On Entitlement and Responsibility in Archives

This week, specifically “Sight Unseen” and “Opening Archives on the Recent American Past,” resonated with me as they relate to the tension between privacy and public knowledge. Privacy is very important to me, both personally and professionally, and my respect for the concept extends not just to the living, but to the dead as well. It is easy to get caught up in the deep curiosity that comes from research—we want to know as much as possible and the more intimate the better to try to form a comprehensive interpretive understanding, but at least personally I try to temper this curiosity with responsibility and respect. I do make exceptions, especially when it comes to my own family research, but generally I try to air on the side of caution with others.

Through my considerable experience as a genealogist, I understand just how personal family history can be to some people. As I sift through documents and records seeking clues to individuals and family units, I often come across surprises for the living. Some of these surprises, such as a Revolutionary War soldier, a politician, or even a slave who participated in a revolt, are eye-opening to the living and often provide them with a deep sense of connection to both history and their own family roots. Other surprises are more complex: a slave owner, a soldier who participated in the Trail of Tears, a murderer. These are often met with mixed feelings. Some find that these revelations help them to not only have a greater connection to the past, but they also give a stronger awareness of unbroken threads of injustice and oppression that continue to the present day—an awareness that leads to a dedication to do better than one’s ancestors. Some, however, refuse to acknowledge these “undesirables” in their family trees. They will share my positive findings with their extended families, but will leave out any of the perceived negatives, thus giving an incomplete genealogy for posterity. In the end, it is a person’s prerogative to do what she will with my findings. It is her business.

Regarding my personal genealogy, I tend to obsess over some of these surprises. I have multiple slave owners in my past (and I will forever remember the only slave I could find in records; her name was Dian), and one of my ancestors has the distinction of being among the first Europeans to kill another European on American soil. I also have a town drunkard, multiple child abandoners, and a more recent ancestor who spent considerable time imprisoned in a Kirkbride mental hospital in the early 20th century. I “own” all of these people and I feel free to talk about them and share their stories with people because they are mine to talk about, within reason. In some cases, especially my more recent ancestor, out of respect for his memory and dignity (even though he has been dead for decades), I keep details minimal and will never publish the emotional letters he wrote from the institution, which I hold in my private collection.

But my focus as a historian (other than incorporating digital multimedia) is on African American life in the South between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights movement. The social activist in me wants to tell these stories in a manner that highlights the injustices done at this time—to expose the unfairness and inequality that still persists today. But I do not intend to be an activist, but rather an advocate. And as an advocate, I must acknowledge my voice within the work and separate my own activist feelings in favor of stakeholder wishes. One can individually rail against the system as an activist, but an advocate cannot work apart from the dignity of the community she is working with.

Working on the grassroots projects that I am currently involved with, Beacon Hill and Section 6, I have been learning that my indignation is my own and has no place in how I present my findings as a public historian. Some of my stakeholders lived through the era I am studying and presenting to the public, and many of them know the people that I am researching who are buried in Section 6. For those who grew up in Beacon Hill, they do not want to be treated like victims, but rather they want to highlight their achievements and their community strength. And the people I am researching in Section 6 have living descendants—in the absence of tracking everyone down, how much do I reveal publicly about my findings? For instance, I recently acquired the actual names of those buried in public and pauper graves—an incredibly rare find in cemetery research. Do I publish these names so that these individuals are identified and therefore memorialized, even though they couldn’t afford a personal gravesite and marker? How will this poverty—and publicizing of it—be received by their descendants? While some may find strength in honoring their dead and this may catalyze more interest in heritage study, others may feel betrayed or may cease any further delving into their pasts. I bear responsibility as the one who holds the information and plans to publish much of it.

I praise the journalists in “Sight Unseen” who opted for respecting the privacy of the soldier and his family over presenting a story to the public of the horrors of war. Could the photographic article have had an impact on the public’s view of war? Perhaps. But choosing a perceived greater good over the rights of individuals opens up a slippery slope. As historians of the recent past, if we choose our perception of the greater good over the desires of the living, we stand to lose public trust and cooperation, not to mention we risk being accused of being self-serving and exploitative. In the eyes of those whose histories we are exposing, we are not telling fictions but the real experiences of human beings.

Similarly, even the public availability of archives is a tricky matter. As “Opening Archives” discusses, many archivists value accessibility over the privacy of second or third parties. I see this as problematic for various reasons. First, in my opinion at least, our desire to know does not trump the dignity of any individual whose stories may be unknowingly exposed. The idea of publishing the entirety of a judge’s papers, which include a letter naming an adolescent victim of rape, is repugnant to me. I don’t really care how long it would take to sort through this collection to find similar documents or how long these documents have already been in circulation. To willfully include such material could ruin one person’s life; if the value of the collection is so great, then the mission to preserve the integrity of privacy should be just as great. Humane responsibility comes with being the caretaker of archives.

We have grown up in a culture of instant access to information. Millions, if not billions, of dollars are made every year in media coverage of the private lives of celebrities. Do we have the right to this information, just because these individuals have careers in the spotlight? Similarly, do we have the right to access (or even share) personal information on anyone, living or dead, just because it exists? What makes us as historians so privileged as to assume that all records, even intimate ones, of human beings should be freely accessible to us? Sure, we wish to use this information to tell stories of our human history, but why are we entitled to it?

If we are disappointed in not having access to the private archives of individuals, whose materials could shed light on important issues, then we should ask ourselves why these collection holders do not wish to share. For instance, there are very few, if any, public archival resources on Beacon Hill—its physical presence or its people. However, there is a wealth of documentation in private holdings. Individuals have mounds of photographs, newspaper clippings, and other articles in their personal belongings and have no intention of ever giving this over to a public archive, even posthumously. For people who have lived through segregation and urban renewal, who have been underrepresented or misrepresented, what incentive have they to give their physical memories to arguably the same people that have ignored, displaced, or profaned them for so long? This is where integrity comes in, and building trust at the grassroots level. For my own future project regarding Beacon Hill, these private archives are a gold mine to me—a way to personalize my research for others and to put faces to the names that I have accumulated for years now. It is possible that many of the holders of these archives will let me digitize their material for my virtual exhibition/memorial, but it will take me proving that I will only use this material according to their wishes and will not use them as part of a personal agenda. Could this stand to prohibit the richest story I can tell? Possibly. But these are their stories and their archives and it is not my place to exploit them, even if I personally think it will contribute to a greater good.

And that’s what it comes down to when we are in the realm of recent history. To publish findings against the will of those who have a stake in the tale is to be exploitative, regardless of how passionately you feel about an issue. While you are free to decide to share whatever best supports your narrative, regardless of the feelings of others, you do so at the risk of ever getting someone to share again. We have to make many decisions as historians and of course many are not easy. We are not examining particles in a petri dish, but human beings with complex histories and emotions. I just always keep close to my mind and heart that there are consequences and I try to build my integrity accordingly.

– Laurel Wilson

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