In last week’s readings and class discussion, we came across a case in which the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) was contacted in heavy waves by Japanese-Americans in the 1980s who were forcibly held in internment camps during World War II. In order to be compensated by Congress and seek retribution, they were asked to prove their internment. (David Bearman, “Access and Use,” Chapter IV). For a student like me who uses archives almost exclusively for academic work, it’s a reminder that archives are sites not only established for the pursuit of academic knowledge, but in search of a personal and social one as well. Archives can serve as power tools for social and political action in the pursuit of retribution.
I encountered a situation directly this past March while I was researching at NARA in College Park, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C. While waiting for my new researcher card, I was seated next to an older gentleman. We began talking about our reasons for visiting, to which he told me that he had traveled halfway across the country to obtain records to prove that he had served in a specific battle and troop during the Vietnam War to prove he was eligible for certain veterans’ benefits.
While I don’t know the outcome of this man’s story, I think it speaks volumes about the place of archives within the public sphere. Mark Greene, in his “The Power of Archives” piece articulated democracy as one of the enduring values of the archival profession. Said Greene, “archivists are more concerned with governmental accountability in a republic.” (Greene 31). In many ways, as others have argued, this is how an archives can determine its enduring value to justify its existence.