SAA Report: Navigating Scandal

Somewhat surprisingly, one of my favorite panels of Archives 2015 had very little to do with the actual work that I do day to day. Session 702, Controversial Crawling: Documenting University Scandal in Real Time, dealt with the practical issues of trying to capture internal and public discussions of university controversies on the web.

I often feel like archives shy away from documenting and seeking out controversial source materials, in many ways because of institutional pressure from invested parties that do not want those controversies kept in perpetuity. However, this panel offered a refreshing take on scandal, by explaining exactly how to three different web archivists selected and collected materials pertaining to institutional scandals, sometimes even against the wishes of those higher up in the organization.

The three panelists covered four distinct scandals at their three universities: the “A Rape on Campus” scandal at UVA, the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal at Penn State, the Duke Lacrosse rape case, and the Belle Knox pornography scandal at Duke. While the panelists all offered different perspectives and shared stories of support or resistance from their institutions, they all agreed that it is an archivist’s job to collect materials that fit within the scope of their collections, even the materials that may damage the institution’s reputation.

While the panelists framed the discussions around the practical and technical challenges to archiving rapidly growing amounts of web content, the issues they dealt with were relevant to all archivists. In her discussion of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Jackie Esposito of Penn State mentioned that the Penn State legal team had directly told her to close the entirety of the Sandusky collection in the university archives, but she fought back and reminded them that they do not close a collection just because its use may create harm to the university’s reputation. I found this statement particularly powerful because we often work with so many corporate donors that worry about their legacies.

Archivists should not hide from uncomfortable moments in an institution’s history; it is our job to present a fair and balanced view of historical documentation, even when we are not proud of the situation. While we should always take into account legal implications of documenting and collecting archival materials, archivists have a duty to not selectively collect materials, even if it creates a messy or difficult situation for us.

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