Thoughts on using this book in an archives class?

In your comments many of you noted that you’d been assigned this book in an archive class. In what context was it presented, and how was it received by you and the class? If you were teaching a class, would you assign the book (or chapters from it), and if so, how you discuss it with your students?

6 thoughts on “Thoughts on using this book in an archives class?

  1. No class assignment here. If I were using it for a class, it would only be as chapters, or back to the original journal articles from which it is based. Most topics lend themselves to interdisplinary studies – history/archives, philosophy/history, etc. My strongest placement would be in historiography, particularly in discussion of the social historians’ use of 18th century municipal registers and judicial interviews to give voice to the working classes. Perhaps the first two chapters could be used in a philosophy survey class on the postmodernists, as a foil for Derrida and to a lesser extent Foucault. I could find use of the chapter on rag rugs in an historic preservation or interiors class as it is instructive of how an item’s meaning evolves over time. I found her narrative more insightful than informative, so I would find myself investigating her sources on most of these topics more than the book itself.

  2. I was assigned several of the beginning chapters in conjunction with reading Derrida’s “Archive Fever” during a class on archives and social memory. In that context I found the chapters helpful for getting a better grip on “Archive Fever”, especially a big picture view of the work. Our professor was a francophile and had already explained the issues with the translation into English, but I think those points are particularly important for those reading Derrida in the translation. The chapters from Dust were certainly more well-received than Derrida. I think presenting the chapters with other readings provided for a more robust discussion than we would’ve if we had only read Steedman.

  3. I was assigned “Dust” in a historiography/archival methodologies course in 2010. We read it in conjunction with several texts, including Derrida’s “Archive Fever” and Burton’s “Archive Stories.” Looking back, I realize that we didn’t read the text in quite a nuanced way: we didn’t question who/what Steedman was leaving out or how she was talking about archives. In general, in my field of study (rhetoric and compostion), the theoretical notion of “the Archive” is rarely complicated or problematized. And we are only now beginning to understand the important role archivists play in the shaping of records (for instance, an edited collection in 2010 “Working in the Archives,” does include articles by archivists about their work). We also sort of read Steedman as someone who could help us do archival research, but again, there is very little in the text that might help an emerging archival researcher.

    To sum up: I doubt if I would assign Steedman as a primer on how to work in the archives. And if I did, I would probably present it with a disclaimer that it is not meant to be read as an exemplar text about archives or research. I also like Anne’s idea of presenting Steedman alongside other readings that provide better understandings of archives.

  4. I can see a number of different teaching contexts for ‘Dust’, or for its individual chapters—in a seminar rather than a lecture setting for best effect. One is the issue of ‘the archive’ in the wider cultural context: it could be be examined along with texts such as ‘Archive Fever’, Burton’s ‘Archive Stories’, Hamilton et al ‘Refiguring the Archive’, and also with uses of ‘archive’ in the even more diffuse and all-encompassing ways used in art or film studies. It could also (as Michael suggests) be used in discussions of historiography, not just the sort of social history that Steedman is engaged in: it would be interesting, for instance, to pick up on her paragraph in the preface about how this sort of work in the archives is not by any means the norm in many branches of history. This could lead on to a consideration of whether the textual bias of traditional archives and records management leads us, too, to work with a mindset that privileges archival work on texts as the paradigm for historical research, when much history works with artefactual or other ‘texts’ (perhaps a suitable point to bring in the documentalist tradition of Briet and Otlet, with its much broader definition of ‘document’?).

    As a description or evocation of working with archival material, I would contrast it with articles such as the sociologist Mariam Fraser’s ‘Once Upon A Problem’ (Sociological Review 60(S1) pp.84–107), and the series of articles ‘These Ghostly Archives’ in successive issues of ‘Plath Profiles’ by the literary critics Crowther and Steinberg ( These capture not just the ‘excitement of the chase’ and the deep engagement of the scholars with their subject, but also a sense of working in a recognizable archival setting rather than the unreal, enchanted realm presented by Steedman. Fraser talks among other things about her research in the Bodleian Library on an obscure mid-twentieth century Iranan text, ‘Irradiant’, and her initiation as a scholar into the world of ‘real’ archives in which the staff are active partners in her understanding of the collection and materials. (A pre-print of Fraser’s article was freely available on the web a while ago but the link seems to be broken: I downloaded it at the time and can e-mail it if anyone wants a copy to read.)

    • Rachel brings up the documentalist and notions of the document. It reminds me of the many arguments archivists have had, even still, about the definition of a record or records. Often this definition hinges on the type of repository (or its parent organization.) Brings to mind the old recording or transcript authority debate in oral history. Another bridge is something like the Native American Protocols, which causes traditional archivists to struggle with (or against) concepts of cultural property and more broadly cultural rights.

  5. Rachel – thank you very much for bringing to our attention the articles on the Plath archives and the Fraser article. Based on the abstract of the latter, it is not at all apparent that the author discusses her process of using archives – let alone that she does so in such an engaged manner. I’ve only given these articles quick read so far but they look extremely interesting. There are constant calls for user studies of archives and, while these types of examples describe particular instances of use and don’t really fill that gap, they can still be very enlightening and we definitely should be aware of them.

    As for using Dust in a class- as others have stated I think it would be most appropriate to a very particular sort of course, dealing with theories of archives/The Archive. Chapter 4 probably is the most widely applicable/useful for archivists, with, as noted, Ch. 1 providing an extremely useful counter-point to anyone reading Archive Fever.

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