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, April 27, 2007

Archives and Justice

Recently, I attended a conference where the education of future information professionals was couched in terms of skills, tools, and techniques and research was always accompanied by discussions of external funding and complicated collaboration. Theory or concepts were eschewed. The focus on the education of professionals, practitioners, was thought to be only practical, with questions about why shoved aside for answers to how. I could only recall Page Smith’s diatribe about the demise of higher education with the main title of “killing the spirit,” something we in the information professionals sometimes seem to be intent on doing when it comes to our teaching approaches. Students enter into a library and information science program because they love books and reading, and we tell them that books are obsolete and that people really don’t read anymore but, instead, surf for information or browse on the Web. Students come to us wanting to become archivists because of an interest in history or a love of the historical artifact, and we tell them that such concerns are irrelevant because everything will soon be digital anyway. We are killing the spirit of many of our students by not engaging them where they are and reducing everything by simple bromides and formulae, techniques and technologies.

There are, however, always bigger issues out there that we need to stay focused on, such as Verne Harris reminds us in his Archives and Justice: A South African Perspective (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2007). While I had a role in seeing this book published, so I am not completely objective about it, I nevertheless wanted to comment on why I believe it is a critically important book to be read by anyone interested in archives and their role in society. Harris, an archivist in South Africa, who has also written novels and functioned as an advocate for archival public policy, has become known across the world for his stimulating and sometimes controversial essays about archives in society.

Canadian archivist Terry Cook provides an excellent orientation to the work and influence of Harris in his introduction to this book. Cook describes this book as the “professional autobiography” of Harris (p. xii), as well as a primer on “advanced archival theory” (p. xiii). Cook describes the collection of essays as “both a sustained and devastating critique of most of our inherited assumptions and beliefs and an inspired articulation of an alternative path to shape quite different archives for the new century” (p. xiii). Most importantly, Cook points to the passion that Harris brings to his work as an archivist because of the challenges posed by and to archives: “Archives, Verne insists, are about dynamic recordmaking, and remaking, re-remaking, over and over again, without end, rather than the traditional record-keeping, looking after and keeping safe some fixed records product as a sacred artifact. The correct stance for archivists, then, is ever questioning, never complacent, always seeking for the grail of memory, while allowing forgetting, always celebrating the ever-changing contingent, which continually reinvents (remakes) the archive” (p. xxiii). Cook additionally indicates that for Harris archives and archiving are “profoundly spiritual . . . . [a] transcendent faith that tomorrow will care about the records we preserve today” (p. xxvi).

In his book, Harris includes essays he has written since 1994, with reflections on archives and archival work, the stories that archives and archivists tell, the politics and ethics of creating records, information policy issues, and a variety of other related professional matters. In Harris’s own words, archivists are in a terrain that is about belief rather than analysis” (p. 256), as his focus on issues of justice suggest. Harris contends that the stories emanating from the records in archives are not an “innocent byproduct, a reflection of reality, it is a construction of realities expressing dominant relations of power. It privileges certain voices and cultures, while marginalizing or excluding others” (p. 259). For Harris, the meaning and significance of records are “located in the circumstances of its creation and subsequent use” (p. 260).

While there is much in his ideas that others, archivists and non-archivists alike, might want to debate or refine, what is powerful about Harris’s notions is how they can grab one’s attention, especially students. While students certainly need to be introduced to methodologies, tools, and techniques, they respond particularly well when they are challenged to rethink the purpose or mission of their chosen (at least for the time-being) profession. Educators, whether in professional schools or not, need to inspire their students to think, read, and be creative – precisely the actions that the book by Verne Harris generates; it was not an accident that I ended one of my courses with his book. Indeed, I introduced the students to the varied meanings of enthusiasm. Asking them for the definition of the word “enthusiasm” I received the standard definition of strong feeling or passionate interest in something. There was no surprise there. However, I also introduced them to the older meaning of the word, suggesting “possession by a god, supernatural inspiration, prophetic or poetic frenzy” (Oxford English Dictionary). This was also another attribute being manifested by Harris in his strong connection of the quest to preserve archival records with a religious frenzy. May all my students be so possessed!