Archives and the Public Good: Accountability and Records in Modern Society

Carl Newton (Visiting Professor of Archives, Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK)

Records Management Journal

ISSN: 0956-5698

Article publication date: 1 August 2004




Newton, C. (2004), "Archives and the Public Good: Accountability and Records in Modern Society", Records Management Journal, Vol. 14 No. 2, pp. 95-96.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This is probably the most important work published on archives since Posner's Archives and the Public Interest of 1967, a work curiously not acknowledged by the editors despite the close similarity of title and theme. It deals with a number of often alarming cases of the misuse of power in allegedly democratic societies in which archives played a major role and raises significant questions about the professional integrity of archivists and their ethical responsibilities. The editors believe that archives are the “glue of society” and the majority of the contributions demonstrate their thesis admirably. The work is divided into sections dealing with the need to explain to the public what archives are and the role they play; secrecy; memory; and trust (forgery and failure to keep adequate records). The individual cases recounted are drawn primarily from the USA but also from South Africa, Canada and Australia and include well‐known cause celebre such as Iran‐Contra, Holocaust victims' assets, and the Fabrikant and Heiner affairs. Also included are less well‐known examples ranging from the dispute over the papers of Martin Luther King to the collapse of the Jamaican banking system which resulted in widespread social distress, here convincingly assigned primarily to poor record keeping. There are also important chapters on the sanitisation of the records of the apartheid regime in South Africa and the attempt by a tobacco company to suppress records demonstrating the harmful effects of its products.

Not all the contributions make the same impact and in one or two cases it is difficult to understand why they are included. The most curious piece is that supplied under the auspices of the International Records Management Trust dealing with the problems of sub‐Saharan Africa. This article displays most fully a concept which is sometimes implicit elsewhere – the belief that a sound filing and record system will turn corrupt, tribally‐oriented, and orally‐based societies into good members of the Western democratic club. In the 1920s the Germans had the best record management system in the world. It did not save them from the Third Reich, indeed it can be argued it was a valuable aid to Nazi tyranny. Democrats use records democratically, dictators autocratically. Similarly the appalling story of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study was surely the result of a moral failure on the part of the medical profession, suppression of the record followed on that and was not its cause.

British archivists and records managers should see more in this work than a useful bit of propaganda for their roles. Most of the contributions raise issues of major import for all archivists and records managers wherever they work. To list only a few of these: the necessity for precision in the description of records units and the avoidance of general/miscellaneous file titles; the weakness of “indefinite” retention periods; the too easy acceptance of received order as original order; variations in the way in which depositors and users are treated; the problem of selective preservation as an appraisal method (the really significant case can be missed); ascribing value on the basis of use; the misleading nature of much accepted practice in archive series description; the lack of universally acknowledged professional standards for either records managers or archivists and the lack of any means of enforcement even by peer review methods; the belief (or pretence) that the archivist is only concerned with historical criteria; whether there can be independent judgement if archivists and records managers are the employees of power structures. The book is in many respects depressing, not to say alarming. However the crucial importance of archives is clear throughout and some comments are inspirational, e.g. “archives (are) … active agents of political accountability, social memory, and national identity.” Nowhere have I seen a better statement of the ethical issue than on page 64 of this work:

[…] for records to be credible the records management and archival processes themselves must be based on sound theoretical concepts of value, on logical strategies and methodologies … and on consistent practice, verifiable implementation, and transparent documentation. Archivists and records managers must likewise themselves be transparent and accountable for all their decisions.

Significantly and properly none of the authors make any distinction between archives and records management and reject the thesis that archives are about history, thus depriving British archivists of one of their major “get‐out clauses” whenever ethical issues are discussed here (which is not often). Needless to say the book contains no example from British experience. The point was noted at the recent Liverpool Conference on “Political Pressure and the Archival Record” that most of the UK participants actually talked about experience elsewhere. Yet events as recent as the Hutton Inquiry and the Soham murder trial have drawn attention to record issues. The fact is that tyranny can operate just as easily in a pin‐stripe suit and with an Oxbridge accent as in military uniform and with gutteral tones. This is a vital work; read it, but be prepared to be disturbed.

Related articles