Robin Camille Davis
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Archivists as creators

October 10, 2011

"Who controls the past," ran the Party slogan, "controls the future: who controls the present controls the past." ... The mutability of the past is the central tenet of Ingsoc. Past events, it is argued, have no objective existence, but survive only in written records and in human memories. The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon. And since the Party is in full control of all records, and in equally full control of the minds of its members, it follows that the past is whatever the Party chooses to make it.
— George Orwell, 1984, pages 35 and 213

Every student who takes an archives class gets treated to a substantial dose of Orwell, who is quoted alternately to exemplify the positive power of archives and to dole out cautionary tales. This was the epigraph in Helen Willa Samuels's "Who Controls the Past" article from 1986.* Right after reading that for class, I come across this Calvin and Hobbes panel** on Tumblr:

Is history fictional? I think it is. Different historians tell different histories. In the archives, though, it is the archivists who choose which records of history will be preserved. There's that quote that students of archives also hear in every intro class: "What archivists remember is remembered; what archivists forget is forgotten." Well, histories are created by far more than traditionally archived resources. But yes, much of historical research is dictated simply by what's available to see and read in an archives. Archivists choose to save about 1-10% of all records the come from or through their organization. It is the act of choosing (selecting) that marks a good archivist.

As I've continued my studies in library/information science, I've felt a little like I'm betraying the creative side of me by committing myself to preserving other people's works rather than making something myself. For me, the urges to create and to save are probably equal in force. But I am realizing that in the archives, creating and saving are twin actions, necessarily complementary, two sides of one coin. Beyond the plodding policies and legal hoops and opaque jargon, archivists are spinning stories and creating something tangible that many people will touch and use.

Don't get me wrong. It's creativity imbued with great responsibility. Telling stories does not preclude telling the truth. And the question "whose truth? Whose story?" should always, always be asked. But in the end, there is a product (a story, a truth, a history) that is shaped by the archivist's hands.

Are archivists "creative"? By subtracting records deemed unworthy of preservation, are they creating a new set of narratives? Can they be said to have "made" something?


*Helen Willa Samuels, “Who Controls the Past,” American Archivist 49 (Spring 1986): 109-124. [Link to JSTOR.]
**Calvin and Hobbes strip by Bill Watterson, in Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat: A Calvin and Hobbes Collection, 1994.