The Importance of Archives
As an archivist I’m often so bogged down in the nitty-gritty of day to day work that I forget just how important archives are for society as a whole. A recent news item has brought home to me the importance of archives and the vital role that an archivist can play. I am sharing this, not to boost my own ego, or those of my colleagues, but just to make others think about how archives can be taken for granted in our society, and recognize their immense value for all of us.
The news item which made me wax philosophical was the announcement of the opening of an inquest into the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. This has only been made possible because of the work of three archivists who were employed in 2009 to catalogue and make available over 450,000 documents relating to that tragic incident. As we now know, their work, alongside that of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, uncovered terrible truths which have been covered up for decades. The panel report is available using the link at the bottom of this article.
Reading the report I felt personally ashamed for my own share in the general ignorance about what really went on in 1989 – as a child in the 1980s I absorbed, as if by osmosis, the view that the football fans from Liverpool were somehow, at least in part, responsible for the terrible disaster which had befallen them. Had I grown up in the north-west I’m sure I would not have been so ignorant, but living in the south-east I was cocooned from the truth and subjected to the (sometimes deliberate) misinformation available in the media at the time.
I am not qualified to talk further about this particular tragedy, but I think the Panel shows how vital archives can be in bringing the truth to light. For the first time the Panel had access to unaltered, unedited, original records, whereas previously the only records available to inquiries had been heavily redacted and edited, with a particular bias in mind. Of course it would be wrong to think that any written record does not have a certain inherent bias, based on the views or agenda of the person who created them – but there is a difference between that kind of (usually subconscious) bias and a deliberate attempt to redact or edit records in order to cast blame on one party or another, without regard to the bigger picture.
The Panel also shows how vital it is that archivists work to a high ethical standard of their own – that we cannot be easily bribed or browbeaten into supporting one particular version of events. We tend to take this kind of ethical standard for archivists for granted but the possibility is always there for someone to add to, hide or even destroy records in return for financial or political gain. This may seem far-fetched but I am sure examples exist of archivists who have misbehaved in this way!
Another thing which struck me arising from the current inquest was a comment by Mark Austin of ITV who stated: “We knew those killed at Hillsborough in April 1989 were dads and sons and sisters and daughters, but we didn’t really know about their lives, their stories, who they were, what they did and what they meant to others.” (Mark Austin, ITV news, 15 April 2014).
Archives can capture these lives, stories, and what people meant to others, and preserve them long after memory has faded. That is surely the most important legacy they can provide, and it is one which makes them truly priceless.