“North Carolina’s Memory Hole”

My mom cut out this article (go mom) from the Raleigh News and Observer. It was written by Robin Kirk, professor at Duke and faculty advisor for their HAL module (which she mentions! Yay free publicity!). The article is really interesting both for its general content, but also for the relation it has to us and our project. Basically, Kirk requested a photo from the State Archives of an execution by lethal gas in North Carolina in 1936, only to be denied. As she found out, “current interpretation of the law” denies access to all historical material related to executions. Check it out.

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4 thoughts on ““North Carolina’s Memory Hole”

  1. This is greatly disturbing to me, both as a citizen and an historian. I would have thought for sure that such historical documents would fall under transparency policies that require many government documents be available to the public. To deny such access gives an enormous amount of seemingly unchecked power to the Justice System. As an historian, to have any government deny access to historical documents is not only disappointing, but raises multiple questions. Why can we have access to some prison records and not others? Is privacy really the intent behind these laws? What do these restrictions reveal about the character of the Justice Department and the government as a whole? What can historians do to address this gap in information?

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  2. I agree. This was an issue I didn’t realize existed until I read the article. Perhaps naively, I assumed that if it was in the State Archives, it was available to the public. I think that taking these resources and making them unavailable to the public definitely makes it seem like a cover-up. It doesn’t allow historians (or citizens) to grapple with tough and unpleasant histories. In fact, it completely discourages it.

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  3. As historians, it is our job to understand and explain. We do this because we think that these qualities produce reflection and understanding and that these are applicable in society beyond our historical analysis. Also, as historians, we address evidence directly, not outrage and speculation. That, too, is a good thing to do beyond our own discipline. What I am getting at here is that we need to take seriously and examine the specifically stated reasons that lawmakers pass these rules, and the process by which they do so. What does that evidence tell us? Who are the stakeholders in these decisions? What is the evolution of privacy laws in the U.S. in the past couple of decades that shape these policies?

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  4. What bothers me is the idea that archives that were once available are no longer able to be accessed. This speaks to a much bigger problem, clearly privacy is not the underlying reason.
    This statement is a red flag to me: “another [law], which took effect Jan. 1, aims to silence whistle-blowers. Anyone who secretly gathers information in order to uncover and correct abuses can be sued by business owners for bad publicity and be required to pay a fine”. Clearly this is less about privacy and more about covering up. The stakeholders in decisions like these are clearly not the public.

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