer about sexual misconduct.

  • What issues are at play here?
  • How would you go about dealing with the issue of access?
    • What if the journalist threaten to make a FIOA or Open Records request?
    • Does the journalist employer factor into your decisions?
    • How would you handle a discovery request related to the civil suit?

Case Study 2: Grey Haired Area

You work at an institution of Higher Education. One morning you receive a box on your desk that has been mailed to the archives. The box contains records of an affiliated alumni organization that has had some issues with the university in recent years because of the sale of a few pieces or art work that had been purchased by various alumni over the years, but no longer fit the university  mission. This group resides in a grey area of whether or not it is connected to the official institution alumni group, which you are required to collect materials from as a part of retention schedules. The records found in this box contain meeting minutes and correspondence, in the form of printed emails, from members and officers of the group. The  correspondence is rather scandalous calling out the current president and director of alumni relations in particular. Some of the messages even contain what is best  described as coded racist remarks against the current president who is a non-white female. There is a note from the former secretary transmitting the materials that comes across as frustrated with the group’s behavior.

  • What issues are at play in this scenarios?
  • Do you restrict this materials?
    • For how long?
    • What if the parties affected by the scandalous emails no longer work for the institution?

Case Studies about Managing Archives

Case Study 1 – The Big Bad Boss

You are a lone arrange at a moderate sized academic library that has a small university archives, rare book, and local history collections. Your budget is small but covers the student workers and preservation materials that you need. The university advancement staff was approached by an alumni about the donating considerable sums of money and their personal archive. Normally a donor archival collection would contain mostly university related materials, but this alumni was a famous LA socialite/movie producer during the late 70’s through today. Her collection contains correspondence, photographs, media, office files, and other items that documents her career and experiences in Hollywood. The donor is also a supporter of independent films through providing production support. Part of the donation would lead to the establishment of Media Studies center named for the donor and would greatly expand the current Mass Comm/Film Studies program at the institution. You haven’t seen the collection, but you are informed that it’s substantive. There is no rejecting this collection due to the nature of the financial donation and the appraised value of the collection. Understanding that this donation changes the entire focus of your archive, think about the following.

  • How would you approach dealing with administration, namely your library directory, in conversations about the following?
  • Mission Changes
  • Staffing Needs
  • Increased Budgets
  • Given that possible changes would take time. How would you in the short term approach handling this collection?

Case Study 2 – How do you Solve a Problem like Maria?

You’re a Director of an archive with a staff of three, plus a rotating cadre of student workers. Maria is not an archivist, nor does she have a graduate degree of any kind. Maria has been the library director’s secretary. She’s worked in circulation for a few years, and now she’s a non archivist employee who you directly supervise. Maria’s position line was moved to your archive because you needed extra staff. This occurred before you became the director. Maria is deathly afraid of technology. Even typing an email is an issue for Maria. Maria also has a history of making students uncomfortable, due to her diligence to the “rules”. She once made a student cry during a reference interview. You’re other staff member Tonya can’t stand Maria. Tonya is responsible for processing and outreach. Maria also terrorizes your student workers. You have a major electronic records project about to begin during the next semester.

  • What do you do with Maria?
  • If you chose to fire Maria, how would you reclassify her position to aid with your electronics record program?
  • If you chose not to fire Maria, how would you integrate her better into your operations?

Case Studies on Preservation Issues

Case Study 1 – Coming out of the Closet and the Basement

You are a new archivist at an academic library at a college that has recently grown and become a full fledged university. This library is beginning to establish an official archives. Perviously, materials were collected, some organized into two collecting rooms, such as a Rare Book room and University History room. Other materials, like the records of a local insurance company and an oral history collection, are scattered around the building in various closets. Some materials are stored in the basement that has a history of HVAC leaks and sewage backups. There are plans to have a dedicated archival space created that will have good, but not perfect, environmental controls and provided a centralized space for granting access to archival materials. This space will not be completed for at least one year, and you have regular users, including students, who access materials that are both processed and unprocessed. There are currently no policies and procedures for handling or granting access to collections. Previously researchers would be allowed to check out a key from the circulations desk of the library to visit one of the rooms. Researchers were rarely supervised. A university trustee is one such user who enjoys having their lunch in the rare book room. They say is quiet in there.

Prior to you new space being completed.

  • What major preservation issues do see for this collection before beginning a more thorough assessment?
  • What preservation related procedures and policies do you feel need to be implemented immediately, in six months and when your new space is completed?
  • Considering you have time before you new space is completed you may have the opportunity to advocate for a better preservation infrastructure to be included in this renovation. What types of preservation infrastructure would you advocate for and why?
  • How will you deal with backlash to you new procedures?

Case Study 2 – Everything But the Kitchen Sink

You are a staff member in a large organization that collects a wide variety of traditional and electronic records. Your stack space has a sophisticated HVAC system that is capable of maintaining ideal temperature and humidity in several zone for a variety of materials. Air is filtered appropriately, and lighting is controlled by motion sensors. The archive space is on the main floor of a several story building. Unfortunately directly above the archive space is a staff break area with kitchen facilities, and Friday before a three day weekend there was a staff get together in this space. Somehow things got out of hand. There are pictures on Facebook if your are curious, but despite the evidence and the good times had by all, the kitchen sink either became clogged or damaged. This caused it to dump an unknown quantity of water into the archive space. Not enough to float an ark, but close. Somehow the water shorted out the HVAC, and lead to no temperature and humidity controls over the weekend. This resulted in an ideal mold germination environment. You return on Tuesday to the aftermath of the party now apart of the archives.

  • What are your first steps as part of a recovery process? Think first that there is no disaster plan for this organization, and you must proceed into recovery without guidelines. How will you access issues caused by the sink? How will you recover?
  • If there was a disaster plan, what important features should it contain and issues should it cover? What type of supplies should have been set aside for such a disaster?