Trudy Huskamp Peterson

Certified Archivist

Commentary, Dare to Know

Grandma Chaem was listening to Buddhist talk radio when the journalists found her. The case against her had just been dismissed by the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia, where she had been charged with responsibility for mass murder, enslavement and crimes against humanity.  Court observers and scholars were convinced the evidence was solid, but no matter:  Im Chaen’s neighbors in her town,  want to know none of this. The New York Times wrote, “Villagers emphasized that an important part of local culture was never to pry into other people’s pasts. ‘Everyone knows Grandma Chaem, knows that she is living in the village, but we don’t know her background, what she did,’” said a village man.  The archives of the Court, assuming they are protected and preserved, will tell the story to those who do want to know.

It is easy to dismiss the concerns of someone living in a Cambodian village where knowing too much could lead to disappearance.  But many people living in safe places don’t want to know, either.  The famous Austrian writer Peter Handke went to the 2006 funeral of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian president who died while on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, accused of genocide and war crimes. Handke, who calls himself a hater of history, delivered a speech at the funeral, saying, “I don’t know the truth.” And yet the broadcasts from the court and the archives of the ICTY, including the massive background material that was accumulated, make knowing possible. 

And then there are the uncomfortable truths to which many of us are willfully blind:  the above ground nuclear testing by the nations with nuclear arms, which harmed people and environment from the Algerian Sahara to the Marshall Islands; the money from the U.S. slave trade that funded prestigious colleges; the extent and complexity of the Holocaust; the crimes of colonialism. 

“Sapere aude”--dare to know--was a motto for the Age of the Enlightenment in Europe in the 18th century, although its first documented use seems to have been by the Roman poet Horace in 20 BCE. With the swamp of information on social media and the internet, daring to know must include daring to know what truly happened—sorting facts from false facts. We must dare to know what is in the archives, both the information that makes us uncomfortable as well as that which supports our beliefs. A healthy society supports those who dare to know.


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.