Ask An Archivist Day: October 5th, 2016

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Archivist – ar·chi·vist \ˈär-kə-vist, -ˌkī-\

a person who has the job of collecting and storing the materials in an archive

see archive 

Archive – ar·chive \ˈär-ˌkīv\

  1.   a place in which public records or historical documents are preserved; also :  the material preserved —often used in plural

  2.   a repository or collection especially of information

Tomorrow, OCTOBER 5TH, 2016, is #AskAnArchivist Day!

Have you ever wondered what it is we do? What our favorite part of being an archivist is? What great pieces are in our collections? What we think about when we see archivists portrayed in popular culture? Well **NOW** is your chance to ask!

Just use the hashtag #AskAnArchivist on Twitter and Instagram and check out all the archival magic happening!!!

If you are particularly interested in film/moving image archiving, a few of the fabulous archivists/archives who will be participating will be the following:

American Archive of Public Broadcasting @amarchivepub

MIAP (Moving Image Archiving Program) and the NYU Cinema Studies department archive @NYUMIAP

USC Shoah Foundation @USCShoahFdn

Snowden Becker @SnowdenBecker

UCLA Film & TV Archive @UCLAFTVArchive

Access Committee will be RT’ing archival tweets all day at @AMIAnet

Rachel Beattie at Media Commons Archive, University of Toronto @MediaCommons_TO

Pamela & Juana will be answering in both English and Spanish at @secondrunpres

Other General Archival participants who have sent me their info:

 Special collections/university archives folks will answering questions at @uoregonlibnews

The Kappa Alpha Theta fraternity  will be participating. @bettielocke

 

 

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Archiving: The Personal, the Professional and the Unknown Experience

I don’t usually use this space for personal entries, but sometimes, in archiving, the personal and the professional mix. While that can be a death sentence on public space and social media (if used incorrectly), there are times when the connection of the two can lead to a fascination rumination on career choices, life choices and philosophies. You can make the decision about what I have done after you complete this entry.

A great many people in my life have inspired me with archiving & preservation. Starting with Laura Rooney​, Kristina Kersels and the AMIA organization, moving forward to the amazing Dennis Doros, the AMAZING Film Noir Foundation and Eddie Muller, and continuing with a list of a zillion people. These days, my amazing conversations that keep me afloat/sane are my Library Ladies, Eunice Y. Liu​, Rachel E. Beattie​ & Stacy Jyl McKenna​. Because they get stupid jokes that might start with “So three catalogers walk into a bar…” I can’t name everyone, but the issue is this: being an independent/freelance archivist is really tough. I have some really tough moments. I am trained. I am passionate. Sometimes those things don’t work well together. I’m well aware. I’m working on it. I’m also not ready to give up. I love what I do too much. And…it’s way too important.

My archive partner and colleague Adam balances me out. He’s my best friend. I’ve never been able to work with someone THIS WELL before. It may be due to the fact that he & I have been through hell & back together, but that’s another story for another time. Let’s just say this: it’s one of the best working relationships I have ever found and he is amazingly supportive of all the things that I get anxious about. Something I really need right now, in this delicate time. I think there’s going to be great things that will happen from this. My gut says so.

BUT….I digress. I have learned something INCREDIBLY important this week. I became an archivist to save moving image history initially. I thought (at first) that I wanted it to be something “larger,” something “big.” I think I was maybe really wrong. Like SERIOUSLY wrong. I may get more rewards from the exact opposite.

This last week I began helping one of my dearest friends for the last 20+ years Margo Stern​ begin to deal with her incredibly talented father’s film collection. What I realized is that this life that I have chosen is actually meaningful to me because it really makes people happy. See, Margo’s dad isn’t doing well.

I desperately desperately wish we could have assessed (& made digitally accessible) this collection when he was. I kept saying to Adam as we were playing and inspecting some of the commercial reels, “Goddamn, I wish we could’ve done this earlier when we could’ve enjoyed this with David (Margo’s dad) and had him tell us the stories behind these advertisements!”

See, much like 16mm educational films (something else that I focus on in my personal work), Adam and I are of the opinion that commercials are in this highly unloved/unappreciated category of film/film-making and should truly be revisited. In this way, David Stern was really a master. He had humor, he had art, he worked with the product, he SOLD it! Man. I was so hungry after some of those commercials!!

I am getting untold glee out of Getting To Know David Stern from his film work (I only spoke to him on the phone once). It means getting to know his daughter better (always awesome, because Margo is one of the most awesome humans on the planet) and it means looking at a space in time on the commercial spectrum in US moving image work (he did primarily commercial work), and so many other things.

Mostly, however, it has meant documenting every little thing, quality & condition, individual reels (some were lab new!!), and looking at a full collection basically in retrospect and finding things that are now considered complete treasures but in the 1970s were simple TV spots. I have learned about products that don’t exist anymore, underwear companies that used to play music for their employees at lunch time and how much time David Stern spent in Texas (a good chunk).

However, the most amazing part of this experience so far has been what I am calling my “Unknown” experience. If you are a film nerd or archive-y geek, you are familiar with the story of the Browning film, THE UNKNOWN and how the print sat for many years in a pile of “unknown” prints simply due to its lovely but rather unfortunately title. It was a lost film…until (luckily) it was found.

It was about 3am. We had completed the inventory of the single commercials and inspected and correctly documented (many of them were totally wrong) everything that was on Stern’s collection of compilations reels. There was one more 16mm film in a grey plastic can and it was simply marked “brazil.” We had initially put it with the stack of home movies in the corner (the “bad” corner, since many of those films are in early stages of vinegar syndrome, but we will be handling that next week! Stay tuned film fans!) but in a different area, since it was not vinegar (this gets complicated- but trust me- I have a large space and plenty of places to put/separate things).

We went to revisit this can since it was the same grey can as the rest of the compilation reels and the home movies were all in metal, so we were a little suspicious anyway. We opened the can and it said “Brazil 66.” Okay. So looking back now? I should have known. I did, in fact, know that there was a band called Brazil 66. But here is the thing: The Stern Family also traveled…A LOT. And the family films are actually labeled, too! And pretty well! But then we saw the soundtrack. And we knew that it couldn’t be one of the family films. So….onto my boyfriend Elmo (my Projector is an ELMO projector, I spend much time with it, thus…my boyfriend) we thread up the reel.

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Adam and I look at each other DUMBFOUNDED. Not only is this gorgeous footage, but it’s famous.

As I wrote to Margo, our initial thoughts on this reel, due to the “Brazil 66” label and due to the other elements in the collection were that this film was going to be:

a) industrial travel film, b) educational film that David collected, or c) ???
Turns out that it was d) OMGWTFTOTALLYAWESOME. This was a reel of Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66. AS IN THE BAND.

And if you would like to see a partial clip of what is on the full reel, some of it is on youtube. Here is the clip:

I immediately contacted Margo to tell her. It was kinda amazing for me. I was beyond myself. I don’t know if this is a “great” archival “find” but for the family it certainly is. Margo’s response was enough. “ARE YOU SURE HE DID THIS?” essentially was what I got back. And I was so so so happy to be able to say, with absolute confidence, “Yes, I am absolutely positive. We have several commercials that he made for Carnation from the Urie company during the same time period, and the Urie tag is on the heads and tails of the Brazil 66 film. Your father, David Stern, made this crazy psychedelic masterpiece of film & music.”

If you look close, Urie is scribed right near the Brazil 66.

If you look close, Urie is scribed right near the Brazil 66.

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So, the thing about the reel is that the song on that clip? “Mas Que Nada”? That’s not the only thing on that lovely bit of 16mm. The reel is about 5-7 minutes. It’s 2 music videos. And to further prove that David Stern created that? We watched the 16mm Turtles music video that he made that is in the Stern collection. Yes, that Turtles.

There are some pretty distinct similarities. Unfortunately, the Youtube version is not that great, but once again…the 16mm looks FABULOUS. Damn, I love film.

Adam has been great in being the neutral archive person for me & the one to assist while I document all of the elements in a central database so that we can sort it out and get it ready for digitizing. Our primary goal in this project is for the Stern Family to be able to enjoy David Stern’s work as we have been able to. If this sounds like it is all fun and games, it isn’t. You do have to watch the same bits and pieces of material sometimes 20 times in an hour (commercials are :30, remember, and not everything that was done for money was great and fun).

But I really love my job and this is best part of it. I do not envy my wonderful friend her situation. She is one of the best people I have ever known in my life and there is no doubt  in my mind that much of that comes from her dad. She’s a smart cookie, and this film work is smart as hell.

Finding a balance between the personal and the professional in a situation like this is very very difficult. There is nothing I can actually say with my mouth to make this family situation better for her. What I can do is try and help her family get some peace by doing what I am trained to do: archive, preserve, appreciate. I am honored to be working on the Stern Family Collection and appreciate this opportunity. It’s a real gift.

I hope that anyone who reads this can start to consider thinking about their own family collections and how they might begin to assess them before it gets to “that point.” Home movies, student films, commercial work, any of those kinds of items are valuable. This is valuable content. And there are many highly-trained and dedicated individuals like myself who find nothing but pleasure in assisting you and your families in the organization of that content into a manageable form. It may seem intimidating now, but, as I always say about film/archival work (and I do always say this, ask anyone) “Anything is possible.”

Why We Watch: Theatrical Attendance, Archiving and Individualism

It has been a whirlwind last few weeks. Things have been moving so quickly that I haven’t slowed down enough to be able to put both feet on the ground! Either that or I’ve been so thrilled by all the fantastic things that have been happening that I am in a permanent state of 5 feet above the pavement. I’ll let you know which one it is when I know. Which may (fingers crossed) be never…

Exciting things? A life-changing AMIA Conference in Savannah, GA which included meeting Ian Mackaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi. Participating in a truly kick-ass small gauge workshop where I learned so much. Attending a fabulous Home Movie Day recently, and a new archiving/metadata project that I’ve been busting my ass on. I’m loving EVERY MINUTE. The latter of these things was yet another case of a colleague in the archiving community reaching out, too. I swear to reels and sprockets if it wasn’t for film preservation and the folks I know and have met in the last few years? I would be lost. L-O-S-T.

Admittedly, something has been bothering me. I have tried not to let it get to me too much because I have all these other things going on but… I can’t stop thinking about it. So here is me. Talking about some things. And I’m not going to bullshit. And I’m not going to beat around the bush. But I am also not here to trash-talk, get personal or nasty. This is not a gossip piece. With that said, let’s get the initial stuff out of the way so we can talk about the REAL issues.

By now many people have probably seen the blog written by Julia Marchese, former employee of the New Beverly Cinema. You may recognize the name of this theater as the one that I have written about several times . Without getting into details or reposting the blog (go ahead and find it yourself if you need to) her article discusses how she felt that she got the raw end of the deal in her recent “dismissal.” While I found her article problematic from a working professional’s standpoint, I think I found the public response even more disturbing. Much of the blind support and anti-theater sentiment came from people who had never met her and/or had never even visited the New Beverly. This felt weird to me.

Do I feel bad that someone, anyone lost their job? Absolutely. But did I think that it was news in the same time period that Home Movie Day was happening (a great film preservation event) or when such fascinating pieces are being written about Christopher Nolan and INTERSTELLAR‘s exhibition changes? Not really. So I was ready to just blow it off. But then it happened. Not once, not twice but over and over. Within the few articles that I read, Julia was referred to as the “heart and soul” and “public face” of the New Beverly Cinema, either by the author or within the comments. How an employee of 6 years could be either of those things for a theater that is 36 years old made me feel even more uneasy.

These phrases and this structure of characterization is what I REALLY wish to explore. I wish to center my discussion on what I see as a kind of posturing, and let me reiterate: it is not endemic to this situation nor to this person. I have seen it before in other situations. I’m sure we all have. But my issue is as follows: anytime someone is built up with their own personal importance emphasized before that of their institution’s or what their institution does, there is a major problem. Especially if that person is not considered to be a major figure within said institution. Not only can this cause unrest and poor work relations in a given work environment, it’s not a healthy way to present any company or team atmosphere. I can only speak from where I sit and this is why sharing credit and community recognition has always been one of the greatest assets to the moving image archiving community. It tends to prevent situations like this. But….not 100% of the time. As Billy Wilder wrote, “Nobody’s perfect.”

From my experience, it is antithetical to our primary goal as a film preservation community to peacock, especially if you have a significant attachment to a company- be it educational institution, regional archive, studio or movie theater. What I have seen within my own community (and yes, Virginia, there are politics in the most altruistic of film preservation worlds) is that those folks who see themselves as an archivist/preservationist first and then an individual are generally far more successful and usually become the central touchstones of this magical world I am part of. That has said worlds to me as I train to become the woman I want to become. Thus I get awfully suspicious when I begin to see any kind of cult of personality being built around someone who has stated that they are tirelessly working for the betterment of the film community on their own.

Now let’s get into wording and some basic reality. Here is a cold, hard fact: the heart and soul of a movie theater will always be the films it shows. It will never solely be a person. What a theater shows creates its personality, its individual culture, its ambience. A programmer is a good portion of that, which is why people like Michael and Sherman Torgan’s development and creation OF the New Beverly is SO VITAL TO BE RECOGNIZED. In addition, Phil Blankenship’s Saturday Midnight series at the New Beverly was a major part of its personality. Brian Quinn and Eric Caiden’s Grindhouse Series. The guest programmers. Hell, even my series added a little bit (I like to think). My point is: content creates character

When I go to the Heavy Midnights series at the Cinefamily, I’m not going specifically to hang with the programmer (sorry, Phil!). I go to see the incredible and rare off-beat movies shown. When I go to the American Cinematheque, I don’t attend the films because I want to chat with the folks I know that work there. It’s a nice perk, but I go to see the movies. There are some incredible programmers in this town. The film events going on are really unbeatable. But am I switching my schedule around and looking at bus plans so I can get to the Echo Park Film Center to be hip? Not even close. I’m doing it because that place is an amazing and dynamic part of LA Film Culture. I get to see cool shit. Really, isn’t it all about seeing cool shit?

Archives work in the same manner. What we collect, how we process and care for the collections, our rules and regulations and our interactions with other professional organizations (including locations of exhibition) help to define us. While we may all have our own individual identities as archivists, projectionists, exhibition specialists, I firmly believe that we are also part of larger systems. Not only are we part of the businesses or organizations that employ us, but we are also tied in through an umbilical-cord-like-network, an over-arching community called FILM. We answer to it as our primary boss. If Mama Film wasn’t there…neither would we be.

What we are not is regimes. If you’re curious, my stance on the New Beverly format issue has not changed. I’m not going to alter my researched and valid personal position that a theater should be equipped with everything from digital to 16mm. And I’m not going to change my opinion about the way in which the New Beverly transition was conducted. I don’t think it was professionally done nor was it respectful. But I highly object to the repeated use of the word REGIME, in reference to either the Torgan family or Tarantino.

Neither of them are tyrannical rulers or fascists. Let’s get real, people. This is a damn movie theater, not the Third Reich. Regime?? Just stop.

 

I would like very much for us to think about why we go to the movies at all. During the Depression, people went to get a sliver of happiness from the horrors of the world. As Hollywood legend Norman Lloyd notes, “They were a wonderful escape. People would go into the theater, in this darkened cavern, and it took them out of themselves. They could fantasize about what happened on the screen, about those beautiful stars that existed then.” I like to think that we still do that. I know that I do. It’s why I went into preservation work. So that the little babies that my friends are having right now can experience what I experience. Big screen magic of beautiful (or beautifully told) stories.

Yes, I returned to the NEW New Beverly last night. I went to go see the two George C. Scott pictures. And I had a great time.

I spent some time soul-searching this week. Clearly. I deeply explored ideas of self-promotion and individuality, love for the medium and exhibition landscape, ideas of preservation. I had major thoughts about the evolution of Los Angeles film spaces, too, since many of the theaters I attended as a little girl are now gone. Even the Egyptian Theater is itself a new iteration- it’s the American Cinematheque. At some point I got all Emma Goldman up in my head, angry at anyone who would try to personally claim ownership for a media environment when it should belong to us all…but that passed. I just put on some punk rock and remembered that DIY archiving is totally a thing and that calmed me down. I just started working on a database. It’s the Ariel Zen.

I had thought that boycotting the New Beverly was going to be my answer but it’s a really stupid answer. Here is where I stand. As someone who puts film above almost everything else in life (including many human relationships), I feel much more comfortable going back there now that I know that I will be able to be in a climate that is more film-centered than personality-centered. My biggest concern? What’re you playing, man? What’s on the marquee? Last night was pretty nice. I was able to breathe easy, enjoy the films, laugh too loud at the damn cartoon that no one else was laughing at (it’s a cartoon, guys!!), got to see some people who I genuinely adore, and watch some rarely screened pictures.

Also, as I was saying to someone in the lobby, one of my favorite things about being in the archiving/preservation field is that I get to learn about new media elements or historical facts on a regular basis. This also happens in exhibition. And that’s just a joy and a pleasure. I saw some trailers last night for films that I have NEVER heard of before. I must see MOVIE/MOVIE. That film looks awesome!!! 

The print for the first film, RAGE, was pretty gnarly, but as someone who’s familiar with 35mm, I know that watching them in this condition is important for me to do so I may learn more about analog and see what I can suss out myself. Is that discoloration due to film stock? Is that a base scratch? Is that due to bad printing? To be honest, this is great practice for me! RAGE does exist on Warner Archives and I’ll bet that their DVD is in better condition but….I’ll take big screen over DVD any day.  The audience reaction alone was worth the price of admission!!!!!!!!! And I’ve seen FAR worse prints. Definitely worth a watch so hey- there’s my plug for Warner Archives! Baby Martin Sheen! OMGZ!! The second print, THE SAVAGE IS LOOSE was simply gorgeous (and a much better film, I might add). I cannot stop thinking about it. Such an incredible, bizarre and eerie film. Absolutely loved it.

I can only speak for myself. But from what I have gleaned, I get the sense that the one thing that Michael Torgan and Quentin Tarantino share is the fact that they want films to keep playing at the New Beverly. They may have differing ideas on methodology, but I think that this mutual drive for exhibition and the strong desire for films to be seen is something that needs to be recognized in both men. This is something to be respected. I see this in my own field in the people who fight tooth and nail to keep their archives afloat. It’s not easy. And things are changing all the time. I don’t want to be prescriptive here. I’ve just come to some resolutions over the last week that may make me less than popular with friends but make me feel ethically better with my field of choice and with my self.

I’m not going to be an apologist for anyone or their actions. In fact, I’m staying wholly clear of that. But I also want to examine the idea that maybe we should be deciding for ourselves the ways in which we consume moving image media. And I do believe that it is important to support local theaters, and 35mm and 16mm exhibition. What I am absolutely sure of is that I would not go to a movie theater simply because it is owned by someone famous. I would not go there simply because it is run by a friend or one of the most amazing folks I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, although I admittedly did do that on more than one occasion so….yeah.  Point being, I WOULD go there because it has movies I want to see. I know my reason for attending the theaters I attend.

But at the end of the day, I guess it really is a personal question to be answered: why do you watch?

The Lack of Obsolescence: The FOUND FOOTAGE FESTIVAL, 10th Anniversary Tour

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As a moving image archivist and profound fan of VHS tapes, when I heard about the Found Footage Festival I grew very excited.

For many, I think the comic factor is attractive. And that is understandable. But that’s not why I was thrilled. I didn’t get excited because the on-coming works to be shown seemed cheesy or ironically “awesome, dude.”

I wasn’t ready to support this show simply because it featured thousands of work-out tapes of the 80s that had been rediscovered in thrift-shops all over the United States, or because it was ready to seemingly exploit weird and wild home-made after-hours “Buy this! It’s only $99.99!” Mr. Popeil-style programs.

The Found Footage Festival, founded and curated by Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher got me because it was a film festival generated by the same confidence and love for visual media that San Francisco Guardian critic and Castro programmer Jesse Hawthorne Ficks has discussed at length when he has railed against the modern viewer’s concept of “neo-sincerity” and the damage that this has done to pure enjoyment of the visual text. It is what I mentioned when I talked about the uniquely new concept of non-ironically loving what others seem to consider “Bad” media. When I was asked to do a list for Rupert Pupkin Speaks on Bad Movies We Love, this is what I wrote:

 

 

I believe that the term “bad movie” requires a great deal of unpacking. Tragically, when I was first in film school, * mumblemumble * years ago, it did not. “Bad” simply meant the opposite of good. It meant that you did not like the film. It was a poor choice at the video store or the box office, you wouldn’t do it again, you had to go off and knock back a bunch of beers with pals to wash out that “bad movie taste” and that was that. No recommendations for that cinematic failure. The movie sucked.
Somehow, in the last 15 or so years, “bad” has taken on all sorts of different meanings to people. Now we all remember what Michael Jackson meant when he asked, “Who’s bad?” but that’s not exactly what I mean. Although, in a way, it is. When we go around to look at people’s collections at their houses and we agonize that they have the most “amazing VHS collection evAr” because it has a few dozen films starring your favorite wrestling stars, what does that mean? Does it mean those are good films or does it mean those are good films to you? Please note that I do not use the term “bad” here. I do not believe that it comes into play. I absolutely hate when people use the “so bad its good” descriptor. That, to me, is like saying “but he only hits me because he loves me.” IT MAKES NO SENSE ON A LOGICAL LEVEL. 
 So let’s get a few things clear right now:
1)    There is no such thing as SO BAD IT’S GOOD.
2)    Very few films are ever perfect. Sometimes, it is in their imperfections and in their relentless references to time, place and cultural objects that you can find absolute glory.
3)    Polarizing terms applied to art (which, by its nature, exists in a gray area) are likely to change in time. How many films can you think of that were once completely shunned and are now considered “masterpieces”? Be careful of hyperbole. It’ll bite you in the ass.
All that said, when Jesse Hawthorne Ficks (of the MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS film series at the Castro Theater in San Francisco) came down to L.A. one night to present ROCKULA, he spoke about a thing called neo-sincerity, and that hit home. He said that we don’t watch these movies because we want to make fun of them, or because we think that they are stupid or so that we can, somehow, feel more superior by knowing that we dress “better” or some such. We watch these films because something in them actually appeals to us and we do actually dig them. So, with that, I give you a few films that other people may index underneath the genre of “bad movie” but I love the HELL out of.

As an archivist, I have learned that all media has a certain importance and this festival seemed like one that would not only be entertaining (being fronted by comedians and men who genuinely love both the VHS format and the comic craft) but also fascinating to my own work as a preservationist. It spoke to me on many levels since their approach mirrors the work of Rick Prelinger and Dan Streible in certain respects. Perhaps not the same tone, but like those respected archivists, these young men have taken the Home Movie Day approach with collections of old VHS works and they have most certainly become not only connoisseurs of the craft but experts in their field. To be frank, these men can reasonably do what any archivist does with a given set of elements: assess the collection, catalog the works, then provide access.  In my eyes, the Found Footage Festival is a unique and new kind of traveling archive. Yes, they give humor alongside the visuals. But these works are also reflections of an era that (most likely) many audience members now were not alive for.

Most people in the audience never owned a VCR. I OWN THREE. YES, STILL. Also, these clips, much like home movies, are like time capsules and windows into another region or era that none of us ever were part of. I will argue that this Festival is an important one. And these guys can make you laugh while you ingest important things that you didn’t even realize were important. Because it just looks like a crazy lady with an unfortunately feathered hairstyle doing yoga.

I highly recommend that you attend one, two or all of their events, as listed here. The link to where you can ACTUALLY BUY the tickets is HERE

I WILL BE AT BOTH OF THE NEW BEVERLY SHOWS. LET’S DO THIS THING!!!!!!!!!

Wed, May 7, 2014 @ 8:30pm Meltdown The Meltdown
Thu, May 8, 2014 @ 9:00pm New Beverly Vol. 7 in Los Angeles, CA
Fri, May 9, 2014 @ 9:00pm New Beverly Vol. 7 in Los Angeles, CA
Sat, May 10, 2014 @ 7:00pm The Loft Cinema Vol. 7 in Tucson, AZ
Tue, May 20, 2014 @ 8:00pm Spegeln FFF in Malmö, Sweden
Wed, May 21, 2014 @ 7:30pm Cinema Neuf FFF in Oslo, Norway
Thu, May 22, 2014 @ 8:30pm Bio Rio Vol. 7 in Stockholm, Sweden
Thu, Jun 5, 2014 @ 8:00pm E Street Cinema Vol. 7 in Washington, DC
Thu, Jun 19, 2014 @ 7:30pm Colonial Theatre Vol. 7 in Bethlehem, NH
Tue, Jun 24, 2014 @ 8:00pm Regent Square Vol. 7 in Pittsburgh, PA
Fri, Aug 1, 2014 @ 10:00pm Leicester Square Theatre Vol. 7 in London
Sat, Aug 2, 2014 @ 10:00pm Leicester Square Theatre Vol. 7 in London
Tue, Aug 12, 2014 @ 8:00pm Fine Line Music Cafe Vol. 7 in Minneapolis, MN
Thu, Aug 14, 2014 @ 8:00pm The Bishop Vol. 7 in Bloomington, IN
Thu, Sep 11, 2014 @ 8:00pm Lesley University Lesley University
Sat, Sep 20, 2014 @ 9:00pm University of New Hampshire University of New Hampshire

 

The Belfast Project: An Archival Study

A note from the author on March 17, 2013, St. Patrick’s Day:

This piece was written for a class in the Fall of 2012. Things have changed slightly since then. Dolours Price has tragically passed on and Boston College moved to vacate the issues pending due to her no longer being alive. The political folks have (bizarrely but not unexpected, I suppose) opposed their motion and the case is still pending. Things are still very difficult in this case and while some people understand the importance of this history, politicos and powerful locals seem to want to play librarian. It’s a very sad state of affairs. I highly suggest that you follow their twitter account ( @bcsubpoenanews) or their blog (http://bostoncollegesubpoena.wordpress.com/) to keep up to date.

–Ariel

400950_409627682427505_579970258_aOne of the most fascinating and significant things about the city of Belfast in Northern Ireland is that it advertises the concept of memory and looks at history as not simply a collection of culture and events, but a lifestyle. Belfast’s walled roads, blockaded pubs and mural-bathed buildings serve as a continual reminder of a past that has only just recently changed course and is only scarcely managing to hold on to their footing. To do Northern Ireland and history, herself, justice, it would be next to impossible to go into the entire story from the very beginning and cover all the important parts. To the inhabitants of Belfast, every story from the Great Hunger in the 1800s and the Easter Uprising in 1916 to Bobby Sands’ hunger strike in 1981 is an important part.

Bobby Sands died after 66 days of hunger striking, at age 27. He is commemorated here. He was a political activist, poet, and was the leader of the 1981 Hunger Strike, where 9 other Irish republican prisoners besides himself died, attempting to fight for Special Category Status (essentially POW-type privileges).

Bobby Sands died after 66 days of hunger striking, at age 27. He is commemorated here. He was a political activist, poet, and was the leader of the 1981 Hunger Strike, where 9 other Irish republican prisoners besides himself died, attempting to fight for Special Category Status (essentially POW-type privileges).

It’s a complex timeline full of conflict, sadness and revolution, beginning all the way back in the 12th century. For a situation of this magnitude with this duration, the idea that the peace agreements were only recently endorsed in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, with the IRA Decommissioning weapons in 2005 is heartbreaking. In any case, this violence that has only just been halted was begun quite a long time ago, and once started, it never let up. As Landon Hancock writes,
“Like most cultural differences, the roots of the Protestant-Catholic enmity in Northern Ireland are buried in the distant past, with fresh incidents only serving to reopen old wounds and solidify negative stereotypes…The Catholics still feel as if they have an alien culture living amongst them. This feeling has been enhanced through the separation of the two communities and the continued enforcement of the Special Powers Act of 1922. This act, designed to combat IRA resistance to Partition, was left in force until well after the beginning of the Troubles, thus perpetuating a climate of mistrust that has yet to be dispelled.” (Hancock 1996)

It might be reasonable to simply say that the primary issues dealt with land issues and became associated with religious politics, and that the British governmental body, mostly of the Protestant persuasion, decided that their stance was the complete and total control of Ireland, both Northern and Southern. This is how it was legislated, colonized and designed, early on. It’s far more complex than this, involves many more disputes and a great deal more intimate details, but this is the main gist.

Additionally, the population was divided into two different sectors: Protestant and Catholic. While the entire country was made up of both religious groups, the most significant division had taken place when the Protestants colonized Ulster (a collection of counties we now know as Northern Ireland) in the 17th century, and caused endless amounts of fury and mayhem since it was the last location in the entirety of Ireland that had not had some mass settlement by the British Protestant population. Eventually, the residential make-up of the area was left as a bifurcated religious and cultural zone dominated by political unrest. This did not bode well for the future.

Helen-McKendry-has-fought-007

Helen McKendry watched her family get taken from her as a young woman

These past events have led to what most people refer to now as “the Troubles,” a term for the modern slate of events that has built Belfast and created Northern Ireland’s image and identity in the last 50 years. A campaign of bombings, murders, kidnappings and terror that involving the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Northern Irish police force), the IRA (Irish Republican Army, the Catholic militant organization) and the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force, the militant Protestant group) left innumerable people dead or injured, whether or not they had any organizational affiliation. Senior citizens, children, women and teenagers were all affected by the Troubles and hit just as hard by revenge-centered activities of a group like the UVF as they were by the revolution-minded IRA.

One such person who has suffered greatly as a result of the Troubles has been Helen McKendry, daughter of Jean McConville, a woman who was “disappeared” (a nicer term for taken away and killed) during the height of the Troubles, circa 1972. Only 15 at the time, Helen watched her mother get kidnapped by strangers and never returned. Helen has spent her whole life unsure of why it happened and most of it not even knowing where her parent’s body had ended up- Jean wasn’t found until August 2003, when her remains were located on a beach in County Louth. Then something occurred that has made Helen and her family feel that they might get a chance to see justice served. They discovered that the Belfast Project existed and that the participants quite possibly had direct information about Jean McConville’s death: many of those involved in the Project are former IRA members.

The Belfast Project

The Belfast Project was designed by Anthony McIntyre (a former member of the IRA), Professor (now Lord) Paul Bew (of Queen’s College) and Ed Maloney, (journalist and writer). It was never designed for exploitation, financial gain or anyone’s individual career benefit. At the heart of the Belfast Project was an oral history mission borne out of the truth recovery principles as stated in the Good Friday agreements and a very real desire to extend peace and conflict resolution experiences to locales outside of Northern Ireland. As McIntyre stated in a presentation to the Oral History Network of Ireland conference, the entire goal of the Project was
to ultimately enhance public understanding. This was to be achieved through collating and sealing for a time within academia the perspective of those who were combatants or people who had insights that would add to societal knowledge of the conflict… it was envisaged that the material would be of benefit not merely to historians but also to people involved in conflict resolution and policy making right across the board. If the causes of politically violent conflict can be better understood and anticipated in advance then it stands to reason that the potential for averting such conflict increases. (McIntyre 2012)

Anthony McIntyre of the Belfast Project

Anthony McIntyre of the Belfast Project

The Belfast Project, however, stood out in one very significant way: the participants in the oral histories were not whom you would expect. They were indeed deeply connected to the Troubles, but unlike the rest of the extensive work being done in regards to truth recovery shortly after the Good Friday Agreement went into effect, the Belfast Project is not centered on the victims. The focus of this archive is on those who were responsible and/or involved in the incidents that created this population of victims.

As part of the North Ireland Peace Process in the late 1990s, the Good Friday Agreement assisted in bringing about various acts and legal directives when it came to human rights issues and placed a certain level of attention on victims and political prisoners. According to the Ardoyne Commemoration Project, “in the political aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement, the ‘victims agenda’ came to the fore.” (Ardoyne Commemoration Project 2002) At this juncture, if the outside world thought things were complicated before, they were about to get even more intricate. In order to have a go at resolving a conflict that was hundreds of years old, decommissioning weapons was not going to be the only solution. There simply had to be a better method by which the governmental bodies on both the UK and Northern Irish sides could succeed. Their ultimate decision was to legislate primarily for future engagements and simply move forward from what had already occurred. While some steps were taken to immediately change certain situations of those effected by the Troubles, not all were widely palatable (the accelerated amnesty and early release of political prisoners became a matter of some contention).0,,1662953_4,00

The Good Friday Agreement seemed to be attempting to make use of the axiom, “forgive and forget” in a location that is extremely focused on cultural memory. The notion of forgiving is not easy when you have a tradition of not forgetting. While Ryan Gawn writes that this approach is “not abnormal in negotiations in transitional societies” he also shrewdly notices that this same approach that lacks in the study of past abuse “recognizes the distinct nature of the conflict in Northern Ireland where more deaths were committed by paramilitaries, who are unlikely to have information on the murders documented as well as other state-committed murders. This has meant that there has been a failure to engage systematically with the past in Northern Ireland…this lack of action in addressing the past has meant that the issue has become politicized, and now victims’ issues are often fraught with division.” (Gawn 2008)

 

Almost in response to this, it seems, a cluster of booklets and studies began to be produced on truth recovery and victims on both sides of the sectarian conflict. This literature centered not only on bringing people together, but also on ideas of memory and remembering that authoritarian figures had been just as active in causing the deaths and injuries of friends and family, as had paramilitary groups. Truth recovery became a key issue- in 1999, the Healing Through Remembering Project was created. Their goal was to undertake a consultation process on how Northern Ireland, and those affected both in and out of Northern Ireland could remember and deal with the past, and in doing so, move towards healing. The purpose of the consultation was to produce a document outlining a range of options for dealing with the past and truth recovery, to be submitted to the British and Irish Governments and Office of First and Deputy First Minister, and to the public. (Healing Through Remembering 2002)

Their outline included memorials, memory days, establishments of archives, the forming of groups around shared pasts, and oral history collecting. However, it was all intended for public use due to the nature of the materials. These truth recovery items, while intended to reach across the “Belfast Borders” and break barriers, maintained open access and relied upon a relationship with the average citizen: they advertised in newspapers and other public forums for participation.

From there, digital archives such as The CAIN (Conflict Archive on the INternet) were begun at the University of Ulster in order to house these materials online and it became a solid public source for people to access a variety of links, bibliographies and other academic work about “Conflict and Politics in Northern Ireland,” and it gets updated regularly. (University of Ulster 1996) But there was still something missing. While there was still a sense of moving forward with the peace process, and people could share and learn about the history and work with each other, the history of the Troubles was missing a very important component: the voices of the main actors. Enter the Belfast Project.

Anthony McIntyre spent 18 years in jail as a former Provisional IRA Member. Upon his release, he attended Queens University, Belfast and received his PhD, afterwards becoming a journalist and writer. Shortly after this, he was approached by a professor at Queens College about a project that they were working on that had to do with truth recovery as well- but via the other end of the telescope. This was a very dangerous and tricky road to tread. While anyone can put an advertisement in a newspaper or educational institutional about an oral history project centering on citizenry that has been effected by the Troubles, outreach to former IRA members or folks from the UDA/UFF (Ulster Defense Association/Ulster Freedom Fighters) is far more complex- much like the Mob, if you’re an IRA member, and you “rat,” your life (or your family’s) could be in danger, even now, during a ceasefire/peacetime. While the conflict has been “resolved” for the most part, the history and culture of Northern Ireland has some uncomfortable aspects. This is one of them.

Then there's the UFF murals. Scary, intimidating, also intense. It was a real distinct change to go from one type of mural to the other.

In 2001, just three years after the Good Friday Agreement, The Belfast Project was created with McIntyre as the head researcher and historian and journalist Ed Moloney as Director. The archive was carefully housed in the Burns Library at Boston College in Massachusetts, a University with a well-known and respected Irish Studies program. The fit seemed ideal. They focused solely on getting the oral histories of former IRA and UDA/UFF paramilitary figures; an everything was going to plan. Their goal was to collect the oral histories of this population because they had not had a voice yet and while this population might be quite a bit less popular in the public eye and far more controversial, their historical importance was incalculable. The men and women in these groups would be able to put words and explanations to something that had no explanation and possible assist in other cultures conflict resolution just through discussing their own lives.
However, in order to get these individuals to become part of the project, they had to secure their trust. According to Laura Millar, “Citizens will only offer their trust if they feel it will be respected and safeguarded. An effective society expects those who can exercise their authority to be accountable for their actions; an honorable society then protects those without authority, such as children or the mentally ill, against the danger of abuse.” (Millar 2006)

While these former IRA revolutionaries and UFF soldiers may not have been children, they were in a vulnerable position: if anyone were to know that their stories were being told, it would have been bad news for their families and themselves. Not only had they sworn oaths to their organizations, but it is quite likely that what was to be revealed on the tapes was not only naked and honest oral history, but vivid stories of car bombings, murder and stories that might implicate other people.

In order to gain that trust, the men and women of the Belfast Project signed a donor agreement (standard archival procedure). Within the agreement was a promise that the entirety of each interview would stay completely confidential until the death of the donor or until they gave personal approval for release of contents. This was the contract that the archivists and donors entered into upon starting this project. As Robert O’Neill, director of the Burns Library, stated in regards to the tapes, “Given the sensitive nature of the information revealed by the interviewers, it was important from the start to assure the participants in the oral history project that every effort would be made to keep their participation confidential, and that no transcripts or tapes would be released before the deaths of the interviewees unless they gave formal permission to do so.” (O’Neill 2011)

The Boston College Archive took good care of the Belfast Project for a decent amount of time, and the men worked with their subjects. The oral histories grew and things were going as planned. Until two things happened: two of their interviewees, Brendan Hughes and David Ervine, died, and one of the women they had interviewed, Dolours Price decided to speak out about the Belfast Project and her story outside of the context of the protected archival arrangement. Upon the deaths of his subjects (Hughes was a former IRA member and Ervine was in the UVF), Ed Moloney took the interview tapes, transcribed them, and published a book, entitled Voices From the Grave. This was in no way illegal, unwarranted or going against what the agreement had stated. Hughes had explicitly said in his interviews. But the things that he had revealed in the interviews and thus in the book began to stir up trouble. Dolours Price decision to go public didn’t help matters any.

voicesfromtheGrave

Voices From the Grave was published in 2010. It was the first public “outing” of the Belfast Project and the first access that anyone other than those involved had to the stories being told. The biggest tragedy of this piece of literature was that, while it was the first in what was intended to be a series of volumes documenting a “greater understanding of the dynamics behind conflict from the point of view of those who participated in conflict” (McIntyre, Prime Time looks at the controversy over the Boston College interviews 2012), the publication of this led to what seems to be the demise of the Project. What were revealed in the pages of the book were terrifying stories of IRA and UVF-related murders and destruction. People were killed, ordered to be killed, bombings were planned, carried out, and Brendan Hughes and David Ervine discussed it all.

Beyond detailing organizational structures and the events themselves, the biggest “reveal” in the book was the involvement of current Sinn Fein President, Gerry Adams. While Adams had been a political figure his whole life through, involving himself in various organizations over the years, upon the release of these interviews, Adams has denied having any affiliation with the IRA at all or having ever been a member. While Adams has never refuted the idea that he had a relationship with Hughes, his complete repudiation of IRA ties and involvement seem remarkable to Hughes himself as he stated with absolute insistence that “I never carried out a major operation without the okay or order from Gerry. For him to sit in his plush office in Stormont or wherever and deny it, I mean it’s like Hitler denying there was ever a Holocaust.” (Moloney 2010) tr3_42403sThe implication of Adams in the abundance of violent acts that Hughes discusses, including the murder and “disappearance” of Jean McConville, alarmed Adams to the point of his direct rejection of the book and its contents, intimating that Hughes was likely unwell at the time of the interviews. But, as Lindy McDowell writes, this seems highly unlikely. She says, “[I]t is not a great defense… Not least because those who have heard tapes of Hughes’ testimony (which we’ll all hear in time, via an upcoming television documentary) say he spoke robustly and lucidly. Ed Moloney points out: “When he did these interviews, he (Hughes) was perfectly fit, mentally and physically, and put in quite an impressive performance.” (McDowall 2010)

Aside from the Gerry Adams issue, the disclosure of the information about the McConville case caused Helen McKendry neé McConville to seek out more information about the murder of her mother. Now that the Belfast Project had come into the public eye and direct connections had been made to personal lives (the McConville family) and the political sphere (Gerry Adams), this archive and its contents were about to see their own “troubles” begin. Not only did Helen McKendry express her intentions to seek legal redress as a result of the new information, but shortly after this, a former IRA member, Dolours Price, gave an interview to Allison Morris of the Irish News, disclosing her own involvement in the McConville murder and other Disappeared cases, mentioning also that she had “made taped confessions of her role in the abductions to academics at Boston University.” (Barnes 2010) While Price’s decision to discuss her IRA activities in a public forum made her more at risk for personal attack by McConville or others, it in no way contradicted her agreemeDolours Pricent with the Boston College Archive. Price’s testimonials were still protected under the donor agreement that she had signed. Her choice to work with the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains (ICLVR) and discuss her past was a personal one, and, while possibly catalyzed by the publication of Voices From the Grave, was also heavily tied into Price’s own post-traumatic stress disorder and other fragile health conditions that caused her (presumably) to start seeking some kind of personal closure on past events as well. Dolours Price, much like Brendan Hughes, also was not keen on the fact that Gerry Adams was seen as a squeaky clean politician, since he had been the man giving her direct orders as well, according to her statements. However, no matter what her impetus, her own words, as given to the Belfast Project, were under protection.

The Belfast Project Under Attack

Between Price’s actions and Moloney’s book, this issue and archive was no longer going to be let to go about its business. Not only was Helen McKendry passionately determined to get to the bottom of her mother’s disappearance, but other political bodies has started to have an acute interest in seeing what was in these tapes. The British government got in touch with the US District Court of Massachusetts and subpoenaed all materials having to do with Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price, to which the Boston College Archive said, “absolutely not” and quashed the subpoena. In the motion to quash the subpoena, many significant points are discussed, primarily in regards to confidentiality and trust. The subject of protecting the participants in the Project is raised, due to issues in and around the IRA code of silence, in addition to the belief that disturbing the archive and its contents may in fact disturb the very structure of the too-vulnerable peace accords. Boston College noted that the government of the United Kingdom has indicated by its actions a policy not to pursue events that occurred before the GFA peace accords, in order to put the past behind and achieve and maintain reconciliation in Northern Ireland…This effective amnesty, though controversial, was widely understood to mean that the British government was going to close this chapter of history, and not seek to pursue criminal investigations into events that occurred during the course of the Troubles…the belief that prosecutorial action had ended was a significant factor in the willingness of those interviewed as part of the Belfast Project to talk candidly about the conflict. (Swope 2011)

Although this stopped the subpoena temporarily, the ball had started rolling and it was just gaining momentum: in August, 2011 another subpoena was filed that requested any and all of the tapes that held information pertaining to the McConville murder.
It was after the second subpoena that Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre got personally involved alongside the Trustees of Boston College, who had been handling the legal affairs up until this point. They wished to be able to participate as plaintiffs and have a voice in the goings-on, so that they might be able to speak on behalf of their own work and argue on behalf of the archive and its much-needed confidentiality. Unfortunately, in December of 2011, a court ruled both against Moloney and McIntyre’s motion to intervene and the motions filed to quash the subpoenas. Then it got worse: the educational facility that had been providing the Belfast Project with safety and housing them in a secure space, Boston College, decided to acquiesce to any and all court requests.imgres Not only that, but they did so (at least partially) out of negligence. While Professor Thomas Hachey, executive director of the university’s Center for Irish Programs had flatly stated in the beginning that Boston College “is firmly and unconditionally committed to respecting the letter and intent of what is a contractual agreement never to release any of the material to anyone unless given permission in writing (notarized) beforehand by the participant, or until the demise of a participant” (Bray 2011), Boston College readily handed over all 176 transcripts of the 24 IRA participants in the Belfast Project. While McIntyre and Moloney were appealing decisions, Boston College moved forward with the legal requests, allowing the once-confidential confessions to be accessed by local American legal bodies. The next stage of this process would very likely be the patriation of these records to those individuals within the British government who are looking to use these records and the information that is contained within them.

As documented by Chris Bray, Boston College not only had a responsibility to the sanctity of the archive and its promises to the oral history participants, but it left the lead researcher and director of the Belfast Project in a terrible position as well, seeing as it did not support them or assist them in fighting this larger battle. Bray summarizes the situation,

“BC got a set of subpoenas, for material in its possession, on August 4. Ordered on December 16 to turn over the materials relevant to the subpoena, BC tried on December 20 to make a first effort to find out what materials in its collection were germane to the August 4 subpoena, with a hearing scheduled on the matter before a federal judge the very next day. August 4 to December 20: 139 days, including December 20…Not having figured out what material in its possession was germane to the second set of subpoenas, BC lost the ability to hand over only those portions of the IRA interviews.” (Bray 2011)

Moloney and McIntyre were able to win a motion for a stay pending the appeal to the first circuit and they also were able to gain the support of high profile individuals like John Kerry and the ACLU, but things are not looking bright. While Boston College did file an appeal on the more general request of the second subpoena, the First Circuit upheld the original judgment from the lower court, but Moloney and McIntyre immediately looked into trying to appeal this. McIntyre also filed for a judicial review in Belfast but was denied on that. But the case is not going to stay there. Both Belfast Project men have decided to take it all the way to the Supreme Court, and they have, seemingly, made some progress there.

According to the Boston Globe, “Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer ruled…that the order from the 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston should be stayed, the researchers said, while the researchers prepare a writ of certiorari, seeking a Supreme Court hearing of their case.” (Finucane 2012) That was just about 2 months ago. The most recent news on the case documents a petition for a writ of certiorari that was submitted to the Supreme Court as of November 16th, 2012. At the stage that the case is at now, Boston College has let a ground-breaking oral history project down and left its donor-participants adrift at sea, but the academic historians and archivists that created the project are going to try their best to make sure that the documents do not have their confidentiality broken any more than they already have been.

Transitioning these files to the UK would likely be the worst thing for the project, endangering not only the personal well-being of many of the people in the Project and the peace status of Northern Ireland, but it would severely compromise the area of oral history in general. If the Belfast Project is not able to protect their participants to whom they promised absolute confidentiality until death or personal release of the tapes, what does this mean for any other project that deals almost entirely with controversial people and subject matter? Not every oral history is rainbows and family trees. Many times it deals in the ugliness of human existence. But if we cannot record this with confidence and assure our subjects that their vital participation will be handled and archived according to the contract that they have signed, then we become useless. Our words are empty and our promises are futile.

Yes, But What Does This All Mean?

The Boston College Archive situation is not an easy one. No one wants Helen McKendry to go the rest of her life not knowing what happened to her mother; it is unfair and painful. But there is a larger picture and the Belfast Project and the decisions that are made within it set precedents- for oral history projects, for university-run and protected archives, and, most importantly, for the status and validity of confidentiality agreements within any kind of oral history or archival collection.

Anthony McIntyre is very firm on this issue. While some may feel that it is his past as an IRA member and his concern for his own personal well-being that has gotten entangled in the process of the Boston College Archive situation, he has said on repeated occasions that not only would he go to jail to protect the confidentiality of the participants, but that it’s not solely about the participants, but about larger questions and if we wish to see these matters attended to with any seriousness, we must treat them with dignity and not do as the university did, which was simply kowtow to legal requests because it’s easier and looks nicer on the front. Sometimes it’s more difficult to stand up for difficult issues and people, but if the people who have made commitments to protect them will not do so, whether or not they agree with their actions, then history itself will become one-sided and we will lose the ability to garner the kinds of oral histories that Moloney and McIntyre were collecting. Trust, once lost, can rarely be regained.

John Lowman and Ted Palys discuss the Boston College Archive case in terms of legal ethics and how the University failed the Belfast Project. As they put it, not only did Boston College exemplify the Law of the Land approach (academic institutions and researchers obeying all legal orders including court orders to break research confidentiality), they have also “provided an example that will be cited for years to come on how not to protect research participants to the extent American law allows. Instead, it has allowed its Law of the Land doctrine to devolve into a form of caveat emptor…As is so often the case with advocates of Law of the Land limitations to research confidentiality, Boston College’s perspective reflects the attitude that law is merely constraining, something to be reacted to rather than something that is enabling, dynamic, and that academics can influence.” (Palys 2012) If this is the case, how are we, as archivists, historians or cultural workers of any kind supposed to trust the institutions that wish to house the elements that they so dearly wish to have? If they cannot provide us with the guarantee that what we will be providing them with protection, then why should we be giving them anything? Boston College was certainly happy to have the Belfast Project associated with their academic institution when they knew that Moloney was going to be publishing Voices From the Grave. Professor Thomas Hachey, of Boston College, the same man who swore up and down that nothing would leave the archive or be given over to legal bodies due to the donor agreements that had been made, wrote the preface to Voices, and oversaw the editing of the volume as well. There is an inconsistency when it comes to academic institutions and what they are willing to do with and for controversial archives and projects such as the Belfast Project.

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Image from a very recent September, 2012 uprising in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Clearly, things are not settled in that area of the world. Is killing this archive REALLY a good idea?

Spokesperson for Boston College, Jack Dunn, has blamed Ed Moloney himself for the entire case, saying that Moloney is at fault because he broke his obligation when he published Voices From the Grave (entirely inaccurate, seeing as the layout of the agreements allowed the histories to be released upon the expiration of said donors). But the men of the Belfast Project are simply concerned with the future of the project as it stands and what it says for the future of oral histories and Northern Ireland itself. Since the main party who has been pushing for the opening of these histories has been the McConville family, Moloney and McIntyre have been sensitive to their case but point out that if they win the day, Northern Ireland and the rest of the families like the McConvilles, on both sides of the sectarian violence fence- IRA or UVF- are the real losers.

As McIntyre says, “If the McConville family were to succeed in this, I think of the vast number of people who will never have truth about what happened to their loved ones. Because the only reason that this has come to the fore about Mrs. McConville is because people were prepared to talk in conditions which would not lead to prosecutions.” (McIntyre, CNN’s World’s Untold Stories: Secrets of the Belfast Project 2012) It is a case of the good of the one versus the good of the many. As Ed Moloney has pointed out in interviews, the Belfast Project is not the only location in which the information regarding the McConville case is located. Dolours Price gave full interviews and information to several publications that seemed to mirror the information that was given to the Boston College Archive. Additionally, the HET (Historical Enquiry Team), established in Northern Ireland in 2005 specifically to look into all of the murders committed during the Troubles, is there for that purpose.

Image from September, 2012 uprising in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Clearly, things are not settled in that area of the world.

Image from recent September, 2012 uprising in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Clearly, things are not settled in that area of the world. Is killing this archive REALLY a good idea?

So why pick on a collection of oral histories that were collected in good faith and not to be utilized for legal means? It stood out in the public eye, but there were other accessible sources that were never pursued- the newspaper interviews, while also under a certain amount of journalism protection, would be more available for the McConvilles to pursue their case and inquiry. There had to be something else. While the McConville family may be the seeming figurehead for tape retrieval, there is a significant possibility that there are political motivations for the British government to want these archival elements. Due to the aforementioned information regarding Gerry Adams already disclosed on the tapes there is the distinct possibility that other tapes contain more information and in larger and more extensive quantities. It seems there very well might be a political drive to this whole case, especially considering that the only individuals whose tapes were requested were those who were former IRA-members. None of the UVF participants’ oral histories were asked for.

At the end of the day, Anthony McIntyre’s stance on the kind of research that the Belfast Project entailed is very clear: if you do not feel that you are capable of entering into the kind of undertaking that involves an “Ethics First” approach (one that may require you to put your own self into the equation in order to protect the work you have done and the individuals you have been working with, i.e. imprisonment or something similar), perhaps you should not engage in that kind of research. However, that does not mean that this kind of research should not be done. In fact, he says, it is essential and when it becomes shut down as in the case of the Boston College Archives it has a big effect on other similar projects, causing others to disengage from possibly controversial or provocative subjects/subject matter due to the chance that they may have to undergo similar legal confrontation and/or not be able to finish their work. To quote McIntyre,

In my own view, no area should be out of bounds to a researcher. In a pluralist society information should be pursued by journalists, researchers and law enforcement alike. But there is no compelling reason for law enforcement to invade bona fide research and attempt to turn it into evidence for the purposes of prosecution…If researchers yield in this crucially important arena it can only lead to a situation whereby certain areas of knowledge will be foreclosed to the researcher and in the fields of criminology, conflict studies, history and political science, there will be tendency towards a law enforcement view of some matters. We know from experience just how skewed that would be. We can also envisage how it would be used to protect law enforcement from some forms of external scrutiny and investigation. (McIntyre, The Belfast Project and the Boston College Subpoena Case 2012)

Oral histories and historians do their best to be as sensitive to everyone’s needs as possible. But it boils down to one thing: when we catalog the stories of history from those who have lived it, we do not have the right to make judgments nor do we have the option to put our personal feelings or emotions in the work we do. What we do when we collect elements is serve as preservationists and organizers so that future researchers may access the “goods” and realized their value. Alongside this, we have a responsibility to the items that we have chosen to work with. They can be filmic elements, audio files, or people’s confidential histories. Whatever the items, the donor agreements and the contracts that have been made should be honored, especially if there are serious legal or cultural repercussions to breaking said agreements. Endangering heritage materials of any kind puts our future at risk and our ability to form new alliances with each other and learn from our past. The Belfast Project was initiated so that we could take the words of the people who were in the IRA and UVF and “pay it forward” in a sense, and use bad for good. If these works are still being used for personal or political gain, we are dogs chasing our own tails and we will never learn from history.

If we start to realize that the larger picture has a greater meaning and pain, as largely felt as it is, may never be resolved simply by knowing who is responsible for a single death, then we may have a way to advance, and the McConville family might see that each story is intertwined to one another and by breaking the seal on one, it breaks the seal on all of them, killing the Project in its totality.

Works Cited

Ardoyne Commemoration Project. “Introduction.” In ARDOYNE: THE UNTOLD TRUTH, by Ardoyne Commemoration Project, 543. Belfast: Beyond the Pale Publications, 2002.
Barnes, Ciaran. “Gerry Adams and the Disappeared.” Sunday Life, February 21, 2010.
Bray, Chris. “Boston College Subpoena News.” http://bostoncollegesubpoena.wordpress.com/. December 28, 2011. http://bostoncollegesubpoena.wordpress.com/2011/12/28/boston-college-time-for-resignations/ (accessed November 30, 2012).
Finucane, Martin. “Researchers win a reprieve from Supreme Court in Boston College Irish Troubles interview case.” Boston Globe, October 17, 2012.
Gawn, Ryan. “Still shackled by the Past: Truth and Recovery in Northern Ireland.” The Peace and Conflict Review (University of Peace) 1, no. 2 (2008): 9.
Hancock, Landon. Northern Ireland: Troubles Brewing. Master’s Thesis, San Francisco State University, San Francisco State University, 1996.
Healing Through Remembering. “The Report of the Healing Through Remembering Project.” Annual Report, Belfast, 2002.
McDowall, Lindy. “Will Voices From the Grave Extract Heavy Price From Adams?” Belfast Telegraph, March 31, 2010.
CNN’s World’s Untold Stories: Secrets of the Belfast Project. Directed by Nic Robertson. Performed by Anthony McIntyre. 2012.
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