Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Klamath Basin Communities – Whose Voices Will Remain To Tell our Tales?

After the sad event of historian Howard Zinn’s passing earlier this year, I came across a speech he gave in 1970 to a gathering of professional archivists. In “Secrecy, Archives and the Public Interest”, Zinn acknowledged the seldom-recognized power archivists have to determine what kind of history is available to future researchers. Archivists make decisions about what and whose voices are represented in the publically-available historic record, as they decide what primary source collections have enough research value to warrant being kept by their institutions. As Zinn correctly observed, archival practice is biased towards famous, powerful and often wealthy people. The personal papers of a little-known individuals or organizations are generally considered not to have adequate research value to warrant the ongoing work and resources needed for their preservation and provision for their access. As a champion of the history of ordinary people and social movements, Zinn challenged archivists to adopt new practices such that archival preservation would no longer serve to protect the status quo and that a more diverse and representative history be available to researchers of tomorrow.

What does all this have to do with the history of the Klamath River region? In my opinion, everything. The biases inherent in archival collection practice work directly against the preservation and future public access to information about the people, communities and movements within a region like the Klamath Basin. Zinn did not mention it, but public history repositories are also biased towards urban places, communities and events. The Klamath River region is rural to downright remote. The California-Oregon state border runs right through the middle of the basin, emphasizing the political divide already between the upper and lower basin communities. The area’s economy fluctuates and poverty is widespread. While the people of the Klamath Basin are in no way ordinary, they are also not prone to large-scale fame, fortune, or power. Many of the communities within the region are so isolated from the nearest urban centers that information professionals may have little to no exposure to how unique and different life is within them.

While archivists and other information professionals can and should become aware of their biases and reframe their collection goals to capture a more diverse humanity and geography, it is the communities and ordinary people of the Klamath Basin who have the greatest ability to determine what parts of our present experience is made available for future researchers and citizens. And although the people of the Klamath Basin do not generally possess the traditional qualities sought after to be included in public archival collections, our communities, experiences, and histories are unique and important. I believe that the voices of people of the Klamath River region, and diverse they are, are worthy of being heard far into the future.

In his life, Howard Zinn worked to show us how rich the legacy of ordinary citizens can be and the importance of being able to access the “people’s history” to really understanding our collective past. I wonder what Zinn would think of a movement of under-documented communities proactively organizing to preserve their own histories? What if we, the people personally connected to the Klamath River region, were the ones to identify what was important information to be preserved for a future public?

I would love to know what you think. What do future generations need to know to understand the events, dynamics and communities of the Klamath River region as it is today? Leave a comment with your ideas and/or feedback, and I bet we will be able to learn from each other and take a step forward together!