I started my summer internship in UF’s archives two weeks ago, and I’ve been learning a lot and really enjoying the work so far. (There will definitely be future posts about some of the work I’ve been doing with LGBTQ collections). One of the activities my supervisor came up with for me while I’m away in Washington DC this summer for the ALA Annual Conference was to visit the National Archives in DC. So I started looking into how and when I could do that because I was planning out my conference days, and that’s when I discovered that you have to have an appointment to visit the National Archives. So I began looking into making an appointment. And boy do they have strict security! You have to complete training before you can get an appointment, when you go there you have to present a photo ID and go through a security screening, and when you’re inside the archives there is round-the-clock video-surveillance in the research room, and if you want documents that have to be redacted you have to provide two weeks notice.
Now, I completely understand why they do this, the National Archives are home to rare and irreplaceable documents about our national and other nations’ history. Protecting the documents, such as the Declaration of Independence (and for some reason the Magna Carta apparently?) is paramount. That’s the archivists’ jobs.
But from a privacy standpoint, it stinks! There’s no way to do research in the National Archives without there being a public record of it. There is a record of exactly who is there, what records you have pulled, and you’re under video surveillance the entire time so there’s always a record on if you copied a document (which is allowed) or not. I can see so many ways this could be abused if the fascists infiltrating our government at every level had any sense at all. Researching primary historical sources is an important task that should be undertaken with care and thought, and doing it under the watchful eye of a possibly-unfriendly Uncle Sam is problematic. It also makes it possible for records to be denied to the public by putting so many middle-men in the mix on whether you’re allowed to have a particular record pulled from the stacks. It would be so easy for someone who didn’t like what a particular record had to say to deny that record to a researcher on various grounds. It would be equally as easy to target a researcher who was using sensitive records to write unfriendly scholarship to people in power.
I don’t know what the solution is except what we’re doing now, which is trusting that the archivists and workers at the National Archives are good people who care about things like academic freedom, the integrity of the historical record, and personal privacy. Maybe, in a way, that’s all we can ever do with anything in society, is believe that as a whole, people are more good than bad. Anyway, the whole process has been an eye-opening learning experience!