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.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Artifacts of Modern Knowledge

Archivists and records managers are not the only professionals interested in documents and their nature. Nor are historians the only scholars working on better understanding them. Annelise Riles, ed., Documents: Artifacts of Modern Knowledge (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006) offers a collection of studies about documents from the ethnographic discipline. As one might expect, the focus and purpose are different than what historians or archivists would have, with the ethnographers considering documents as part of their concern about the reliability of gathering data from the field and the encounter between researcher and informant, but Documents is certainly a book archivists should read. Despite the studies on documents in modern life, the primary purpose of the book is one of disciplinary research practices, suggesting that while there is much of interest here for records professionals concerned for deeper understanding of the sources they administer, there is also a lot of other stuff they will want to skip over.

Riles provides the guiding definition of documents for the book in her introduction: “Documents are artifacts of modern knowledge practices, and, in particular, knowledge practices that define ethnography itself. Therefore, the ethnography of documentary practices . . . affords an opportunity to reflect and work upon ethnographic practice in a particular way – not straight on, in the guise of critique or self-reflexivity, but literally, that is, ethnographically. To study documents, then, is by definition also to study how ethnographers themselves know. The document becomes at once an ethnographic object, an analytical category, and a methodological orientation” (p. 7). As this statement implies, this is a collection of essays investigating ethnographic practice, perhaps partially explaining why it does not drift far from the ethnographic literature, ignoring anything written about documents from the archival perspective (although there are other disciplines represented in the citations) and, of course, possessing a very different sense of a document than that of the archivist’s notion of record. I am not an ethnographer, and I am sure I miss all the nuances about what is going on in this volume, but I continue to be struck about how often the archival literature is ignored in the scholarship on documents or records (but, archivists also don’t necessarily do much better in reading and incorporating the relevant literature from other fields, testing the limits of the academy’s intense interest in interdisciplinary research approaches).

The seven essays – grouped into three sections of Academic and Bureaucratic Knowledge; Authorship and Agency; and Collaboration and Response – all provide detailed descriptions of the form, purpose, use, and implications of documents such as reference letters supporting grants, an international policy statement, official and personal documents relating to children placed in neonatal intensive care units, the authorship conventions of scientific publications, recordkeeping in prisons, and the nature of university mission statements. A few extracts from the essays will provide, I think, a flavor of why the book should be examined by archivists. Don Brenneis, considering reference forms and letters, writes, “Even the simplest of forms speaks to multiple audiences and is produced by multiple hands, with often quite different interests and concerns at play. Any single reader is unlikely to be able fully to ‘read’ all that is represented or indexed on a single page. . .” (p. 65). This ought to seem familiar to archivists who have tracked the past decade of writings in their own literature, drawing on postmodern scholarship or rebutting such scholarship, considering the construction and utility of records. Carol Heimer’s study on the documents generated around new-born infants with health concerns also provides some interesting comparisons between family and official recordkeeping mirroring some research being done in the archival field: “Parents often say that they are creating documents to present to their child later, sometimes simply to explain what happened, sometimes to document their unwavering commitment. Documents and other artifacts must be understood as elements of a conversation. And just as hospital documents are not transparent to outsiders unfamiliar with medical vocabulary or the hospital division of labor, so family documents must be understood in the context of their creation and use” (p. 103).

Documents is an example of why reading about archives these days is far more complicated than perusing a few archival journals or acquiring a few practice-based manuals. I also think this book suggests why the effort might be worth it.