CoPAR Bulletin 1: Why Preserve Anthropological Records?

Why Preserve Anthropological Records?
by Sydel Silverman

Imagine a future anthropologist or historian of anthropology in, say, the year 2050. What will he or she have to draw on for an understanding of the course of twentieth – century anthropology, or for research on a particular society or culture that existed or had been studied during that century? There will be published works by anthropologists of the time – those that will have survived. But the most valuable potential sources will not be the condensed and edited information contained in published form but rather the notes, correspondence, and other unpublished items generated by researchers in the course of their lives and work.

And what, in 2050, will be the basis for theorizing about human nature and variability: what information will the future anthropologist have on the range of known cultures, the different ways of being human? Many of the societies or cultures that have been studied by ethnographers or archaeologists will have long since disappeared or changed drastically. Some of what these scholars had learned will have been published; but how much of what had been in their notes will never have seen print, and how much of what had been published will demand reexamination against the original records – if these records are available?

For anthropology, the unpublished records of the past are of more than historical interest; they are more than resources for study of the history of the discipline. They constitute the basic data of all research – data that are unique and unrecoverable. Where they contain information on excavated or destroyed sites, societies that have been fundamentally changed, or cultural products that no longer exist, they represent a thin thread of linkage to knowledge that will otherwise be lost. Moreover, in anthropology perhaps more than in other disciplines, the “raw” data of research and the records of personal lives and social relationships are interlinked. We have learned that the professional and the personal in anthropology are in mutual interaction and must be understood together.

Yet much of this unpublished record of anthropology has been or will be destroyed, scattered, or left to deteriorate in the basement of a descendant. All anthropologists have a responsibility to the future of the discipline to ensure that as much of the record as possible is preserved, appropriately archived, and made available to future generations.

The Uses of the Anthropological Record

The personal and professional papers that are generated by practitioners of any discipline have potential value for the future study of the history of that field and for the history of ideas in general. The research uses of the anthropological record, however, are at least threefold.

First, the record is of value as primary data, which are potentially relevant for anthropological research in the future as much for the scholar who collected or generated them. In many sciences, data records are analyzed, interpreted, written up, and then may be discarded or treated only as “history.” In anthropology, however, records such as field notes are never “done with.” The first-hand records of cultures, sites, or languages are irreplaceable and may be returned to again and again. Nor are such records ever to be relegated to history or treated only as a prior condition against which change may be measured. We know that whatever is observed by an anthropologist is specific to its time and place. These data will always be the basis of anthropological research and thinking.

Second, the anthropological record is needed for the kind of historical understanding that permits proper interpretation of the primary data. This includes both the process of contextualizing specific data through records that reveal how they were constructed, and the wider-ranging study of the history of lives, relationships, and institutions for the purpose of better comprehending the work of the discipline. This use may be defined as the history of anthropology for anthropological purposes.

A third use of the record is to enable study of the history of anthropology as part of the history of science or ideas. This kind of disciplinary history may be pursued by anthropological historians or historians of science/ideas for a variety of purposes. All three uses need to be kept in mind in deciding what should be saved, where, and in what form.

The special nature of anthropological records also has implications for preservation strategy. Field notes, for example, are not merely “raw data” generated by particular methodological operations. They are the product of intricate relationships between the personal and the technical, the anthropologist and the people he/she interacts with, the context and the content, as well as many other elements. All of this complicates the potential uses (and misuses) of such records and makes for multifaceted sensitivities. At the same time, it underlines the uniqueness of these records and the urgency of preserving them.

Anthropological records also have a special quality in that there is a seamless continuity between observation (or other forms of encounter with the focus of study), the recording of “data,” interpretation, and writeup. There are further continuities with teaching, other professional activities, and more private arenas. We have become increasingly aware of how each activity (each generating its own records) is constructed by the others. If future scholars are to make sense of the research process, they will have to be able to recover all aspects of it and trace their interconnections.

As compared with the records of other disciplines, anthropology’s are marked by an extraordinary range and diversity, corresponding to the range of its subject matter. The subfields generate different kinds of records, and all extend across the world geographically and over great spans of time. Moreover, the social organization of research varies by subfield and by theoretical or methodological approach within the subfield. Biological anthropologists and archaeologists often carry out their research in teams, frequently incorporating specialists from other disciplines, while ethnographers and linguists have tended (for the most part) to work as individuals or in pairs. The different organizational modes lead to different kinds of record sets and different patterns of retention.

The problems of locating, coordinating, organizing, and generally keeping track of this diversity and range might seem daunting. Yet for anthropology the totality is not only as an accumulation of miscellaneous records but an integral resource to which the discipline and other interested users must have access.

Whose Records Are They?

It is too easily assumed that unpublished materials are the property of the anthropologist who produced or collected them, and his/hers to dispose of at will. While this might be true of certain personal papers, it is not the case for records generated in the course of research or other professional activity. Consider field notes. They may have been written by the anthropologist, but many parties contributed to their creation and may have interests in them: the people who provided information, the community or society that hosted the anthropologist, the agencies that funded the project, the institutions with which the researcher was affiliated, and others. While specific obligations might not have been incurred contractually, the anthropologist has at least a moral responsibility to consider the interests of all these parties.

Taking into account the multiple interests of diverse parties–and above all the interests of the people about whom information is contained in records–means that there are legitimate sensitivities about how these records should be handled. Such sensitivities are probably more complex for anthropologists than for other scholars holding records of historical significance, but they are not unique to anthropology. There are ways of dealing with all concerns that might (indeed, should) be raised about the potential misuse of records. It is vital, and also possible, to address the problem of materials containing confidential or sensitive information so as to ensure protection of those involved while also recognizing the need for access by researchers, by the social or cultural groups the materials pertain to, and by others with legitimate interests in them. Such concerns should not be taken as reasons for withholding or destroying materials or for downplaying the importance of preservation. They do, however, need to be incorporated into professional training as pertinent issues of ethics and scholarship.

There are also more fundamental responsibilities to be considered: to the anthropological enterprise in general, to scholars of the future, and to the descendants of those who are the subject of the research. Many peoples draw a distinction between ownership and custodianship, which also applies to the ethnographer who has acquired and controls cultural materials. In a more general sense, the anthropologist is always a steward of the records that contain cultural information. Understood in that light, instances of deliberate destruction of unpublished papers – and to a lesser extent, negligence of care and denial of access – must be seen as a failure of professional responsibility.

Primary responsibility for preserving and appropriately depositing records must rest with the individual anthropologist who holds them, but the discipline as a whole, and the organizations and institutions that have specific charges within it, need to acknowledge this responsibility and place it high on their agenda. Too often, preservation has been relegated to low-priority status, something to be tended to later (“when there is time”), and too often those professionals concerned with archiving have been regarded merely as service providers for the “real” business of research. We now need to rearrange our priorities, to start to understand the intimate relationship between research and preservation, and to make effective stewardship of the anthropological record a component of all anthropological study.

Sydel Silverman
Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research

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