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"Keepers of the Truth": The Historical Role of the Archivist in Society.

by Patricia Sherbaniuk

         The historical role of the archivist in society is an issue that has been greatly debated since the formation of the first records, and the identity of the archivist has been a difficult one to define throughout history. What is the function of archivists and why should they be seen as valuable assets to society? Archivists have long been viewed as the "keepers of the truth," responsible for storing the collective memory of society in "houses of memory": i.e., archives. This collecting of memories also occurs in museums, historic sites, and libraries, but archives are different in that this storage has not been something arbitrary, but has been dependent upon the decisions of the archivist, decisions that have long been the subject of controversy. There are many questions about the methods that determine what is worth remembering, and, more importantly, what is deliberately or accidentally forgotten. The archivist should be neutral and objective, not driven by ideology or personal quests. However, "as the author of the archival record, the archivist plays a critical role in the construction of our knowledge of the past and, its logical obverse, in creating silences-gaps in memory." (McIntosh 2). The controversy concerning archiving comes from these "memory gaps"; is it the role of the archivist to be the author of history, or to be impartial, uninfluenced by any outside agendas? Is it best to keep certain records closed for the protection of the privacy of individuals and the institutions involved, and for society as a whole?