From Polders to Postmodernism: A Concise History of Archival Theory

Chapter 1

Why Study Archival Theory?

“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” —George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

The study of archives is the study of an applied profession. The focus of archival administration is the preservation and care of unique records of action taken by a group, government agency, organization, or company. The archive has deemed groups of records important enough to preserve in order to keep and organize the action taken by the organization. Learning to become an archivist is traditionally the study of how to perform the tasks that will make records available to future interested researchers. Therefore, much of the writing done about the profession of archives is in the form of practical application, how-to manuals and handbooks.

If being an archivist is a practical endeavor, why study archival theory? How does understanding why archives are created help an administrator who may be more concerned about budgets than with theoretical discourse? The most significant motivation to study archival theory and its development is the fact that non-archivists have challenged the definitions and meanings the archive itself. The most recent challenges come from many places including: artists and art galleries, critical theorists, and computer science and the Internet. The new definitions of the archive include a broad and expanded sense of what it could contain and what forms it can take. Technological innovation, especially widespread use of computers, has created an expectation of democratic recordkeeping and expanded horizons for cultural memory.

If archivists are interested in participating in the interdisciplinary discourses of archival definition, knowledge of past archival theory and its transformation into contemporary theories is useful. While the meaning of the term “archive” has allowed for a range of participation in the term’s definition, archivists have a vested interest in participating in defining their own profession and its location. Many concepts in archival theory, an example being respect des fonds, are foreign to non-professionals but may be useful and enlightening when explained in contexts more familiar to those who have engaged in defining and redefining their own meaning of the word and the institution called the “archive.”

For much of their professional history, archivists have been linked with historians. As other cultural creators and critics begin to engage archivists in terms of their own profession, archivists would do well to prepare themselves to fully engage in a broad cultural discourse. To ignore the relatively new interest in the notions and definitions of the archive in favor of exclusive professional practical application is to keep one’s head in the sand in hopes that archives will continue to remain vital and relatively unchanged regardless of the vagaries of engagement, cultural or otherwise. Archivists can draw on a rich and complex tradition of theory to define and redefine the archive. With a deep and critical knowledge of archival theory, archivists can be assured that their professional participation in the discourse on the meaning of the archive is communicated now and in the future.

An approach to archival theory

Archival theory has been developed with varying levels of intentionality over the past 120 years. A broad range of archives and archival situations have given rise to many theoretical approaches to keeping archives. One common thread that binds these theories together is the discourse that surrounds archival appraisal. The often-contentious disagreement regarding if and how archivists should select material to become part of archives is the key to understanding the many discourses of archival theory.

Appraisal has become so representative of archival theory that it may be difficult to conceive of a time when archivists argued over its merits. At the end of the 19th century, leading archival theorists were loath to give appraisal much influence in discussion of their theories. Eventually, this disdain for appraisal would lessen, and appraisal would become representative of the theoretical discourses within the archival profession. Especially since the 1980s, archival appraisal theory has become the focus of much professional and public discourse regarding archives. In fact, some archivists have noted that many of the articles published in the professional archival field focus on appraisal activities as the core of the archival process. Appraisal is the initial interface between archivist and a collection: if records are appraised as less valuable than others, they may never be archived and effectively forgotten, even erased, from institutional or public memory. Luciana Duranti defines appraisal as a three-phase process “of establishing the value of documents made or received in the course of the conduct of affairs, qualifying that value, and determining its duration.” It is easy to see why appraisal is understood to be very important to archival work, since the assignation of value, including evidentiary, juridical, and cultural, is conferred upon records during the process of appraisal. If one is able to delve deep into the controversy that surrounds the history of archival appraisal, one can understand the heart of archival theory.

But how does archival theory, as embodied by appraisal theory, operate? Is it a series of volleys between opposing schools of thought? A seesaw, back-and-forth changing-of-the-guard between those who approve of appraisal and those who deny its usefulness? Or perhaps a spectrum with individual archivists and archives at various points between completely appraised archives and archives in which nothing has been evaluated? The answer is that all of these situations are represented depending on the factors of geography, technology, and historiography. Archives hold singular information not duplicated elsewhere. It is logical that individual archives would each create their own specific approach to keeping their unique collections. How then, is one able to approach archival theory without having to map a specific, practical instance in order to understand the theoretical situation in a given archive?

This book seeks to answer that question through a close examination of the tension between subjectivity and objectivity in archival theory. That is, an understanding of how much decision-making power an individual archivist has in determining the contents of an archive. Whether one examines the theory of British archives after World War I or the contemporary electronic records held in the government archives of Canada, the one constant presence is the dialectic between an objective and a subjective approach to archives. While historians and archivists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were focused on writing history “as it happened,” and keeping records that supported that specific approach to writing history, the need for archivists to have specific control over the contents of the archive has been persistent. Simultaneously, the number and types of records archivists have been charged with have increased in ever-shorter amounts of time. The history of how archivists have sought to balance material and theoretical needs while maintaining accurate evidence of action is the history of archival theory.

With an in-depth understanding of the discourse between objectivity and subjectivity in archival theory, contemporary archivists can engage with innovators, critics, and other professionals to create a broad and vital archival theory that will become and remain part of a broad cultural discourse. As technology changes rapidly, individual archivists who are aware of the discourses in archival theory will be able to draw from this knowledge and have a lasting and important impact on the shape of future archives. Understanding archival theory is crucial for archivists and archives alike.