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Archivists have their day in the sun


On the face of it, the job of an archivist appears so mundane and boring that nobody pays much attention to them. However, archivists play a vital role within society, as has been highlighted by a recent news item announcing the opening of an inquest into the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. I am not discussing this news item to boost my ego or those of my colleagues, but just to make the general public realize that while archivists often tend to be taken for granted, our work has immense value for the society.


The Hillsborough disaster is one of the worst disasters in British sporting history, in which more than 95 lives were lost and there were scores of injuries. The opening of an inquest into this disaster could only be made possible because of the tireless work of a group of archivists whose job was to catalogue and make available over 450,000 documents relating to that tragic incident. The work of these archivists, alongside that of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, uncovered terrible truths which had been covered up for decades.

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While reading through the report submitted by the panel, I was filled with shame to realize how ignorant I was about what had actually transpired during this disaster. The general thought that had been ingrained in our heads since childhood was that it was the Liverpool football fans themselves who were responsible for the disaster that had befallen them. Had I grown up in the northern part of town, I’m sure I would have not been so ignorant, but living in the south, I was cocooned from the truth and sometimes even subjected to deliberate misinformation available in the media at that time.


Thanks to the work of the archivists, the Independent Panel for the first time had access to unaltered, unedited, original records, whereas previously the only records available were those that had been heavily edited with a particular bias in mind. While it is true that almost all written records have some inherent biases based on the views or beliefs of the writer, these biases are usually subconscious and very different from a deliberate attempt to purge or edit records in such a way as to cast aspersions on the actions of only one party, without giving any heed to the bigger picture.


Given the important role played by archivists in society, it is imperative that we hold high ethical standards – that we always report facts as they were and not be bribed or browbeaten into supporting one particular version of events. While it is not unusual to take this kind of ethical standard for archivists for granted, there is always that remote possibility that someone could tamper with the records in return for financial or political gain. This may seem far-fetched but I am sure examples exist of archivists who have misbehaved in this way!

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