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Since last summer’s FBI search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago compound in Florida, National Archives and Records Administration employees have been threatened and accused of corruption. They have also been praised for “going after” former President Donald Trump.
These reactions betray a misunderstanding of what archivists do and why it matters. Like all archival institutions, the National Archives and its archivists understand that contrary to what the former president claims in a recent court filing, records ultimately belong not to any individual but to our society and, ultimately, our future.
Archivists and other records professionals dedicate their careers to ensuring the continuing availability and trustworthiness of records. Records are worthy of the attention of such specialists, most of whom have a master’s-level education, because they are uniquely able to serve as evidence of past acts and facts.
Quite rarely are the world’s eyes on archivists the way they have been recently. Indeed, when I was earning my doctorate in archival science, people tended to ask me one of two questions about the field: “What’s that?” and “You need a graduate degree to do that?”
Eyes glaze over at the thought of ledgers, registries and cardigan-clad record keepers. How boring! Who cares about records?
Well, now we know the FBI does.
Any archivist could wax poetic about how records uphold our democracy, providing evidence, ensuring accountability and allowing glimpses into our past that enable us to build a better future. But indulge me.
Consider what happens when record-keeping is neglected or worse: 5,000 children could not be reunited with their parents because insufficient records were kept on separations of immigrant families under Trump. Failing to keep records can hide government wrongdoing from journalists and the public, as when British Columbia officials were found to have “triple-deleted” emails to prevent them from being turned over in response to a freedom-of-information request about missing and murdered women in 2014.
When we lose our records, we lose our history, both personal and societal, and our rights. Records — quiet, boring records — constitute a fundamental infrastructure supporting our systems of law and government.
Thus, while the National Archives’ actions regarding Trump may have political implications, they are not politically motivated.
An archivist’s first duty is to the records and to making sure they remain trustworthy. That means a record must be both reliable — created by a competent authority in compliance with all established requirements — and authentic, meaning it is what it purports to be without evidence of tampering.
We can’t say that a record is trustworthy per se; those who would use it must decide for themselves whether a record is trustworthy for their purposes. Archivists enable this by preserving records in their context. Doing so involves principles developed over thousands of years of record-keeping as well as best practices and standards that evolve with record-keeping technologies, from paper to blockchain to artificial intelligence.
Context is part of the controversy over the records Trump kept at Mar-a-Lago, which were reportedly returned to the National Archives at one point jumbled with dinner menus and newspaper clippings or, in some cases, not returned at all. The identity of a record depends on its relationship to other records related to the same action. A record without its context is just a document.
Archivists know that the future will read our records with its own eyes. But we also know that we have a moral obligation to the future to pass down our heritage so that our heirs may praise, blame and move forward as they see fit.
Darra Hofman is an assistant professor and coordinator for the master of archives and records administration program at San José State University’s School of Information as well as a public voices fellow with the OpEd Project.
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