Reading Archives

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 hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Archival Memories

A massive volume edited by Francis X. Blouin Jr. and William G. Rosenberg -- Archives, Documentation, and Institutions of Social Memory: Essays from the Sawyer Seminar (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006), ISBN-13-978-0-472-11493-1 -- is the product of a year long seminar held at the University of Michigan “to investigate from a range of disciplinary perspectives the complicated relationship between archives, forms of documentation, and the ways societies remember their pasts” (p. vii). During the course of the seminar a hundred presentations were made, all starting from the notion that archives are “not simply . . . historical repositories but . . . a complex of structures, processes, and epistemologies situated at a critical point of intersection between scholarship, cultural practices, politics, and technologies” (p. vii). After fanning oneself off in the heat of this expansive definition, indicating that the old, stable world of archives may now be a thing of the past itself, or at least under siege, the reader might want to take a stiff drink before plunging into 46 essays crammed into this book. And the reviewer might want to take several drinks, as this is a very difficult book to review, but for good reasons. The essays by participants and the various editorial interludes reflect an immensely complex and shifting notion of archives that leaves one with more questions than answers and more reasons for speculating about what it all means. Just like a restaurant I recently ate at called “Food for Thought,” I came away more than satisfied with a full meal but still wondering about what I was to be thinking about and why. My posting on the blog is the longer version of a review that will appear in the Journal of Archival Organization; since the book is a hefty tome and a very important one, I thought it deserved a longer description and more comments.

The essays are organized around a variety of themes – archives and archiving; archives in the production of knowledge; archives and social memory; archives, memory, and political culture; and archives in states undergoing rapid change – that seem to work reasonably as a means of grouping the essays. Essays range over many interesting archival issues with implications for archival representation, the use of records in government control or power (extending, obviously, even to surveillance in the research room), the archivist’s role (often seemingly intrusive roles) in shaping social memory in ways challenging more orthodox notions of archives, the choices inherent in determining what goes into the information included in a network, some debates over divergent and sometimes confused concepts of archives and the archival function, and so forth. Striving to group these essays into coherent themes is a tall order, a these are often dense and complicated analyses of the meaning of archives, covering nearly every aspect of the archival function one could imagine, and this is not a book that can be browsed lightly.

Even trying to figure how to develop a sensible review of the book is a daunting challenge. Given the nature of this journal, I have read the essays with an aim to see what they add to our sense of archival representation. Indeed, this strategy seems to be compatible with the purpose of the publication, as the editors “propose that an archive be thought of as a site of imagination, creativity, and production, as well as of documenting preservation, a site that incorporates various sorts of assumptions about kinds of knowledge and what is knowable that are fundamental to the ways individuals and societies think about themselves, relive their pasts, and imagine their futures” (p. vii). Such matters have been starting to appear in the excursions into the nature of archival representation, and this massive volume seems like a good place with such concepts.

Some of the essays by archivists, such as Nancy Ruth Bartlett and Elizabeth Yakel, are especially insightful for their applications on archival representation. Bartlett’s reflection on “mediating meaning,” or the use of language by archivists, is particularly engaging, looking at the imposition of words to capture the meaning of complex accumulations of documents. Yakel’s essay on archival representation is even better as it argues that “representation” is a better term than the older notions of archival arrangement and description because it “more precisely captures the actual work of the archivist in (re)ordering, interpreting, creating surrogates, and designing architectures for representational systems that contain those surrogates that stand in for or represent actual archival materials” (p. 151). Yakel considers the fluidity of archival description and records themselves, the development of concepts or order in organizational and classification schemes, and the artifactual remains of older representative systems, all by way of trying to get archivists to be more conscious of how their work is a process of social construction.

Some of the writers in this volume provide some interesting means by which to consider archivists’ efforts to provide the documentary heritage to their researchers. Carolyn Steedman, playing with the notion of “archive fever,” described it as her passion for finding what you are looking for, even if breathing in dust and getting headaches is part of the prices needing to be paid. Then she provides this assessment of the process of archival research: “The fiction is that the authority comes from the documents themselves and the historians obeisance to the limits they impose on any account that employs them. But really it comes from having been there. . ., so that then, and only then, you can present yourself as moved and dictated to by those sources, telling a story the way it has to be told” (p. 13). One might apply the same notions to the archivists writing finding aids. Are they beholden to allowing the documents to speak through their descriptions, or are they spinning their own stories based on their experience with the records?

Many of the contributors to this volume consider more fully the roles of archivists in making archives. Jennifer Milligan, writing about access to archives in France’s Second Empire, considers how the archivist became a “nation builder” (p. 22) through tasks such as controlling access and publishing documentary editions and guides. Indeed, the entire second group of essays on the archives’ role as a producer of social knowledge relate to such matters (really, most of the essays concern this). Patrick Geary notes how historians have ignored the role of archivists as destroyers, focusing on the role of the historian connecting with the past when, actually, “historians are more likely than not providing their readers not with a tour of the past but with a tour of one or more archives, the creative work of teams or generations of archivists” (p. 106). Again, certainly the work of generating a finding aid is part of this creative process, although archivists themselves have tended not to discuss this activity in such a fashion.

We also read about how scholars are rethinking how governments create documents. Ann Laura Stoler’s essay on colonial archives notes that “steeped as students of culture have been in treating ethnographies as texts, we are just now critically reflecting on the making of documents and how we choose to use them, on archives not as sites of knowledge retrieval but as sites of knowledge production, on archives as monuments of states as well as sites of state ethnography. This is not a rejection of colonial archives as sources of the past. Rather, it signals a more sustained engagement with those archives as cultural artifacts of fact production, of taxonomies in the making, and of disparate notions of what made up colonial authority” (p. 268). And we could add to this the notion of reconsidering how archivists make finding aids, especially those in government archives.

One of the interesting aspects of the volume is the mix of scholars studying archives and archivists from the outside and those who write about archives from inside the profession. We read about Kathleen Marquis’s ideas about trying to get the researcher to think like an archivist. The problem, however, is that we don’t get enough sense of the dialogue between the scholars and the archivists about the notion of the archives. In fact, some of the essays are rather straightforward accounts of the work of archives or archivists, similar to what we might find in an archives professional journal, and not necessarily making any real contribution to the topic of the seminar or its published proceedings. Did these need to be included? Others write about particularly pertinent archival topics, but the authors do not manage to squeeze out fuller implications of their subjects. Some of these problems are part and parcel of what happens with projects leading to the publication of multiple-authored sets of essays.

The closest we get to basic archival issues connecting to matters of public memory are in the essays by individuals like James M. O’Toole on the symbolic value of archives or Joan M. Schwartz on the notion of photographs as objective sources, individuals who have labored as archivists but who also have carved out careers as scholars outside the field. Schwartz, for example, argues that “despite the rhetoric of unmediated representation, the photograph was, and continues to be, the material evidence of a human decision to preserve the appearance of a person, an object, a document, a building, or an event judged to have abiding value” (p. 68). Is this not the way we should read archival finding aids too?

It would be interesting to see some debate about postmodernist perspectives between the various authors, at least in a more direct and obvious fashion. Schwartz tackles the topic, but her debate is not with others in the seminar but with the archival profession, writing, “In order to confront the problems of the post custodial era and the information age, some archivists have returned with renewed fervor, to the vocabularies of truth, natural order, and control” (p. 77). Of course they have, since postmodern critics are also playing with truth as well, and, moreover, every scholar seeking to understand the past from archival documentation is striving to develop an accurate sense of what happened. To reject the truth is to reject any need to use archives. To have a sense of the difficulty of getting at the truth is an altogether different matter. But one gets the sense of her flailing in the air in this volume, although her writings are remarkably thoughtful, pushing the envelope of the modern versus postmodern archival mindsets.

I do not intend this as a criticism of the volume. I think this is one of the most important publications on archives to come along in a very long time. And the editors try to weave some sense of the various themes and meanings in their brief introductions to each section, but the wide ranging perspectives almost seen sometimes to neutralize their efforts. For the reader, this book is like an archival tsunami, whereby one feels like many different notions and unresolved questions about archives pours over them. Maybe the problem is that there are so many divergent views about the idea of archives to make this at best a slippery task or to minimize how or what individuals engaged in using or administering archives can do in any practical sense. The editors pose some questions and note that they hope that the publication will engage others to continue discussions but they don’t offer enough reasons other than because these are interesting questions (are there no practical reasons for why this discussion should continue?). In fairness, the book’s title suggests that this ii is something more than just about archives (it is about institutions of social memory).

At spots in the volume the editors speak out in convincing and engaging ways, such as when they indicate that historians have not really addressed fully the ways archives have been formed or why: “In contrast to the ways historians have interrogated they own discipline, archives and archiving remain for most historians little more than documentary collections and the institutions that house them” (p. 85). The editors suggest that it is around this topic that some of the most difficult questions and discussions occurred, and one wonders whether this book, large in scope and in physical size, will stir the discussions to continue. I guess what I was looking for, although I love the book, was some greater effort at summarizing what historians and other scholars think of archives and what archivists think about how scholars outside their own community, individuals who might be thinking about archives but contemplating using them less, perceive their own role. As one who has written essays and books devoid of any practical value other than trying to get someone to think I am surprised to be writing this, but I guess I feel this way because I want to see the dialogue continue and more research and speculation go on. Can it occur without some more succinct analysis, at least to engage working professionals to delve into the implications of complicated, unorthodox, impractical, but important questions?

Did the book have to be so big? Do all the essays belong? Do they need to be there? If I mentioned specifically some that could be removed, I am sure some would object and miss my point that the volume could have been tightened up without harming it (and perhaps a little better designed with some illustrations to break up and support the text). Nevertheless, there are some attractive aspects to the somewhat unwieldy nature of the book, and this represents my struggle with this book and its review. Yet, this book could be used as the sole reading source for developing an interesting graduate seminar on the relationship of archives and memory, conveniently bringing together some writing by nearly every major commentator on this topic and essentially every discipline that has had something to say about it (historians, archivists, literary and cultural studies specialists, anthropologists, architects, lawyers, geographers, and even a free-lance writer. Yet, stating this, I am not completely sure that the text is a good record of the original seminar that actually led to is creation.