After the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, more than 300 historians and constitutional scholars signed an open letter calling for President Trump’s impeachment and removal from office. These scholars agree that Trump, in refusing to accept the election results and encouraging his supporters to march to the Capitol that day, “posed a clear and present threat to American democracy and the national security of the United States “.
This incident was significant, but not the first time historians have jointly and publicly condemned President Trump. As late as September 2020, 46 professional historical organizations convened by the American Historical Association issued a joint statement criticizing the President’s “White House Conference on American History,” in which the President claimed his administration would be “Promote more patriotic curricula in American schools. ”The“ conference ”took place in the Rotunda of the National Archives, but no associations of professional historians were involved in the planning of the conference or this proposed strategy for public education.
Following these statements, major historical associations co-wrote a letter criticizing this view for the purpose of historical education – that it must be “patriotic” at the expense of honesty and complexity – and instead said, “To learn from our history , we have to face it. Understand it in all its chaotic complexity and take responsibility for our mistakes as well as for our performance. ”
As the New York Times pointed out, political condemnation by historians, educators and archivists is likely to carry little weight in Trump’s eyes. But that is also wrong. Because there is an irony in a character who is so concerned with image and legacy that historical memory transcribes and how its long arc is shaped and preserved by historians, archivists and educators who play an important role in the collective memory of our society play.
The role of archives and archivists
When the average person thinks of a historical archive, they likely think of a place of historical records. This makes sense. An archive is technically defined as “a collection of historical records – in all media – or the physical facility in which they are located”. However, an archive is much more than that: it also consists of institutional guidelines and people – real people who work as archivists – in these institutions. So let’s learn more about historical archives, the archivists who shape them, and what their work means for historical memory.
As mentioned earlier, archives are historical records, but they focus specifically on primary source material. Primary source material is material that is created during a historical event. This material may include artifacts, letters, diaries, official documents, maps, photos, video clips, audio recordings, and other material created by individuals who were part of a particular historical event or who witnessed a particular historical event.
The primary source material is almost infinite. In fact, much primary source material is lost or destroyed before it even has a chance to be “archived” simply because of the passage of time and the weight that the original source person attaches to the importance of that item. Not all letters and meeting notes are kept long enough to become part of the story, for example.
What remains, however, is methodically shaped by archivists and archiving guidelines. The primary source material that is collected from a particular archive is initially based on the mission of the entire archive. For example, archives collect based on “subjects or subjects such as a geographic locale, social or cultural community, or research topic”.
The Society of American Archivists states that there are different types of historical archives and related materials that they collect. For example, university archives usually collect primary source material pertaining to their institution. Company archives hold the business records. Materials relating to the place of worship or belief itself are kept in religious archives. Government archives – such as the National Archives – hold government records.
There are also museums and libraries that are technically different from archives, although many museums and libraries contain their own archives. Museums exist primarily to display and display the artifact material and to interpret it for public consumption. Libraries catalog and make published material such as books, journals, magazines, etc. available. While archive material is often unpublished material with only one copy present, library material usually contains several identical copies for research and entertainment purposes.
These examples only scratch the surface of how archives and archivists determine the items they hold for their specific collections. Finally, there is also an archive evaluation process in which the material is professionally evaluated using the institutions’ collection policies to “determine its value to the institution”. Material can be valuable from an archival perspective for a number of reasons: because it is rare, information-rich, accurate, complete, in good physical condition, or because of its contextual relationship to the other material in the specific collection. Collection guidelines help archivists collect material using these as well as mission-controlled parameters. This entire process ultimately forms a historical narrative based on the archival material.
The Trump Presidency and Archives Challenges
When we understand this, we can see that historians have been given a great job in dealing with the Trump presidency. Logistically, historians are concerned that they will not receive complete and accurate historical preservation documents at all. Richard Immerman, historian and professor at Temple University, explains that there is a legal framework for documentation in the Presidency’s office, but “the inattention of this administration to legal requirements [about preserving records] is unprecedented. I am pessimistic that we will get a lot of documents, ”he tells Fortune.
During his tenure, Trump was known for destroying and discarding documents intended to be kept for historical records. Solomon Lartey, a former White House record analyst, recalls that Trump destroyed a letter from Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, about a government shutdown that Lartey himself had to tape back together for historical record use. This type of destruction was common in the administration.
After Trump lost the 2020 election, the National Archives had to invoke the President’s Records Act, which “regulates access to records after an administration has ended,” because the Trump office initially opposed the transfer of records. Once this source material is obtained, it is the responsibility of historians and archivists to carefully verify the accuracy and authenticity of the documents produced by the bureau for the historical archive.
Another major archiving challenge will be digital recording. According to the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Graduate School of Journalism in Colombia, the state of news archiving in the digital world is generally poor. Their research for the 2018-2019 period shows that “the majority of news outlets hadn’t even considered basic strategies for preserving their digital content and didn’t properly store a holistic record of what they produced.” Given that so Much of the primary source material of our contemporary events is digital data, this report is of great importance to archivists.
Much of the primary sources for Trump’s presidency were posted on Twitter, a private platform that has since deleted Trump’s account for inciting violence. With this decision, Twitter also removed Trump’s previous tweets from the public domain. However, this historical record is not lost through the work of digital archivists. A ProPublica nonprofit project called Politwoops has archived all of the President’s tweets, including those he previously deleted himself after posting them.
In addition, the National Archives have announced that they will “receive, retain and make publicly available to all official Trump Administration social media content, including deleted posts from @realDonaldTrump and @POTUS,” and re-use these archiving tools to preserve historical Dates given records – here tweets – comply with the Presidential Records Act. Its website states: “These records will be handed over to the National Archives as of January 20, 2021, and the President’s accounts will then be made available online on NARA’s newly established website trumplibrary.gov.”
The archiving process is complex and constantly changing. However, archivists previously faced the challenge of collecting and preserving new media. During the presidency of the FDR, for example, archivists had to establish guidelines and procedures for archiving radio broadcasts. During Kennedy’s presidency, archivists had to work with private television broadcasters to obtain their television footage for historical archives. However, there is no doubt that the level of retention of digital data will be a major challenge for archivists of the future.
Archives and historical memory
It is clear that archives, archiving guidelines and techniques, and archivists themselves play an enormous role in the preservation of historical material. What shapes our historical memory and our interpretation of historical events. When the contributors themselves are no longer alive, the archive material will ultimately continue to shape how the citizens of the future will remember the actors and actions of the past.
In the long run, it won’t be the year-old president who will put his legacy in the history books. He will not be able to help determine whether his historical records are positive and “patriotic”. Rather, archivists will do everything in their power to acquire and preserve the principal historical source material of this presidency. For as the historians said in their joint letter, in order to learn from this era and this presidency, we must confront them in all their chaotic complexity so that we as a country can begin to take responsibility.