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Reviewed by:
  • Political Pressure and the Archival Record
  • Robert N. Matuozzi
Political Pressure and the Archival Record. Edited by Margaret Proctor, Michael Cook, and Caroline Williams. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2005. 345 pp. $42.00. ISBN 1-931666-15-6.

The political context of archival practices was highlighted again recently when the media announced that a vast trove of Nazi archival records—reportedly some thirty to fifty million documents housed in Bad Arolsen, Germany—would soon be digitized and made accessible to researchers. Previously, these archives had been in the custody of the International Tracing Service (ITS), an arm of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and were primarily used to reunite families and provide restitution to victims of Nazi Germany. Since 1955 access to [End Page 222] this material had been restricted to protect the privacy of Holocaust-era victims. Though the eleven-nation commission governing the ITS eased this disclosure policy, some of its member nations have yet (as of mid-2007) to ratify this change. With full disclosure, this formerly secret archive, when it finally happens, will become an invaluable resource for historical research on a very dark period.

Lately, the CIA released an edited version of what has oddly been called “the family jewels,” or formerly secret archives that document problematic CIA operations and activities during the cold war. Then there are the Stasi archives of the former German Democratic Republic, the KGB archives from the former Soviet Union and related police archives from its satellite states, and so on. These secret state police archives enforce a traumatic double-bind, initially through the gathering and (mis)use of such records to destroy citizens and communities and later, after regime change, when many of these same records are made public and insidiously employed to undermine political and social reforms.

Archives accompany the development of civilization. The recording and housing of laws and other governmental decisions, economic and legal transactions, inventories and lists, organizational processes, cultural and scientific documents—all of these human artifacts—enable people to understand themselves and their civilization. The destruction, suppression, distortion, falsification, and general misuse of the archival record are persistent features of civilization, too.

The archive, in other words, exists in a welter of historical and material circumstances: it is governed by shifting legal perspectives and profoundly different political regimes, is often administered by recalcitrant bureaucratic agencies and sometimes by professionally trained archivists and keepers, and is frequently situated precariously along a sliding continuum of public accessibility, ranging from total secrecy and opacity to relative openness and transparency. As such, the archive is always (though not necessarily) subject to political pressure and pernicious forms of secrecy. In a recent account of the growing role of corporate and governmental secrecy in American life, an investigative reporter claimed that in response to various pressures, “an unprecedented confluence of circumstances… conspire to create what, in the parlance of the day, may be called a ‘perfect storm’ of secrecy, one that may neither abate nor subside.”1

The theme of Political Pressure and the Archival Record , articulated in different contexts, is the perennial metanarrative of the archive since its inception thousands of years ago: Who produces and defines the archive and why? Who controls access to it and why? And whose interpretation of the archive and its contents prevails and why? How these questions are answered has profound implications for all kinds of accountability.

The significance of accountability comes into sharper focus when we consider that the archive often (uniquely) records the traumas and harm suffered by subaltern groups and marginalized individuals. Hence, in addition to its centrality within the historical legacy, the archive helps establish the basis for contemporary legal redress; over long periods of time it is a vital institutional hedge against oblivion, an indispensable foundation for communal memory and the claims of restorative justice.

Divided into thematic sections, these papers from a 2003 conference held at the University of Liverpool present case studies, professional testimonials, and historical examples that clarify and discuss a wide range of issues associated with the archival record and its uses and abuses. Chapters on preserving electronic [End Page 223] records and European e-democracy initiatives point...


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