To NARA is Human; To Forgive, Divine

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Allana Mayer

Historically-minded folks will likely have seen the flare-up and fizzle-out of scandal around the USA’s National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in January. A Washington Post reporter noted that applique images on the walls of the NARA Museum lobby had blurred out words on signs held by Women’s March protesters in 2017. The blurred words included “pussy” as well as “Trump” on a “God Hates Trump” sign. 

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Cher may have been one of the most vocal and famous critics, but she wasn’t the only one.

NARA, in its apology after the public backlash, noted that the photograph was a purchased stock image they used as part of the hallway exhibit, not an official NARA archival record, and that they would never alter their own archival holdings. The word “pussy” was removed to keep the display “family-friendly” and “Trump” was blurred “so as not to engage in current political controversy.” 

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This story only came to light because the WaPo reporter noticed it by chance while there to research another story about the Archives and tourism.  Let’s consider the odds that a major news outlet journalist would have noticed a blurred patch on a sign in a photograph of a protest, versus the odds that a conservative visitor would have noticed the word “pussy” or gotten offended about “God hates Trump.” I would guess the odds of the former were way lower than the latter, and that the latter seems like it would draw significantly more ire, from significantly more volatile people. The design and communications staff of the exhibits part of the Museum part of NARA probably hedged the right bet. 

I specify the particular department of NARA for a reason: experienced archives workers who grapple with the ethical dimensions of record preservation and access are a relatively small subset of the total NARA staff. There are programming staff who work with classes and tours; there are facilities staff who deal with humidity fluctuations and roof leaks; there are administrative professionals who keep the lights on; there are museum staff who curate; there are communications people who work towards specific strategic promotion and awareness goals. 

In small archives one person might be doing all that work, but in the biggest archives in North America, these roles may never even interact in the workplace. NARA and most large heritage organizations are not bodies without organs: they are full of chunks and bits and moving parts, ones that often work against one another. 

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Most of these people have specific training in other fields – not archival principles and ethics – that they bring to the job as intended: to fill gaps in archivists’ abilities to run entire national agencies. This is how it’s supposed to work. The fact that some people ordering wall appliques thought some small bits of Photoshop might be in order is not interesting. The fact that they took the decision up the flagpole and got approval from administrators is also not really that interesting. The WaPo said this:

“The Archives said the decision to obscure the words was made as the exhibit was being developed by agency managers and museum staff members. It said David S. Ferriero, the archivist of the United States who was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009, participated in talks regarding the exhibit and supports the decision to edit the photo.” 

All that says is that Ferriero (a career library administrator) “participated in talks regarding the exhibit” – not talks regarding this specific issue – and that “he supports the decision” – which reads that he was made aware of it after the kerfuffle and is showing solidarity (or was, until the apology). It doesn’t say this decision made it past “agency managers and museum staff.” In the longer personal apology from Ferriero, he takes pains to stress that this was not a case of external influence or censorship – which doesn’t seem to be a concern for most people, but is almost definitely a concern for NARA and its continued standing. David Perry gave us the phrase “voluntary self-corruption” for this – compromising for the sake of flying under the radar.

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I don’t mean to nitpick, but we don’t have evidence that archival ethics were ever called into question. Museum ethics, of course, may not be too far away, but museum professionals also professionally curate. If it was just a museum, not a museum attached to an archives, would the outcry be the same?

It would be impossible to ensure every NARA employee has the professional ethics of archival science instilled in to their every action, nor would that necessarily be preferable. Archives workers are misaligned with many contemporary values and zeitgeists. The archival profession attracts a certain type (and gender) of people based on what it has in the past, and if we want to change that, we need radical work towards diversifying and reimagining our entire profession from the associations to the schools to the workplaces. So archivists get input from lawyers and from communications professionals and from people who know their business better than they know ours. It’s another deeply concerning (and long-standing, and difficult-to-change) trait of archivists that we often bow to others’ expertise at the expense of our own. 

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Of course, it doesn’t take specialized training to hold dear the idea that truth is sacred and should be protected. But it is impossible to screen candidates for NARA work, no matter the department, based on that point. Making someone swear an oath doesn’t make it true. What would an agency-wide corrective training or policy look like to protect against future incidents? I’m willing to bet it can’t be done.

Librarians at the Library of Congress made a different decision on this exact issue: they switched out a similar exhibit photograph based on fears it would draw negative attention from pro-Trumpers. You may feel that rejecting a photo is more or less ethical than editing it. But, regardless of library or archive or museum, you can of course draw your own conclusions (and share them in the comments, please). Tweet screenshot

But, if I can, I would ask those who displayed an impressive amount of online outrage about this story to channel it towards the actual NARA misstep of not retaining ICE records pertaining to sexual abuse. (They will be destroyed after 25 years at ICE, though you can FOI them first.) Or get outraged that the White House had to commit records-management staff to scotch-tape documents back together after Trump kept ripping them up (and that two of those staff were fired). 

You can lobby Congress to create powers to hold Trump to his own recordskeeping requirements. You scan also check back in on NARA to see how they’ve made good on their promise to reevaluate and incorporate new agency-wide standards. Also check regularly on NARA’s regular public consultation practices regarding records retention and appraisal

I wish I could offer you something for the Canadian equivalent, but here we’re reduced to simply wishing that the federal government would draft a Public Records Act in the first place with a clear duty to document. Instead we have a bunch of unenforceable records directives that fail so impressively that Library and Archives Canada actually had to ask nicely for Stephen Harper’s personal papers instead of just being granted access to them by default. 

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This is not the first, nor will it be the last, time a major government body charged with a “sacred duty” of documentation will fail in that mission. You may remember that in the Harper years Library and Archives Canada had $10 million slashed from its budget, causing irreparable damage to its core processes, while its workers were being muzzled on what they could talk about and even which professional conferences they could attend. The Trudeau government has not restored this funding; it hasn’t even talked about it. All this while LAC is dealing with unprecedented changes in accepting and processing digital records, social media posts, and texts. 

But more than money, LAC needs legislative power to command and control, and legislative distance to stay accountable to citizens and not political parties. Where none exists, failure is inevitable. Voluntary self-corruption happens out of fear, fear of being totally vulnerable and under the thumb and subject to the whims of politicians with every imaginable flaw.

A “full and thorough investigation into how this happened” will not ensure it never happens again, but it might take focus away from lots of other important aspects of the archival mission, which include: mandating records deposit from hundreds of government agencies; processing those records into some semblance of coherent order and description; providing physical and online access to thousands of journalists and researchers every year; digitizing huge swathes of the collection to improve access, use, and awareness; developing and sharing standards for the betterment of the profession; handing out funding to smaller organizations across the country; and performing all these to the best of a national archives’s ability while flying under the radar of whatever government they’re currently operating under so they don’t see their budgets cut (further). 

If it feeds your activism, you can by all means continue to believe that the authenticity of government documentation is under threat. But, authenticity is more likely under threat from underfunding and lack of authoritative legislation than from intentional manipulation, but if you fix the former two it’ll go a good way towards mitigating the latter.

Allana Mayer is an archivist, researcher, and writer in Hamilton, and writes about art and culture, technology, copyright, and history. She’s currently the Digital Archivist for the Canadian Friends Historical Society, the Digital Archivist for the Oakville Arts Council, and the Media Coordinator at OurDigitalWorld. 

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