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.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Restoring Order

For a very long time, archivists have referred to and used the concept of provenance or respect des fonds with great confidence, acknowledging its origins in nineteenth century France. Archivists have linked this to that nation’s first truly public archives and the establishment of the Ecole des Chartes, the first formal training ground for archivists. This perspective has more to do with legend and myth than reality, as we learn in Lara Jennifer Moore’s Restoring Order: The Ecole des Chartes and the Organization of Archives and Libraries in France, 1820-1870 (Duluth, MN: Litwin Books, LLC, 2008). This author notes that these theoretical classification and control schemes have achieved a “kind of sacred status in the archival community,” leading archivists especially to not explore the “political context” in which these principles “first emerged” (pp. 108-109).

Moore at first follows the familiar story of how the new French government initially started to destroy the archives of the old regime, but then realized that it needed these records for a variety of purposes. They nationalized thousands of private archives and libraries and opened these to the public. However, as Moore carefully describes, there is a lot more to this story: “Perhaps because scholars tend to see the French Revolution as the defining moment in the history of archives and libraries, they have as yet given relatively little attention to nineteenth-century developments” (p. 13). Moore’s book, based on her dissertation at Stanford, has rectified this. Unfortunately, her premature death in 2003 has robbed us of the talents of a historian interested in the development of modern archives.

Restoring Order follows the efforts of the Ecole des Chartes, from it’s founding in 1821 to about 1870, in developing systems for organizing and providing access to archives and libraries. Moore is very adept at considering the political influences on this institution, debunking any sense that this school was some sort of neutral player in establishing the means to educate new professional librarians and archivists. Moore says her study “is in part an attempt to encourage archivists and librarians to consider their collections in historical and political terms, it is also an effort to encourage historians – and particularly historians of France – to consider the archival and bibliographical practices that have shaped the collections on which they rely” (p. 22). Since my focus is on the archives portion of her study, I should state upfront that this book is a true model for archival history.

Moore delves into a number of interesting events and issues in tracing the role of the school and its training of librarians and archivists in the half-century that is her focus. She shows how the mission and approach of the Ecole des Chartes shifted a number of times in response to changing governments and political trends, debunking any idea that somehow the origins of the modern archival profession was immune from such influences. And Moore explains why. In considering their work in classification, inventorying, inspection, and centralization, Moore argues “archives . . . were linked with the controlled production of national history, which was seen as essential to political unity and stability” (p. 195). What will especially interest archivists is Moore’s depiction of the debates between archivists and librarians and their role in French history, leading to the creation of very distinct professional identities by the 1860s; we see similar debates in other nations, such as the United States, at later times.

This is an important and immensely readable study of an important phase in the development of modern archives.