I have been asked to reflect on the social function expected of archives and what, as archivists, we can do to better work with archives related to vital social themes. Before doing this, I would like to share with you some history.
On 24th March 1976, in the context of a growing wave of repression, a coup d’état established a civil-military dictatorship in Argentina. This was characterised by a level of violence hitherto unknown. Especially important was the introduction of state terrorism and the systematic institution of a particular political crime, namely forced disappearances.
Faced with these facts, a section of society condemned this state of affairs and demanded to know where the disappeared were and that they be handed-over alive. A human rights movement began to take shape. One of the main tenets of these acts of memory, truth and justice was the demand that records of the state’s terrorist actions be kept and that access to these records be granted. During these years, a cry arose to “Open up the archives!”. The slogan, initiated by Nora Cortiñas, a founder of the organisation Madres de Plaza de Mayo (which translates in English to Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo), demanded the need for the public’s right to know what fate each and every one of the disappeared suffered.
For the last nearly 20 years, the Argentine state has responded to these demands by promoting policies regarding memory, justice and reparations. Consequently, the importance of archives has been recognised.
However, in order for the state’s response to be effective, we know that is not enough just to “open the doors”. For archives to be open (i.e. accessible), it is necessary to undertake the work of identifying, classifying, and describing them, as these are inherent in making them accessible. Without this work, we run the risk of drowning in a mountain of papers (or of information) that we cannot make sense of.
For this to occur, and for us to contribute to these opening up processes, it is crucial that we make our work and knowledge as archivists visible. We need to let people know that our role is to make archives accessible so that they can fulfil their triple social function. It is also necessary that we build collaborative alliances with human rights activists ito develop proposals that correspond to their demands. Similarly, in terms of how we organise and make accessible the archives themselves.
When we insist on the importance of archival access as a guarantor of people’s ability to exercise their rights, and as a fundamental requirement of a democratic state, we are connecting with historically sub-alternalised sectors of society, such as indigenous populations, sexual dissidents, the landless, women, the working class, etc. The ethical commitment to our task requires this of us.
If we accept that archives are essential elements of the Rule of Law and that archival access allows (or denies) for exercising a multiplicity of rights, we cannot but feel the weight of responsibility as we approach the task at hand. And, we know that to be effective, it is vital that archival work is done professionally.
We ask ourselves every day, what can we do as archivists, and as public agents, to contribute to facilitating so that the above-mentioned populations can access the archives? Undoubtedly, our answer to the question is simply that we do our work and make the archives accessible. However, we can also go that bit further and rethink our strategies for disseminating archives and supporting investigative work into them.
We need to stress that our professional identity completely differs from the widely accepted image of the archivist as the “guardian of the archive”, the gatekeeper who controls access and exercises power to decide who can access what.
It is necessary to adopt a critical stance towards “archives of power,” while also being clear about the “power of the archives”. We need to let it be known that the specific informational contents of archival records, namely the enduring residues of activities by people or institutions, are a basis for analysis. Importantly, records are not produced for consultation and interpretation after the event, but rather for an administrative purpose. We must make it clear that although records fulfilled a particular immediate purpose at the time of their creation, they may, many years later, be transformed into a research source to serve a completely different purpose. Analysis of archival documents is the historiographical or intellectual process through which records get transformed into informational sources. This process allows the researcher to pull to the surface and contextualise the relations of domination, ideology and ethics arising from the record producing body’s mission and purpose. For this reason, it is vitally important that records are treated comprehensively and in their entirety, rather than artificially assembling thematic collections that destroy the archival fonds.
We must demonstrate our intentions to facilitate access in an egalitarian way, acknowledging that this sometimes requires taking measures favouring certain individuals or groups in order to reduce inequalities (positive discrimination). We must also show that providing context for the archives will make it possible for anyone to read in them what interests them and thereby exploit them to their maximum potential.
Above all, we need to weave alliances. This is because very often the hardest of aspect of our work is having to undertake it without any support from public policies and policy makers. We lack resources and professional recognition and, in some cases, have to deal with authorities who are ignorant of the archival profession and confuse an archive with a museum containing national relics to be used in support of the ideological flavour of the month. Collaborative alliances with sectors of civil society can contribute to driving forward strong public policies.
As such, I consider it necessary to press for motivating the professional archival community to double down its ethical commitment to general archival principles as promoted by our International Council on Archives. I also call upon archivists to take up human rights activism. Furthermore, it is necessary to demand that public policies on archives are implemented to guarantee the preservation, access, and dissemination of records related to human rights violations. It is also necessary to actively work with all those populations and communities who live under the Rule of Law. Despite formally championing equality before the law, the actual, existing legal system barely achieves this.
Our work – identifying archives, making them accessible to the whole population, and helping those who need support in consulting them – is a way of ensuring that the formal Rule of Law becomes a little bit more real for everyone.
Mariana Nazar, Researcher at the Instituto Nacional de la Administración Pública (INAP) AR/National Institute of Public Administration in Argentina, Coordinator of the Working Group on Archives and Human Rights of the ALA, Vice-President of Section on Archives and Human Rights – SAHR (previously HRWG)
Translation by Kolya Abramsky