(This was touched on in the conversation on the previous post, but it’s a larger issue that I think this group might enjoy discussing. It’s a little off topic, I know. I promise we’ll get back to the book in the next post. ) It seems clear that the phase “the archive” is used by many scholars, including Steedman, primarily to refer to a conceptual notion. Sometimes it is explicitly Derrida’s arkhe, sometimes not. Often it is used without supplying any clear definition, as if all readers would understand the usage.
I am perhaps too much of a stickler when it comes to how people use words, but it does bother me when I perceive writers applying this conceptual meaning of “the archive” when they use just “archives.” Do you know what I mean? As if archives themselves are conceptual spaces rather than physical ones. And certainly it’s possibly to think of archives, as we know them, as conceptual spaces as well as physical ones. But how are we to know that people who discuss archives as conceptual spaces are also familiar with the reality of actual physical archives? For others that distinction might not be important, but for me it is. I’ve taken quite a bit of criticism for my defense of the traditional definition of “archives” and so I’m sure I’m more sensitive about this issue than others. I don’t care to police the common use of “archives” to mean a variety of things, even by scholars. What concerns me is whether or not they actually do know about what archivists call archives. Clearly Steedman does, to some extent. How much she understands about the work that archivists do to make the archives she visits possible is not clear, as covered in the comments on the last post.
Much of this concern, at least on my part, is that if the knowledge of what constitutes an archives (in the archival sense) is lost, then what separates an archives from any other kind of collection will also be lost, and therefore why does the world need archivists per se? If an archives is just any group of digital or non-digital stuff, preserved and made accessible according to the policies established by the creator of the archives, then of course anyone can do it. And of course, anyone can, in the way that most non-archivists understand archives. Is anyone who preserves something an archivist? Is any collection of valuable non-current material an archives? That’s certainly the way the majority of the world thinks, and it is foolish of archivists to try to scold people out of embracing preservation and making materials accessible.
What then should we do? For me, this is a continual balancing act. On the one hand I want to embrace and encourage people who are preserving and making materials accessible. We are all engaged in the same goal, after all. But on the other hand, I want to disseminate and promote the value of my profession’s tradition. And apparently that is, in some people’s eyes, where I go too far in trying to challenge or inform about what for a lack of better word we can call “traditional” archives.
So, to bring this rambling back to the book. Steedman wrote a book that seems to have been reasonably well received and is at least to some degree about archives. We should be happy about this, yes? Anyone writing about archives and getting historians to think about them is good, isn’t it? That’s one side of the balancing act. The side that doesn’t want to come off as scolding and critical. But what about the other side? Steedman wrote a book that, as you observed in the last post, doesn’t do a great job of talking about archives or archivists. How critical should we be? How much should we expect historians to know or articulate about archives? I think the answer lies in being supportive of what works, critical of what doesn’t, but more importantly, writing more about archives from an archival perspective for historians and other audiences.
How much of a stickler are you about words? Do you think a balancing act is necessary, or do you fall firmly on one of the two sides? How do you think archivists should react to varying uses of “archives”? What should the role of the professional archivist be in a world that embraces archives as a concept with a broad interpretation?