Creative Commons Copyright by David Woo

Archivist as Juggler

When taking the rigorous and insightful course Administration and Use of Archival Materials with archivists Eric Fair and Chatham Ewing at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign,  I never realized how many decisions and difficult decisions at that were required from an archivist. The difficulties and choices that must be made throughout the entire archival process were far greater than I had realized. Decisions requiring appraising a collection, what items will be retained and what will be discarded, what will be digitized and what will end up as primary materials in boxes, how to handle donor’s materials, what level of preservation can one go with each artifact, what formats to retain if in old electronic formats, how to arrange and why, when overwhelmed by quantity of product, does one focus more on archiving with greater quality less or archive more with less quality and descriptive material? Seeing the numerous conundrums faced by archivists raised their esteem in my eyes.  This continual decision-making process is witnessed throughout the round of archival tenets of practice such as:

  1. Appraisal and Selection
  2. Acquisitions and Accessioning
  3. Arrangement
  4. Description
  5. Preservation


  1. Security and Disaster Planning
  2. Access, Legal Issues, Reference, and Outreach
  3. Digital Records
  4. Management

Archivist Judith Schwarz elucidated on another juggling pin in the archivist’s balancing act – that of balancing access versus personal confidentiality in her article from The Journal of American History called “The Archivist’s Balancing Act:  Helping Researchers While Protecting Individual Privacy.”


My fellow archival classmate Allison Sutton wrote an excellent synopsis on this article and raised some questions:

Schwartz presented an interesting and detailed account of this very important issue in the archival world. ‘Weighing issues of privacy while trying to meet the access and informational needs of researchers is one of the most difficult balancing acts that archivists perform in carrying out their professional duties.’ A balancing act indeed! And I was thinking, perhaps this is THE single most challenging of all the duties of an archivist.

There were three activities pinpointed in the article which were noted being vital to the creation of a historical record. The first mentioned, is donation by an institution or individual. In some cases the institution, individual or individual’s family places restrictions upon access to documents, chooses to destroy or not turn over materials belonging to the collection, making it incomplete. They have a desire to protect that outweighs their desire to make the materials accessible. Schwartz discussed how common it is to have a portion of a collection restricted for a long number of years. A second activity mentioned was research conducted by scholars whose only ‘motive is to examine all the documents that may bear on their topics.’ And, the third activity Schwartz listed was collecting materials that document history of a region, profession of social class, movement, racial, ethnic, religious or sexual community. Collectors, according to Schwartz are motivated by their ‘desire to affirm the groups’ identity and convince others of its legitimacy by enshrining its past…’

Schwartz relied on her varied roles and experiences as archivist, researcher, but focused , I think, more on her role as a researcher in taking a stand. Not necessarily a bad thing as we all learned a lot through her detailed accounts in pursuit of a portion of women’s history, lesbianism, which is not always documented and archived appropriately. The scenarios of the incidents of archival documents being withheld by Mount Holyoke, the American Communist Party and the sons of a lesbian mother, provided a vivid view of these very real situations archivist are facing today–just as they have in the past.

From Fritz Lang's classic silent masterpiece "Metropolis"

In the end, I wondered whether Schwartz could have provided more information to support her claim that there was something (seemingly in her view) problematic about groups/individuals who are collectors of items for the sole purpose of documenting a group’s identity. How else would any of us know about their existence? I was quite pleased, however, with the guidance she provided to archivists concerning how to deal with unwilling donors and how to approach processing materials that may otherwise be overlooked, ignored, or destroyed. She put forth a very strong plea stating “when documents have been collected, process and index them fully, as anything you value” and urged archivists to “name the unnameable as much as is historically accurate from the evidence before you.” One of the most striking statements Schwartz offered and, one that completely captures the reason this issue is so challenging, was when she quoted Joan Nestle, a founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives – ‘…the most important thing I can tell you is that ‘to preserve is to give life, but in the very act of preservation we can destroy a life.’


Schwartz mentioned many scenarios of restricted access to or totally forgotten (maybe hidden) materials in decades gone by. What of today? There are still demands for access to documents.

To symbolize demand. From Fritz Lang's classic silent masterpiece "Metropolis"

Supply or Demand? Are archivists to assume that a demand will be made as times are changing? To assume that the views which people/institutions currently have on access to certain (private, controversial, embarrassing, potentially damaging) information will change? Or, as Schwartz suggests, archivists are the ones who should supply the materials which will help researchers to write fuller histories; providing the processed collections will be a way to ensure that the stories are written. What do you think?”

I was immediately struck by Lesbian Herstory Archives founder Joan Nestle’s quote:

“To preserve is to give life, but in the very act of preservation we can destroy a life.”

Preservation is a core tenet of the archival profession.  It what is often called to do.  Often the nature of archives bring history and people from history back to life or to think in another way we become enlivened by it and continues on with us in our historical and collective memory.  Yet, it can destroy a individual, family, donor, or even institutional “life” by allowing access to personal as well as not-so-savory records.

Schwartz enumerates on some examples of opposition to the release of personal information to researchers, particularly in regards to lesbian archives (as that is her speciality):

1. Institutional Opposition: The love letters between former college president Mary Emma Wooley and her partner Jeannette Marks, and Mt. Holyoke’s opposition to their release (late 70’s).

Rose Elizabeth Cleveland, President Grover Cleveland's sister

Evangeline Marrs Simpson, widower and soon-to-be bishop's wife

2. Institutional Opposition: “The Box-Ten Affair”that constituted the love letters exchanged between the President’s sister Rose Elizabeth Cleveland and a soon-to-be bishop’s wife Evangeline Marrs Simpson.  The Minnesota Historical Society was opposed to their release and during a contentious time where the tenth box went “missing.”

Margaret Sanger, birth control activist

Dr. Marie Equi

3. Family Opposition: Margaret Sanger’s Papers included loved letters written to her in 1916 by a known lesbian Dr. Marie Equi, yet no evidence available that Sanger was gay.  Despite pressure for permission to release those letters, the legal control of the papers were held by Sanger’s sons who stated “There are several aspects of my mother’s life which my brother and I are unwilling to have explored.”

4. Individual Opposition:

The most compelling of all the cases listed in the issues of opening up archives that contain personal or unfriendly information is that of a lesbian to the inclusion of her couple of letters in the Lesbian Herstory Archives.  Written in the early 1960s, the creator was distressed that her and any of the women’s letters written to the Daughters of Bilitis (the first-state lesbian group in the United States) should be given individual permission and that she wanted to have her letters destroyed.  I found it interesting that Schwartz was so surprised that a possible lesbian would not want to be part of a lesbian archives.  It intrigued me that an archivist could think that all gays or all lesbians or anyone who communicated with the organizations would all collectively want to be included.  Whether it is an issue of wanting to be outed or not, or just simply desiring privacy for letters that were sent does not matter.  I could feel for this woman when she felt that her individual privacy was being invaded – she never requested to be part of the archival collection.  Schwartz notes that the “donor is not the enemy.”  However, though she sees it more as a means to help the woman come out and deal with her own “self-hatred,”  I do not think the archivist needs to necessarily be a political activist and therapist or even interpreter, but I do think the archivist does need to balance between individual privacy vs. collective memory.  Are her two letters so important to the “collective memory” to disturb or destroy her personal life.

Possible solutions:

Some keys to assisting in this balancing act lie in setting provisions of release, such as release and access after death, after 25 or 50 years.  Another Judith Schwartz mentions is the LHA’s protocol of allowing donors and individuals write their own accessibility proviso.  This is a valuable protocol and collection policy activity that archivists can offer to  donors, and even to those  individuals, such as this unnamed woman, who was not a donor but (I think that is a very, very, very important fact to think about) a unknowing individual whose letters were donated by the institution.

More Work, More Issues, More Access

More access demand, more time. From Fritz Lang's classic silent masterpiece "Metropolis"

This, of course, increases the already enormous workload and responsibilities of archivists.  One would think that the archival practice is solely the land of handling exotic and extraordinary works, without the bewilderment of legal issues of ownership, confidentiality, access, rights, and much more.  Indeed, we are in a time where there is a greater demand by researchers and the public to access to anything, including to archival records.  This will likely influence and increase the issues on the archivist’s table as to what to release and when.  Archivists have been known to be custodians of our collective historical memory.  Now, they are additionally compelled to be access providers to the public.  It is surely the world of “more, more, more” that is also driving into the heart of the archival community in an age where the personal and the public quickly merge into one another in our modern age.  Indeed, the challenge is great to balance access and privacy.