Trudy Huskamp Peterson

Certified Archivist

Commentary, Archives and Accusation

Archives and accusation. They go together for more reasons than the first letter of each word. Archives have been used to accuse persons and institutions for millennia: what a person or institution did or didn’t do, what he or she knew, who he or she was or is. In January an official report by Poland’s Institute of Forensic Research in Krakow said Lech Walesa, the leader of Poland’s anticommunist Solidarity movement and later the president of Poland, was a Communist paid informant in the 1970s, based on analysis of the handwriting on nearly four dozen documents. As the New York Times reported, “The accusations against Mr. Walesa have been made for more than 20 years, and he has long maintained that they are a result of a vendetta by former Communists.”,Information-on-the-experts-opinion-on-the-secret-collaborator-Boleks-files.html  The Lustration Commission in Macedonia, which reviewed massive quantities of government archives, accused some 300 people of cooperating with the Communist-era secret police. Many of those named challenged the accusations, even when backed by documents, and eventually the government closed the controversial commission.  Activists use archives to name and shame corporations for causing environmental damage or for marketing unsafe products. And while archives are good, often very good, evidence, they are not always either complete or easy to use in that way.

In fact, for purposes of proving an allegation, archives are often much like the tesserae that make up a mosaic. Each document contributes its bit, and with skill a researcher can arrange the information into a persuasive picture. If the research is simply whether or not a person signed a card pledging adherence to a group of political party, the assemblage of tesserae is probably not required. But for lots of questions it is, and that’s one reason academic interpretations of events can differ so widely.

Items in archives usually are either smoke or a gun but not a smoking gun. I have, in my lifetime in archives, seen two written documents that seemed to be clear, unmistakable evidence of a crime that was committed. But I was skeptical of both documents. One looked very much as if it had been created using false information and placed in a file to get someone else into very serious trouble. The other seemed authentic, but may simply have been the writer making an evil, cynical joke about the kind of work that a unit was doing. 

This is not to say that there are no facts in archival documents; there most certainly are. The law from antiquity to the present has wrestled with how to validate evidence in court, and countries have developed elaborate rules on the issue. But archivists aren’t judges and interpreting the records is not our mandate. Our work is the trust we are given to preserve the records in our care honestly and faithfully so that others may judge their veracity. As Demosthenes (who knew rather a lot about accusation) argued in his oration On the Crown, “You stand revealed in your life and conduct, in your public performances and also in your public abstinences.” We archivists abstain from accusation, but we make it possible for others to accuse.