The Heart of Archivy and Social Memory

As an interested student, it is perhaps difficult to arrive at a study of archives when the current literature, written by some of the profession’s most respected faculty, explicitly denies the authority of archival records. But many authors working from the postmodern perspective argue that such denial is necessary for becoming a good archivist. These authors also assert that, far from being nuggets of objective truth, archives are often sources of misinformation and intellectual deceit. As Francis X. Blouin, Jr. notes in Archivists, Mediation, and Constructs of Social Memory, archivists have been agents of the modern nation-state, complicit with dominant cultural and political aims for many generations. In more recent times, however, – owing to the growth of the Annales as a method of historical inquiry, as well as the emergence of counter-cultural thinking in the latter half of the twentieth century – academics have moved to study archives not as a place where study originates, but as an “object” of study.

In the modern era, archival thought was dominated by Sir Hilary Jenkinson, or Jenkinsonian ideology. Jenkinson was against the idea of archivists determining the value of documentary records. In other words, he was against the appraisal process, so important to the profession today. But Jenkinson was against appraisal for admittedly pragmatic reasons. For instance, he surmised that the bulk of records coming into archives from the many bureaucratic entities of the WWI postwar era could not be adequately processed by archivists. It was, Jenkinson reasoned, far too much work for such a modest field and its practitioners. Therefore, instead of intentionally stripping archivists from a very important duty, Jenkinson attempted to alleviate a burden; the burden of record inundation and the administrative suffocation that would result. Still, Jenkinson had mistaken thoughts about the nature of records. He believed that records were these “building blocks” of historical, objective truth. That is, historical truth was not to be found distilled into any singular document, but would instead eventually be revealed through the aggregation of records. This was believed to be a natural sequence, requiring patience and good stewardship from archivists. Therefore, Jenkinson’s attitude toward appraisal was considerably laissez-faire. The principle he exercised was absolute nonintervention into the war-tested process of records management. This positioning of the profession ultimately stripped archivists away from appraisal, which was a task deemed more suitable for records managers.

Another thought, offered by Paige Hohmann in On Impartiality and Interrelatedness: Reactions to Jenkinsonian Appraisal in the Twentieth Century, is that Jenkinson was simply a product of his time. In the postwar era, for example, there was great nationalism rooted in society with concurrent strong belief in government and presidential morality. This background made it easy to subscribe to a prevailing empirical positivism. The culture was also characterized by a nascent Weberian economy whereby, in the words of archival scholar Fiorella Foscarini in Understanding the context of records creation and use: ‘Hard’ versus ‘soft’ approaches to records management: “labor was rationally divided and fixed sets of responsibilities were assigned to every individual office in accordance with written rules and regulations.” In other words, this development in the society allowed for an increasing divergence of “specializations” or “departments,” where people adopted rigid work roles and were meant to act as distinct working units in a rather industrial machine.

The history of archives is very much the history of established powers. The elite groups of history are always comprised of select men or women. This leaves out a plethora of other histories, namely folk histories, which have escaped thousands of years of human documentation. But this did not go unnoticed in the latter half of the twentieth century. Leading postmodern figures such as Jean-François Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard, as well as poststructuralists like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, moved away from viewing history as an empirical study, focusing instead on cultural institutions and social interactions with various power structures. The idea of social memory began to take precedence over authoritarian history, and more abstract notions of individual pasts were considered over and above any unchallenged acceptance of a uniform past. This allowed for the possibility of recontextualizing or imagining when thinking about history (an important concept when talking about the activation of archival records). Derrida, in particular, spoke of archival gaps in the historical record when he wrote about the absence of archive. To summarize this concept of absence, records which are not made are often more important than the records that are made, because gaps represent a wider conception of thoughts and feelings in historical time and thus a more accurate glimpse of social memory. It is also imperative to think about gaps in terms of “silences,” demanding to know who has been silenced.

Power often obscures truth, and because archives have traditionally been the products of political power, archives cannot be assumed to be coterminous with social memory. If an archives is filled with records that obscure truth, it behooves the archivist to redirect the means of archival study. Instead of being neutral agents of obscurantism, archivists need to provide space for the effective mediation of records. Unfortunately, this is difficult in a capitalist economy where archivists exist within larger business structures and are forced into “dealing with corporate goals, standard requirements, and technological constraints on the one side, and records creators… on the other” (Foscarini). This problematizes the ability to provide uninhibited mediation. But archivists should be mediators. They should connect individuals with opportunities to activate records for recreation, social justice, rituals of healing and commemoration, etc. etc. If this objective comes up against corporate restraints, mediation becomes impossible, and archivists are made to exist in a vacuum.

Terry Cook has written in ‘We Are What We Keep; We Keep What We Are’: Archival Appraisal Past, Present and Future: “appraisal is the very heart of archivy, what gives it life, allows it to survive, from which all other functions follow, and that appraisal has been absent for too long from the archival corpus of ideas.” Cook, as a stalwart defender of social memory and justice, maintains that archivists must not lose out in claiming the right to act as appraisers of record history. For if anyone can determine the value of cultural products, there would inevitably be a culture war where groups would seek to elevate themselves and destroy others. Because creators of the historical record have traditionally had power, archivists must stand as a last line of defense in tempering the kind of power that marginalizes and silences others, considering in that wake politics of class and ethics, as well as principles of nondiscrimination and inclusive democracy. Indeed, archival records are not static or fixed. They are relational and suspect. Physical archives require activation. Archival absences require imagination. Where the latter is concerned, the process of imagining history needs to rely on an established critique of archival processes, which goes straight back to the appraisal question; a question thoroughly mired in democratic philosophy.


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