William Maher, University Archivist: Remarks during Chancellor Wise’s Visit to Library

Text of comments made at September 12, 2014 Library Update Meeting for Chancellor’s Listening Visit to Library

© William J. Maher (University Archivist)

Academic freedom and freedom of speech may be essential values in a university, but for libraries and archives they are more. They actually define who we are and what we do. Libraries and archives cannot be fenced in by a standard of civility or the need to avoid making our students, our users, or our publics uncomfortable. The very reason we collect books, manuscripts, videos, or photographs is to educate our users that the past is not dead. The past made the present, but it is fundamentally different from the present, and even may be shocking and disturbing. Indeed, there can be no learning for the future unless people face the shock found in our libraries and archives.

For example, the University Archives is known internationally for its holdings of the Advertising Council Archives. These include the World War II public-service advertising posters advocating military service, conservation, and wartime security. They tell our students and external scholars about the effect of war on the home front. But how can we communicate the home front and that time without also showing the dehumanization of war apparent in the racist characterizations of the Japanese and German enemy? The same holds true of our French World War I posters now on display at Krannert. I could name dozens of other collections, including those involving a student group that called itself the KKK, or those with evidence of bigotry at campustown businesses. All would fall into this uncomfortable category. Must we withhold access for fear of disturbing an impossible-to-define code of civility?

Thus, as much as I disagree with the Salaita decision, what threatens our future more is the potential of overreach from the dubious rationale that was advanced to justify a limit on academic freedom and freedom of speech. Bringing the campus together is going to require not just listening but genuine reassessment of that rationale.