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, March 25, 2009

Archival Theory

John Ridener, From Polders to Postmodernism: A Concise History of Archival Theory (Duluth, MN: Litwin Books, LLC, 2009).

This is essentially an extended essay exploring the establishment of archival concepts and principles, and how these have been shaped by cultural and technological factors – emphasizing archival appraisal as the key segment of archival theory. It is an excellent book for use in an introductory archives course, as it quickly slides through the past century of archival theory and constructs a useful framework for anyone to understand why theory is critical and how it has emerged, developed, and been debated. Terry Cook, in his introduction to the book, calls it an “approachable entreé to the various theories, concepts, ideas, and assumptions that have animated archivists collectively over the past century in the English-speaking world” (p. xiii). Cook also asserts that Ridener has “given us a concise entry point to that complicated discourse and many stimulating insights to the intellectual history of archiving as a societal function” (p. xvii). I fully concur.

So, what does Ridener accomplish in his book that makes me recommend it as a reading for an introductory archives course. For one thing, he makes a straightforward and convincing case for why theory is a critical component of archival knowledge, and why the conceptual part of our knowledge is constantly strained by recording technologies and disciplines, such as history, that have developed intellectual frameworks for using the evidence found in archival sources. The best part of Ridener’s analysis is focused on the late nineteenth-century Dutch manual (Muller, Feith, and Fruin), Hilary Jenkinson’s manual a generation later, and Schellenberg’s Modern Archives yet another generation after that. Although few educators require their students to read the Dutch manual, unless as part of providing some historical context for the emergence of the modern archival profession, Jenkinson and Schellenberg continue to be invoked as a means of justifying nearly every archival decision by every archivist from the smallest to the largest archival program (whether they have been read or not, or even whether they had been understood or not).

Ridener puts all three seminal manuals in their historical and societal context. In regards to the Dutch manual, he writes, “Because historians were the primary users of archives, their professional orientation to objective truth created a need for objective records in the archive. . . . The standardization of archival theory and practice would come to reinforce historians’ objective, scientific approach to their own work to mutually benefit archivists and historians alike” (p. 26). Jenkinson is also put into his historical and societal context and there is likewise great stress on the objective role of the archivist: “Archivists should not interfere with records because the records were created without the archivist’s involvement. For Jenkinson, this is the only way to ensure objective evidence in the archive” (p. 56). Schellenberg is placed clearly within his work in the early years of the U.S. National Archives, and this builds a huge gulf between that and his predecessors: “A distinguishing characteristic of Schellenberg’s theory is that his focus is clearly on contemporary records and the problems created when new records are forced to fit into old categories and processes” (pp. 77-78). As a result much of Schellenberg’s ideas revolve around the relationship between archivists and records managers.

While in my estimation the chief value of this book is in providing a cogent description of the Dutch manual and the work of Jenkinson and Schellenberg, undoubtedly Ridener’s final main chapter on “questioning archives,” examining the work of contemporary archivists in reframing archival theory (also focusing on the appraisal function), will draw considerable attention. Some will themselves question his selection of Brian Brothman, Terry Cook, Carolyn Heald, Eric Ketelaar, and Heather MacNeil as the representatives of contemporary archivists who have, principally by their work on archival appraisal, used postmodern and critical theories and the challenges of technology to construct a different archival knowledge base. Ridener terms this new archival paradigm one of questioning, because “Postmodern theory questions the reliability of archival records not to spin the archive and writing of history into chaos, but in order to begin to understand more about the assumptions archivists make about their work” (p. 124).

Examining this small cluster of leading commentators on archival theory and practice raises some fundamental issues for Ridener. For example, “One of the main guiding forces behind the changing role of the archivist is the dialectic between objectivity and subjectivity in archival theory. As cultural and social expectations of archives change over time, so too does the role archivists play in creating and maintaining the adaptable archives” (p. 132). Ridener sees a major shift in the most recent manifestation of archival theory and its application, especially in how records and their keepers are viewed: “Archival paradigms of the past have dictated that archivists assume records were created as impartial products of a business or organization’s work. The contemporary appraisal paradigm questions the infallibility of not only records, but also the records’ creators” (pp. 133-134). And in that, we have much more theorizing to do.

One of the chief assets of this brief book is that it humanizes the work of archival theorists. Too often the pioneers in codifying or describing archival theory are placed on pedestals, as if they are not meant or able to be questioned. Ridener indicates why they should be challenged, and he hints that we may be on the verge of yet another archival paradigm. Unfortunately, he does not push this along, but I believe the new generation of doctoral-educated archivists, grounded both in the fundamentals of existing knowledge and research methodologies, will be the individuals who lead in this. They not only will jettison the antiquated concepts of individuals writing a half-century or more ago, they also will begin to dissect the work of their mentors. Those of us now teaching and writing are used to the occasional rant by practitioners against what they often see as the work of people with too much time on their hands and too far from practice; what we look forward to is the careful scrutiny of the next generation, those who will lead the archival field into new intellectual directions. Ridener shows how it has worked over the past century, and his analysis will be a useful map for understanding what is to come.


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