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Archival Trust: A Report From SAA New Orleans, 2013

By Anna Gurton-Wachter, Archives Assistant, Fales Library & Special Collections
There was a lot to take in at this year’s Society of American Archivists conference in New Orleans. It was my first time attending and I wanted to hear it all. I heard about loads of exciting projects, lightbulbs were constantly going off in my mind. “Yes! Let’s make it all possible!” I said like a true whippersnapper. As much as I was invigorated by all of the differences I heard among the diverging groups, I was also surprised by how much we all overlapped. One surprise was how frequently I heard varying ideas about archival trust. Was such a basic and age-old principle, perhaps at the very heart of the profession, still something we were getting all riled up about? First, manuscript repositories were in a huff over the outsourcing of preservation work. Was handing over three terabytes of digital material to be preserved the same as sending out papers for microfilming? Were archivists legitimately fearful of sending away this data, or were they being paranoid and fearful of change? How could we decipher who could be trusted with such large amounts of amorphous material?
Trust was again the issue on the table in a discussion of legal issues in oral history projects. Although most oral historians seemed to be in agreement that institutional review boards were too strict and structurally irrelevant to the actual work of oral history, another perspective voiced the potential need for IRBs, because the trust between interviewee and interviewer is a fragile one; many subjects do not realize until they are being recorded how difficult and personal the topic of discussion will be. Is it being made fully clear to narrators beforehand how widely their material will be disseminated? In the human rights roundtable I found similar discussions about postcustodial methods of collecting. Does the collaborative nature of the postcustodial method require additional or unique long term relationships of trust be built up before the transferring back and forth of materials can begin? Archivists attempting new acquisitions strategies encountered many organizations which were hesitant to give up materials, but really needed to buddy up with a large institution that could afford preservation costs – but did they want to be allied (or seen as allied) with these larger institutions? This roundtable lent itself easily to a discussion of archivists getting involved in documenting community movements, such as Occupy Wall Street, in which archivists described themselves as being in a position to be honest about their motives and intentions while assisting in decision-making which would incorporate a larger institutional presence into a community-based group. Everyone stressed the need to build up trust over time, budgeting in several visits with these movements. In all of these scenarios, trust didn’t just get mentioned on the sidelines, but was seen as the main element around which everything else orbited.
I started to think about my own experiences at the Fales Special Collections at NYU. Recently, I was at an artist’s home assisting her in packing up her materials to take away to Fales. She came across some drawings that were of particular emotional significance to her. She decided these should probably not go with everything else, they should stay with her. I felt the need to remind her that they would probably be better preserved in our care, but also to reiterate it was not my place to tell her what to do. She seemed to have heard that our preservation would be of a high quality but did not fully let sink in or understand the extent of the meaning of the word ‘preservation’. Trust and mystery were in the room. As anyone who has worked in an archival repository can imagine, it was not the first time I had encountered someone with so many unknowns about what archives do. At the SAA meeting, I noticed how frequently people were discussing researchers’ habits, their needs, their patterns, as if they were completely other, foreign, sometimes purely abstracted as statistical data. Weren’t many of us researchers too? Perhaps our heated debates about trusting others, and becoming trusted, were linked to our desire to jump over to the other side – the community, the narrator, the vendor, the donor, the researcher – to understand and be understood as we attempt to acknowledge the fragile gesture of the jump itself.

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