by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Jacob Bruggeman writes for the Martin Center about a recent academic controversy that highlights a larger issue.
In early August, archivists and other scholars erupted in protest when the American Historical Association (AHA) wrote a letter asking broad questions about how archives plan to reopen. The AHA framed its letter as an effort to advocate for professional historians and countless other researchers who were without access to most physical archives throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet the letter was received—whatever its intentions—as a callous call for archivists to serve historians. It appeared to many readers like a pretentious professional association positioning itself at the apex of an academic hierarchy and then trying to punch down.
Optics aside, the incident illustrates a broader problem plaguing academia: the hubris of academic associations that insist on their unique importance, while in denial about their own profession’s decline.
Published on August 2, the AHA’s letter was directed at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), an independent federal agency that preserves and documents government history. Housed in the National Archives Building on the National Mall in Washington, DC, where readers can view the original Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights, and many other treasures, NARA operates dozens of other facilities, including presidential libraries. Those facilities are central to scholars researching topics ranging from American presidents and Congress to foreign and domestic policy. …
… Written in response to rumors that NARA would reopen only on a limited basis, the AHA letter described historians as itching “to resume research for dissertations, books, articles, and other projects.” The letter proceeded with a list of 12 questions. …
… Archivists and historians, however, saw something far more troubling beneath the AHA’s air of fact-finding. As digital archivist Emily Higgs Kopin wrote on Twitter, “the effect of ‘suggestions’ and demands from researchers about access to archives during a pandemic,” like those voiced in the AHA letter, “is not necessarily anger or frustration with being told how to do our jobs, it’s just despair.”