Make Sure They Get the Truth- Just Be Sure it is The Correct Truth

April 17, 2009

I was fascinated to listen as a colleague working with a reference collection decided which version of a story to include in a vertical file on a political (Tax-day Tea party) demonstration the other day. It seems that the state police’s official estimate of people attending, based on knowledge of the number of people who have been fit into the given area in the past, was about 10,000. The local newspapers estimated the crowds at 3,000 and 1,500. My colleague was trying to decide whether to use the article that had the 3K figure or the one with the 1.5 K figure. I was curious as to why she didn’t want to copy the bulletin from the official site that was being cited on the radio and then include all three. I also offered to provide her with pictures of the event, as I had decided it was worth documenting visually and had gone by with my little camera to do just that. She declined my offer of the images as they “might give the wrong idea,” (they showed overflow crowds in the area set aside for the event as well as people in adjoining blocks; contrary to the newspapers’ portrayal of attendance) and decided to include both the 1.5K and 3K estimate stories to be “fair.” Fortunately, anyone researching the events in future years will not be misled by official estimates or visual evidence of attendance and will have the (un-sourced, mind you) news stories on which to base their view of the past.

I attended a session at an oral history conference awhile back where several folks reported on their projects that sought to use oral history in documenting the battle for desegregation of schools in years past. There were three presenters representing three different projects. I work in an institution where we try to document the Civil Rights Movement through oral history and we have trouble getting the segregationists to tell their story (not surprisingly, I think.) I asked the question of the presenters, “Have you found any ways to persuade the segregationists to tell their story?” All three looked at me in shock. “Of course not! We haven’t tried!”, said one. “Why would we want to do that?’ asked another. “To show both sides of the issue so future generations can better understand what happened?” I replied. “The other side of the issue isn’t important!” said the first. (The third just stared and inched away from me. She made it a point of taking a long way around the room when she left in what appeared to be an attempt to avoid me. Maybe I read too much into her circuitous route, but I found it amusing and like to be amused.)

In many years of historical research I have often been convinced that one archivist or another was letting their personal views on a subject ,and on my right to research it, interfere in my research. In the somewhat fewer years that I have worked in the field along side such professionals, nothing has happened to change my opinion. I see decisions on access, retention, selection, and outreach, as expressed in conversation, training, publication and archival practice, regularly based on an individual’s belief on the validity of his or hers own moral authority and right to exercise that authority as the “gatekeeper” to the documents of historical value. I don’t expect it to stop, though I would be pleased to see the profession acknowledge the biases so researchers could take them into account when evaluating evidence.

My feelings on the role of archivist as gatekeeper or moderator will probably surface as a common theme in this blog. Comments are welcome, of course, though I trust they will be civil.

The Heretic


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