Reading Archives: Introduction and Purpose
Everywhere we look, there is something to remind us about archives, as repository and as documentary assemblage. Newspapers feature stories about the use, meaning, and value of archives. School groups visit museum exhibitions featuring documents, as instructional evidence and memory device, seeking a material orientation to the nature of the past. Self-help manuals tout the importance of writing life histories or compiling scrapbooks as therapeutic process and as supplements to personal archives. Video and computer games often lead us, in our imaginary role, into archives to discover clues. Movies pull the hero and villain into an archival repository to resolve mysteries. And scholars study archives as foundations for cultural memory and to resolve or extend debates about particular interpretations of the past.
Without question, there is more analysis of archives, the archival profession, and the archival mission than ever before. Although it is questionable that there is at present broad public comprehension about what archivists do or even how archival holdings are formed, few would argue with the notion that the public and scholarly perception is improving (but certainly at a glacial rate). What most certainly can be agreed is that it is essential to adopt a broad and systematic (as systematic as possible) regimen of reading across disciplines and through both scholarly and popular venues in order to gain any useful understanding of archives.
For years I have been doing just such reading, and in a variety of ways I have sought to generate discussion wrestling with where such reading leads both records professionals in enhancing their knowledge and that identifies other texts, published and unpublished, adding to the understanding of or challenging particular interpretations about the meaning and significance of archives. At various times I have tried to generate discussion about new scholarship on the Archives listserv, the Archival Educators listserv, and via my capacity as the Society of American Archivists Publications Editor. I also have written a number of books drawing on my extensive and, at times, eclectic, reading; the most recent example of this is my contribution to the revision of Understanding Archives and Manuscripts, recently published in 2006 by the Society of American Archivists, originally written by James M. O’Toole (and the revision was undertaken with Jim).
With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I am not planning to comment on basic practice manuals, technical guides, or best practice reports; these I will continue to describe in my monthly column published in the Records & Information Management Report, a technical report I edit and that is published by M.E. Sharpe.
As with earlier efforts, ones meeting with mixed success, I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society. I hope readers will comment on the postings, suggesting different perspectives or reflecting on other publications related to the specific topic or the broader importance of archives in society. I plan on making postings, from time to time, reflecting my own research and writing or recommending areas and topics that seem ripe for new research. As part of this, I intend to comment occasionally on the work that my own doctoral students are engaged in.