Keynote Speaker Randall Jimerson

Jenny Hon Sec: This was a really interesting discussion of professional and personal ethics and the impact on archival collections and access. His talk was on access, accountability and social justice and he opened by mentioning the controversy surrounding the release of the Lockerbie bomber and the decision taken to publish correspondence relating to the decision-making process.

Professor Jimerson also gave us a new view of the archive as a temple of objects to be worshipped, a prison with guards, or a restaurant with exciting menus. The other scenario he discussed was a selection of journalists asked to find out what archives were all about. They all visit different types of repository and come up with completely different answers: a place to ensure the rights of citizens are upheld, a place to preserve the collective memory, a place of learning materials for the public. None of these – they only serve the organisation they belong to. Or do they belong to everyone and create a more cohesive society?

The importance of the decisions we make when we appraise records was also discussed – we decide what the future will know and what will be forgotten. Nelson Mandela had also noted the importance of archives in redressing the balance and ensuring that memories of forgotten sections of the population. He said, the youth need to know where we have come from.

Professor Jimerson argued that archivists cannot and should not be neutral collectors and gatekeepers. The archival process is intrinsically political and archivists cannot stand aside as neutral and dispassionate : to do so is an active statement benefiting the  oppressors and not the victims. Archives need to be for the people and by the people with a commitment to democratic values to stand against misuse of power.

3 responses to “Keynote Speaker Randall Jimerson

  1. soaconference2009

    Jenny Hon Sec: If I can comment on my own post – which was meant to be a straight report, I was a bit puzzled by Professor Jimerson’s paper. There was nothing I would strongly disagree with from a personal point of view, but I did have a bit of professional twitching in his apparent suggestion that neutrality was neither possible or desirable. Whilst I don’t think absolute neutrality is possible – shouldn’t we strive to be as neutral as possible? I asked this question – is partiality any better than neutrality? His answer clarified the position that he had not meant that professionals should simply go around following their own moral code when making decisions. However, ensuring an active pursuit of records of under-represented groups and ensuring a level field was a huge part of the archivists role. I would like to know more about Professor Jimerson’s ideas and might even buy his book!
    To me, this is the value of the conference: it provides some ‘time-out’ to think and step back from the day to day pressures.

  2. Lynda Barraclough

    Jenny, I agree with Prof. Jimerson that we can be neither neutral nor non-political, but I agree with you that we should aim for objectivity. Not because we’re the tools of our masters but because an objective approach is our best hope of attaining balanced (functional) appraisal decisions and informative (as opposed to biased) descriptions. But there’s a distinction to be made between objectivity and neutrality. We should identify gaps in our holdings and actively collect records that would otherwise disappear from the historical record. Here we shouldn’t be neutral in the way Jenkinson advocated. In this I agree with Prof. Jimerson.

    But, I was a little confused by where he thought the impulse to do good lay. I worry about infusing the Archive profession with the sorts of ethical values that should belong to us as individuals. By placing emphasis on the profession as one that values social justice and accountability doesn’t this remove us, just a little, from accepting individual responsibility? It’s a tricky line of argument, but basically I think the profession should be one where individuals who hold these values can actively make the world a better place rather than one where individuals, who, for example, favour a monarchical system of government over a democratic one, would feel that they shouldn’t join.

    I too really should read his book.

    • I agree, Lynda. It was a very intersting and thought-provoking paper that challenged the accepted view. I hope I confront ethical issues when they arise (in fact, I confronted one on this very blog on Monday!), but would aim to be objective. I suppse we could talk forever about the differences between objectivity and neutrality though!
      Professor Jimerson’s approach concerned me slightly as it seemed to be suggesting an imposition of western ethical values – he actually mentioned “democratic values” – upon our professional activities. I’m not sure this should ever be our role and, after all, society’s values change all the time. We don’t have the same ones as the Victorians and so on. I’d like to know more about his ideas.

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