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The power of archivists

I hate to be tooting The New Yorker‘s horn so much lately, but today they have a really nice blog post asking (rhetorically), “Are archivists today’s real peacemakers?” Meredith Blake reports on the “Archivist of the Year” awards last year at CUNY:

David Myers, the director of U.C.L.A.’s Center for Jewish Studies, spoke gracefully on the evening’s subject, saying that “the potential of the archive is not merely to preserve, but to liberate.” His belief is that through the dedicated work of archivists, it may be possible for Israelis and Palestinians to “craft a shared history that honors, with self-critical honesty, both traditions.” As possible inspiration, he cited “Histoire-Geschichte,” a history textbook about post-war Europe co-authored by French and German experts.

Columbia’s Rashid Khalidi, though a shade or two more skeptical than Myers, was nevertheless insistent that preserving the records of the Palestinian people was a critical step in the peace process, particularly in the ongoing absence of a Palestinian state or even a centralized archive. Vital as it may be, preservation often takes a back seat to more dire needs, said Khalidi. “There always seem to be more pressing needs elsewhere.”

We don’t have an “Archiving” category here at Waging Nonviolence, and certainly not one under “Actions.” But something like this is an important reminder that not all nonviolent, self-sacrificing acts for the sake of justice come in the form of direct protest. Take, for example, the dangers of archival work in post-invasion Iraq:

Previous “Archivist of the Year” honoree Saad Eskander proves just how dangerous—and how urgent—the work of an archivist can be. The former Kurdish fighter returned to his native Iraq in 2003 to work as director of the Iraqi National Library in Baghdad. In a captivating online diary, Eskander chronicled his brave efforts at reclaiming his nation’s history from a variety of threats: mold, car bombs, Baath loyalists, Muslim fundamentalists. The blog provided a window into the bipolar demands of his job, from mundane administrative questions, like where to install new air conditioners, to the virtually unthinkable—snipers, death threats, and even the kidnapping and murder of two staff librarians.

Though, for now, we do so under less mortal danger, this act of archiving is a form of activism that all of us who read, comment, and contribute at Waging Nonviolence undertake. We document, we remember; we insist, against the distraction of violence, that nonviolent struggle is at work in our world too, and more powerfully than the alternative.