Trudy Huskamp Peterson

Certified Archivist

Commentary, Identity Politics and Archival Action

Identity politics are rampant from the Balkan states to Bangladesh. As a professor of biology, neurology and neurosurgery at Stanford University wrote in a recent article, “Considerable evidence suggests that dividing the world into Us and Them is deeply hard-wired in our brains, with an ancient evolutionary legacy.” But carried into the national setting, where the people of a nation must agree on some things in order to live together, the drumbeat of identity can easily divide the population. Some of this division, of course, is attributed to the global media, where hateful messages can resurface again and again, passed from one device and one platform to another. And some of it, too, is because politicians have found it useful to use identity to gain votes: “Vote for me because I am one of you, I understand you, and I will protect you.”  

In the United States, the medical profession has been discussing how racism--one form of identity politics but far from the only one--affects medical treatment. Some patients shrink from treatment by doctors of another color or creed; some distrust diagnoses made by anyone other than a member of what the patient considers his group.;  In a discussion with two experienced archivists, we could not think of an occasion when a researcher distrusted or even refused to accept service on an identity basis, but it is not a stretch to imagine a researcher suspecting that an archivist not of his or her identity would not provide the same fulsome service that another person would receive. And would this be more likely to happen if the records requested are related to rights and benefits or to a personal interest in genealogy?

Archives hold the records that validate personal identity. From birth certificates to voting records to records of employment to documents showing adherence to a faith, archives have them all. Archives properly make the existence of these records known and provide the access to them on an equal basis. Archives advertise their educational services and offer courses in how to find your family in the records. But is there a line that archives should not cross, when promoting the identity records it holds is complicity with the divisive identity situation in the country? 

People were stunned when a presidential archivist recently advocated via Twitter that every household maintain an automatic weapon. in many ways, the records held in archives can be as dangerous as household guns, as they provide the ammunition for division and labeling. Archivists like to think of themselves as the neutral parties, moving between records and requester. In extreme situations, archivists have secreted archives that would provide information on personal identities to a repressive state, obviously an unusual circumstance. But it is necessary to think about the ways in which we advertise our services, walking the line between helping us all know who we are and what things happened among us and promoting the identity claims that roil our world.