Smite the Basilisk, let’s open up the Chamber of Secrets

Marcus Robyns

During last year’s spat with the NMU administration, the North Wind featured an article describing the NMU Archives as the University’s Chamber of Secrets. Sadly, the headline revealed a general misperception of the archives as an enigmatic and foreboding place where NMU keeps the proverbial “skeletons in the closet,” all safely hidden away from prying eyes and inquiring minds. Oh the horror! Nothing can be more devastating to the ego and professional self-image of an archivist. I felt the life sucked out of me and struggled until one of the librarians brought me some chocolate.re-Marcus-Robyns

In truth, I do everything in my power to make the NMU archives a very open and welcoming place where there are no secrets. Located on the first floor of the LRC in room 126 and next to the West Science tunnel, the Archives encourages students to visit, ask questions, conduct primary source research or simply use the reading room as a quiet place to study. We even have private study carrels. They do not need to make an appointment and there is no admission charge. More to the point, most of our collections—the really interesting stuff—are open and available to students any time during our public hours and for any reason.

As a regional, historical manuscript collection, the archives actively solicits the donation of personal papers and organizational records (journals, diaries, meeting minutes, correspondence, photographs, audio-visual material and electronic records) that document the historical development of the Upper Peninsula. These collections are primary source material for scholars and a whole host of non-academic types. Nearly all of the archives’ historical collections are open and freely available for research. The public may browse the collection-finding aids online by searching ArchivesSpace, our new online collection management software.

Access to historical information becomes a bit more problematic when a student or member of the general public requests to see University records. These records are not immediately open and available, and the public cannot access collection-finding aids using ArchivesSpace.

As a state university, Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) governs the public’s access to NMU administrative records stored in the archives. Archives patrons must submit a FOIA request to NMU’s FOIA officer, the vice president for Finance and Administration. Depending upon the content of the record, the patron may or may not gain access to the information.

In recent years, administrations of higher education around the country have responded, in part, to political pressure and the threat of lawsuits by clamping down on access to institutional information. In many instances, they have misused FOIA as a shield from public scrutiny, not as a tool for greater transparency. Making matters worse, over the last three decades college and university administrators have evolved into corporate managers far removed from the classroom and far too concerned with image and the bottom line.

As the North Wind’s experience last year suggests, a FOIA request is no longer a sure guarantee of access to important public archival records. Administrations may obfuscate, delay or push the act’s boundaries to unreasonable limits. Moreover, an archives’ patron cannot be sure she has received a copy of all the available documents, and the archivist cannot reveal whether the administration has withheld anything relevant.

In essence, the archivist has no direct or indirect role in the FOIA decision-making process and has no legal recourse in preventing potential abuse.

This situation presents a serious challenge to archivists and archives. Professionally, archivists are expected to provide the widest and freest possible access to historical records (see the Society of American Archivists Code of Ethics at archivists.org). Moreover, I am also a faculty member staunchly committed to academic freedom, open inquiry and critical analysis. Everything I do from acquisition to conservation and description is done to make historical information readily available and useable to the public for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Any action, law or institutional policy that prevents me from completing this mission is intolerable.

Intolerable situations rankle me regardless of how much chocolate I eat.

Fortunately, on this question, the NMU administration differs markedly from many of its peers. Currently, the administration is seriously considering a proposal that would grant the university archivist limited authority to provide access to archival administrative records, thereby circumventing the time consuming and possibly expensive requirement of submitting a FOIA request. In a nutshell, the proposal would allow the university archivist to open up documents 30 years or older that do not violate FOIA exemptions.

This proposal will give the university archivist a modest role in the FOIA process and greatly facilitate patron research, particularly students working on course assignments with looming deadlines.

Despite the difficulties last year, I have reason for optimism.  The members of NMU’s administration are honorable people, motivated by good intentions and struggling to confront some serious and intractable challenges  just like the rest of us.

I see no reason to believe they will reject this proposal, thereby reinforcing NMU’s reputation as an institution committed to free and open inquiry.

Working together, we can overcome the pejorative Harry Potter metaphor. The NMU Archives is no Chamber of Secrets and we don’t have a basilisk slithering around in the stacks. That doesn’t mean, however, that I won’t continue to accept gifts of chocolate.