Policy Papers

Conference Report: Political pressure and the archival record

Mike Steemson |

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Executive Summary

  • Without preservation and access to authentic records to challenge contemporary ideologies, official doctrines can too easily pose as genuine histories.
  • Both collective memory and particular records can be as vital as life and land: invading armies know this and have repeatedly attempted to destroy national archives.
  • International laws to protect seized documents should therefore be simplified, with recognition given to human rights protection, legal arbitration and document restitution.
  • Even within some of the world's leading liberal democracies, such as U.S.A., South Africa, U.K., Australia, and Japan, governments and public bodies have been cavalier in their respect for the independence and integrity of archival information.
  • The obligation on public officials to keep full and accurate records should therefore be enforced by open benchmarking standards, and still needs support from courageous whistle-blowing.
  • An important first step can be taken if archivists and records managers engage in public debate on these issues. For they are not impartial custodians, but rather the active documenters of society and shapers of social memory.


The international scene today makes it plain that the compilation and use of records is a crucial factor in holding governments and public authorities accountable to their people. The management of records and historical archives has traditionally been seen as a neutral matter. The findings of this first international conference to examine the question of political pressures on the archival record show clearly that such pressures do exist and that their effects are far-reaching, both on society in general and on individual citizens.

These matters have not been exposed to public examination before. The material emanating from the conference is an effective and appropriate first step in bringing forward the question of the public memory, and in developing legal and ethical frameworks to protect it.

The conference was organised by the Liverpool University Centre for Archive Studies (LUCAS) in July 2003. It was attended by delegates from Britain, the USA, Japan, Taiwan, South Africa, Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, Botswana, Belgium, New Zealand, Slovenia, Mozambique, St Lucia and Norway. The following summary of the proceedings has been provided for LUCAS by one of the conference delegates, Mike Steemson, an independent records and management information consultant, leader of the Caldeson Consultancy in Wellington, NZ.

Political pressure and the archival record

University of Tokyo Professor Masahito Ando has worked with the Department of Historical Documents at Tokyo's National Institute of Japanese Literature since 1977, as a professor there since 1988. He revealed to delegates the wholesale looting, destruction and concealment of records by Japanese aggressors in Asia and the Pacific during the 20th Century. The invaders had not only caused serious loss of life and property, he said, but had destroyed 'the foundation of people's memory' in the region and in Japan itself. He warned: 'The arguments of Japanese nationalist academics who deny or distort the facts of Japan's war crimes profit by this gap in its history.' It was a brave statement, one for which he risked not-inconsiderable social and academic displeasure back in his community, but he went on. He exemplified a junior high school history textbook, approved by Japan's Ministry of Education in April 2001, whose authors 'put forward such unacceptable arguments as to deny or distort facts of Japan's war crimes, taking advantage of the lack of records or even finding their reasons in the non-existence of records.' He appealed for the establishment in Japan of the concept of archivists as 'keepers of society's memory' and pleaded for international exchange or repatriation of records to help the nation build a true memory of itself.

Disposal of evidence of war is not the exclusive domain of Japanese Imperial forces. A former Acting Archivist of the United States, Dr Trudy Huskamp Peterson, told the conference that the depredations perpetrated in Europe by the Napoleonic army were well known and produced the resigned judgement of a 1990's archives repatriation study: 'We can't go back and undo Napoleon.' Furthermore, Dr Peterson recalled that Korean archivists had spoken of the 1866 seizure of royal manuscripts by the French Navy. Records of the Kuwait Foreign Ministry were taken by Iraq and only returned just before the latest Iraq War. Russian, U.S and U.K. holdings from World War II seizures were still extensive. International laws to protect seized documents had to be simplified, she said, with recognition given to human rights protection, legal arbitration and document restitution.

Later in the conference, Keeper of the Records of Scotland, George MacKenzie, introduced another element, the strengthening of laws and establishment of the International Committee of the Blue Shield, a sort-of Red Cross for protection in war of heritage buildings, archives, buildings and other cultural sites. He said that the UNESCO agency undertook a survey in 1996 to measure the loss to the 'Memory of the World' in obliterated records in armed conflicts. Over 6,000 institutions in 105 countries reported war losses. In Asia, Europe and the Pacific, there has been major predation.

South African History Archive director, Verne Harris, called for what he described as 'archives for justice' in the world and in his own republic, where, he said; 'the imprints of Apartheid remain resilient.' He told of the heady post-Apartheid days, the passing of the 1996 National Archives of South Africa Act after "a long gestation period involving broad-based consultations with stakeholders" providing a blueprint for the transformation of the national archives system. 'Today, this period seems like a false dawn,' he told delegates. He, too, risks home-based retribution for speaking out about later 'worrying' amendments to the Archives Act including disbandment of the watchdog National Archives Commission; 'growing, ironic' restrictions on archived records under terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act, 2000, and the 'complex, frustrating and often futile' processes for access to archives of the new nation's foundation body, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He challenged: "In archives, as in society, democracy lives and breathes through contestation. The space for contestation is the holy place where justice happens, if it happens. If archivists eschew this space, then they turn their backs on higher callings and condemn themselves to being merely bureaucrats and functionaries."

Australian archivist, Chris Hurley, told two stories illustrating this point, one concerning himself when Keeper of Public Record for the Australian state of Victoria in the 1990's, the other about another, contemporary Australian state archivist. The first episode concerned his personal battles over apparent breaches of archival statute with Victoria State bureaucrats, leading, eventually, to his dismissal. The other was the account of a Queensland Government's destruction of judicial inquiry records after application to the State Archivist, a still-active political row known as the 'Heiner Affair', after the magistrate whose inquiry was halted and whose records were destroyed. Hurley's archival principles also ran him into controversy with bureaucrats in New Zealand (where later, for two years, he headed the national Archives N.Z.), over his uncompromising stand on the record-keeping rights and wrongs of the Heiner Affair. Now Chief Archivist for an Australian banking group, he insisted it was not enough just to oblige public officials to make and keep full and accurate records. The obligation had to be enforced in some way and this requires a benchmarking standard to test archivists' decisions. 'That is what archivists, like anyone faced by new accountability requirements, find so threatening. It would remove the autonomy they now enjoy to keep or dispose of records entirely within their own discretion.' He added: 'I am optimistic that it can be done, less so that the will exists to do it.'

Not all political pressure arraigned against archival authority is as aggressive as these accounts suggest. Passive resistance, albeit staunch and draconian, was also widely revealed in the conference papers. Six weeks after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States of America, President George W. Bush revoked his National Archives and Records Administration's (NARA) responsibility for providing access to presidential records. Thereafter, only the White House itself could authorise access. Thus began the Bush administration's so-called 'information lockdown', Thomas James Connors told the conference. Connors is curator of the Maryland University's National Public Broadcasting Archives. He went on to detail subsequent actions by the Administration to deny Freedom of Information requests, censor federal agency web sites and refuse information even to legislative branches of Government. The 'lockdown' was opposed in the U.S. Congress, and by scholars, information professionals and civil liberty activists, he said, but the disputed Total Information Awareness (TIA) programme was still pushed through, cynically renamed Terrorism Information Awareness.

Fellow American, journalist and freedom of information advocate, Tom Blanton, the director of the independent National Security Archive at the George Washington University, backed Connors' call for democratic government through open information access. His paper From the Stasi files to the White House email: freedom of information and its challenges to power, was a review of international campaigning against governmental secrecy and control of national memory.

In the British police force, resistance to information access is widespread. Social historian Dr Chris Williams, a research fellow in the European Centre for the Study of Policing at the U.K. Open University, showed that despite publication of guidelines and new laws, many of the 50 or so provincial police forces appear considerably less open to the public even than supposedly more secretive security forces. Police had a strong symbolic attachment to control of information about how they worked, Dr Williams said, especially information about the way the job was done. London's Metropolitan Police force was covered by the U.K.'s Public Records Act but the remainder were not and the documentary evidence they left was poor. Dr Williams and his Open University colleague, Clive Emsley, had carried out a survey of the provincial forces that produced 'encouraging noises', but for most of the forces much more needed doing.

Similar abhorrence of public scrutiny had been observed in New Zealand security services, delegates were told. The Victoria University of Wellington's School of Information Management lecturer Rachel Lilburn said that the country's security services were covered by its Archives Act, adding: 'It is a fact that the records of very few internal and external security monitoring agencies' records have been subject to formal appraisal and been transferred to Archives New Zealand.' Public reactions to occasional publicity, efforts of the newly-strengthened Archives N.Z. and pressure from other official sources were slowly bringing about changes, Lilburn said. Unless archivists and records managers engaged in the debate, they tacitly supported the status quo and the powers that 'chose to mislead the public, believing that a democracy survives on never-ending secrecy.' And she joined the conference's clarion call: 'Let us remind ourselves again that archivists and record-keepers are not impartial custodians, but are the active documenters of society and shapers of social memory.'

American electronic information management consultant Rick Barry expanded this thought in his keynote Ethics and social issues for creators, managers and users of records. He is a member of the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility and characterised an 'ethical dilemma' as being 'where a personal stand or decision is required to identify and resolve ethically-conflicting choices of action.' They were dilemmas that faced not only members of archives and records management communities, but also other information managers, users and creators. He told how author and former US Internal Revenue Service historian Shelley Davis had faced such a dilemma but, in her best-selling book Unbridled Power: Inside the Secret Culture of the IRS, had blown the whistle on the agency's record practices. She revealed, amongst other things, extensive document destruction, an IRS "enemies list" and a wasted US$4 billion on a failed computer system. Barry told the stories of other whistleblowers, including the three women named by Time magazine as 2002's Persons of the Year: Sherron Watkins, the Enron vice president who warned that the company's methods of accounting were improper; Coleen Rowley, the FBI lawyer who revealed how the Bureau had ignored information on one of the September 11 conspirators; and Cynthia Cooper who exposed the business records that concealed WorldCom's US$3.8 billion losses. 'These are some people who did stand up,' said Barry. 'We should celebrate them as our champions.'

Botswana University Library and Information Studies lecturer Shadrack Katuu dwelt on record-keeping political ethics, too, but he chose to consider 'political pressure' in its 'human society' context, not simply from its overheated, overstressed Parliamentary representatives. He wanted greater attention by archival professionals for the societal peripheries, documentation of the voices of the native and new immigrant people rather than just the privileged intellectuals at the cultural centre, concern for the records of nations like many in Africa with long oral traditions, and for the AID pandemic menacing not just archival but whole national structures. 'While professionals at the peripheries will worry about, for example, physiological needs and safety in places of conflicts like Kosovo, Chechnya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Liberia or Iraq, their colleagues at the hub will concern themselves with needs for professional belongingness and esteem,' Katuu said.

But the conference was more than just warnings, horror stories and archival stoicism. There were good news stories, too, like historian-archivist Dr Godfried Kwanten's description of the rise of Belgium's archives from the 'disastrous' 1980's and a somnolent national archives, to the four modern Flemish institutions with huge holdings of political records managed to international professional and ethical criteria. He told delegates: 'Thanks to their interest, the State Archives is now evincing more interest in political records.'

In Holland, too, good news came from bad. Dr Agnes E. M. Jonker, a teacher in the Master of Archival Studies programme of the University of Amsterdam, told the conference how good record-keeping practice grew from the debacle of Royal Dutch Army's mid-1990's peacekeeping in Bosnia as Serbs slaughtered Muslims by the thousands and peacekeepers were powerless to intervene. In the Netherlands' political storms that followed, commissions of inquiry were thwarted by badly-managed records from both the 'militaire operatiën' (military missions) and the domestic Government agencies. The result: a €40 million taskforce programme to put things right, said Dr Jonker. She concluded: 'A taskforce called Delta-plan, named after the gigantic construction in the Netherlands in defence against the sea, orchestrates the long march across the agencies, from basement to the top, aiming to change the records management attitude for good.'

The new Archives of the Republic of Slovenia was another positive result from the horrors of the Balkan Wars. The institution's turbulent foundation, an amalgamation of archives of the Labour movement, the Communist Party and the Internal Affairs Ministry, was described by two of its archivists, Dr Jelka Melik and Aleksandra Serse. Their paper concluded that: 'Their archival material is nowadays easily accessible and open to the public, which was not always the case.'

Then there were the papers on challenges facing the record-keeping community. Penn State University Archivist Jacqueline R. Esposito examined the impact of the new USA Patriot Act, an example, she said, of the US's increasingly cavalier attitude to individual privacy, and 'the global scope of this type of legislative intrusion into institutional record-keeping.'

Claire Johnson, the Senior Records Manager in Glasgow University Archives Services and member of the university's Humanities Advanced Technology Information Institute (HATII), said that Scotland's new experience of devolved democracy relied greatly on digital dissemination, yet from the records management perspective, 'very little account has been taken of the needs of the public for e-democracy.'

The 'brave new world of electronic records management' brought benefits but threats, as well, thought Malcolm Todd, British National Archives ERM manager. 'There is a need for a new understanding between records managers and archivists and all those whom they serve, covering the issues of context and provenance. A new form of diplomatics, based on electronic records metadata, may be required to measure up to the challenge.'

Continuing battles between German and Polish activists over access to Nazi Party archives were revealed in the paper from Dr Astrid M. Eckert, a research fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C. And the former head of the German Federal Archives, the Bundesarchiv, Professor Friedrich P. Kahlenburg, regretted that the German unification treaty did not extend archives law to cover the files of the East German secret police, the Stasi-Atken. But, Professor Kahlenburg admitted: 'After my retirement, sometimes I feel tempted to dream of a Bundesarchiv independent from the executive power, exclusively responsible to the Parliament. Who knows! Since we mature as a democratic society in an increasingly united Europe in the 21st Century, we have to see change as a constant challenge.'

And there was more, all of which gave delegates 'a great deal of thoughts to develop', said Dr Michael Cook, the eminent Honorary Senior Fellow of the University of Liverpool and doyen of LUCAS, in his summation. The conference discussions had exposed important points of archive practice that deserved dissemination to the wider community. The ground covered by the debates had been impressive but showed that, geographically, the world-wide adoption of proper archival practice was only patchy. The theme had been the position of archivists in relation to their political masters and users and what they do in response to pressure from political sources. Looming throughout the conference had been concerns over the electronic age and the information 'black holes' it threatened to create. The debate would continue on archival legislation, legal standards and codes of ethics and practice, the questions of appraisal and inclusion of records, Dr Cook said.

At the end, delegates called for the discussion to continue at future events. The LUCAS director, Caroline Williams, agreed. As she put it: 'Archives and politics are joined at the hip. How we deal with this is what the conference is all about.'

The conference proceedings will be published by the Society of American Archivists in 2005. For further details, or to get in touch with any of the participants, contact Caroline Williams (c.m.williams@liverpool.ac.uk).

Further Reading

Liverpool University Centre for Archive Studies

UK National Archives

International Council on Archives


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