DH Open Office Hours: Ethics

Ethics in history in general, and in public history and digital history more specifically, are a delicate thing. Finding a way to balance the historical record against the social justice movements of today requires more than just words. It requires actions.¬†Giordana Mecagni, Northeastern’s Head of Archives, talked about some ways that can be done.

The first things she emphasized was actually getting items that represented invisible groups of people. At Northeastern’s archives, that can be exceptionally difficult. Northeastern’s relationship with its neighbors, who often are not the upper class white men who are usually remembered in archives, is shaky at best. In fact, Giordana told us that it was an uphill battle just to convince the communities that Northeastern was not aiming to hurt them, which gives some indication of how badly Northeastern has treated them in the past. And Northeastern’s archives are far from the only ones to have this kind of problem. Making the initial decision of whether to keep certain aspects of history or not makes everything an archive does inherently non-neutral. Giordana is trying to bring new, less privileged collections into the Northeastern archives in order to tell their stories as well.

In addition to the physical archives, Giordana also takes the education component very seriously. A significant component of her job is bringing the archives into the classroom. She is committed to teaching students not only that the archive exists, but how to use it ethically. She also brings the education online and talked to us about how to be good archivists and historians online. The biggest thing that she kept drilling was that nothing in history is neutral. Nothing in archives is neutral and it is our responsibility, as historians and archivists, to being good stewards of these kinds of resources. And that includes getting the information and access out into the world, rather than staying holed up in the archives alone.

While I already agreed with much of what Giordana said, it was really interesting to hear about some of the difficulties she has had with trying to break down the boundaries that had previously controlled Northeastern’s archives. I hadn’t really thought about the practical struggles of trying to get the content into the archives itself. People who have not been treated well by historians or archivists before are not likely to trust them with their own artifacts and records. And they are not wrong! There’s no guarantee that the archive will handle the history of the artifacts well, as they have not done so in the past. So then the question becomes, how do you manage that kind of relationship? Giordana emphasized going out into the community and inviting the community into the archives to build trust, something that has worked for her. It is not perfect, and the ultimate goal is to get those communities in charge of their own history by hiring them to run archives and write histories, but until we successfully achieve that, being ethical, rather than neutral, is essential.

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