What’s in a noun? “The archive” and an archive(s)

(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?

6 thoughts on “What’s in a noun? “The archive” and an archive(s)

  1. It is difficult to engage non-archivists on this topic without coming across petulant. I certainly bristle when I hear the word bandied about in reference to things that are far-removed from institutional archives, either referring to the conceptual or to things that might be better considered collections. Just as people in the museum/art world react strongly to the wide (mis)use of the term “curate” I think we *should* take issue when the term “archives” is applied to things which are not, according to our professional definition, in fact, archives. I am afraid, however, that the ship may have sailed on this and the colloquial usage of the term “archive” in both the wider scholarly world and in popular culture is firmly entrenched. We are just too small of a community to change things, although that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try when given the opportunity (proselytize, not police).

    Thinking about this issue, I find myself formulating a fairly rigid definition of what constitutes an archives. For me, a group of records can only claim to be archival when it is actually in an archives, that is, when it is under some professional physical and intellectual control. Documents only become archives when they cross the “archival threshold” as Luciana Duranti put it. Prior to this, it is just stuff, a collection, the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life. Through the intervention of the archivist, they take on greater meaning. Someone’s personal files, then, does not become a personal archives until after it is transferred. Records in a corporate or government office become archival when deemed so by the records manager/archivist (this could occur at any time in the records’ life cycle). Perhaps this is too conservative an approach (and if you think so, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts) but I think I have come about it in large part in reaction to the overuse of the term.

    There are specific connotations to the term “archives”. Something that is archival is not just historic, but is believed to be authentic, authoritative, objective, valuable (whether or not these attributes are accurate or not in practice is another matter). This, I think, is why people choose to use the term over “collection” or something else. It conveys importance and worth. For the term to be thrown around cavalierly, undermines this and the work that archivists do.

    (Of course, the counterargument could be made that by using the term to particular collections the hegemony of what might be called ‘traditional archives’ is broken down, allowing for counter-narratives that challenge the authority of the archives/The Archive. That is not at all a bad thing but, I still question are these things archives or something else)

    While we shouldn’t necessarily expect researchers to fully engage in these sorts of debates, I think it is reasonable to think that a seasoned historian like Steedman, who is, on the surface, writing about archives and The Archive to be slightly more nuanced than she was here. There are glimpses in the book that shown a deep appreciation for archives and the work done there (by historians). In the end, though, perhaps I am asking too much of this book, hoping it would be something that it is not.

  2. Sometimes I think you and I, Rodney, are the only people who care about this. I care because it seems to me to be a symptom of an underlying problem that the profession is choosing not to discuss. But that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish, and not really related to Steedman. I really do need to try to achieve some kind of state of Zen-like acceptance or else give up books written by historians and so cede ownership of this blog to someone with a higher tolerance threshold! 😉

  3. Sorry, this comment rambles on a bit …

    I used to get much more annoyed when people used words like ‘records’, ‘archives’, ‘curate’ and so on than I do now. This is partly because a lot of professional defensiveness (my own included) seems just that; for records managers and archivists, this defensiveness is grounded not only in irritation about ‘our’ terms being used loosely, but also in the fact that as professions (unlike, say, librarianship) we are practically invisible to and misunderstood by people in general. We often (though by no means always) unfairly run the risk of seeming pedantic and self-important when insisting to ‘bigger players’ or wider audiences that they adopt our usages of familiar terms, even if we believe that our definitions are more correct or useful. And because what we do is little understood, we are not even in the position of the tail wagging the dog but of one of the more obscure organs of the body that even those who have heard of are unsure of what it is for, or whether it is necessary for life and health.

    That probably sounds negative, but the other main reason why I learned to stop worrying and love the noun is that I do think our professional understanding, as given in standards and definitions rather than in the thought of any given member of the profession, is too narrow, and that in some ways those that ‘misuse’ the R and A words are actually more correct. And I also think, despite Rodney’s points about the archival threshold, that genuine archival collections can exist (and will increasingly come only to exist) outside of professional management and traditional places of deposit. Think of libraries as a comparison: we all know what a university or public library is, but we have our own libraries as well and see no oddity or impropriety in using the term. Umberto Eco apparently has a personal library of over 50,000 books; how ridiculous it would look to insist that it wasn’t a library at all and that he shouldn’t use that term, since it wasn’t managed by a professional librarian or catalogued according to accepted bibliographical standards. Archives are admittedly more complex than collections of books, but plenty of people maintain their own ‘archives’ diligently, consistently and logically.

    In the example Rodney gives of someone’s files only becoming a personal archives after transfer, I would tentatively suggest (bowing to the far greater expertise of both Rodney and Kate) that if they were managed as a coherent entity by the individual, they were already a personal archive; what they gained from the transfer was to become a ‘public personal archive’, if you see what I mean. They need be no less authentic for being privately managed than my tax return as a private individual need be less authentic because I, and not some external body, provide the documentation to support it. Perhaps an important element in crossing the archival threshold is the making public of what was formerly personal, but there is no guarantee that this will take place via transfer to an official or approved repository. I once responded to the blog post of an academic looking for ways to make his own ‘archive’ of lecture notes, accumulated writings, etc publicly and digitally available, by suggesting they contact their university’s archivist or records manager; their response was that they did not wish their work to become official and institutionalized, that they wanted it to be a sort of independent commons. If many of the people or organizations (NGOs, community groups, etc) whose records we think worthy of archival preservation are too suspicious of ‘the system’ to relinquish control or possession of their collection to ‘real’ archives, what happens then? Our professional expertise is still, I think, very important in securing the archival heritage but we may not always be able to exercise it in the ways we want or in the settings we choose. Sometimes it is worth fighting over words, sometimes we have to think around that and concentrate on getting some traction in debates around the substance. Knowing when to take which course is, alas, the tricky part.

    The real problem with trying to control the lexicon is that ‘archive’ or ‘archives’ has been used metaphorically and in looser, non-technical ways for a long time not arbitrarily but for some pretty compelling reasons. There is the ‘lure’ or ‘seduction’ not just of the archive/archives but of the words ‘archive’, ‘archival’ etc. Anything can be (and has been, despite our irritation) considered as part of the archive. But what confers the magical status upon what would otherwise often be fairly random, meaningless residues and traces is the naming of it as ‘archive’. The word activates lines of thought and ways of thinking through its rich and complex connotations. To think, for instance, of the city or the body as archive is not simply to use it as a sort of repository, but to bring to the meaning of ‘city’ or ‘body’ rich extra layers of signification from the connotations of ‘archive’—the ancient, the secret, the public, the heterotopic, etc. It is more than just using a fancy or inappropriate term to aggrandize a different activity: ‘archive’ has aura, and its use transfers aura to areas where it may not have previously been seen or acknowledged. (Sometimes, of course, it really is just pretension!) Basically, non-archivists do not use ‘archive’ because they are ignorant of the correct usages of the term, but because they are intensely aware of the potent, if indistinctly articulated, layers of semiotic meaning it holds. In the more prosaic everyday world of work, words like ‘archive’, ‘record’, ‘information’, ‘library’ are also boundary objects between different professional, disciplinary, practitioner and user communities: their meaning has to be constantly negotiated and agreed upon.

    This could ramble on forever so I’d better come to a halt now before it all gets out of hand.

  4. The question of ‘what is an archives?’ at the core of this thread. Or, for that matter, a library. I don’t call my personal collection of books a library, despite the fact that it IS organized by subject and catalogued according to both LOC and DDC (my librarian wife and I disagree about which system is better because … nerds). Strictly speaking, I would not consider Eco’s massive collection of books a library either, because the term suggests there should be access, to name just one feature which separates the two.

    In the case of archives, there are similarly elements which distinguish collections of documents from archives. However, I do realize that there is no universal definition. I am keenly aware, for example, that the Canadian Total Archives methodology differs from the American and British systems so our approaches to archival material – in some cases what we would even consider archival material – may differ. This is to say nothing of the myriad of colloquial and scholarly uses of the word. This is at the heart of the discussion here – people using the same term to mean different things which leads to confusion.

    Access (or at least the possibility of access to some people at some time), long-term preservation, selection of materials based on some established criteria, and systematic organization would be key to my definition of archives. “Managed coherently” as you say, and making public are important but only part of becoming archival. Perhaps I am arguing for documentary transubstantiation but I do feel that some sort of archival intervention is required to move documents from a non-archival state into an archival one.

    I absolutely do agree with you regarding archives existing outside of traditional places of deposit (particularly outside of government archives). This is something that I am afraid I didn’t make clear on in my comment above. Grassroots/community/independent archives are without question archives and I certainly didn’t mean to give the impression that I thought otherwise. Without having any empirical data to back it up, I suspect that virtually all of these institutions fulfill most if not all of the criteria in my definition, even if the methods they employ differ from what we might consider professional best practices.

    Where things get really tricky, and what lie outside of my definition, are the collections created/used in certain digital humanities projects, for example. The Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen’ project, is my go-to example where the term ‘archive’ is used in a very particular way, coming out of postcolonial theory, and applied to digitized historic material (which make up part of the larger colonial “archive”) which is rather different than what an archivist would call an archives. As you write terms “their meaning has to be constantly negotiated and agreed upon” and confusion exists where things when this agreement is lacking. When working within one’s own scholarly community the jargon used may be immediately understood but in this interdisciplinary world in which we live, I think it is important to understand how terms are used in the fields in which they originate and be very careful how they are applied in new contexts.

    With this qualification, I think the work that is being done with Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen’ is extremely interesting and important. Similarly, the way the term is employed by in cultural studies, in Dust, for example, is often very interesting and illuminating and can even inform archival thinking and practice (Derrida’s conception certainly has had an impact on archival theory). A very clear definition of how the term is being applied is needed for me, and I think it is often lacking in a great deal of scholarly writing.

    Outside of the scholarly world, well, it is a matter of cache and, sometimes pretentiousness as you note. Sometimes it is a convenient shorthand.

    Perhaps Kate is right – this only matters to her and me – and perhaps we are both overly and unduly concerned. It is almost certainly a losing battle as the term is far outside the control of the archivists and perhaps it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things but there you have it.

    Your anecdote of the academic is very enlightening as I think it provides an interesting conception of archives as places of power and officialdom…. which brings us back to Derrida, which brings us back to Dust…which we got really far away from, eh?

    Now, to really derail things, can we talk about the use of “archive” as a verb – because I have some strong opinions about that as well! (I kid, I kid…about talking about it here, not about having strong opinions…)

  5. (Ha! I almost added something about I wasn’t even going to get into using “archive” as a verb. In that case too the ship has sailed, horse has left the barn, etc. And this was discussed on Twitter recently, wasn’t it? That computer scientists have their own meaning for it, and then some people have recently seen it used it yet another context, which is opposite from computer scientists? The world is going to hell in handbasket, and you kids need to get off my lawn!)

  6. First, you are right about the terms. You know this; I know this. Just because a bunch of people don’t know it doesn’t make them right. Religions understand how this works. So do credentialing bodies. I say that we should maintain a vigorous defense based on knowledge and history. But we should do so in dialoge with allied professionals, not throwing bombs from the outside. Instead of giving in by saying, “Okay, I understand what you mean, but we don’t use it that way; now that I understand how you are using the term archive/archives let’s proceed.” No, definitions are important, especially in collaborative projects and we should be more insistent.

    Scientists can know how this works as well. I’m always seeing something on some science show and wondering, Wow – I never knew that – I wonder how long we’ve known that because I didn’t learn that in school. Come to find out we’ve learned this back in 1940’s or some such but it wasn’t in the textbooks or in the general knowledge for half a century or more. The general knowledge lags behind the experts, often way behind. If you visit a planetarium then try to discuss what you’ve seen with an astronomer you will come off looking like an idiot. The difference is – the general public will most often acknowledge that they may never have the breadth of knowedge of the scientist, but in the humanities and social sciences, nah, Joe Public says – I could do that, they’re not so smart, and they can’t tell me what this means. Much of why our education system is failing at teaching both science and social studies are for these two opposite reasons.

    For Steedman and others using the Archive as a metaphorical, mystical, conceptual space – that’s okay with me. And its because of how she uses History in the same vein. There is history (of an event, place, person) and History – what really happened with all its context and nuance. We can’t know History but was can write history. The Archive is all the evidence, sometimes what is left, sometimes all that was created and is no more.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s