From the Noteworthy column in the September 1995 Perspectives
Task Force Recommendations Should Be Globalized
Donna Guy, September 1995
Although recent political changes in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are unique, global patterns of privatization and reduced government budgets, along with the resurgence of democratic governments, have given rise to economic and political patterns in other parts of the world that are markedly similar to those of Russia and Eastern Europe. More important, the effect of such events on local and national archives in many countries has had chillingly similar results. Therefore, as a member of the AHA Research Division, I urge this organization to expand its concern over the condition of the archives and archival research so that it reflects more than regional concerns. The AHA and allied organizations should work with regional and international agencies to create standards of access and to serve as focal points for international funding efforts to address some of these problems. Otherwise, the fine efforts of the Joint Task Force will have to be replicated to fit a series of regional concerns.
Reduction of state funding is currently threatening many archives that were housed in facilities already in need of major renovations. In some cases, successive military dictatorships ignored the need to preserve materials that were considered controversial. Privatization has exacerbated the situation by creating a dilemma regarding the disposition of formerly public agencies. Emerging and newly redemocratized governments have had to respond to the demands of a wide variety of interests, and archival repositories can appear to be less immediately important.
Personal as well as budgetary politics play an important role in this process. Since my area of expertise is Latin American history, I will cite a number of circumstances I know of. I do not mean, however, to imply that this region is somehow different from others. Plans have been made to close down or move national archives in a number of countries. Such decisions may result in the loss of access to archives, temporarily or permanently, for citizens as well as foreign researchers. In Guayaquil, Ecuador, the archives have been closed down for six years. The national archives in the same country are threatened with eviction, or removal to an inappropriate site. Local archives, such as those in the province of Santiago del Estero, Argentina, have been destroyed by arson stemming from political uprisings, and no efforts have been made to protect other archives. For years in the national archives of Argentina, researchers have had to hold their breath and hope that the elevator functioned. Otherwise, groups of documents would not be accessible. Other archives have no photocopy machines, few trained personnel, and woefully inadequate budgets.
As in Eastern Europe, "private arrangements" are often made between researchers and archivists to obtain special access. Such arrangements are often the result of poor indexes to collections, or the lack of sufficient personnel or reproduction equipment to meet public research needs. Knowledge about current trends in archival maintenance and data organization are not always shared by those who attend international meetings. Therefore, I urge the AHA to expand the recommendations of the Joint Task Force to other parts of the world. Each major issue addressed can be adapted to other regional realities with the help of appropriate advisers from groups such as the Conference on Latin American History and the Middle Eastern Studies Association as well as from cultural task forces from politically organized entities. Furthermore, the number of funding agencies should be expanded to reflect the global nature of the threat to archival repositories. This does not mean that appropriate standards are not clearly stated and maintained in many places, but the formation of international task forces, working with local researchers, would provide badly needed support for archivists facing not only demands from researchers but also completely insufficient budgets and often substandard housing for their collections.
Donna Guy is professor of history at the University of Arizona. She is also a member of the AHA Research Division.