Education, context, and bad behavior

Once upon a time there were two public employees. Public Employee A, who related the story, had worked for a public organization for a number of years, but was no longer employed there at the time of the story. PEA was still a personal friend of Public Employee B, who worked for the same organization but intended to move elsewhere and work in the same field. PEB told* PEA about an incident that happened before the relocation. PEB went to the public organization’s archives and removed several documents, apparently more or less at random, out of a stated desire to use them for teaching purposes. The documents in question were meeting minutes and PEB felt they were a good example of how public organizations discuss issues, reach decisions, and document their internal processes; in short, a good introduction to primary sources and the materials available in public archives. PEA’s disapproval fell on deaf ears.

There are a number of upsetting elements to the story. The obvious objection, raised by PEA, was “that’s stealing.” The obvious rejoinder of “nobody cares” is of course beside the point. But PEB’s moral blind spot is, in a way, the least irksome part of the story from an archival perspective.

It’s true, the records for the public organization in question have now been compromised. If future researchers with academic, legal, or other questions were relying on the contents of meeting minutes from a few decades ago, they’re out of luck. One wonders about the integrity of the rest of the records. The failure to care for the materials is of course troubling (and actually engenders some sympathy for the “nobody cares” defense).

But in some ways, the worst part is that PEB took these documents for educational purposes. This displays a stunning lack of understanding of archival principles and the uses of primary sources. PEB’s duties are not archival or research in nature…which perhaps excuses a certain amount of ignorance but further highlights the inappropriateness of PEB’s role as an educator in these subjects.

Joshua Sternfeld’s “Archival Theory and Digital Historiography” immediately leapt to mind when PEA was relating the story of stolen minutes. Sternfeld eviscerates the History Engine website for its lack of attention to provenance and general failure to contextualize material. Though conceding the potential value of a site devoted to encouraging students to visit archives and get a sense of “doing” history, Sternfeld criticizes History Engine-as-research-portal for its “flawed archival understanding,” “lackluster way of conducting historical research,” “muddled understanding of historical context,” and “brazen misappropriation of archival terminology.” I cannot imagine that any educational program PEB develops could be assessed so kindly.

With David Barton’s latest antics in the news, it is difficult to simply roll one’s eyes and shrug away the people who just don’t get it…particularly when they set out to be educators. I’m perfectly fine with the idea that professionals (really should have) a greater depth of understanding of their field than the general public.§ But there still ought to be some general idea of best practices, enough so a non-specialist can at least develop a decent bullshit detector. If somebody walks into a room waving around a piece of paper that purports to be meeting minutes from the 1950s or an advertisement for runaway slaves or something signed by Thomas Jefferson, it’s fine to ask “What does it say?” But there need to be follow up questions about provenance and context.

One hopes that professional archivists and historians would be trained to ask the most insightful follow up questions; that’s theoretically what they’re trained to do. But the general public should still have the reflexes to inquire further. The vague “primary documents are cool” evangelizing of an untrained thief, the fraught implementation of the University of Richmond, and the entire career of an amateur collector and political activist are quite different in their scope and intent. But in their way, each undermines that all-important impulse to ask not only what documents say, but what they mean.

* As opposed to “confessed,” which implies a certain degree of guilt or acknowledgement of culpability.

In this case, a bunch of boxes stacked in the corner of the basement.

Although most professional fields (including PEB’s) tend to frown on theft itself, whatever its broader implications. (Please insert your own joke about finance, real estate, or other sectors.)

§ This is not so much a cult of the expert as a pragmatic acknowledgement that we can’t all be brain surgeons, because it takes a really long time and if we’re all training to be brain surgeons then where do the rocket scientists come from?