Just Quickly: Providence Deserves Better

Providence City Hall. The Archives is currently on the fifth floor. (photo from RINPR)

Last week, news broke that Providence City Archivist Paul Campbell was not going to have his contract renewed come January (it’s a position appointed by the City Clerk). There was, of course, more to the story- according to the ProJo, the city wants to pass the archives on to two local non-profits, which includes moving them out of their current horribly insufficient space in City Hall (take a tour with Campbell).

The people of Providence may not know it (judging by some of the comment sections), but this is all awesome news.

I love Providence. I went to high school there and fell in love with its quirks and oddities, its music scene, and its odd collections of public characters. One of the most (in)famous is “Mayor-for-Life” and two-time inmate Vincent “Buddy” Cianci. Buddy brought the city back from the brink in the 80s and 90s as manufacturing vanished, making the city a destination for tourism, arts and culture.

But Buddy is a crook. That’s the thing about those who become “Mayor-for-Life”, isn’t it? They tend be deeply flawed humans, which leads to their undoing. He was finally indicted on (among other things) federal racketeering charges via something called “Operation Plunder Dome” in 2002. He’s out of jail now (again), and ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2014.

What does this have to do with Paul Campbell? Campbell is a long-time Cianci “associate”, recently organizing a fundraiser to restore Buddy’s portrait to City Hall. You’ll note that in that article it also mentions Campbell’s 1990 perjury conviction for covering up a bribe.

I don’t particularly care about the political activities of archivists. We’re humans with biases, and that shouldn’t preclude us from doing the work.

Except. Except where the archives of an entire city is involved.

Where the archives of an entire city is involved, I just can’t abide cronyism. However qualified (Campbell’s qualification as a historian are beyond reproach), being closely connected to one of the most corrupt administrations in the city’s history is unacceptable. And perjury? Good god, on the list of crimes an archivist can commit, that’s got to be near the top.

In the larger picture, archivists work for the public, present and future. That requires absolute trust. And in a city like Providence which has rarely been far from scandal over the past half-century, that means relying on outsiders. The Providence City Archives must be outsourced to an organization (or organizations) that do not answer to the Mayor or City Council. I’m glad moves are being made in that direction, because Providence deserves better.


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