Activist Archivist

For a long time, I tried to keep my political activism and my day job as an archivist separate.  However, that is not a tenable situation.  Archivists may put things in boxes but our thinking must not be compartmentalised.

1354One challenge to this parallel approach came when I attended a great event in London.  I can’t remember it’s title but the main speaker was Randal Jimerson, author of Archives Power.  In the discussion, I found myself drawing as much on my politics as I did on my archival education and experience.  More strangely, during one of the exercises, I found myself paired with a former Tory councillor (who was keen to tell me he was) and wondering where the line between professional and political might lie.

Archivist turned political activist, Utah Phillips, frequently remarked that the long memory was the most radical thing and what are archivists if not custodians of the long memory. However, custodian is one thing – could we also be its liberator?

Archives contain multiple narratives but which ones surface?  As Verne Harris has argued,

[archivists] cannot be merely custodians and brokers of power relations … any attempt to be impartial, to stand above the power-plays, constitutes a choice, whether conscious or not, to replicate if not to reinforce prevailing relations of power.  (quoted in ‘Archives Power’, p.135)

Fellow archivists will know that I’ve just jumped into the Jenkinson vs Schellenberg argument within our professional discourse but I’m not going to get sucked into the detail of that here.  All I will say is that the archivist has no unique claim to impartiality. She or he has no less potential for bias than any other actor in the the process.


Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) , thinker, doer and all-round ground breaker

But to practical matters, what does that mean for how to do the day job? A more recent collision came as I developed on of my current projects (I say ‘my’ in the sense that I initiated it – it is now way beyond being ‘mine’). In the course of identifying potential stakeholders, I saw that a number of them were people who were active in politics to one degree or another and with whom my own views concurred.  With a project based around Patrick Geddes, this was probably inevitable. Actually, if there was ever a personification of non-compartmentalisation of thought, it was Geddes.

At this year’s Archives and Records Association Conference, our first keynote speaker was Dr Alan Billings, South Yorkshire police and crime commissioner.  His subject was Orgreave and he emphasised to important role archives are playing in uncovering the truth (e.g. see Guardian article:  Miners’ strike files suggest ‘hints of political direction’ of police).  The abstract of his address states:

The  Miners’  Strike (1984-5)  was a desperate  and ultimately doomed  attempt  by the National  Union  of Mineworkers (NUM)  to prevent  the wholesale  closure of the nationalised  coal industry  and,  as a consequence, save  the communities that depended   on the local colliery  for their existence. The miners were bitterly opposed by the government   who viewed the miners as ‘the enemy within’.  South Yorkshire, where the NUM headquarters were situated, was at the centre of the dispute.  A pivotal moment in the strike was the so-called ‘battle of Orgreave’ in June 1984.  Striking miners  attempted  to stop delivery  of coal to the Orgreave  coking plant  near Sheffield  and were  met by hundreds   of police officers  from forces  drawn  from  across the country  in what  seemed  like a military operation.  There was a pitched battle in which both miners and police were injured.  One historian called it ‘legalised state violence’. Afterwards, attempts to prosecute miners for ‘riot’ collapsed.  Many suspected that the operation was an organised attempt to break the national strike. Since that time, the Orgreave   Truth and Justice Campaign has sought to find out the truth. They have always hoped that there might be a public enquiry, but the Home Secretary has ruled that out. However,   before the recent election, the Home Affairs Committee was looking at the possibility of some other form of enquiry.  The Orgreave archives will play a crucial role in this. At the moment, the records are closed to the public.  As Police and Crime Commissioner I have asked South Yorkshire Police to bring together all the material they hold – which is of many kinds – into one place, the Sheffield City Archives.  I have also funded an archivist, Benjamin Longden, to catalogue the archive.  This is essential work whatever happens not least because of the issues around data protection and redactions.  Having a professionally catalogued archive will be crucial for responding   to Freedom of Information   requests and enabling researchers find what they are looking for efficiently.  Above all, it will allow the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign to access crucial documents in their long search for truth and justice.  It will also enable South Yorkshire Police to demonstrate that they are a very different force from the one that confronted the miners in 1984.  In South Yorkshire there are still raw wounds that need healing and an archivist is playing a key role in enabling that to happen.

The role of archives in truth, justice and reconciliation cannot be underestimated but can the archivist be neutral?  Sometimes there is no middle ground.  As Desmond Tutu famously said:

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

So maybe I just need to stop worrying about these being conflicts and embrace them. Openness, transparency and professional courtesy are more important than an un-achievable and quite frankly opaque impartiality.



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