History vs. Heritage

“It’s not about race or anything. It’s about heritage.”

How many times have you heard that in the last few months? It got me thinking about the difference between history and heritage and where the archivist’s role fits on the spectrum between the two.

What is the difference between history and heritage? The easy answer is that history is objective and heritage is subjective. I was trained both in history and in information science, and I am here to tell you that there is no such thing as objective. The study of history is half historiography – basically learning all the ways in which historians have done history, all the ways in which we were not and are not objective. Historians (good historians) aim to give a balanced view on a historical topic. So perhaps it’s more about intention to attempt objectivity, with a recognition than we are all human and not free from our prejudices and inclinations.

So the truer answer, then, would be that history seeks to be objective, and heritage does not. Heritage is about building a narrative. And I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. Some theories suggest archivists should feel obligated to be objective, to ‘collect both sides’ in documenting history. But what rule states that we have to do this? It’s all down to the mission of the archive and its collecting statement. This is also easier to achieve for some archives than others. I don’t think a Center for African American Studies should feel obligated to document the activities of white supremacist groups. A collection on World War I veterans should not feel compelled to collect materials on anti-war protesters. They would surely discuss them in the narrative they develop about the experience of the groups they seek to document. It is one thing to choose to not engage with collecting material on a topic, it’s quite another to refuse to acknowledge that topic exists.

This bring me back to what I have been thinking about a lot lately: professionalism in archives. Studying history taught me the value of seeking the objective. To be perfectly honest, part of the appeal of archives (and history) is that most of the people you are working with are dead and can’t interfere with your work. They may have edited their own personal record in life, but once you have it and they’re gone, it is what it is. I have no allegiances to the dead – because hagiography is hagiography no matter how deserving you or I think that person or movement is at this moment. So maybe my training as a historian makes me less enamored with nice warm-fuzzy storytelling. I am interesting in seeking truth and justice, and people are complicated. Someone said at SAA that archivists are here to build bridges, not castles. That is a sentiment that I can 110% get behind.

As I mentioned before, there is a big difference between what we keep and maintain and what we exhibit. Though I would not expect a corporate archive to advertise all the failings that are documented in its archives, I would expect the archivists to keep the records of those failings. The same goes for governments, schools, and societies. There is a time and a place for both history and heritage, but we must acknowledge there is a difference between the two.

These things are all about perception and feeling, and that should inform our work as archivists. We hold a powerful role and the biases and opinions we hold must constantly be examined as we navigate our way through collecting and cataloging the historical record.

There are real implications in the profession resisting the differentiation between trained archivists versus untrained archivists. We can hardly build consensus on topics like this one between people trained in the field, even before adding in everyone else. I know it’s tempting to want a big tent where everyone feels at home, but what are we saying about ourselves if we aren’t examining our work and the way we are trained to do it? We have to negotiate with a lot of powerful players in our culture, and I do not think we are putting ourselves in a position of strength with our current modus operandi. So it’s back to that question archivists have been debating for the last three decades: “where do we go from here?”

Things I’ve been reading as I think about this:

Lasewicz, Paul C. “Forget the Past? Or History Matters? Selected Academic Perspectives on the Strategic Value of Organizational Pasts.” The American Archivist. Spring/Summer 2015 (Vol. 78, No. 1): 59-83.

W. Foster and C. Hyatt, “Inventing Team Tradition: A Conceptual Model for the Strategic Development of Fan Nations,” European Sport Management Quarterly 8, no. 3 (2008): 265–87.

Humanization, dehumanization” from the NixoNARA blog

Tansey, Eira. “The landscape of archival employment: A study of professional archivist job advertisements, 2006-2014.Archival Practice. Vol. 2 (2015).


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