Archives and Social Justice: On the Importance of Postmodern Theory

In the last decade, the preeminent South African archivist Verne Harris has advocated postmodern archival theory, arguing for its role in supporting the archivist’s response to the call for social justice. Harris has a unique perspective on social justice archives, as he worked in the apartheid-era State Archives Service in South Africa.1 Along with other, predominately Canadian, postmodern archival scholars, Harris encourages a will of hospitality toward otherness, seeking to include those who have been marginalized and denied a legitimate place in history. These scholars offer an ill treatment of traditional archival methods, which have privileged the application of a singular reading onto archives through positivist beliefs in authority and objective knowledge. However, in light of postmodern ideas related to power and social memory, some archivists worry that the profession is inherently marginalizing and xenophobic. To address this worry, Harris and others are quick to cite Jacques Derrida and his theory of deconstruction, warning of archival complicity in oppressive bureaucracies. As the main infuser of postmodern thought into archives, Derrida is an important figure for study. But there remains a logical discrepancy between postmodern theory and social justice. By defining these terms and understanding their complexity, it becomes apparent that postmodern theory alone cannot guarantee that social justice will emerge from a deconstructed archive. Certainly, philosophy can inspire activism, but to argue that postmodern theory is a necessary grounding principle for a social justice archives is to misrepresent the archival profession and its calling.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, the subjects of postmodernism and social justice have commanded the attention of archival scholars. While postmodernism is a relatively recent development, social justice has a long and complex history. Arguably, for as long as human societies have existed, there has been some notion of social justice. Duff et al. mention that social justice has had many manifestations across time and space. They identified theological, philosophical, economic, legal and political contexts where this notion has been applied.2 But with the advent of postmodernism, ideas of what constituted the appearance of social justice came from various counter-cultural milieus. Radical and civic movements alike sought political representation in efforts to secure equality. Social memory was also at stake in these political battlegrounds, as marginalized groups fought to legitimize their identities, which would allow them the opportunity to construct their own history free of oppression. Duff et al. argue that social memory is always “contingent, contestable and reconfigurable” through politics and political power. They also warn that archives exist in explicit relation to this power.3 In this sense, one can readily argue that it behooves archivists to be guarantors of the social memory of oft-marginalized groups. But as we shall see, abandoning objectivity and neutrality in the archives in favor of political activism can have an unintended, negative affect on the very groups which social justice archivists wish to empower.

Harris claims, perhaps rather too arrogantly, that he introduced transformation discourse into the field of archives. By “transformation,” he is referring to the idea that archivists are active shapers of social memory instead of impartial custodians of the recorded past.4 Postmodern theory, however, was introduced into the archival field by Terry Cook (who had a huge influence on Harris) at the close of the last century. In What is Past Is Prologue, Cook analyzed the major treatises of archival theory and arrived at social theories for appraisal. Following Hans Booms and Helen Samuels, Cook argues that archival value should be defined by social constructs and societal functions.5 This would ensure that state archives broadly represent society by acquiring both private and public sector archives.6 As part of the Canadian school at the National Archives of Canada, Cook helped to inaugurate the total archives approach; a vision of archives “sanctioned in and reflective of society at large rather than one shaped primarily by powerful interest groups of either users or creators, or the state.”7 This approach recognizes the dichotomy of power between the state and its citizens. The Canadian school sought to elicit broader contextuality through their archives, focusing on how archives are related to public policy and public use. Speaking directly on issues related to social justice, Cook explains:

While the maintenance of government accountability and administrative continuity and the protection of personal rights are still rightly recognized as important purposes for archives, the principal justification for archives to most users and to the public at large rests on archives being able to offer citizens a sense of identity, locality, history, culture, and personal and collective memory. Simply stated, it is no longer acceptable to limit the definition of society’s memory solely to the documentary residue left over by powerful record creators.8

This concept of total archives put Canada ahead of other national programs in terms of offering a more democratic and open agenda. This emphasis on broad contextualization represented at the state level may also be the reason Canadian archival scholars first picked up the works of postmodern authors. But as Rodney G. S. Carter states: “Even in a “total archives” environment… it is impossible for archivists to reflect all aspects and elements of society. Admittedly, this impossibility hinges on practical limitations of financial resources and physical space. However, reasons of practical economy do not excuse archivists from understanding the discourses of power, and that archiving is essentially a political exercise with far-reaching implications. In fact, Harris states “that politics is archival; that the archive is the very possibility of politics.”9 This pronouncement is supported by the fact that archives are socially constructed, and that the decision of what to keep necessarily implies that some are being remembered for posterity while others are not.

Seeking to make archives more explicitly postmodernist, Cook expanded on his ideas in Archival Science and Postmodernism. He explicates some of the principal insights and methods of postmodern theory, such as the contention that there is no universal truth or objective knowledge, and the relentless application of logical criticism used to deconstruct the taken-for-granted meanings of texts.10 Instead of reading against the grain, Cook appropriated these ideas and applied them in parallel with archives. Also, following Jacques Le Goff and Gerda Lerner, Cook recognized patterns of machination among those who have historically held power, whether that power was political, religious, or economic. Convinced, Cook succinctly concludes that “there is nothing neutral, objective, or “natural” about this process of remembering and forgetting.”11 In other words, the processes of remembering and forgetting are often found to be controlled by a centralized authority. Moreover, Cook also realized that archival records are merely signs or signifiers of events. Context and contemporary voices are often lost in the creation of records, and to countenance archival use by historians, who transmute these signifiers into facts, is a smoke and mirrors game in which archivists participate.12 This kind of power circumscribes the traces of social memory. Harris, also writing on the concept of the archival “trace,” claims that the event is “irrecoverable,” and that archives comprise only a sliver of a sliver of a sliver” of all records that are available.13 These ideas, when taken together, have a clarion resonance. What remains is the undeniable existence of gaps, or silences, in the archives.

The idea of “gaps” may have come from Robert Smithson in his discussion on museums.14 But the term has more recently revolved around the concept of archival power. Derrida spoke of archival gaps in the historical record of memory when he wrote about the “absence of archive.”15 We can take this idea of absence to mean that records which are not made are often more important than records which are, because archival gaps represent a wider conception of thoughts and feelings in historical time, and thus a more accurate picture of social memory. This question of are and not at once speaks of a negation and an affirmation; an exclusion and an inclusion in the archives. Here, the presence of power is undeniable. Joan M. Schwartz and Cook addressed this by delineating the ways in which archives and archivists wield power, and how various governing bodies can determine what becomes archives through state control. For example, Schwartz and Cook mention that archival institutions “wield power over the administrative, legal, and fiscal accountability of governments, corporations, and individuals,” while archival records “wield power over the shape and direction of historical scholarship, collective memory, and national identity…”16 This latter power implies the plurality of the Other in society, and they can either be included or marginalized in the archives.

The discussion of archival power was informed mostly by postmodern theory. The power of the archive mentioned above is derived from the topo-nomological “archontic” power of Derrida.17 Some postmodern archival scholars, including Harris, have chosen to read Derrida both liberally and literally (a mistake, perhaps, considering Derrida’s obscurantism). They understand archontic power as the practice of consigning history to a place of privilege. In other words, archives are seen as being institutionalized and controlled through the use of certain “rule-guided systems.”18 This is the marginalizing power; the power to circumscribe the trace and to naturalize universalism. If the marginalized are included, however, archivists cannot regard archives as these positivist containers of objective truth, because the multitude of other voices and contexts open out indefinitely unto the horizon of history. As Harris says, “archival contextualization reveals the multiple layers of construction in text, and in doing so adds yet another layer. Properly conceived, archival contextualization—archival endeavor as a whole—should be about the releasing of meanings, the tending of mystery, the disclosing of the archive’s openness.19 We can understand all of this to mean that detached objectivity on the part of the archivist is paramount to allowing gaps to persist, voices to fade, and histories to perish.

With this philosophy in mind, Cook and Schwartz – in their second issue on the theme of archives, records, and power – ponder how the archivist should “perform” in a postmodern world, or how they should apply postmodern theory to archival practice.20 Performance implies action, and in light of the discussion on power in archives, the action implied is decidedly political. The authors, however, grappled with the practical issue of calling an entire profession to action, especially based on the polarizing nature of postmodern theory. As Cook and Schwartz write: “the script acted out daily by line” archivists is rarely derived from a detailed understanding of archival theory, let alone abstract philosophizing, for it is strongly suspected that few practising archivists read such work.”21 Instead, archivists still largely adhere to the normalized shibboleths of the practice, like provenance and original order. These principles have become rather “fundamentalist,” according to Hugh Taylor, and they have confined archivists to the role of passive and neutral spectator of history.22 In other words, it is not the archivist’s place to question the value of a record, the moral character of a record creator, or the potential abuse perpetrated against others through that record’s creation.

How, then, are postmodern archivists supposed to rally the profession? Can postmodernism even be considered an animating philosophy for social justice? The connection is a precarious one, as these two subjects suffer from an incompatibility of definition. Duff et al. demonstrate this incompatibility by writing: “abstract universalistic philosophical approaches to social justice have been criticized as being “unable to respond to people throughout the world who are experiencing the presence of injustice in the form of poverty, landlessness, dispossession, political and religious oppression, and genocide.””23 Solving these global issues, admittedly, is beyond the capacity of a profession that can only deploy its discretionary funding internally. But postmodern archival scholars have provided examples where archives helped to secure justice for citizens. Randall C. Jimerson, for example, convincingly showed that archives have the power to hold political and social leaders accountable, support open government, redress social injustice, and document underrepresented social groups.24 Both Jimerson and Harris maintain that corrupt bureaucracies have their own systems of recordkeeping in which they engage in an archivization of their own. But instead of keeping records as evidence of wrongdoings, these bureaucracies deliberately hide their documents from public view, sometimes even destroying documents relating to illegal activities. Because secret government agendas are often made to avoid public scrutiny and accountability, Jimerson contends that archivists should actively engage” in politics to fight for open access to government information in efforts to ensure that citizens will be able to judge the health of their respective democracies. This is the social justice imperative, shared by Harris and other postmodern archival scholars.

As popular as this discourse has been, there are some archivists who reject the social justice imperative. Mark A. Greene, for example, argues that social justice archives “overly politicize” and “ultimately damage” the archival profession.25 However, in rejecting the social justice thesis, Greene seeks to arrive at the same conclusion that postmodern authors strive toward. Namely, that the archival profession works for the collective good of all. Whereas the postmodern archival scholars argue that archivists must fight against corrupt governments and avoid participation in their recordkeeping systems for fear of being complicit, Greene suggests that the issue of power and corruption is not always so black and white. For instance, corruption is not always immediately apparent in government. Regrettably, some scandals – like the Watergate crisis and the Iran-Contra affair mentioned by Jimerson take years to come to public consciousness. Fortunately, there were remaining records in these cases to prove the culpability and guilt of those involved.26 But even in government systems that are visibly corrupt, Greene asks: “How is it that [without archives]… agents could be prosecuted for their crimes? The legal proceedings [rest] solidly on the evidence in the very records that archivists should have resisted creating or even destroyed.”27 Here, Greene effectively flips the “complicity” argument on its head. Instead, he argues that archivists who perform recordkeeping tasks on behalf of corrupt governments are not “morally bankrupt,” so long as those archivists are working from an objective and neutral angle.28 Greene agrees that sometimes archivists must take a public stand when their professional values are being threatened,29 but going beyond their professional calling to participate in wider political action is unnecessary when the very act of archiving is a democratically-infused power.

Two goals, then, become apparent for the archival profession, and they depart radically from the postmodern ethos. These are the goals of objectivity and neutrality. Jimerson accepted the former while rejecting the latter, believing that archivists “can be objective without forsaking engagement in discussions of values, politics, or social policy.”30 Greene, on the other hand, argues that archivists should be neutral. Greene says, “without the goal of neutrality… archivists and their institutions will become completely politicized, the stalking horses or pawns of every stripe of partisan effort.”31 I am inclined to agree with Greene’s opinion. Archivists will understandably possess different political viewpoints, but the goal of the archivist remains to be objective and neutral while engaged in their professional work. Political commitment often comes from a place of passion and emotion, which can distract archivists from being dedicated to intellectual and professional principles. Political partisanship could easily cleave the profession and lead to infighting and division. The goal of neutrality, then, can also be considered as an imperative, because its scope allows for records of all kinds to be created and to speak for themselves. Indeed, archives should exist as evidence to be used for arbitrating justice by exposing wrongdoers and holding them accountable. The black and white perspective of Harris and Jimerson suggests that the archivist is always involved in bureaucratic back rooms, where evil minds hatch their plans. But this is absurd. While the archivist may have power in the policies of selection, preservation and access, they are rarely in the same room as governors, politicians, and bureaucrats. In fact, one can argue that this enhances the power of archivists, because they operate at a safe distance from such corrupting influence. This is a far cry from being a complicit “pawn.” 32 However, it is important to note that this issue is much more complex than either author concedes. Indeed, there are gradients of state power. Harris, for his part, found himself quite unable to be impartial or objective while in the State Archives Service. State control over records there was too entrenched to permit either minority representation or damning evidence. As Harris writes, “Apartheid realities and the service’s status as an organ of the state combined to ensure that many of its services, whatever the intentions of the service or of individual archivists might have been, were fashioned into tools of the apartheid system.”33 This is where the postmodernists could mount a counterargument to Greene. As we already know, postmodern theory is ruthless in its critique of power relations in society. In South African society, power that Harris could have otherwise exercised in the interest of the collective good was usurped by the regime. Still, documenting records of oppression with a sense of objectivity and neutrality (a stoic task indeed!) can serve to reflect the truth to other governments or international watchdogs. As Greene says, “we must realize that the recordkeeping of immoral regimes… is often transmogrified over time to recordkeeping of social justice…34 This is Greene’s power play. Objective records are essential for any justice to be enacted.

Harris, despite his firsthand experience, was unable to offer a “blueprint” for identifying the call to social justice. He even admits that, “Following Derrida, I don’t believe that justice, ultimately, can be knowable.35 It seems, then, that postmodern theory comes up short in prescribing a way forward for a social justice archives. Following Greene, however, such a prescription is unnecessary. The archival profession, when done right, already does all it can reasonably do to ensure justice. Postmodern theory is important for deconstructing power relations and promoting diversity in archives, but as a philosophy, it is incapable of grounding the archivist’s response to the call for justice.

I would like to turn now to a recent provocative thesis put forward by Richard J. Matthews. Matthews argues that social justice is incompatible with postmodern archival theory. He writes: “No ethical or political stance can be derived from the logic of deconstruction: “the former requires a performative commitment that cannot be justified by or grounded in the latter.””36 Attempting to clarify the “undecidability” of justice, Matthews proposes a theory of “new wave” deconstruction, based on the radical atheism of Swedish philosopher Martin Hägglund. Radical atheism is concerned with the concepts of time and mortality. As such, it does not concern itself with the reflexivities of language or discourses on power. It is a radical politics of the now, demanding an answer to the social justice question, and refusing to accept that justice is unknowable. Matthews contends that the postmodernists have misread Derrida’s Archive Fever, appropriating his idea of “archontic power” to serve as a literal definition of state or government control. Instead, Derrida’s archontic power has more to do with the psychoanalytic desire of life over death. Because the threat of annihilation propels archival desire, Matthews says, “we care about archiving because of the possibility of the radical destruction of our memories and ourselves.”37 The conclusion of new wave deconstruction posits that the radical finitude of survival is the basis for definite moral values. As a philosophy, this insistence on the relatively short duration of human mortality should compel archivists to immediately demand justice. This is a strident attempt to support the archivist’s response to the call for social justice, but Matthews does not address any of the practicalities. How, for instance, will archivists come to accept his label of “radical atheist”? This designation, I believe, would be more polarizing than having the profession identify as postmodernist. Therefore, this prescription could be as disruptive and damaging to the archival profession as the politically-fueled social justice activism of postmodern archival theory.

I have attempted to define the connection between postmodern archival theory and social justice. While this connection has been defended quite rigorously over the last decade, the framework for a social justice archives remains tenuous at best. What remains, however, is a professional calling to safeguard the social memory of people from all nations. This does not just mean archival inclusion for representative democracies, but for all areas of human activity; even oppressive regimes. Objective archives offer the best evidence for democratic intervention and sanctions. These archives can later be activated by the repressed for therapeutic reasons in acts of remembrance and mourning.38 Thus liberated, the process of reconciliation can give rise to new histories and archives, satisfying the postmodern call for diversity and justice through the ironic intervention of objectivity.


Carter, Rodney G. “Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, and Power in Silence.” Archivaria 61 (2006): 215-33.

Cook, Terry. “Archival Science and Postmodernism: New Formulations for Old Concepts.” Archives and Museum Informatics1, no. 1 (March 2001): 3-24.

Cook, Terry, and Joan M. Schwartz. “Archives, Records, and Power: From (Postmodern) Theory to (Archival) Performance.” Archival Science 2, no. 3 (2002): 171-85.

Cook, Terry. “What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift.” Archivaria 43 (1997): 17-63.

Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Duff, Wendy M., Andrew Flinn, Karen E. Suurtamm, and David A. Wallace. “Social Justice Impact of Archives: A Preliminary Investigation.” Archival Science 13 (January 18, 2013): 317-48.

Greene, Mark A. “A Critique of Social Justice as an Archival Imperative: What Is It We’re Doing That’s All That Important?” The American Archivist 76, no. 2 (2013): 302-34.

Harris, Verne. Archives and Justice: A South African Perspective. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2007.

Ketelaar, Eric. “Archives as Spaces of Memory.” Journal of the Society of Archivists 29, no. 1 (April 2008): 9-27.

Jimerson, Randall c. “Archives for All: Professional Responsibility and Social Justice.” The American Archivist 70, no. 2 (2007): 252-81.

Matthews, Richard J. “Is the Archivist a “Radical Atheist” now? Deconstruction, its New Wave, and Archival Activism.” Archival Science 16, no. 3 (June 13, 2015): 213-60.

Millar, Laura. “Discharging our Debt: The Evolution of the Total Archives Concept in English Canada.” Archivaria 46 (1998): 103-46.

Schwartz, Joan M., and Terry Cook. “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science 2, no. 1-2 (2002): 1-19.

1 Verne Harris, Archives and Justice: A South African Perspective (Chicago, IL: The Society of American Archivists, 2007), 2.

2 Wendy M. Duff et al., “Social Justice Impact of Archives: A Preliminary Investigation,” Archival Science, Vol. 13 (January 18, 2013): 321.

3 Duff et al., “Social Justice Impact of Archives,” 329-30.

4 Harris, Archives and Justice, 11.

5 Terry Cook, “What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift,” Archivaria, Vol. 43 (1997): 31.

6 Laura Millar, “Discharging our Debt: The Evolution of the Total Archives Concept in English Canada,” Archivaria, Vol. 46 (1998): 104.

7 Cook, “What Is Past Is Prologue,” 34.

8 Cook, “What Is Past Is Prologue,” 44.

9 Harris, Archives and Justice, 245.

10 Terry Cook, “Archival Science and Postmodernism: New Formulations for Old Concepts,” Archives and Museum Informatics, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Mar. 2001): 7.

11 Cook, “Archival Science and Postmodernism,” 8-9.

12 Cook, “Archival Science and Postmodernism,” 9.

13 Harris, Archives and Justice, 16.

14 Rodney G. S. Carter, “Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, and Power in Silence,” Archivaria, Vol. 61 (Spring 2006): 215.

15 Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), 64.

16 Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook, “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory,” Archival Science, Vol. 2, No. 1-2 (2002): 2.

17 Derrida, Archive Fever, 1-5.

18 Terry Cook and Joan M. Schwartz, “Archives, Records, and Power: From (Postmodern) Theory to (Archival) Performance,” Archival Science, Vol. 2, No. 3 (2002): 177.

19 Harris, Archives and Justice, 45.

20 Cook and Schwartz, “From (Postmodern) Theory to (Archival) Performance,” 172.

21 Cook and Schwartz, “From (Postmodern) Theory to (Archival) Performance,” 173.

22 Cook and Schwartz, “From (Postmodern) Theory to (Archival) Performance, 179.

23 Duff et al., “Social Justice Impact of Archives,” 323.

24 Randall C. Jimerson, “Archives for All: Professional Responsibility and Social Justice,” The American Archivist, Vol. 70, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 2007): 256.

25 Mark A Greene, “A Critique of Social Justice as an Archival Imperative: What Is It We’re Doing That’s All That Important?,” The American Archivist, Vol. 76, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 2013): 303.

26 Jimerson, “Archives for All,” 256.

27 Greene, “A Critique of Social Justice…”, 305.

28 Greene, “A Critique of Social Justice…”, 305-306.

29 Greene, “A Critique of Social Justice…”, 310.

30 Jimerson, “Archives for All,” 271.

31 Greene, “A Critique of Social Justice…”, 312.

32 Harris, Archives and Justice, 248.

33 Harris, Archives and Justice, 176.

34 Greene, “A Critique of Social Justice…”, 321.

35 Harris, Archives and Justice, 249.

36 Richard J. Matthews, “Is the Archivist a “Radical Atheist” Now? Deconstruction, its New Wave, and Archival Activism,” Archival Science, Vol. 16, No. 3 (June 13, 2015): 220.

37 Matthews, “Is the Archivist a “Radical Atheist”…, 239.

38 Eric Ketelaar, “Archives as Spaces of Memory,” Journal of the Society of Archivists, Vol. 29, No. 1 (April 2008): 17.


Social Phenomenology: Implications for Information Retrieval Systems


This paper explores the shift in focus of the information sciences from cognitivist theories of information behavior to the everyday information practices of individuals. By “everyday information practices,” Savolainen (2008) means the processes of information seeking, information use, and information sharing. This shift emphasizes the conscious, lived experience of individuals in their discrete informational environments. Whereas previous studies of information behavior revolved around objective analyses of information systems, the new science attempts to qualify the subjective phenomena of information users. These phenomena include user perception and affective mental states, which have become the main focal points in attempts to study human-computer and human-system interaction. This empirical approach to studying information behavior has the potential to change how information is delivered and presented to users in various contexts. Following the social phenomenology of Savolainen (2008), I argue that the concept of lifeworld and users’ unique psychological characteristics are a vital consideration when evaluating or designing an information retrieval system.


Understanding the psychology of information users is important in the digital age, as the need for information today is often punctuated by high demand and fast-paced work tasks. This means that information users are often busy in their daily lives performing retrieval tasks with the ubiquity of computer-mediated technologies. Information users, however, can easily become absorbed in these technologies, causing them to miss out on important opportunities for socialization. Recently, Kushlev et al. (2017) studied information-seeking behavior using smartphones to determine the effects on social and emotional well-being. Using experimental methods, the authors found that individuals who used smartphones for everyday information tasks felt more socially isolated than their “phoneless” peers. Because social connection is an essential psychological need, Kushlev et al. surmised that pervasive technological information seeking and use can have a negative impact on affective mood states (p. 72).

Social phenomenology confers the same understanding, allowing that affective mental states can radically influence user information practice. By “everyday information practices,” Savolainen (2008) means the processes of information seeking, information use, and information sharing. Each of these activities depart from one’s lifeworld, or the totality of experiences comprised in every individual (p. 51). This totality concerns the subjective viewpoints of individuals, the interplay of these viewpoints with others – referred to in the phenomenological tradition as intersubjectivity – and the social environments where individuals are embedded. Because users tend to assimilate new information based on what they already know, subjectivity dominates the information-seeking and retrieval process. Subjectivity is also greatly influenced by feelings and emotions, which are ingrained in one’s lifeworld. Cognitive and information scientists have gradually come to accept that affective mental states are precognitive and that they invariably influence cognitive behavior. Because cognition is required for information retrieval, it is important to consider the social phenomenological perspective when evaluating or designing an information retrieval system.

Literature Review:

The literature on information behavior over the past thirty years has increasingly considered the psychology of individuals. Beginning with Kuhlthau (1991), the process of searching for information was considered from the user perspective. Drawing on the work of psychologists and information scientists, Kuhlthau recognized that information needs were often preceded by uncertainty or anxiety. In order to ameliorate this anxiety, users had to distill meaning from information they retrieved during the information search process. Kuhlthau designed a model called the Information Search Process (ISP) model, which incorporated the affective (feelings), the cognitive (thoughts), and the physical (actions). The model also described six stages of information seeking. These are task initiation, topic selection, prefocus exploration, focus formulation, information collection and search closure (pp. 366-68). Kuhlthau’s model was applied in a large-scale, longitudinal study which surveyed 385 library users at 21 institutions including academic, public, and school libraries (p. 365).

Essentially, Kuhlthau argued that there are causal associations between cognitive states and affective states. For example, initiation of a new research task for high school or college students – the principal participants in Kuhlthau’s study – will cause uncertainty (a cognitive state), leading to anxiety and a lack of confidence (affective states). But as students embark on the research process and gain more knowledge of their topic, their confidence will increase. However, a dip in confidence during the exploration stage of the ISP is inevitable, as students will feel overwhelmed by the amount of information on their selected topic. This will cause them to revert back to a negative affective state. As students begin to identify relevant sources and interpret documents, there will again be a concomitant rise in positive affective states. Broadly understood, Kuhlthau’s ISP model indicates that higher knowledge states directly correlate to more positive affective states.

Kuhlthau’s model was widely accepted and was the first model of the research process to include emotions as an important factor for research. The ISP model was subsequently used to teach students to accept negative feelings as a natural part of the research process. This idea was embodied in Kracker’s (2002) opinion that “correctly placing the root of the negative emotions within the [research] process itself, rather than within the individual, allows students to experience the emotions in a less threatening and less personal way, and may help them feel less responsible for the discomfort they encounter” (p. 290). Recognizing that anxiety and stress can interfere with learning, Kracker devised a 30-minute presentation of Kuhlthau’s study for a group of high school and college students. Results suggested that knowledge of the ISP model reduced anxiety, but the study fell short in determining how the end product of the research process was perceived both emotionally and cognitively. Therefore, in another study, Kracker and Wang (2002) used content analysis to survey the psychological impact of research. The authors surveyed ninety students from four different sections of a technical and professional writing course (p. 296). Analyzing these students’ natural language descriptions of their own personal research projects, the authors coded 122 words representing feelings and 25 affective categories that group words based on similarity of meaning (p. 298). The affective categories measured emotional states, perceptions, and affinities toward the research process, thus encompassing both positive and negative feelings. 8 cognitive categories were selected based on Kuhlthau’s ISP model, comprising Kuhlthau’s six stages of information seeking, as well as “overall view of research” and “iterative nature of the process.” In addition, 5 derived categories were added measuring students’ thoughts on writing, learning, creativity, assistance from others, and locating sources (p. 299).

Kracker and Wang searched for co-occurrences between the two phenomenal categories of affective and cognitive. For example, feelings of anxiety were reported for 10 different cognitive categories (p. 300). However, feelings of confidence were reported for all of the same categories except iterative nature and writing process (p. 300). While more students indicated anxiety over confidence (69 mentions versus 31 mentions, respectively), the number of mentions across Kracker and Wang’s study were widely scattered. For example, discrepancy existed between feelings of difficulty and easiness (48 mentions versus 24 mentions), and feelings of dislike and interest (15 mentions versus 32 mentions) (p. 300). This last finding is odd, as it seems that positive affinity toward research should be low compared to the relatively high mentions of negative mood states. Also notable is the fact that Kracker and Wang found elective students as having had a more negative experience than major students (p. 300). Explications for these findings depended on further study, which problematized the authors efforts of finding patterns and trends relating to student perception and affinity toward research tasks.

Despite the importance of this research in bringing to light the centrality of user perception and emotion, there are problems with the ISP model. Savolainen (2015) argues that Kuhlthau “does not characterize the relationship between short-lived affective factors (feelings) and moods (relatively enduring affective-cognitive factors understood in terms of attitudes)” (p. 184). Savolainen agrees that affect and cognition are interrelated, but instead of defining mood as an orientation or an affective mental state that can be, as it were, conjured at will – as with Kuhlthau’s invitational and indicative moods (1991, p. 363) – Savolainen’s definition of mood takes on a more complex, phenomenological meaning. What Savolainen finds at fault is the functionalism inherent in Kuhlthau’s research. Writing further, Savolainen says: “Following the ideas of [George] Kelly (1963, p. 64), mood has been assigned a more central role in the ISP model because it allows the range within which the cognitive factors can operate to broaden or narrow (p. 184). In other words, it seemingly did not matter to Kuhlthau what constituted mood; only that mood methodologically supported the processes of the ISP. This framework presupposes that emotions do not come into play until they are triggered by the research process. Social phenomenology, on the other hand, employs a temporal dialectic where human action is rooted biographically and perceived as project-oriented and perspectivist (Savolainen, 2008, p. 53). This implies that the past can influence the future, and mood can influence information-seeking and use.

Nahl (2007) is another author who has advocated a user-centered focus based on affective processes. Nahl proposed the Social-Biological Information Technology (SBIT) model. In this model, there are three biological subsystems that operate during the stages of information processing and use. These are the affective, cognitive, and sensorimotor subsystems, which are believed by Nahl to operate interdependently. Briefly explained, the affective subsystem relies on a user’s emotions and motivations to use a system for information retrieval. When motivated, the cognitive subsystem analyzes the information retrieved to determine what to do with it in terms of “goal-directed planning” (p. 2025). The efficacy of this planning, however, is dependent on the intentionality of the user. For instance, the user may intend to use a system determinedly or, perhaps, apathetically. As Nahl says, “unless the user constrains thinking within the limits that count as goal-planning, the procedure does not count as planning, but as distraction, misinterpretation, serendipity, or shift in goal-intention” (p. 2025). Finally, the sensorimotor subsystem relies on the “use affordances” (p. 2025), or the design features that solicit user interaction with an information system interface. All three subsystems operate within the social context of the user and through the technological infrastructure of the user’s informational environment.

In the above description of the SBIT model, the adjective of constraint presupposes that emotions can be easily controlled by users in their efforts to direct the information search process. Aside from the initial affective motivations and intentions, Nahl does not see emotions as entering into the equation until the user has cognitively interpreted or assessed the information retrieved. Savolainen (2015) argues that Nahl’s framework hinges on appraisal theory, “suggesting that emotions are elicited by the individual’s cognitive interpretation or assessment of perceived information about the environment” (p. 188). In fact, as Savolainen shows, affective processes are the last step in the sequential procedures of the SBIT. For example, the sensorimotor subsystem notices information (step 1); the cognitive subsystem appraises information (step 2); and finally, the affective subsystem evaluates information based on feelings and emotions (step 3). According to Nahl, step 3 is the “end point” of information reception (Savolainen, 2015, p. 190). But what about emotions influencing cognitive processes before the search process even begins?

Outside of information behavior research, there have been some convincing studies in the field of cognitive neuroscience. Cohen et al. (2016) tested to determine how sustained emotional states impact cognitive control. The authors found that positive emotional states activated neuronal circuitry in the frontoparietal and frontostriatal lobes of the brain (p. 453). These are the areas associated with cognitive performance. When these brain areas were lit up on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, individuals were more focused, and their cognitive skills increased. Conversely, diminished neuronal activity in these areas of the brain led to decreased cognitive performance, triggered by negative emotional cues (p. 454). However, like any cognitive study focusing on subjective phenomena, Cohen et al. were unable to empirically prove how their test subjects were feeling when they were submitted to positive and negative emotional cues. But the authors explicitly suggest that emotional states will invariably influence cognitive and neural processes.

It is more than likely that there is an additive effect between positive and negative emotional states and the development of one’s cognitive abilities. Here, the concept of lifeworld is useful. As stated above, users assimilate new information based on what they already know. In other words, the stock of knowledge for information users is sedimented (Savolainen, 2008, p. 57). We can utilize Savolainen’s idea of sedimentation when thinking about emotions as well. Throughout the course of lived experience, for example, emotions are compounded as individuals negotiate the lifeworld. These emotions can be predominately positive or negative, shaping an individual and their affective character. In developmental psychology, it is understood that this is how psychopathologies form (Cohen et al., pp. 446, 455). In light of the evidence on cognitive control, then, negative affective states are a vital consideration for information scientists. Especially considering that “one in five adolescents [meet] the criteria for mental illness” (Cohen et al., p. 455). This fact carries considerable import for post-secondary educators, but also for information system designers as well. Indeed, emotions are not – as Nahl suggests – spontaneous feelings that users experience only after appraising information. Nor are they moods that information users can solicit at will – as per Kuhlthau – to direct the research process. Instead, emotions are highly influential features that are rooted biologically and biographically in terms of the user’s lifeworld. Therefore, understanding how to deflect or redirect the negative emotions of users during the information retrieval process is an imperative for system design.


Searching for information can be an enjoyable and enlightening experience, especially if that search is predicated on a user’s interests. Savolainen (2008) defines interest as a “teleoaffective structure” which “gives a general direction to thinking and provides a horizon for action (p. 57). But even personal interests can be adversely affected by negative mental states. Research interests in particular, and the cognitive effort it takes to perform research tasks, can be significantly influenced by negative emotions that are biological and biographical, but also stress-induced by the demands and time limitations of an assigned task. For instance, one of the first stages of the research process is resource gathering. This procedure relies on formulating search queries. As Savolainen (2015) says, “people may plan a search query by thinking of words they know that fall within the desired or intended topic” (p. 190). But this can be challenging for some users. Information users who suffer from major depression, for example, may have a harder time determining keyword relevance and synthesizing sources. Depression causes a generalized cognitive slowing and a deficit in word retrieval from memory. This deficit is due to “changes in the functioning of neural networks that coordinate complex cognitive abilities” (Douglas et al., 2012, p. 281). This is not to say that depressed users are poor researchers, or that they are incapable of producing quality work. In fact, one can argue that the opposite is true, as depressed individuals are more likely to employ information strategies that are “more active or systematic, [and] detailed” compared to the “relatively passive or nonsystematic” strategies of people with positive affective states (Sinclair & Mark, 1995, as cited in González-Ibáñez & Shah, 2016, p. 2). But the question that concerns us here is how information retrieval systems can enhance the cognitive processes of users who are predisposed to negative affective states based on their past experience in the lifeworld.

The literature on research tasks evoking negative affective states is unequivocal. This phenomenon has even been experimentally measured in healthy control groups, defined by Douglas et al. (2012) as individuals without the presence of a mental illness (p. 279). Significantly, we can understand this to mean that information use predicated on technological systems can adversely affect individuals. Like Kushlev et al.’s findings mentioned at the beginning of this paper, information practices in the digital age can potentially retard social and emotional growth. Such an outcome, however, is ultimately determined by wider systemic factors arising from users’ social and economic environments. Still, the more complex the task, the more difficult it is for users to deduce task inputs, search processes, and search outcomes, which impacts negatively on users’ emotional states (Poddar & Ruthven, 2010, pp. 42-43).

Thus far, only the beginning stages of research have been described and implicated in producing negative feelings among users. But many post-secondary students have an aversion to the writing process as well. This process relies on variegated skills such as elaboration of sources, paper organization, critical evaluation, and synthesis of arguments. Zhou (2013) argues that negative emotions interrupt the regulation and application of these skills. I contend, however, that the presence of negative affective states (even in regard to a psychological disorder like major depression), does not necessarily mean that the user so affected is less willingly engaged in the research process, or that their problem-solving behavior is less identifiable. Judging by the research of Cohen et al., conditions like depression – and negative mood states in general – will only slow the cognitive processing of a user while they are engaged in an information research task. Cognitive insight does not necessarily disappear. The question becomes: can this cognitive slowing be allayed by the right kind of information system design? As we already know, the main objective of an information retrieval system is to provide users with relevant information that can be evaluated quickly and efficiently for a multitude of tasks. Today, in light of the affective research, relevance is no longer a simple measurement of correlation between document representation and user query. In contemporary system design, relevance is a user-centered concept that is concerned with providing a holistic experience where users feel that their retrieved information is valuable and beneficial. I now turn to the prospect of user-centered design based on an implicit understanding of negative affective states.


Efforts to temper the negative feelings of users began in the field of Human-Computer Interaction through the use of affective language displays. For example, apologetic on-screen display (OSD) messages were programmed into some information retrieval systems to empathize with users in various contexts of the search process. Park et al. (2016) believe that apologetic interaction can help moderate negative emotions and decrease user frustration, as well as increase users’ feelings of system trustworthiness, aesthetic, and usability. Most information retrieval systems, however, are neutral in that they only return status reports of a user’s search. For example, when a search query fails to retrieve any dynamic or static content, many systems will simply display a “No results found” page. Ultimately, Park et al. found that apologetic OSD messages markedly improved users’ levels of frustration with the system (p. 736). Improvements were also found in the perceptual categories of usability and aestheticism. Participants felt that an apologetic system was more usable than a neutral system (p. 737). Additionally, and more surprisingly, participants also felt that the apologetic system was more aesthetically appealing (p. 736). Although this last finding may have more to do with the interface design of the testing systems than the actual presence of affective messages. In any case, it appears that designing systems with emotionally-sensitive messages does have the potential to moderate the information behavior of users. But the authors’ state that “little is known about the impact such affective messages have on users’ affective states and their perceptions of the system” (p. 733). Moreover, it is unknown whether or not these messages have any long-term positive effects on users’ affective character.

Dynamic human-system interaction is an area suitable for artificial intelligence scientists as well as psychologists. Affective messages must be displayed at the right time and in the right context for specific scenarios. For instance, users employ different strategies and keywords when searching for information, so the system has to be dynamic and adaptive to different styles of searching. Furthermore, the system must understand its users in order to provide proper affective messages. This matter increases in complexity when considering the relation between relevance judgments and affective responses. Barral et al. (2016) mention that “after deciding that a text is relevant, one might start reading the relevant text item, which in turn might elicit several emotional responses” (p. 505). This interplay of the cognitive and the emotional is sometimes unpredictable, as it can be difficult to determine in advance the reactions that different individuals will have when confronted with certain pieces of information. For example, a news article editorializing on a national tragedy may bring one individual to tears, while another individual may respond by disappointingly shaking their head. In other words, individuals have unique psychological and personality traits that cause them to react in different ways.

Several studies have attempted to measure physiological responses to information in order to determine users’ felt emotions (e.g. Gwizdka, 2014; and González-Ibáñez & Shah, 2016). Affective recommender systems have been posited (Tkalčić et al., 2011), whereby metadata derived from physiological tests can be used by the system for affective messaging and suggestions for further reading. Barral et al. (2016) annotated textual content with electrodermal data to measure user relevance and emotional response. These types of studies are essential for designing information retrieval systems that can mitigate negative affective responses and redirect users, encouraging them to interact with systems in a more cognitively-enriching way. The question remains, however, if it is ethical to allow machine intelligence the ability to manipulate user perception of information.


The phenomenal lifeworld situates all actions that human beings take in their social and cultural environments. This paper investigated the subjective experience of users with information retrieval systems. The act of gathering and evaluating information has been shown to be rooted biologically, and the way users create meaning out of information retrieved depends on their past experience, as well as their sedimented knowledge and emotions. With the prevalence of digital technologies and networked retrieval systems, the process of information seeking, use, and sharing has become much more insular and isolated in the digital age. The negative emotions that follow complex research tasks are often compounded by this isolation. Because information retrieval systems are increasingly used for everyday information practices, it is important to consider the social integration of these systems. Social phenomenology offers an alternative perspective to approach issues that have so far been discussed in terms of “information behavior” (Savolainen, 2008, p. 202). The intersubjectivity of users and system designers is often obscured through the mediation of systems, but system designers need to be aware of how users approach the information search process. This approach is not performed in a vacuum, as users will always bring their subjective experiences with them to the user interface. Subjective experience is the province of phenomenology, and I think, therefore, that it is a meaningful framework for the information sciences.


Barral, O., Kosunen, I., Ruotsalo, T., Spapé, M. M., Eugster, M. J., Ravaja, N., & Kaski, S (2016, November 15). Extracting Relevance and Affect Information from Physiological Text Annotation. User Modeling and User-Adapted Interaction, 26(5), 493-520.

Cohen, A. O., Dellarco, D. V., Breiner, K., Helion, C., Heller, A. S., Rahdar, A., & Pedersen, G (2016, March 1). The Impact of Emotional States on Cognitive Control Circuitry and Function. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 28(3), 446-459.

Douglas, K. M., Porter, R. J., Knight, R. G., & Alsop, B. (2012) The Dynamics of Word Retrieval in Major Depression. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 47(3), 276-283.

González-Ibáñez, R., & Shah, C. (2016, October 14). Using Affective Signals as Implicit Indicators of Information Relevance and Information Processing Strategies. ASIST, 1-10. Gwizdka, J. (2014, August 26). Characterizing Relevance with Eye-tracking Measures. IIiX ‘2014, 58-67.

Kracker, J. (2002). Research Anxiety and Students’ Perceptions of Research: An Experiment. Part I. Effect of Teaching Kuhlthau’s ISP Model. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 53(4), 282-294.

Kracker, J., & Wang, P. (2002, January 22). Research Anxiety and Students’ Perceptions of Research: An Experiment. Part II. Content Analysis of Their Writings on Two Experiences. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 53(4), 295-307.

Kuhlthau, C. C. (1991). Inside the Search Process: Information Seeking from the User’s Perspective. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(5), 361-371.

Kushlev, K., Proulx, J., & Dunn, E. W. (2017). Digitally Connected, Socially Disconnected: The Effects of Relying on Technology Rather than other People. Computers in Human Behavior, 76, 68-74.

Nahl, D. (2007, September 7). Social–Biological Information Technology: An Integrated Conceptual Framework. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 58(13), 2021-2046.

Park, S. J., MacDonald, C. M., & Khoo, M. (2012, June 11). Do You Care if a Computer Says Sorry? User Experience Design through Affective Messages. DIS 2012.

Poddar, A., & Ruthven, I. (2010, August 18). The Emotional Impact of Search Tasks. Proc. of the 3rd IIiX 2010, 35-44.

Savolainen, R. (2008). Everyday Information Practices: A Social Phenomenological Perspective. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

Savolainen, R. (2015). The Interplay of Affective and Cognitive Factors in Information Seeking and Use: Comparing Kuhlthau’s and Nahl’s Models. Journal of Documentation71(1), 175-197.

Tkalčić, M., Košir, A., Tasić, J. (2011). Affective Recommender Systems: The Role of Emotions in Recommender Systems. Proceedings The RecSys 2011 Workshop on Human Decision Making in Recommender Systems, 9–13.

Zhou, M. (2013, April 24). ‘‘I am Really Good at It’’ or ‘‘I am Just Feeling Lucky’’: The Effects of Emotions on Information Problem-solving. Association for Educational Communications and Technology, 505-520.

Information Retrieval in Digital Environments

Searching for information in digital environments can be a difficult task. There is an overwhelming amount of information available today. So much so, in fact, that information overload is a pervasive problem in society. This overload may be more related to cultural attachment to Internet technologies and multimedia information, but even work-related information tasks are characterized by overload to the degree that feelings of anxiety and uncertainty are endemic to the information search process. Choosing where to even begin a search online relies on careful evaluation of information retrieval (IR) systems. Evaluation is required in order to determine what an IR system’s functionalities are, and whether or not the system can provide relevant results to the user. Given the fact that there are literally hundreds of IR systems available, the feeling of being overwhelmed can exist at the beginning stages of the search process, and can persist throughout the experience of using an IR system.

In general, there are four different types of IR systems. These are online databases, web search engines, online public access catalogs (OPACs) and digital libraries. Each of these systems is designed to facilitate a user’s information requirements. The ultimate goal of each system is to satisfy a user’s request for information without the presence of an intermediary or help from a system consultant. The IR system is designed to be a standalone interface that can be used by individuals who have unique and specific information needs. This gives the user a fair amount of power to control their informational environment and find information that is not influenced or biased by the selection procedures of another person, namely a librarian.

Looking at each IR system in turn, it becomes evident that system design is a complex issue. Because users are interacting with a system instead of another human being, there is no way to readily assess users’ level of expertise or aptitude for information retrieval. Therefore, unlike a reference librarian, an IR system can not gauge a user’s skill set when they approach the system interface. This means that IR system designers need to consider a plethora of user competencies, search styles and search strategies. Digital literacy is an important consideration, because users need to understand how to use digital tools for information access and retrieval. Search bars, fields, limiters, sorting mechanisms; all these tools may seem simple to a digitally-fluent person, but the use of these tools is essential in the online information environment. Moreover, there is an underlying logic to these features as well. For instance, users need to be able to understand Boolean logic, truncation, wildcards, and phrased searching in order to narrow their results and get precision. Being able to specify or assess format, document type, publication, and scholarliness are also necessary skills for users in the information environment.

Interaction design has occupied a large chunk of the information retrieval literature. The features mentioned above are usually indicative of online database design. But the other information retrieval environments – web engine, OPAC and digital library – have begun to integrate more sophisticated digital tools like these as well. The result is that the lines are beginning to blur between the four types of IR systems. This could be problematic, as standardized interface design could encourage searching habits that are not appropriate for all systems and information needs. For example,  if all systems were based on the Z39.50 protocol, user searches would be limited to the Bib-1 Attribute Set. This would be adequate for known-item searching, like a bibliographic search, but this syntax might not be so good for multimedia information searching. In other words, based on the underlying database structure of an IR system, certain queries will work better than others. Identifying these strategies for information searching is complex, and novice users will not understand the nuances of system mapping and indexing.

The complexity of information retrieval is one reason why finding information online can be so difficult. Finding relevant documents is a skill, which is seldom taught to students with any real exactitude. There are also limitations to each system as well, which makes finding information difficult. For example, performing systematic searches for research is an exercise more suited to subject databases than web-based search engines. Finding information for research purposes is easier in an online database, because online databases will yield a smaller proportion of relevant documents than web search engines. Indeed, there are plenty of problems with web search engines. Bates et al. (2017) demonstrated that the basic principles of Boolean logic might not apply in web-search engines, as the order of concept groups are altered (p. 10). In other words, relevant documents will not be clustered with other potentially relevant documents as most web search engines are based on ranked results and search engine optimization, especially in the case of Google or Google Scholar. Because of these more restrictive algorithms, many advanced search functions are simply not available in web search engines, like filtering and automatic term mapping.

There are limitations with the other IR systems as well. Kumar and Singh (2014) identified a number of problems with OPACs. As bibliographic databases, OPACs generally do not provide users with adequate help for query formulation; they do not convert keywords to terms used in the catalog; and users are usually left trying to determine subject headings and call numbers based on their inquiry terms. Moreover, as OPACS serve as resource guides, they are more likely to provide geo-mapped content than intellectual content, providing information on where to find collections, but not more in-depth information such as table of contents, abstracts, or book reviews (p. 42). However, these features are increasingly becoming more common in WorldCat.

Digital libraries are often built for browsing collections. For digital libraries, browsing is a more important function, because digital libraries are often created by individual libraries, or consortium, and are not vast collections based on a content management system. In other words, the digital library is an IR system that is suitable for very specific information requests. But it is important to have an understanding of the institution and it’s collections before using this type of IR system. Digital libraries generally do not have robust search functions, if they have search functionality at all.

This short essay hopefully demonstrates the complexity of searching for information in online environments. Each environment is unique and provides challenges to end-users. People do not always know how to conduct searches in IR systems. In fact, most searches for information are performed in culturally normalized ways. People will opt for the principle of least effort when seeking information, which often leads to natural language searches and perfunctory searches on the Web. Database documentation and help literature is often too dry or boring for the average user to consider. But different IR environments have different search functions and features. Matching a user’s query to the right environment, choosing the right search strategy, and using the appropriate IR tools can admittedly be very difficult. As with all good results, some determination is required in order to navigate the difficult terrain.

On the Importance of Personal Archives

A common thread in literature on personal archives is the use of these archives as memory aids. Two cases highlight this fact. One by Paul Ashmore et al. in Working With: Talking and Sorting in Personal Archives, and another by Jennifer Douglas in The Archiving “I”: A Closer Look in the Archives of Writers. In both the cases of Derek Ingram, a journalist and political commentator, and Lucy Maud Montgomery, renowned author of Anne of Green Gables, their personal archives were active sources of referral that led to the creation of new stories. In other words, their archives were frequently being recontextualized and reconstituted. Personal archives, when used, can be remade and reshaped in this way in many forms. Examples of these forms are ongoing diary entries, autobiographies, or even personal discussions through the social transactions of “working-with” domestic collections and donors. As such, personal archives are dynamic collections which take on many meanings and significations. The active fostering of a personal archive enhances memory rather than detracts from it, like when shapers of archives describe collections autonomously, without the support of donors and the subsequent sociality of the archive.

The tragedy of traditional archives is that, in many cases, archivists are not involved in building collections. Sure, they may be responsible for appraising some collections – and archivists are certainly responsible when it comes to making archives accessible to the public – but the initial decision to bring collections into an archive often lies with people with political clout; regents presidents, executive board members, etc. etc. With personal archives and archivists working-with donors, there is no longer this great cold distance between archivists and the material, where you have superiors telling you what is important and what is not important for an archival collection. The Working-With model for appraisal as outlined by Ashmore et al. thrusts archivists into active and affective/emotional roles. In other words, archivists are intimately involved in every step of the way when they are working with personal archives. Archives are imbued with stories from their creators, and when archivists have the opportunity to share in the relating of these stories, there is an emotional impact on the archives which can reverberate down through the ages.

Personal archives also subvert the traditional power relationships inherent in archival practice. The personal nature of diaries and letters, as shown by Douglas, allow the creators to wield representational power. For instance, diary writing can be constructed from the perspective of the historical “I” or the narrated “I.” When constructed from the narrated “I,” personal archiving for individuals with some claim to fame is a way and a means of controlling public perceptions of themselves when their archives are solicited for research. In this sense, personal archives can be disingenuous and contrived, because partial evidence is not always accurate evidence. But even if the donor is genuine, honest, and not given to any delusions of their own selfhood, their personal archives are still within their power to retain or destroy.

While the above concern regarding partiality has historically kept personal papers out of archives in favor of government or organizational records, the postmodern turn has given consideration to personal archives. Riva A. Pollard most convincingly demonstrates the value of personal archives and how they can be arranged and described in The Appraisal of Personal Papers: A Critical Literature Review. It seems that there is a greater effort to include personal archives in collections based on the information that is constituted in these personal archives, and how they accord with the collection policies of individual repositories and greater societal values. During the appraisal process, archivists help to bring in collections that have certain influences on what the collection can mean. Pollard cites Timothy Ericson, who mentions that the information constituted by the materials in a personal archive is more important than the record itself. I took this to mean that the decision to appraise personal archives should hinge on the intellectual content within given materials of a personal archive, and not on the reputation or influence of the record creator.

This is a difficult task though because, historically, when archivists have appraised personal archives, they have been arranged in terms of the oeuvre of the individual (think personal papers and manuscript collections). In terms of literary figures, we have whole collections suitably arranged based solely on the person (i.e. the Virginia Woolf Collection; the Montgomery Collection, etc. etc.). I guess this still kind of makes sense when one is dealing with national, famous figures. But I think the Ashmore et. al. paper signified that personal archives belonging to more “common” people, like a Derek Ingram, can still be relevant culturally and historically based on their content. The information constituted in a personal archive can be linked intellectually to other archives and shown to have wider cultural associations. How? Through the help of archivists working-with donors of personal collections. This is why I think personal archives can enhance social memory as well.

Fonds versus Function: The Evolving Nature of Provenance and Original Order

For almost two centuries, the concepts of provenance and original order have been the hallmarks of archival thought and philosophy. These concepts date back to 1841, when the French historian, librarian and archivist Natalis de Wailly called on archivists to “respect des fonds.”[1] When translated from the French, respect des fonds means “respect for the collection.” As expressed by de Wailly and many others since the nineteenth century, respect for an archival collection emphasized respect for the individual, family or organization responsible for the creation of an archival source. The origin of this source became its provenance; a term which has been subsequently used by other disciplines such as archaeology, art history, and museology. A concomitant respect was reserved for how an archival source was originally conceived and organized by its creator. This was a collection’s original order; the order by which a creator decided to catalog their own materials. This ordering was deemed to be logical and conclusive by the archivist.

These two principles were subsumed into the idea of the fonds. More broadly construed, the fonds can be understood as a dual-ordered principle containing a certain kind of religiosity. For instance, traditional archivists would forever hallow the revelation of the archive, or how an archival unit or collection was revealed to them from the moment it came into their care. This professional calling, almost religious in its construction, meant that preservation was the archivist’s sole responsibility. In other words, collections were meant to stay fixed in their original form without being altered, rearranged or reinterpreted. In short, archives were never meant to be remade, according to the classicists of the profession.

Over time, however, the principles of provenance and original order have changed. In some cases they have been done away with entirely. But we can see how these concepts grounded the archive and led to the idea of recorded fixity, so crucial to the modernist-positivist stance on archival custody. This stance, if we recall, asserted that archives were these “building blocks” of historical narrative that lead to an elusive yet absolute value. Namely, the “evidentiary” value as articulated by T. R. Schellenberg. For instance, when considered in their aggregate or final archival form, records were believed to embody objective truth. Thereafter, nonintervention and preservation became the clarion calls of the profession. But if records are to be preserved in their original form, in accordance with the ideas of provenance and original order, then there can be no room for reappraisal.

With the especial intervention of postmodernism into the archival profession, archives have been subjected to criticism and the possibility of reappraisal. For instance, textual criticism released records from their ideological moorings and the considerably laissez-faire attitude which predominated during the modernist period. As Heather MacNeil writes: “[t]his scholarship argues in various ways that cultural texts – whether literary, artistic, or architectural – are not fixed or stabilized at one moment in time; rather, they are in a continuous state of becoming, as they are resituated and recontextualized in different environments and by different authorities.”[2] As MacNeil aptly demonstrates, archives are invariably cultural texts. Historically, however, archives escaped this appellation because they were presumed to have reached an apotheosis of meaning. Collections that were aggregated and well- defined, whether having originated from an individual, family or organization, were deemed absolute and unimpeachable. Indeed, in the modern tradition of Jenkinson and Schellenberg, provenance and original order were used as justifications to protect the concept of evidentiary value.

The fonds has been the standard guiding principle for the arrangement of archival collections for many years. Arrangement, for just as long, has been a singularly significant act; an act with considerable socio-historical import. For example, as archivists took collections into their custody, each collection’s relative value went unquestioned. This was part and parcel of modern archival theory and praxis. Collections were considered to have an objective meaning that was unique in their particular historicity, and this objective meaning was meant to be preserved in perpetuity. But MacNeil shows how objective archival arrangement is a flawed starting point. For instance, the irony of arrangement is that the historical use of purportedly “evidential” archives relies on a certain degree of subjectivity. Indeed, no custodian or researcher is purely objective when using an archive. Even as archives are consulted for objective purposes, like writing a sanctioned state history, for example, their original order is slowly altered through the transference of custodial environments. MacNeil says: “[t]he orders given to the records by their various custodians – or at least what survives of these various orders – are as relevant to the present meaning and authenticity of the archive as the order given to the records by its creator.”[3]  This fact completely undermines the concept of original order.

MacNeil’s article is helpful in illustrating the point that archives do not have fixed meanings. Instead, archives accrue meaning depending on who is using them, whether that person is a researcher or a custodian. This phenomenon also underscores the postmodern idea of différance as articulated by Jacques Derrida; the important postmodern figure cited by many post-custodians, namely Terry Cook. Différance, for example, asserts that cultural texts only have meaning when individual readers come into contact with them. This idea applies to archives as well. Indeed, in order to truly guarantee preservation, archives must continually be used or activated. When archives are thusly activated, they invariably adopt new meanings through the process of being “resituated” and “recontextualized.” This is an important analysis, and it should be a clear objective for archival studies in the twenty-first century. Still, provenance and original order have historically codified archival schemas of arrangement which have privileged singular narrative representations. Out of the fonds, archivists have circumscribed historical narratives in a single act; the act of appraisal. Although archival collections may gradually lose their original meanings through the subjective nature of human activity, cultural hegemony can be sustained through certain normative and institutional fonds.

A safer approach to archival appraisal, arrangement and description can be found in the functional approach to archives. This approach is central to a post-custodial vision of archival care. For example, functional analysis treats records as distinct entities, stripping them of their ontological wholeness as presumed by modern archival theory. MacNeil concluded her article with a nod to functional analysis by stating: “…while an understanding of the functions records fulfilled in their original environment informs our understanding of how to treat them over the long term, such understanding should also remind us that the records no longer fulfill those functions.”[4] Here, MacNeil is saying that archives serve an originary function which is unique to the individual or entity responsible for the creation of that archive. For example, a personal letter may possess an emotional salience that only the author can understand. Likewise, a business contract may signal an obligation which is only applicable between two persons. When items like these are archived, however, they acquire cultural meanings which supersede the strictly personal meanings that were attached to the archive’s originary function. In other words, when time disassociates the archive from its creator, usually through the process of the creator’s own mortality, the archive undergoes a change. This change is not insubstantial. Indeed, either an archive can retain its original meanings by being sealed away after the creator’s death, or an archive can assume new meanings through the activations of a wider public.

The functional approach to archival management is promising because it holds the entities that create records at a critical distance. For example, archivists who subscribe to institutional functional analysis will research the institutions that fall under their scope. As Marcus C. Robyns’ explains: “…the archivist first determines what the institution does and how it does it. He or she then identifies and decides the relative value of the institution’s key functions and from this analysis resolves the location and relative value of the records that document these functions.”[5] Before, as archivists worked from the dual-ordered principle of the fonds, relative value was largely ignored in favor of evidentiary value. But functional analysis isolates the relative importance of an institution’s functional activities. From this starting point, records can be carefully selected for archival appraisal.

In institutional functional analysis, respect for provenance is still adhered to as records are linked to their creators. But instead of being described as part of a larger contingent of records, functional archives are considered worthy of description all the way down to the item level. In other words, singular archival records can acquire a life of their own in terms of context and representation. This is an important development because it allows for an archive to showcase other historical actors; not just a series’ owner like a government office or a “distinguished” donor.

One may wonder how the functional approach can commence when it’s point of departure for arrangement and description is item-level analysis. After all, it is well-known in the profession that describing archives at the item level is grossly impractical in terms of staff time and resources. This reality was overwhelmingly demonstrated by Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner in their seminal article More Product, Less Process.[6] But functional analysis is misunderstood if one believes that the functional approach necessarily means dissecting every sheath of paper that enters into an archive. Instead, functional analysis is a forward-thinking strategy. For instance, after writing and revising institutional or administrative histories, archivists can determine which of the functions of an institution will be more likely to produce valuable archives. This was the process undertaken by Robyns and Jason Woolman at the Central Upper Peninsula and Norther Michigan University (NMU) Archives. After identifying various administrative functions that fit into the overarching mission of the larger academic institution, retention schedules were created to help guide the selection of records with relative importance. However, the authors of the NMU study warn that effective functional analysis requires cooperation and good working relations between archivists and the creating entities within their scope. This dynamic is not always guaranteed. Still, the functional approach to archives is a method that helps ensure meaningful collections. Through functional analysis, new meanings can take shape as well as new revelations that were previously hidden in the initial reveal of the fonds.

While functional archives certainly present a promising alternative to the dogmatism inherent in the modern view of the fonds, there are legal issues that arise in terms of access. For example, Steven Bingo illustrates that archival donors seldom wish for their collections to become destabilized in meaning. By way of Helen Nissenbuam, Bingo writes: “[c]ontextual integrity… is violated when information divulged within one context is recast in another context, particularly of how the information is allowed to flow in radically different ways.”[7] This idea of contextual integrity can problematize the creation of a postmodern, functional and interactive archive. Indeed, the concept of provenance often revolves around aspects of donor privacy, such as confidentiality and agreements to donor rights. In short, there are moral and legal parameters to allowing the context of an archive to change. Bingo offers some helpful suggestions for mitigating donor risk while at the same time enhancing collection value. Fruitful conversations can come from donor/archivist collaborations, where the donor can be apprised of provenance and functional analysis, and the archivist can determine how to best provide prudent access. But privacy and access are issues which will continue to be of paramount importance for archivists, especially as the profession moves away from modern theories of appraisal, arrangement and description.


Bingo, Steven. “Of Provenance and Privacy: Using Contextual Integrity to Define Third Party Privacy.” The American Archivist Vol. 74 (Fall/Winter 2011): 507.

Greene, Mark A. and Dennis Meissner. “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing.” The American Archivist 68, (Fall/Winter 2005): 208-263.

MacNeil, Heather. “Archivalterity: Rethinking Original Order.” Archivaria, The Journal of the Association of Canadian Archivists 66, Fall (2008): 1-24.

Millar, Laura A. Archives Principles and Practices. Chicago, IL.: ALA Neal-Schuman, 2017.

Robyns, Marcus C., and Jason Woolman. “Institutional Functional Analysis at Northern Michigan University: A New Process of Appraisal and Arrangement of Archival Records.” The American Archivist 74, (Spring/Summer 2011): 241-256.

Internal Citations

[1] Laura A. Millar, Archives Principles and Practices (Chicago, IL: ALA Neal-Schuman. 2017), 45.

[2] Heather MacNeil, “Archivalterity: Rethinking Original Order,” Archivaria, The Journal of the Association of Canadian Archivists, Vol. 66 (Fall 2008): 2.

[3] MacNeil, “Archivalterity,” 17.

[4] MacNeil, “Archivalterity,” 21.

[5] Marcus C. Robyns and Jason Woolman, “Institutional Functional Analysis at Northern Michigan University: A New Process of Appraisal and Arrangement of Archival Records,” The American Archivist, Vol. 74 (Spring/Summer 2011): 244.

[6] Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner, “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing,” The American Archivist, Vol. 68 (Fall/Winter 2005): 208-263.

[7] Steven Bingo, “Of Provenance and Privacy: Using Contextual Integrity to Define Third-Party Privacy,” The American Archivist, Vol. 74 (Fall/Winter 2011): 507.