Americana 2017: Archives and Public Memory in a Post-Truth World

by President Jen Wachtel

On April 5, 2017, Student Archivists at Maryland hosted its 14th annual Americana! This year, we invited professionals back to campus for a substantive discussion about the complex relationship between the archives, the public, and the record. We asked our panelists and audience to consider how the concept of “post-truth” affects the archive’s role in public memory. Our panelists spoke about the archival ethics, particularly in relation to fake news.  Our annual symposium promoted thoughtful discussions about the truth found in archives. To support future Americanas, please order a SAM t-shirt (through Saturday 4/29/17)! You can find the sale here: SAM t-shirts 

Following our reception, Dr. Keith Marzullo, Dean of the College of Information Studies, delivered welcoming remarks. Afterwards, SAM President Jen Wachtel presented our Distinguished Archives Alumni Award to Laura Starr, MLS and MA ’09, Senior Archivist and Business Development Manager at History Associates. Laura Starr is one of our very own former treasurers! Ms. Starr provided thoughtful advice about being an advocate for archives in an era of misinformation, and how to argue archives’ value in terms of cultural memory.

Distinguished Alumna

President Jen Wachtel presents Distinguished Archives Alumni Award to Laura Starr ’09

Our program:

  • Rebecca Erbelding, Archivist/Historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Papers, Please”
  • John Kelly, Columnist, The Washington Post, “Vertical Files I Have Loved”
  • Franklin A. Robinson, Jr., Archivist, National Museum of American History Archives Center, “The Living and the Dead: Archiving Public Memory and the LGBT+ Community”
  • Izetta Autumn Mobley, Public Programs and Outreach Lead, Historical Society of Washington, DC, “Racial Feeling, Racial Shame: Confronting Archival Realities Amidst Historic Nostalgia”
Rebecca Erbelding

Dr. Rebecca Erbelding

Rebecca Erbelding spoke about History Unfolded, a citizen history crowd-sourced project inviting the public to contribute contemporary American newspaper articles that reported on events related to the Holocaust. The project inherently combats Holocaust denial with overwhelming news to the contrary, and dispels the popular notion that Americans had no information about the Holocaust. Based on the abundance of newspaper articles, she claims, “Americans who paid attention had quite a lot of information [about Nazi atrocities] that wasn’t hidden.” The results of the project will be on exhibit in 2018.

John Kelly

John Kelly

In a discussion of post-truth in an era where the news media is coming under attack, we thought it especially important to invite Washington Post Columnist John Kelly. Although he claimed to feel like an interloper, Kelly affirmed his love of “archivist dirt.” He spoke of journalism as a “first rough draft of history” and that archives are essential for interpreting and understanding the past. Although he admits to not thoroughly engaging or citing archival records, Kelly acknowledged that the personal memories people share in journalistic interviews are often incomplete. Archival resources lend journalists credibility and respectability at a time when they are under fire.

Frank Robinson

Franklin A. Robinson, Jr.

Next, Franklin A. Robinson, Jr.  spoke about the challenges of documenting the history of American LGBT+ people.  Robinson’s statement introducing his presentation encapsulates the themes of this year’s panel:

“Archives in a post-truth world are a necessity: a bulwark against misinformation or disinformation. They provide a place where fact and fiction may be sifted and separated out of the archival record. A place of education, validation, and authentication. Most likely you could ask three members of your family about an event in the past and get three different recollections. Multiply that by thousands, and you get a rough idea of the challenge of archiving and documenting public memory.” – Franklin A. Robinson, Jr.

Robinson described the challenge of gathering ephemera from presentations as reflections of personal and public memory. He often persuades potential donors to donate their posters and other materials by reminding them that without complete documentation — that is, the full archival record — history would not be written.

Izetta Autumn Mobley

Izetta Autumn Mobley

Lastly, Izetta Autumn Mobley spoke about the importance of archives and archival research in her outreach role. She uses archival records to dispel the myth that slavery and segregation were somehow less burdensome in Washington, DC. She spoke of walking tours engaging the public in difficult conversations and using the archives as a means of promoting identity and a sense of place. Mobley reminded the audience to consider race in the archive, and that the archive itself is not innocent in its presentation of information. Mobley’s contributions injected a necessary dimension of race in public memory.

Joanna Ruedisueli asks question

SAM Secretary Joanna Ruedisueli asks a question during the Question and Answer Session

As usual, the Americana panelists’ presentations instigated a lively discussion. We discussed how to encourage non- archivists to use the archive, how to defend archives against attack for supporting minorities (like African-Americans, LGBT+ people, and Jews), whether governments might force archives to “disappear” information, and whether the panelists conceded that we are living in a post-truth world. Overall, our panelists were optimistic and committed to archival ethics; they would leave before causing records to “disappear” and believed that calling out the “post-truth world” was not conceding defeat but rather naming the enemy.

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Left to right: President Jen Wachtel, Treasurer Ian Bucacink, Distinguished Alumna Laura Starr, Secretary Joanna Ruedisueli, Webmaster Eric Hung

Student Archivists at Maryland would like to thank all of our members and guests for their attendance and especially the panelists for contributing their time and efforts to the annual symposium. SAM President Jen Wachtel would also like to commend Treasurer Ian Bucacink, Secretary Joanna Ruedisueli, and Webmaster Eric Hung for their dedication and preparations for the event. We received programming support from the College of Information Studies, and the event was funded in part by the generous sponsorship of the iSchool Alumni Chapter and the Graduate Student Government. Please do not forget to contribute to our annual SAM t-shirt fundraiser for future Americanas!
Streaming recording link:

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