Trudy Huskamp Peterson

Certified Archivist

Commentary, Geography and the fate of archives

We spent much of the last two decades talking about the use of archives in situations of transitional justice, focusing on the four pillars of holding accountable, ensuring no repetition, learning the truth of what happened, and providing reparations. We looked at a country’s traumatic, undemocratic past, but  exhibited an often naïve faith that its future would be more democratic than its past regime permitted. Now, however, we need to face the bleak reality that some countries go in the opposite direction, that a brief experience of a less repressive regime may be succeeded by the imposition—abruptly or by incremental steps—of a new repressive form of government or new repressors with a revival of the old form of government. 

In the face of this fragility, archivists need to think about the steps archives in countries sliding into neo-repression should take to protect their holdings. Obviously the type of archives makes a difference: government archives have certain constraints, while the archives in nongovernmental organizations, businesses, faith-based organizations, and private archives have different sets of issues to confront.

 The working group assembled by swisspeace to discuss archives at risk has made important progress in developing a protocol for handling archives that need a security copy outside the country. (The draft “Guiding Principles for Safe Havens for Archives at Risk” will be considered by the International Council on Archives at its meeting in late November.)  But seeking a safe haven is a step that often is taken only when an emergency is at hand.

 What should archivists do in countries where democratic rule is shaky but an emergency is not yet at recognized? Here are a few suggestions:

 *Identify the most important part of the holdings and identify which part of the holdings may be most at risk in the case of civil unrest or of a governmental confiscation. These may not be the same materials. A constitution or an ancient codex may be the most significant holding but may not be in danger, while routine lists of members of faith-based organizations may be.

 *Note whether the holdings at risk are copied; if not, decide whether they should be copied and whether a copy outside the country is necessary now.

 *Study the physical security of the archives building and the holding areas. Be alert to places where arson could be set easily. Think about who provides the security (the police, a private company) and its reliability. Think about who provides computer services; think about the strength of firewalls.

 *Agree upon who will decide to close the building abruptly in the face of unrest.

 *Agree upon who will take over the administration of the archives if the current administrator is forced to leave abruptly. Have a backup to the backup, too, as it is not unknown to have both the archivist and deputy archivist under threat.

 *Decide what to tell donors, including what the archives will do if faced with a legal demand to turn over the donor’s materials.

 “Geography is fate,” the Greek philosopher Herarclitis allegedly said. We know that is true for us as individuals, whether we are born to privilege or poverty, for example, how far we live from health care and good schools. And we know it is true, too, for the natural environment, as seas rise with climate change and storms grow stronger. It is also true for archives that are physical entities: the risk to their survival depends on geography, including what political system the archival institution exists within. In the face of unsettling events and tenuous times, archivists need to consider carefully whether the geography where they live will put the holdings at risk or will contribute to their safety.