Read a good book lately?

This post was written by guest blogger David McMillen, External Affairs Liaison in the Department of Strategy and Communications.

I want to invite you to join me in Alexandria, VA in May to hear Randall Jimerson speak.  He is the keynote speaker at the spring Mid-American Regional Archives Conference (MARAC), and he is a voice to be heard.  Let me first tell you why you might want to hear what Randall Jimerson has to say.

Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice by Randall C. Jimerson
Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice by Randall C. Jimerson

Randall Jimerson is a scholar both by practice and by temperament.  In 2009, the Society of American Archivists published his odyssey, Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice. It is a tightly packed and personal pilgrimage through the world of archives.  It is about our roles, our responsibilities, and our reflections as professionals.

The breadth of Jimerson’s scholarship is staggering.  His quotes roam from Cicero to Vonnegut to Bob Marley.  His foundation builds from cave paintings to twitters.  Consider just the headings from his history of archives:

  • Archives in the Ancient World
  • The Classical Age: Greece
  • The Classical Age: Rome
  • Literacy and Archives in Carolingian Europe
  • England Under the Normans
  • The Renaissance and Early Modern Europe
  • The French Revolution and Democratic Archives
  • National Identity and Archival Theory

And that only gets us to the end of the Nineteenth Century.

Randall C. Jimerson
Randall C. Jimerson

Scholarship is only the initial appeal of Archives Power. Jimerson begins with a metaphor of archives as restaurants.  The archivist serves those hungry for information by giving them a menu from which to choose and then mediating between the customer and the kitchen (read stacks).  As with a restaurant, a satisfied archives customer wants a floor staff that is cheerful, helpful, and efficient, and a kitchen that rates four stars.  “the archives kitchen staff…decide what will be on the menu, and prepare records for use (selection, acquisition, arrangement, description), and keep everything neat and sanitary (preservation, security).” P. 8.  He does not stop with metaphor.

To discuss political power, Jimerson draws on the works of George Orwell (Animal Farm, 1984) and Milan Kundera (The Importance of Being Ernest). Orwell’s theme of “the struggle for truth, power, memory, and identity play out clearly against the background of the Soviet Union’s oppression of Czechoslovakia during the cold war era” in Kundera’s work.  At each step this literary sojourn reminds us of our responsibilities in managing the raw materials of history.

Jimerson speaks from his own past in writing about social responsibility and ethics. Jimerson’s father, a veteran of WWII, served as chaplain of a federal reformatory, and as a mediator between the white power structure and black activists in Alabama.  His family was forced to leave the Southern Baptist Church and Alabama amidst death threats and harassing telephone calls.  They migrated north where his parents were co-directors of a peace center in rural Virginia.

Archives provide an authentic record of human activity, and thus a means of holding those actors accountable.  If archivists accept the power in their holdings “the archival record can support the goals of democracy, open government, social justice, and diversity.” P. 277.  Jimerson confronts the shibboleth that objectivity equals neutrality and challenges archivists to become activists.  Recognizing this distinction “permits an archivist to engage in moral or political advocacy without sacrificing…professional standards.” P. 351.

Archives Power is a commanding book.

Please join me to hear Randall Jimerson speak about these issues on Friday, May 6, 2011 at 9 AM.  More information on MARAC’s Spring Conference can be found at:

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