This is fortuitous - A post on the archives listserv yesterday relates directly to my blog topic for today:
Don’t researchers have every right to create their own context [for the records they are viewing], and don’t they have the right for whatever context they create to be completely wrong? Aren't "flawed interpretations" the bread and butter of freedom? If researchers don't have a right to make “flawed interpretations,” do they really have any rights at all? Don’t researchers have a right to be wrong?
And when researchers are wrong (even, perhaps especially, when researchers are knowingly, deliberately, intentionally wrong), don’t archivists have an obligation to “butt out,” not correct them, not interfere, and let researchers make their own mistakes? At a fundamental level, isn’t the issue of whether a researcher draws "flawed" or "correct" conclusions from the archival record absolutely none of the archivist’s business, and wouldn’t it be profoundly unethical for an archivist to make it his business?...
Last week I talked about flawed stories based on missing documentation. As an example of a "flawed story" I discussed the differing memories that my mother and I have about a jewelry box she once owned. We have no photograph or contemporary record of the object, we only have different ideas about how it looked. This week, I will discuss diverse perspectives reflected in documents and how they lead to better interpretation. A flawed story results from lack of documentation or results from misinterpretation about the evidence before us.
A flawed story is not the result of logical and diverse thinking. Different people glean diverse information from the materials before them based on differing backgrounds. One can have a differing perspective about some materials, valuing a different aspect of something or taking away different lessons from it. A flawed story can result when we take our perspective and pervert it so that excludes other's points of view. A flawed story also results from a lack of knowledge about a topic that leads to misinterpretation. It can also develop because of inaccurate documentation. Other times, flawed stories develop from intentional efforts to deceive others.
"[An archivist aims to keep documentation that] preserves ideas for all facets of society and forms a documentary record that considers multiple strata of people and activities." [From Cultural Heritage Collaborators: A Manual for Community Documentation.] Archivists value diverse points of view and opinions. We seek materials that reflect multi-dimensional ideas so that others can come to informed conclusions based on a preponderance of historical documents. The more diverse perspectives we have about different events, the more accurate stories can be created based on the documents for which we care. Multiple, truthful points of view presented in our archives lead researchers on a trail toward veracity.
Not all interpretations or perspectives based on accurate evidence are correct. We may even come to a conclusion based on senseless biases that taint our point of view despite the evidence before us. The Archives listserv post raises an interesting question. What role do archivists have in making sure that flawed stories don't result from the archives in our possession? I would add, what role do other record holders have in revealing "truth"? "Evidence" about history sits in archives repositories. It also sits in people's attics and basements. Our views about history sometimes change when new documents are uncovered that provide a diverse perspective. Who decides what is right and what is wrong? Sometimes it is painfully obvious, but is it an archivist's job to correct? I would argue that it is our job as archivists [or "citizen archivists"] to help provide more evidence and perhaps more diversity in the records that are available so that better conclusions might be drawn. It is the professional's role to help collect and provide access to materials that can offer diverse perspectives of the past so that humans can better understand themselves and better plan for the future.
I'll return to my simple example of my mother's jewelry box. Suppose we had a photograph of it, but my mother and I still disagreed on the color. Perhaps the lighting made the image unclear. Perhaps one of us is color-blind. One image cannot resolve our flawed story. However, if we had more images with different lighting or a contemporary diary entry that talked about the color of the box, this might resolve the issue. Or, perhaps we will need to find another account where someone besides my mother and me talk about the color of the box. This alternate perspective gives us a little more evidence about reality.
As I asked in my last post, "Does it matter if our stories are flawed?" It does because the truth and the multiple perspectives it takes to get us to that truth help us better understand who we are, how we relate to others and where we are going as a society. Collecting historical resources and encouraging their use by diverse populations is the only way we can uncover flaws so that society as a whole can correct them.