Those of you who have been following the current controversy on the Archives & Archivists listserv (A&A), which is monitored (though not owned) by the Society of American Archivists and our de facto professional listserv, might be sighing, you might be angry, you might be dumbfounded. But this most recent controversy demonstrated that there is still a serious problem in the archival profession with the mythical concept of archival ‘neutrality’ and with some archivists’ inability or unwillingness to entertain the notion that we can still be unwelcoming or even hostile to minorities in the profession.
Background: The A&A listserv is generally used for people to post about archival-related matters in the news, to ask questions of colleagues about problems or concerns in the workplace, or to post new employment opportunities. To this extent, it is a very useful source, which allows colleagues separated by distance to exchange ideas, opinions, and professional expertise. However, as with most things on the Internet, there is a more troublesome side to the listserv as well.
Every now and again, certain individuals will post what amounts to right-wing propaganda on the listserv. A particularly troublesome individual here is Peter Kurilecz, a retired records manager (and non-SAA member) who has been posting on the listserv for many years. In fact, the listserv developed formal Terms of Participation directly because of Kurilecz’ previous behavior in posting massive numbers of posts, some of which included this kind of propaganda. Kurilecz has a number of defenders in SAA, who see his provision of links as a valuable service, regardless of their content.
On August 7, Kurilecz posted a link to the right-wing site Campus Reform. This is a site devoted to exposing so-called “liberal bias” in higher education, and seems particularly concerned with minorities who are fighting for equity and fairness in education. The site had posted a “story” about the recent SAA Annual Meeting in Portland, and specifically talked about one session – this session was hosted by members of the Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia group, and featured as a guest a female African-American social activist. In the session, which I attended, participants talked about the development of A4BLIP, and the activist recounted the deep Black roots of the Portland community and the challenges that community faced and faces today in light of other people trying to police access to Black Portlanders’ own history. She talked about a system established to maintain control, to restrict, to mandate, and to deny access.
The story in Campus Reform about this session, a story ‘reported’, as far as I can tell, by no one who was actually present at the session, was a collection of conservative dog-whistles intended to raise right-wing hackles at the prospect of people denouncing white supremacy in archives. Among other things, the article promoted bullying and harassment by not identifying by name the (white) session organizers but singling out the African-American activist by name. It was a disgusting hit piece, from a loathsome website run by a loathsome organization designed specifically to cater to white conservative feelings of persecution. Since the Annual Meeting, both SAA members and meeting participants have reported being harassed and bullied by this group.
Kurilecz posted the link to this site without any context or attribution, suggesting that he saw it merely as another source of information, equal to any other. Many of us were angered by what we see as a sneaky attempt to slip right-wing drivel that degrades minorities into our professional listserv, and the listserv blew up as a consequence. Others and I protested this insertion of conservative propaganda by a group that has inspired harassment of our colleagues and Annual Meeting invitees, as a disservice to them and to the profession as a whole. However, the post inspired a number of defenders, who believe (or pretend to believe) that Kurliecz is merely providing information and he wasn’t obligated to provide any context or to treat it differently than any other kind of information. He was championed for providing the link, because some feel, apparently, information is neutral and the mere provision of it is valuable, regardless of the source, the motive or the effects.[fn]
The exchange revealed much. It exposed the continuing inability of many in the archival profession to understand (or, frankly, to care) about the conditions that our minority colleagues face, as well as their belief that archives and archivists can be “neutral”. These views are particularly disappointing in light of the fact that they were broadcast mere days after the conclusion of an Annual Meeting devoted to the theme of social justice and community engagement. They reveal an ongoing problem with our profession, in that too many of us do not see the white supremacy that imbues archival practice and theory, and too many of us see themselves as custodians rather than as people with the immense power of controlling and guiding the historical narrative through the management of the documentary record. It is a serious problem (especially in a profession that is still mostly white), and something with which SAA must grapple.
Unfortunately, SAA made the decision on August 9th to shut down the entire exchange, rather than let the conversation continue. This itself is a problem, because where else should we be discussing these issues than on our professional listserv? SAA administration is currently discussing how to reform the listserv to deal with future events like this, but that’s only part of the larger issue, namely, that SAA and the profession as a whole are going to have to make a decision – will they stand for progress, and minority participation, and a recognition of the social and political realities surrounding archives? Or will they instead continue to cater to conservative whites and the mythical concept of archival “neutrality”? The Concerned Archivists Alliance exists because so many of us recognize that as archivists we have a duty to the truth of the archival record and to ensuring that underrepresented voices are preserved for the future. We recognize that we cannot, have never been, neutral. Will SAA do the same? And will it recognize that it cannot continue to support right-wing propaganda from within its own ranks?
*FYI, I write this blog entry while currently under a 90-day probation from the A&A listserv for, apparently, using “insulting and inflammatory language and tone, even after a formal warning…”. My posts for this period to the listserv will be inspected by the listserv moderator before being posted.
[fn] You can see the discussion yourself at http://forums.archivists.org/read/messages?id=195100. Please note that the official discussion does not reflect all the views out there; I received a number of emails off-list from people disgusted by and angry at the situation and the evidence of continuing white cluelessness in the profession.