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.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

What Are Archives?

If one wanted to read deeply into the meaning of archives, or the archive, the interested observer would delve into philosophy, cultural studies, literary studies, and other fields and their literature. Writings by archivists, while containing some speculation about such an issue, tended to focus on the pragmatic. A new book, emerging from within the archives community in the United Kingdom, proposes to rectify this.

Louise Craven, ed., What Are Archives? Cultural and Theoretical Perspectives: A Reader (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2008) is divided into four themes: continuity and change in the archival paradigm; impact of technology; impact of community archives; and archival use and users. Its contributors include librarians, archivists (from the National Archives, universities), students (computer science), and faculty (archives), originally gathered at a meeting of the Society of Archivists in 2006. The contributors address a number of extremely interesting issues, such as how archivists need to consider the intersection between paper and electronic records, a relationship raising questions about archival education and skills or the challenges to traditional archival principles and practices. There is also evidence of postmodernist perspectives, revealing that documents are more than just texts sitting in archives waiting to be used or that they are static entities (they are, rather uncertain and malleable texts).

The various contributors provide some interesting insights into the nature of archives. Andrew Prescott writes, “If we understand the limitations of the archive, we get a clearer and sharper perception of the superficiality of our own engagement of the past,” challenging the notion that gaining such understanding is merely the matter of gathering documentary materials in places called archives (p. 48). There are calls to expand principles out to personal papers, from their primary focus on organizational and administrative records. There are many comments on the impact of social computing on archival sources and work. Caroline Williams notes, “The development of user-generated finding aids using Web 2.0 social software and wikis means that a whole new generation of personal records is being created well beyond the traditional means of managing them” (p. 64). Michael Moss argues that there is “no contradiction between the static and dynamic perceptions of the document. They complement one another in a perpetual hermeneutic spiral.” The archives “is a place of ‘dreams’, of re-enactment for both the user and the archivist (curator), who together always are engaged either passively or actively in the process of refiguration that is never ending” (p. 83).

Such issues suggest that archivists must rethink their most basic assumptions about their work and mission. Andrew Flinn adds, “It is clear that involvement with both digital archives and with community or otherwise marginal or transitory campaigning groups fundamentally challenge the notion that the archivist can afford to be merely a passive recipient of these records.” Flinn continues, “many of these networks and groups will be organizing, mobilizing and perhaps actively campaigning not just in the real world and not just by relatively fixed and well-understood digital forms such as e-mail, websites and word-processed documents but also via dynamic and evolving media such as instant messaging, social networking sites, wikis, blogs and other virtual, participatory and collaborative mediums. The skills and expertise required by the archivist working with groups to capture and understand these interactions will have to be significantly enhanced”(p. 123).

The increasing reliance by archivists in using the Web to build virtual repositories for access to archival materials also suggests some issues for archivists to contend with. Andrea Johnson writes, “The problem of contextual retrieval in a digital archive environment remains relatively unexplored” (p. 147). She continues, “Whilst collecting the behaviors of digital users it became evident that areas such as use of language, the use of technology, the hierarchical arrangement of the archive and the archival expertise of the archivist play a key role in supporting archive users. These areas do not neatly transfer over into the digital environment, where the problem is further compounded by deep data structures and an innate difficulty in understanding the representational relationship between the surrogate and the primary source” (p. 153).

What Are Archives? provides a lot of stimulating reading, but it doesn’t come close to answering the question (despite a serious effort by Craven to tie together the essays and their themes). Rather, reflecting the origin of the book in a conference, it teases us with a lot of intriguing questions and reflections – and that merits anyone interested in such a question reading the book.