Archives Power? The Role of Record-Keepers in Historical Preservation and Research

library-power

Simone D. Horst

I recently saw this picture when my graduate advisor, a longtime library science educator, shared it on her Facebook page. I can say that as a librarian, the comic mostly rings true–one generally does not enter the library profession seeking fame and fortune. But the last word, power, gives me pause. Librarians, archivists, and all others who are given stewardship of records do have power. They have influence over historical narratives that must be given attention by both the record-keepers themselves and the people they serve. It is only through recognition of this influence that they can be held accountable and that those with whose histories they are entrusted can ensure that the preservation and access of those stories is being handled in a professional, ethical manner.

There are a number of facets to this influence, three of which Randall Jimerson explores in the introduction to his book Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice.  He opens by saying that archives can be seen as temples, prisons, or restaurants. For Jimerson, “the temple reflects the power of authority and veneration. The prison wields the power of control. The restaurant holds the power of interpretation and mediation. These represent the trinity of archival functions: selection, preservation, and access. Archives at once protect and preserve records; legitimize and sanctify certain documents while negating and destroying others; and provide access to selected sources while controlling the researchers and conditions under which they may examine the archival record.”1

Jimerson’s first example, the temple, describes the power exerted by record-keepers in the selection process. He writes that “the very acts of selection and preservation set some records apart from others and give them heightened validity” and reminds his readers that “in the archival temple, archivists make value-laden decisions with momentous implications for the knowledge that the future will have of the past.”2  Jason Kauffman, Mennonite Church USA Archivist, touched on this in his blog post “Now You’re the Institution” when he talked about the importance of addressing ‘archival silences’ by cultivating institutional collections that represent groups that have been marginalized or left out of a group’s historical records.3 Archives cannot collect everything, but an intentionality in the formation of collection development policies and in the activities of acquisition can help ensure the preservation of an historic record that makes an attempt at balance and inclusion.

Jimerson’s second example, the prison, demonstrates how archives have historically handled the preservation of records. Preservation meant maintaining the records exactly as they were when they arrived. Physical materials were kept in tightly controlled, high security spaces, with acid-free storage, climate control, and strict rules on viewing and usage. But with the advent of technology archives, libraries are being forced to reassess their methods of preservation and make decisions about the application of technology: what gets scanned and stored electronically? What formats are digital items stored in and how will archives ensure that these formats remain available five or ten years down the road as technologies change? Why digitize one collection rather than another? How do institutions maintain copyright control and security when items are shared on a platform as vast and far-reaching as the Internet? Digitization has enhanced the ability for records managers to provide access, but it also brings up difficult questions of preservation. This new frontier does not follow the pattern of how archives have historically gone about preservation, nor does it fit neatly into Jimerson’s prison narrative. It is an entirely new aspect that is allowing archives to provide more unlimited access to their collections, but also challenges the historically held beliefs of how best to preserve historic resources.

The final facet of power is access. This is Jimerson’s restaurant, where record-keepers and information-seekers come together to use and interpret historical documents. Providing patrons with access to resources is at the heart of the ethics of both the archival and library professions. The Society of American Archivists Code of Ethics states that “Although access may be limited in some instances, archivists seek to promote open access and use when possible” and the first point in the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics is “We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.” This is where an archivist’s power can be most plainly seen; there are many unfortunate examples of record-keepers bucking ethical codes and using their own discretion to assess whether records are fit for public consumption and withholding those they deem inappropriate. And, unfortunately, the lofty goals of living up to ethical principles of providing access can sometimes clash with more benign limits like restricted open hours, processing backlogs, and privacy rights that hinder the amount of free access the public can have to archival and library materials. Of the three facets of discussed here, this is both the easiest place for outsiders to recognize a record-keeper’s power and also the easiest place to hold records-keepers accountable.

Jimerson goes on to discuss how archives, once regarded by historians and others who use their contents as an unbiased source of materials that contained stories just waiting to be told, are now being seen for the power they have in shaping the discourse even before historical research begins. For many of us who work in these places, this power can feel uncomfortable. But power in archives and records-keeping doesn’t have to been seen as a bad thing. Jimerson states, “[O]ne challenge for archivists is to embrace the power of archives and use it to make society more knowledgeable, more tolerant, more diverse, and more just…once archivists acknowledge their professional and personal viewpoints, they can avoid using this power indiscriminately or, even worse, accidentally.”4  He concludes by saying that “rather than hide from their power in the realm of history, memory, and the past, I hope that archivists will embrace the power of archives and use it for the good of mankind.”5 

Anabaptists and Mennonites are privileged to have a large number of institutions and groups dedicated to preserving their historical record. There have been many devoted historians, librarians, and archivists over the years who have shaped and grown the historical collections that today’s church inherits. To continue and improve upon this legacy, record-keepers, historians, church leaders, and anyone interested in the church as it was and as it can be must take an active interest in the preservation and maintenance of our shared heritage. Those who are entrusted with the stewardship of historical materials need to be aware of how all aspects of their work impacts the history being told. They must take seriously the responsibility to work ethically and morally to provide historians and researchers with the highest possible access and most complete historical record possible. Likewise, church leaders must take seriously the importance of historical records and dedicate energy and funds to their care and protection. Only then can record-keepers and historians tell the best and most complete versions of our history.

Works Cited:
Jimerson, Randall C. 2010. Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice. Chicago, Ill: Soc. of American Archivists.


  1. Randall C. Jimerson, Archives power. (Chicago, Ill: Soc. of American Archivists, 2010), 2. 
  2. Jimerson, 4. 
  3. Kauffman, Jason. “Now You’re the Institution,” Anabaptist Historians, Nov. 10, 2016, https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2016/11/10/now-youre-the-institution/ 
  4. Jimerson, 185-86. 
  5. Jimerson, 3. 

Now You’re the Institution

Jason B. Kauffman

My reference to a Ben Folds song probably dates me, but lately I’ve been thinking about the relationship between archives, institutions, and power. According to historian Paul Toews (described by Felipe Hinojosa in a recent blog), as I write this blog I am sitting in one of the “archival centers of the Mennonite universe.” I recently began working as director of the Mennonite Church USA Archives in Goshen. As a senior at Goshen College (2005) I spent long hours in the archives researching for my history thesis project.

When I reported for my first day of work in July, the archives looked (and smelled) pretty much like I remembered them, complete with a stone bust of Sanford Calvin Yoder (President of Goshen College from 1923 to 1940) and a large plaque listing the names of “pioneer leaders” (all white men of European descent) in the (old) Mennonite Church. One of the men, Jacob Gottschalk (the first Mennonite bishop in Germantown, Pennsylvania), is a distant family relative. So, to quote Ben Folds again, “how’s it feel to be the man?”

I don’t have a simple answer to that question. As a historian, I resonate with Hinojosa’s call to “deterritorialize Mennonite studies” and to tell the stories of Mennonites whose lives unfolded on the periphery, far removed from “holy places” like Goshen, Newton, Lancaster, or Winnipeg. I spent the majority of graduate school resisting the centralizing forces in my discipline which told me that the only topics worthy of study were those with an established historiography, focused on places at the centers of political or economic power. Latin American history is very nation-centric and I found a niche in the study of frontiers and borderlands, a subfield which questions the centrality of the nation-state in the stories historians tell about the region and its people. In a similar way to the Mennonite community in south Texas that Hinojosa describes, I discovered that what it means to be Brazilian or Bolivian looks very different from the margins than it does at the center. Place matters.

However, institutions also matter. For historians, institutions matter because they are the entities most likely to preserve the documents that we rely upon to analyze and write about the past. While my research focused on one of the most sparsely populated regions in South America, I would not have been able to write my dissertation without going to institutional archives in Rio de Janeiro or La Paz. Indeed, the available sources often dictate the types of questions we can ask (and answer) about the past. Through my research, I was able to learn much about how representatives of the Bolivian state felt about migratory laborers and the many ways officials attempted to control the movement of goods and people across borders. I learned comparatively little about the complex motivations that guided individuals in their decisions to migrate in search of work, how they felt about these decisions, and how such decisions impacted their lives and families.

Such archival silences are, of course, also present at the MC USA Archives. For example, collections in the archives yield much information about how church leaders and academics felt about growing Mennonite involvement in business after World War II but much less about businesspeople themselves, those who built successful businesses while navigating the norms and expectations of the broader Mennonite community. Despite such limitations, many historians have made creative use of the MC USA Archives. For example, recent studies have mined collections for sources that document Mennonite involvement during the Civil Rights movement and the complicated dynamics of racial prejudice and discrimination that pervaded this involvement.1 And there are many more sources yet to be discovered. But this does not change the fact that the voices of institutional (white, male) leaders are overrepresented in the archives and those of ethnic minorities, women, LGBTQ people, and those otherwise removed from institutional centers are underrepresented. This reality is itself a reflection of the history of the Mennonite Church as an institution.

Through my job as the archivist, I am now a part of this institution. I am keenly aware of the power that institutions hold to shape the terms of historical memory and its production.2 Archives play a key role in this equation because the written word is one of the primary ways in which people and institutions preserve history for future generations.3 Archives are also powerful weapons that institutions have used in their efforts to minimize or, in some cases, completely erase elements of the past.4 History is replete with examples of the many ways that institutions have done damage to the broader communities that they represent.

At the same time, now that I’m on the “inside” my perspective is beginning to shift. From the outside, institutions often seem like faceless entities, engaged in a timeless quest to centralize authority and wield power to advance their own agendas. It is often easy to forget that the Mennonite Church is a complex institution made up of complex individuals, each with different backgrounds and changing (and, in many cases, different) beliefs, motivations, and goals. All share a deep commitment to the broader Mennonite community and many are actively working to promote peace and social justice; to combat racism, prejudice, and discrimination; and to redefine what it means to be Mennonite.

No institution is perfect and good intentions do not erase the inequalities and injustices that persist. It is difficult to predict what form the institutional Mennonite Church will take in the next decades or how it will evolve or adapt in response to our rapidly changing denominational landscape. In 2116, who will future generations of Mennonites look back and recognize as the “pioneer leaders” of the twenty-first century? I hope that the list will be much different than the one currently hanging in the archives, made up of many more people from the farthest reaches of the Mennonite universe.

To explore one of the ways that the MC USA Archives is working to document the diversity of Mennonites voices, check out this online archive of Mennonite websites, which preserves the websites of Mennonite news outlets, MC USA agencies and conferences, and Mennonite bloggers. Let me know of others that I should add to the list!


  1.  Many of these recent studies also make excellent use of oral histories, critical sources for documenting and understanding the lives and experiences of people underrepresented in the written historical record. 
  2.  See, for example, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995). 
  3.  Kathryn Burns, Into the Archive: Writing and Power in Colonial Peru (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010). 
  4. For a recent – and excellent – exploration of these dynamics at play, see Kirsten Weld, Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).