Posted by: bluesyemre | September 3, 2022

Never underestimate archivists and librarians – as Donald Trump is discovering

Here is a lovely story about libraries and public policy.

The year is 1983.

The library is the British Library, formerly hosted in the reading room at the British Museum and other sites.

Nicolas Barker, then the library’s head of conservation, and Lord Dainton, then the chair of the British Library Board, had a problem.

Public finances were under pressure, and spending cuts were everywhere.

But.

They needed to work out a way to convince the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher about the urgent need for the move of the library to a new purpose-built building.

They decided to keep the issue simple: no lengthy paragraphs in a wordy report, still less charts or tables.

And certainly no waffly arguments.

They instead took her half a dozen books, as well as a novel by one of her favourite authors, which were falling apart, regardless of the care being taken to conserve them.

They placed the books on the table in front of Thatcher.

Silence.

She looked with horror at the state of the books.

Silence.

And then they then said:

‘Mrs Thatcher, we need a new building because all our books will fall to pieces if they stay where they are.’

So horrified was the Prime Minister at the potential fate of the national collection that they got the go-ahead for the new building.

*

There are perhaps two morals to this tale (which I have told before here and is recorded in this obituary).

One is that sometimes exhibits are more persuasive than words.

The other is never to underestimate archivists and librarians.

*

That there seems a real prospect of legal jeopardy for former President Donald Trump because of a breach of American archival law.

For many watching this is evocative of Al Capone being nailed on tax evasion charges.

Archival offences seem to Trump’s supporters a convenient pretext for legal action, rather than a substantive wrong.

But.

It is a substantive wrong.

For keeping documents and other information safe both for now and for posterity is a central function of the state.

It is how the government (and legislature and judiciary) of one day speaks to those charged with power in the future.

It is how those with power can be confident that certain information does not go to those who would use that information to cause damage and injury.

Like the integrity of the currency and protecting the realm, preservation of certain information is a core duty of those entrusted with power.

And like the damaged books put in Thatcher, visual evidence can be telling:

(Source.)

Of course, few of us know the facts.

It may well be that this legal exercise comes to nothing, and Trump escapes personal legal liability again.

And Trump is entitled to due process, like you and me.

But the wrongful removal of information from a government is not a trivial thing.

For without properly documented information, modern governments could not function.

That is why laws and policies about document management and retention are so important.

And there would be a wonderful irony if laws and policies about ensuring the integrity of written information were used to check the arch-abuser of political language and post-truth politics.

POSTSCRIPT

The historian Dr Adam Chapman has provided us with this similar story – click through to read more:


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