Friday, June 17, 2011

My Time at MARAC, Spring 2011 – Part 1, Rand Jimerson’s Plenary

The recent Spring Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference held in Alexandria, Va. had many useful and interesting things to offer its attendees, but my favorites were the “Improving Grant Writing Skills” workshop and the plenary by Rand Jimerson. This post will hit the high notes of Jimerson’s talk, while the next one will spotlight the workshop.

Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social JusticeJimerson, Professor of History and Director of the Archives and Records Management MA Program at Western Washington University, is a very well-known figure in archives and special collections circles. In fact, it was pretty exciting to hear him speak after having read some of his papers for MLIS courses at Rutgers. Jimerson spoke at length about the role archives play in the area of social justice. Afterward, he signed copies of his latest book, Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice.

In these days when electronic records are disappearing so quickly without a thought to their future usefulness, Jimerson reminded us of Enron’s shredding and Oliver North’s record destruction. I sat in the audience remembering when I worked for a company that didn’t keep files older than three years. Even then, not knowing I’d later choose a career in archival science, I didn’t understand how we could simply throw these materials into the recycling. They had value.

I fear that our collective history (especially the present) will not be as richly populated with archival materials as our past because the evidence no longer exists. That’s the problem with these remarkable MARAC speakers – they get into my mind and rattle around for a while, calling me to action.

Jimerson spoke about archivists having the power to shape collective memory. He moved us with stories about how archival work in South Africa is a process of reclamation and restoration. “Archivists cannot remain neutral or passive,” he said. Archival activism requires that we, as workers in that field, be more responsive to social needs.

He focused on nine ways we can be responsive and ensure archives by and for the people:

  1. Ensure diversity in the archival record.
  2. Welcome the stranger into the archives, seeking especially to include previously marginalized groups. “Records become witnesses to a silent society,” Jimerson said.
  3. Document our decisions regarding the acquisition and appraisal of materials, and make these criteria available to donors and the public.
  4. Provide oral testimony by creating oral histories. These incredibly valuable records provide intimate accounts of a large part of the world whose history only exists in oral form. Importantly, make the audio/video available, not just the transcription. Collect generations of stories from descendants, if possible, to preserve the oral tradition.
  5. Make archival description systems sensitive, meaning that we need to be more sensitive to social construction and think more about the way we present our finding aids.
  6. Provide inclusive access and be sensitive to culture, especially when it comes to reference service.
  7. Embrace new technologies. Promote openness and flexibility.
  8. Support open government, accountability, and democratic societies.
  9. Support public advocacy in support of the broader interest, and become whistle blowers, if need be (within a self-preserving construct).

Jimerson’s talk inspired me to take action where I can. He also helped me realize how fortunate I am to have “cut my teeth” at a place like Plainfield Public Library, that seeks to increase diversity in the collections, and is actively collecting oral histories from community members. I hope that in my future work, I can continue to follow Jimerson’s instructions above to be a better archival activist.


Gary Saretzky said...

Thank you for posting this excellent summary. I wasn't able to attend the conference and was glad to learn about this inspiring presentation.

Deb Schiff said...

Thanks, Gary!