It seems appropriate to address the topic of why we should value archives on Freedom of Information Day 2010. Freedom of Information Day celebrates open access to government information in a democratic culture. According to the American Library Association, the date is marked on the birthday of James Madison "who is widely regarded as the Father of the Constitution and as the foremost advocate for openness in government."
This week also marks "Sunshine Week" celebrating our right to access information in a free and open society. This initiative was begun in 2002 by newspaper editors in response to efforts of the Florida state government to make numerous exemptions to public records laws and thus to information's accessibility. The week is now celebrated nationwide in the United States and seeks to bring light to issues blocking freedom of information.
So, in celebration of these marked occasions, we must remember how archives help facilitate our freedoms by making government actions and decisions visible to the public. Archives secure our rights, keep our government systems running efficiently and openly. They hold liable those who may oppress us and devalue human rights, and ensure continuity in our government and social systems. Archives give us primary information about events so that we can better evaluate truth for ourselves, rather than solely through the lens of another interpreter.
However, the information archives offer us and archives' benefits extend beyond government records. Archives support research, inquiry, and lifelong learning. They encourage us to study ourselves, and to find value in what we do and who we are. They help us form a national and global identity and can help us secure a personal identity. They offer insight into how our ancestors live and how diverse cultures live so that we can evaluate our own role in society. Archives build a shared sense of purpose, forming valuable communities that strengthen pride and serve as society's building blocks for mutual appreciation, understanding, and peace. They encourage education and inquiry, while facilitating cultural entertainment and tourism. Archives preserve cherished memories and allow us to build on past successes while evaluating past failures to move society forward.
I am the granddaughter of holocaust survivors. As such, I always remember that the first thing oppressors do is try to peel away the identities of the oppressed so victims lose their sense of self and are devalued by society. While we may hold ideas about ourselves closely in our hearts, tangible documentation helps secure our identity, values and connections to a community. (Randall Jimerson addresses this in his book "Archives Power: Memory, Accountability and Social Justice" and brings the point home most clearly in discussions of George Orwell's writings.)
For all these reasons and more, I work to preserve cultural heritage and I recognize that through my work I have a public responsibility. Through my actions as an archivist, and in my writings about archives, I explore how we can best maintain an accurate documentary record and how we can promote the value of archives to the general populace. I hope that others will grow a greater appreciation for archives. We often take open access to information for granted. Above all, we must never forget how archival documents ensure our freedom. If we allow others to take away public control of information, we lose not only our ability to seek truth, but are in danger of losing our own sense of identity -- the greatest freedom of all.