Responses and Retrospectives: Jeremy Brett of the Concerned Archivists Alliance on the Altered Photo for NARA’s Exhibit “Rightfully Hers,” and the Subsequent NARA Apologies

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This is the latest post in our series Responses and Retrospectives, which features archivists’ personal responses and perspectives concerning current or historical events/subjects with significant implications for the archives profession. Interested in contributing to Responses and Retrospectives?  Please email the editor at archivesaware@archivists.org with your ideas!

My name is Jeremy Brett. I am an archivist/librarian at Texas A&M University, as well as one of the founders of the Concerned Archivists Alliance (CAA) and incidentally, a former employee of the National Archives and Records Administration.  The CAA is a group of information professionals, paraprofessionals, and information science students, committed to freedom of information, the protection of privacy rights, and to holding public officials accountable for their actions. We believe that a democratic society cannot thrive in an atmosphere of secrecy and oppression. Our group came into being as a response to the troubling 2016 election of Donald Trump and its implications for both the future of the American documentary record and the likely use (and misuse) of records under this administration to do harm to Americans.[1]

I’m writing this Responses & Retrospectives post in response to questions from some people about our group’s response to the recent scandal that took place with regard to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). On January 18th, the CAA published online an open letter to David Ferriero, the U.S. National Archivist, expressing our deep concern with the revelation that NARA had made multiple alterations to an image of the 2017 Women’s March, featured in its exhibit “Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote”. These alterations included the blurring of certain words on posters that referred to parts of the female anatomy, as well as that of the name of Donald Trump. Our original letter is found here. We invited our colleagues in the archival and other information professions to sign the letter in protest of this action. Gratifyingly, we have received more than 200 signatures to date.

As we noted in the letter, “Your explanation for this action, given by Archives’ spokeswoman Miriam Kleiman, is that ‘as a non-partisan, non-political federal agency, we blurred references to the President’s name on some posters, so as not to engage in current political controversy … Modifying the image was an attempt on our part to keep the focus on the records.’ This reasoning is offensive to the intellectual honesty and professional acumen of librarians and archivists across the country who collect, preserve, and make accessible to the public similarly sensitive material on a daily basis and without alteration or censorship.”

We of CAA stand behind that contention. Archivists owe an ethical and professional duty to the truth and to history, duties that NARA, with permission given at the highest levels of its administration, violated. We exist in a new and troubling political climate, where high government officials and media personalities alike feel free to shade the truth, to hide facts, and to lie outright to us, even in the face of evidence that proves the opposite. Therefore, it is more important than ever for archivists and archival institutions to nail their colors to the mast of truth and ensure that the materials they curate – as well as those materials’ public expression – are accurate, whole, and unaltered. Our letter pointed out that in altering the image, NARA had violated the Code of Ethics of the Society of American Archivists, which states “Archivists may not willfully alter, manipulate, or destroy data or records to conceal facts or distort evidence.” Although the Code is not legally binding, nor is NARA as an institution required to adhere to it, that Code serves as the ethical bedrock of the archival profession in the United States. We would have hoped that as the preeminent public archives in this nation, NARA might find itself inclined to align itself ethically with the rest of the American archival community. We are saddened to find out that apparently it disagrees. Instead, NARA chooses to stand by its self-definition as a “non-partisan, non-political federal agency”, even as it removes the name of Donald Trump from an historical image “so as not to engage in current political controversy.” This is not ethics and it is not professionalism. We believe, instead, that it is an instance of cowardice in the face of power at worst, incompetent thinking that fails to draw obvious conclusions at best.[2]

The same day that we published the letter, NARA announced in a public apology that the altered image would be removed. The apology (which can be read here) gave no explanation for NARA’s motives in altering the image in the first place, though it was careful to try and elude blame by noting that the image was not a NARA-held record but an image licensed for exhibit use. (As if, frankly, that made any ethical or moral difference.) The apology was, in our opinion, wholly inadequate and failed to address any of the reasons why the original action produced so much outrage in the archival and library communities.[3]

People have asked why we continued to offer our letter for signatures in light of NARA’s “apology”. We discussed whether to remove our letter from our site or at least whether to stop accepting signatories in the aftermath of NARA’s statement. We decided that it was important to stand by our original complaint. As archivists and information professionals, we believe that this was no mere mistake. We believe that the image alterations constituted an act of anticipatory obedience by NARA staff and administration, rendering invisible certain kinds of political speech in service to NARA’s political masters.[4] As one of CAA’s founders noted in a tweet[5]:

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Apologies are not magic shields that protect one from one’s original error, nor are they erasers that instantly wipe away mistakes. We say that there is little that is more threatening to the future of our democracy than public servants who abandon our collective founding principles and their professional duties in order to curry favor or to head off possible criticism. That is what we believe happened with NARA in this case.

We have received some online pushback – some thoughtful, some less so – for both our original letter and our decision not to withdraw it after NARA’s “apology”. Without responding to any specific critic, we offer this explanation generally for our actions because we love our profession. We believe wholeheartedly in its vital importance to the nation in which we live. We believe passionately in our duty to ensure that voices are not silenced, that principles are not overturned in the name of either obedience to power or partisan politics, and that the people and communities we serve deserve a history that has not been altered.  We will not surrender those values.

On January 22nd, Ferriero issued a more substantive apology, in which he stressed that “this decision was made without any external direction whatsoever” and that “[w]e also wanted to avoid accusations of partisanship or complaints that we displayed inappropriate language in a family-friendly Federal museum.” Although this new apology certainly offers a fuller explanation, it still raises troublesome questions with which NARA and the archival community must grapple with going forward.

  1. We also wanted to avoid accusations of partisanship or complaints that we displayed inappropriate language in a family-friendly Federal museum.”

We believe this motive was short-sighted and, in fact, both an act of cowardice and a misunderstanding of NARA’s own mission. It’s hardly “partisanship” to show that a protest against an important political figure contained signage bearing that figure’s name. In fact, what IS partisanship, what IS taking sides, is to blur out that name, because to do so neutralizes a historical situation that was anything but neutral and downplays the public hostility against that figure. To do so only benefits Donald Trump himself. Ferriero later in the apology notes, “as a Federal agency serving the American public, we must incorporate non-partisanship into everything we do.” We would argue that NARA’s actual job as a servant of the American public is to present historical truth, regardless of how that truth makes particular politicians or parties appear.

Avoiding in advance “accusations of partisanship” is troubling in its own right. We worry that NARA was overly concerned about right-wing pushback – something that high government officials have weaponized in recent years – and was intimidated in advance into silencing women’s voices and rendering the image nonsensical by blurring out the name of the protest’s subject. If true, this is disquieting, and it is sad.

As for “inappropriate language”, one might argue whether references to female anatomy are profanities or offensive terms, rather than simple terminology. However, it alters the meaning and context of the protest being depicted by leaving those terms out; those terms were integral parts of the rhetoric being passionately expressed that day (as I can testify, having attended the Women’s March in Austin) and to blur them out removes that rhetoric. Personally, I would argue that NARA does families with children no favors by presenting them with a sanitized, “clean” version of history, rather than giving children the opportunity to ask questions – however troublesome – about what they see and read.

  1. However, we wrongly missed the overall implications of the alteration. Our action made it appear as if we did not understand the importance of our unique charge: as an archives, we must present materials – whether they are ours or not – without alteration…”

We agree that, yes, this decision certainly made it appear so. Because that is, in fact, what it actually did. Ferriero eludes the issue by claiming “our action made it appear as if we did not understand”, as if that wasn’t what actually happened.  In truth, NARA clearly did not understand its crucial charge, else it would not have made the decision to present an altered image. We find it worrisome that NARA administration seemed to have forgotten its ethical duty during this process.

At the same time, we do appreciate this expanded apology and explanation, and are gratified that NARA recognizes the need to thoroughly review its processes. It is our earnest hope that NARA going forward will live out the true meaning of its mission. NARA and its preservation of the archival record are crucial to ensuring a healthy, functioning democracy and an informed citizenry, and as archivists we want to support NARA in that all-important calling.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in the 1967 essay Truth and Politics that “[t]he chances of factual truth surviving the onslaught of power are very slim indeed; it is always in danger of being maneuvered out of the world not only for a time but, potentially, forever. Facts and events are infinitely more fragile things than axioms, discoveries, theories—even the most wildly speculative ones—produced by the human mind; they occur in the field of the ever-changing affairs of men, in whose flux there is nothing more permanent than the admittedly relative permanence of the human mind’s structure. Once they are lost, no rational effort will ever bring them back.” It is this we fear the most, and it is this that NARA risked with its alterations of the image on display. Let us all strive in our professional lives as archivists, all of us, to do better.

This post was written by Jeremy Brett, a founding member of the Concerned Archivists Alliance. The opinions and assertions stated within this piece are the author’s alone, and do not represent the official stance of the Society of American Archivists. COPA publishes response posts with the sole aim of providing additional perspectives, context, and information on current events and subjects that directly impact archives and archivists.

 

Citations:

[1] In CAA matters, including this post, we all represent ourselves as individual archivists and our views are not necessarily those of our respective employing institutions.

[2] For a useful look at the implications of NARA’s action, Masha Gessen’s January 19th in The New Yorker is instructive: https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/the-erasure-of-political-history-at-the-national-archives-womens-march.

[3] For examples of this concern, note the January 19th statement issued by the Society of American Archivists (https://www2.archivists.org/news/2020/saa-statement-nara-exhibit-on-2017-womens-march-in-washington-dc) and the January 21st statement from the American Library Association (http://www.ala.org/news/press-releases/2020/01/ala-responds-national-archive-efforts-alter-materials).

[4] We note the incredible irony in NARA choosing to obscure the protest language and outrage of women, in an exhibit devoted to and celebrating the struggle of women to secure the right to vote.

[5] https://twitter.com/feministlib/status/1220030484035579905

There’s An Archivist for That! Interview with Krü Maekdo, founder of the Black Lesbian Archives

Krü Maekdo wearing t-shirt that says "Black Lesbian Archives Grassroots Tour 20[??]"

Photo of Krü Maekdo (courtesy of Krü Maekdo).

This is the newest post in our There’s an Archivist for That! series, which features examples of archivists working in places you might not expect.  COPA member Rachel Seale, Outreach Archivist at Iowa State University, brings you an interview with Krü Maekdo, the founder of the Black Lesbian Archives.

Krü Maekdo has been an innovator in community organizing, gracing stages around the world sharing, her charm, wit, and presence, while contributing to the exciting LGBTQ+ renaissance in many of our communities. CEO of Maekdo Productions, a multi-media and event planning company for women in the LGBTQ+ community as well as the Founder of Queer Black Creatives and Black Lesbian Archives. She works to diplomatically build and connect the world in creative ways. A Creative Director specializing in, Multi-Media, Event Planning, Kosmic Rootwork and Astrology.

For info, visit: krumaekdo.wixsite.com/info/about

How did you get your gig?

I created the Black Lesbian Archives June 2017 after realizing that the stories of our lives were not being documented online, in our local libraries, institutions, collection departments, etc. I felt it would be a great way not only to bring awareness, but to build our communities through experimental storytelling. As well as educating ourselves through our own generational linkages and experiences.

Tell us about your organization.

The Black Lesbian Archives idea started after spending some time in Williamsburg, VA then moving to Chicago, IL. The first exhibit was created after attending an exhibit about Lesbian herstory in Chicago of the 60s, 70s & 80s. I noticed there was a lack of Black Lesbians in the exhibit and everything truly sparked from there. The first exhibit was held at Affinity Community Services in June of 2018 through July and the rest is herstory!

Table top sign that says "Black Lesbian Archives. These archives are on loan. Please feel free to look through, but leave them here! Thank you! With Affinity and logo on the right.

(photo by Law91Media)

Describe your collections.

The Black Lesbian Archives collections I would describe them as having a whole lot of personality! So raw, so honest. They come in all different shapes and sizes. Mostly physical but eventually transferring into digital so we can make them available globally in a way that’s more accessible to all.

What are some challenges unique to your collections?

One of the challenges is figuring out an innovative way to preserve archives without having the largest set of funds/backing and to keep it going. The more I learn about archival preservation, the more I understand there’s so much you wouldn’t expect that goes into the backend of archival preservation. We gonna make it work for us though.

What is your favorite part of your job?

My favorite part of this project is the collaborative effort. Hearing and learning the ways in which we archive. Also the storytelling aspect of archiving which is my favorite! We have created a whole community about how we are growing and preserving the stories of the past, present and future interweaves our destines.

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With the new year comes a new opportunity to participate in the Black Lesbian Archives Grassroots 2020 tour. The Black Lesbian Archives Grassroots 2020 was created to bring awareness, educate, preserve and bridge generational gaps within our communities so in turn, we can understand ourselves and the communities beyond us.

Krü Maekdo sitting on steps with tee that says "Black Lesbian Archives Grassroots 2020 Tour"

Photo o Krü Maekdo. Promo for the Black Lesbian Archives Grassroots 2020 Tour (courtesy of Krü Maekdo).

For more information check out blacklesbianarchives.wixsite.com/info/grassroots-tour and email: blacklesbianarchives@gmail.com or call 469-430-8568. Leave a voicemail and we’ll get back.

Stay tuned for future posts in the “There’s an Archivist for That!” series, featuring stories on archivists working in places you might not expect. If you know of an archivist who fits this description or are yourself an archivist who fits this description, the editors would love to hear from you—share in the comments below or contact archivesaware@archivists.org to be interviewed for ArchivesAWARE!

Asserting the Archivist, no. 4

Margot Note--2This post was authored by guest contributor Margot Note, CA, CRM, IGP, PMP. Note is the principal and founder of Margot Note Consulting, LLC, an archives and records management consulting business in New York. She’s a professor in the graduate Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College and an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Library and Information Science program at St. John’s University. She’s the author of five books, including her newest Creating Family Archives: A Step‐by‐Step Guide for Saving Your Memories for Future Generations published by the Society of American Archivists.

This is the fourth post in our “Asserting the Archivist” series on the importance of highlighting archivists and archival work in outreach efforts, rather than just focusing on the collections themselves. SAA’s Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) chose a Q&A style for this post to highlight Note’s work and, specifically, her writing as an outreach mechanism that helps to assert the archivist.

Q. We know your origin story into consulting from the Off the Record guest spot and the Archives in Context podcast. So, I’d like to focus in on your writing for this starter question as you’ve written several books over the course of your career thus far. How did you get into professional writing and what was the impetus for you to write your first book?

I started with book reviews. I’d be reading these books anyway, so I figured that I should receive them for free! A publisher contacted me while I was in graduate school studying the topic of my first book, so I turned my papers into chapters and expanded the manuscript.

My books stem from obsessive curiosity. I write about a topic to understand it. What I discover can help people in similar circumstances.

Q. Your most recent book Creating Family Archives was published by the Society of American Archivists, but you’ve also published with Lucidea Press, and have self-published. Can you speak to what those experiences were like, what you enjoyed, and what was challenging?

Each book experience is unique, especially the level of interventions by publishers, editors, and advisory teams. I enjoy the writing flow and the progress of a manuscript.

The most challenging part of writing is getting feedback. Constructive criticism is an opportunity to communicate better with my readers, and I can fix misunderstandings or errors before the final draft.

Q. What have you found are the benefits of writing books for professional literature?

Beyond learning, a big bonus is status. People who don’t understand archives remember me as “the writer.” Authoring a book makes you an expert in the eyes of many. It’s helped me get hired.

I’m touched by the notes that I’ve received from people who’ve said that my books helped them. I also love to see myself cited!

Q. What is your advice for getting over writer’s block?

Use the Pomodoro Method. Set a timer for 25 minutes and write, then rest for 5 minutes. After four Pomodoros, take a 20-minute break. I promise myself that I can stop after one Pomodoro, but I always want to continue.

For low-energy days, I reduce my time to 15 minutes. I focus on any effort towards a goal without judging the quality.

Done is better than perfect.

I believe in mindset. If you think a writing project will be hard, it will be. I seduce myself into the writing process with tea, candles, incense, lighting, and music.

Drinking 5 Hour Energy helps too!

Q. What advice would you like to share with archivists who are aspiring to write their own books?

To quote the anarcho-punk band Crass, “You alone can do it. There is no authority but yourself.”

Forget gatekeepers or mentors. Make your own opportunities, like self-publishing. My book with SAA grew from an earlier self-published edition. No one deemed me an expert—I did it myself.

The universe rewards action.

Archivists note the lack of diversity in our collections and the profession, but I also want our professional literature to better represent our field through the voices of archivists working in non-traditional ways too.

Q. Are there tips or writing resources you would recommend for those who wish to write about professional topics?

Here’s a blog post with my tips: https://www.margotnote.com/blog/2018/2/5/writing-for-career-success

Find the most enjoyable part of writing. I revise zealously.

I create a list of changes needed to be made in a spreadsheet. For instance, I translate feedback on a peer-reviewed article into action steps. I then tackle the tasks, completing items from the easiest to the hardest. Approaching writing this way takes the emotion out of it.

Q. In the Archives in Context podcast you speak to how you’ve found you needed a different vernacular to convey both archival concepts and the value of archives. This is also demonstrated in Creating Family Archives where you introduce archival concepts and best practices in an approachable manner. What tips would you give an archivist who needs to communicate archival concepts to non-archivists?

I talk about storytelling, memories, or legacy. For people with technical or project management backgrounds, I’ll talk about lessons learned. For executives, I mention institutional knowledge or business insights.

I emphasize enduring over historical or archival value, because people think of archives as being old. They might not realize that archival records can be born-digital in the present.

I show my students that archives are welcoming, that archivists can help them, and that primary sources reveal wonders. I explain just enough about archival principles so that they understand why collections are the way that they are.

I also talk about archives in relation to personal or family items.

Someone may never visit a repository, but they have collections of love letters, emails, or photos that they treasure.

Q. Focusing on conveying the value of archives — a universal struggle — how have you found being a consultant has helped you hone that message, especially as you’re not just selling yourself, but you’re also selling the value of archives?

Selling is helping someone solve a problem. Clients reach out because their problem is painful enough to seek advice. When they talk to an expert who has solved similar issues, they become at ease.

I’m proud of my business. I have a killer work ethic and an iron will. My self-confidence was forged by discovering how strong I am in challenging situations. When you project positivity, clients notice.

Q. What’s next for you? Is there another book in the making or another project you’re looking forward to?

Another book, I’m sure. My focus is on creating a business that supports the life I want to lead and finding a balance between work and play.

Do you have a favorite example of archival repositories or organizations/businesses that “assert the archivist” in their outreach efforts? Or would you like to share your experience incorporating archival work into your outreach? Please share in the comments below or contact archivesaware@archivists.org to be a guest contributor to ArchivesAWARE!