Archivists document a nation’s history — the good and the bad

An archivist inspects the preservation of a historic film at the U.S. National Archives. (U.S. National Archives)

An accessible archive is an important part of any country with a complex history, including Ukraine. So the United States is working with archivists in Ukraine to preserve the country’s history and make it more accessible to all Ukrainians.

An archivist looks over a once-lost document listing victims of a 1919 pogrom in the Ukrainian town of Dubova. (© AP Images)

Trudy Peterson, former archivist of the United States, and her peers do not try to hide the difficult times in American history. In fact, the U.S. National Archives collects and preserves government records — from documents and parchment to film and photographs — that tell the nation’s history, including some ignominious moments. That information is made available to all American citizens. “It’s all out there for the American public, for the world to make their own decision based on the documentation available to them,” said current Archivist of the United States David Ferriero.

Peterson and Ferriero recently led discussions with Ukrainian archivists on records management and the role of archives in society. While Ukraine’s passage of the Open Data Law in early 2015 is a positive step toward making government records available to the public, much more work needs to be done, said Peterson.

She said Ukraine needs “to have a viable, functioning and active professional association so that professional archivists can talk to one another.” She hopes to see Ukraine bring its practices in line with international standards and integrate Ukrainian archivists into international discussions about documenting history.

Citizen archivists

Ferriero advised Ukraine’s archivists to “inform citizens about the records of the country and about access to them.” One way is to get the public involved in the work of archivists. The U.S. National Archives, for example, promotes an online “Citizen Archivist Dashboard” through which citizens of all ages can help tag, transcribe, caption and translate electronic historical records. “Thousands of people across the country and across the world are helping us do our work,” Ferriero said.

The U.S. National Archives hosts a sleepover to raise awareness of America’s founding documents. (U.S. National Archives)

Ferriero doesn’t expect people to automatically comb the archives’ online catalog, so he makes sure the archives’ content “is where the people are.” His staff works closely with Wikipedia and has a full-time Wikipedian to monitor information for accuracy. Roughly 4,500 Wikipedia entries contain information from the archives’ documents.

A public education initiative in Ukraine would need to be supported by laws, Ferriero said. Ukrainian archivists can help shape laws that don’t yet exist or rally the public for changes to any existing laws that are not appropriate.

Ferriero said the biggest ethical responsibility of archivists is to ensure that no bias is brought to the work of collecting records and making them accessible. Archivists must document both sides of history, both “the good stories and the bad stories.”

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