Review: “The Power of Archives” by Mark A. Greene (2009)

“The Power of Archives: Archivists’ Values and Value in the Postmodern Age,” by Mark A. Greene, The American Archivist, 72.1 (Spring/Summer 2009): 17-41.

This is Greene’s inaugural address upon taking his post as president of the Society of American Archivists. His concern here is to take up the issue of our visibility and power within society at large, due, in sum, because we have a weak sense of identity. Green posits ten archival values to promote in an effort to counter this weakness.

1. Professionalism, which must be made a matter of ethics, striving for excellence in our professionalism, recognizing that a profession is by definition based upon specialized knowledge. We need then to internalize a common set of values and communicate those values to others, particularly to those in leadership of the archives’ host organization. We need to define our own importance and claim power, according to Greene. I would counter Greene at this point, as a Christian, and say that we need to define our calling and role, and proclaim our place and purpose.

Under this value category, Greene also takes up consideration of some of the reasons why archives are essential. He states that examples can be inspiring, but abstract. Or they might be linked to current societal values, or they might be more prosaic–simply a listing of the many uses.

But I would want to examine further this idea of linking archival value to current societal values. That course of action seems potentially fraught with problems. Current values may be passing values and thus temporary morals may actually turn out to be pitfalls. Archival values should be attached to enduring standards and not to the fadish standards of the day, however impermanent they may seem at the moment.

2. Collectivity – Greene stresses the importance of context and aggregation. He says that “a relentless focus on the aggregate is part of what sets us apart from librarians and museum curators in the cultural heritage business. . . ” and thus “our ability to work in the aggregate is also an important source of our power.” Collectivity can also bleed over into collegiality and a greater facility in working with colleagues, sister institutions and allied professions.

3. Activism has three components in Greene’s view:

a. Agency – our work shapes and interprets the historical record. The decisions we make define what our organizations and society can remember, attain and conceive.

b. Advocacy of archival issues and values. We must more consistently project our strong belief in the importance of what we do and why we do it.

c. Activism – giving voice to otherwise undocumented people and groups

4. Selection – “The appraisal process determines the fate of our documentary heritage and thereby contains perhaps the only socially significant element of archival power.” (Roy Schaeffer) Archivists preserve that material which has enduring value, and accordingly should be the professionals best educated to make the required selection. Appraisal requires an engaged, active discretion; get over fear of mistakes: “The documents may be unique, but the information is usually not.” (Gerald Ham).

5. Preservation – Not all accessioned materials are worth extraordinary conservation measures. Some use is better than no use. “We must more clearly define the place of preservation in our constellation of archival values. While in some respects fundamental to all we do, it is a means rather than an end. We preserve in order to use. And we preserve only what we consciously and methodically select. We are not preservationists, we are archivists.

6. Democracy – “…archivsts have a vested interest in protecting the fundamental tenet of democracy that holds leaders accountable not solely to history in the long term but to the electorate in the short term as well.” [to which some might say, well and good in a free nation, but …]

7. Service – Our first obligation is to our institutions and their clients and only then do we have a value as a social good. Service is the linchpin between access and use. “Ultimately, archives and archivists are foremost about people and not things–we serve our users first, not our collections. . . Service results in more than good will; it results in good allies who can assist the archives.”

8. Diversity – Greene here echoes one of the core values of the American Library Association, “We value our nation’s diversity and strive to reflect that diversity by providing a full spectrum of resources and services to the communities we serve” I think it might be more helpful in application to the local archives to think in terms of equal coverage and treatment in our collections, not playing favorites, and equal service and respect towards all our patrons.

9. Use & Access – “Use is the end of all archival effort, and we must give it a priority value.” (T.R. Schellenberg) If this is true, then find ways to speed along the tasks of processing. Recognize where “good enough” is good enough. Do what you can to make collections accessible to users. Also recognize that not all use is direct, and that there is such a thing as symbolic use (pride of ownership, etc.)

10. History – “The principle justification for archives to most users, and to the tax-paying public at large, as also reflected in most national and state archival legislation, rests on archives being able to offer citizens a sense of identity, locality, history, culture, and personal and collective memory.”

Greene offers this summary statement in conclusion: “Archivists are professionals with the power of defining and making accessible the primary sources of history, primary sources that protect rights, educate students, inform the public, and support a primal human desire to understand our past.”


About wsparkman

Director of the PCA Historical Center, St. Louis, Missouri.
This entry was posted in ACA Domain 5, Advocacy, Outreach, Promotion, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

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