Archival Science

, Volume 1, Issue 1, pp 3–24 | Cite as

Archival science and postmodernism: new formulations for old concepts

  • Terry Cook


Process rather than product, becoming rather than being, dynamic rather than static, context rather than text, reflecting time and place rather than universal absolutes—these have become the postmodern watchwords for analyzing and understanding science, society, organizations, and business activity, among others. They should likewise become the watchwords for archival science in the new century, and thus the foundation for a new conceptual paradigm for the profession. Postmodernism is not the only reason for reformulating the main precepts of archival science. Significant changes in the purpose of archives as institutions and the nature of records are other factors which, combined with postmodern insights, form the basis of the new perception of archives as documents, institutions, and profession in society.

This essay explores the nature of postmodernism and archival science, and suggest links between the two. It outlines two broad changes in archival thinking that underpin the archival paradigm shift, before suggesting new formulations for most traditional archival concepts.


archival science governance postmodernism social memory 


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  1. 1.
    While honoured to be invited by the editors of this journal to offer for this inaugural issue my views on the state of archival science, the short time-frame involved renders this paper a personal reflection rather than a sustained piece of original research. I have drawn on such research as I have previously done and as has appeared elsewhere, and indicated this in subsequent notes, from which sources much fuller citations can usually be found. The present work remains an essay on archival science and postmodernism; there is no pretense of having researched exhaustively all that has been written on the subject, even in the English language. I wish to thank Tim Cook of the National Archives of Canada for useful comments on this essay, as well as the helpful input from two anonymous reviewers forArchival Science; any errors and all interpretations remain my own.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    On positivism and archives, see Verne Harris, “Claiming Less, Delivering More: A Critique of Positivist Formulations on Archives in South Africa,”Archivaria 44 (Fall 1997): 132–141; as well as, implicitly at least, all the sources by archivists writing about the post-modern revolution and its impact on the profession, many of which are outlined in note 13 below. Special attention is drawn to the thorough critique of positivist formulations of archival theory and archival science by Preben Mortensen, “The Place of Theory in Archival Practice,”Archivaria 47 (Spring 1999): 1–26.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See Terry Cook, “What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift”Archivaria 43 (Spring 1997): 17–63 (a shorter, and less complete version is also published as “Interaction of Archival Theory and Practice Since the Publication of the Dutch Manual,”Archivum (1997): 191–214); the essay was reprinted in P.J. Horsman, F.C.J. Ketelaar, and T.H.P.M. Thomassen (eds.),Naar een nieuw paradigma in de archivistiek. Jaarboek 1999 Stichting Archiefpublicaties (′s-Gravenhage 1999), 29–67. Both orginated as a plenary address to the Thirteenth International Congress on Archives held in Beijing, China, in 1996. I used the “paradigm” term once before, in a precursor article almost two decades earlier, to suggest that renewed research and sustained scholarship by archivists into the history and context of records, as opposed to the professional focus then on methodological and technological issues, would allow archivists and, more importantly, users of archives to discover knowledge and humanist understanding in the sea of information in archival holdings; see Terry Cook, “From Information to Knowledge: An Intellectual Paradigm for Archives,”Archivaria 19 (Winter 1984–1985): 28–49.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    On archivalisation and its exposition by Jacques Derrida inArchive Fever, see Eric Ketelaar, “Archivalisation and Archiving,”Archives and Manuscripts 27 (May 1999): 54–61; and (without the term) Tom Nesmith, “Still Fuzzy, But More Accurate: Some Thoughts on the ‘Ghosts’” of Archival Theory,”Archivaria 47 (Spring 1999): 136–150; as well as many of the sources in note 13 below on the postmodern archive. The fullest published analysis of Derrida by an archivist is Brien Brothman, “Declining Derrida: Integrity, Tensegrity, and the Preservation of Archives from deconstruction,”Archivaria 48 (Fall 1999): 64–88.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Cook, “From Information to Knowledge: An Intellectual Paradigm for Archives,” 49.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Terence M. Eastwood, “Reflections on the Development of Archives in Canada and Australia,” in Sue McKemmish and Frank Upward, eds.,Archival Documents: Providing Accountability Through Recordkeeping (Melbourne, 1993), 27. See also Barbara Craig, “Outward Visions, Inward Glance: Archives History and Professional Identity,”Archival Issues: Journal of the Midwest Archives Conference 17 (1992): 121. The fullest argument for archivists researching, writing, and reading and knowing their own history is Richard J. Cox, “On the Value of Archival History in the United States” (originally 1988), in Richard J. Cox,American Archival Analysis: The Recent Development of the Archival Profession in the United States (Metuchen, N.J., 1990), 182–200. See also the arguments (and examples) throughout Cook, “What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898.”Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Jacques Derrida,Archives Fever: A Freudian Impression (Chicago and London, 1996, originally in French in 1995, from 1994 lectures). Two issues of the journal,History of the Human Sciences, 11 (November 1998) and 12 (February 1999), are devoted to essays by almost twenty scholars on “The Archive.” None are archivists and very few writings by archivists about archives are cited.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    There seems no point to citing here a shelf-full of postmodernist books. However, in addition to Foucault's own analysis and historical methodology, and Derrida's seminal volume, my understanding of postmodernism owes much to an early exposure to the work of the Canadian scholar, Linda Hutcheon:The Politics of Postmodernism (London and New York, 1989), andA Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (New York and London, 1988); and of course to the writings of those few archivists (happily growing in number) who have explored rather than ignored postmodernism, as outlined in note 13 below.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Jacques Le Goff,History and Memory, translated by Steven Rendall and Elizabeth Claman (New York, 1992), pp. xvi–xvii, 59–60, andpassim. Interestingly enough, a key challenger of archival orthodoxy and a leading advocate of virtual archives, and of cross-institutional perspectives, entitled her first major exposition in a manner that is very reminiscent of Le Goff's themes: see Helen Willa Samuels, “Who Controls the Past,”American Archivist 49 (Spring 1986): 109–124.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Feminist scholars are keenly aware of the ways that systems of language, writing, information recording, and the preserving of such information once recorded, are social-and power-based, not neutral, both now and across past millennia. For example, see Gerda Lerner,The Creation of Patriarchy (New York and Oxford, 1986) pp. 6–7, 57, 151, 200, andpassim; and Riane Eisler,The Chalice & The Blade (San Francisco, 1987), pp. 71–73, 91–93. Lerner's more recent study,The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-seventy (New York and Oxford, 1993), carefully details the systemic exclusion of women from history and archives, and the attempts starting from the late ninetteenth century of women to correct this by creating women's archives: see especially chapter 11, “The Search for Women's History.” See also Bonnie G. Smith,The Gender of History: Men, Women, and Historical Practice (Cambridge MA and London, 1998).Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    See, for example, Patrick J. Geary,Phantoms of Remembrance: Memory and Oblivion at the End of the First Millennium (Princeton, 1994), pp. 86–87, 177, and especially chapter 3: “Archival Memory and the Destruction of the Past” andpassim. For other examples and numerous citations, see Cook, “What is Past is Prologue,” 18, 50. We have the painful case in our own time of deliberate records destruction in Kosovo and Bosnia to efface memory and marginalize peoples.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Hutcheon,Poetics of Postmodernism, 122.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    The first mention of postmodernism (at least in English) by an archivist in an article title was by Terry Cook, in “Electronic Records, Paper Minds: The Revolution in Information Management and Archives in the Post-Custodial and Post-Modernist Era,”Archives and Manuscripts 22 (November 1994): 300–329, upon which much of the previous few paragraphs is dependent. The themes were continued in his “What is Past is Prologue,” already cited. Two pioneering postmodern archivists before Cook were also Canadian, Brien Brothman and Richard Brown. Among other works, see Brien Brothman, “Orders of Value: Probing the Theoretical Terms of Archival Practice,”Archivaria 32 (Summer 1991): 78–100; “The Limits of Limits: Derridean Deconstruction and the Archival Institution,”Archivaria 36 (Autumn 1993): 205–220; and his probing review of Jacques Derrida'sArchive Fever, inArchivaria 43 (Spring 1997): 189–192, which ideas are very much extended in his “Declining Derrida: Integrity, Tensegrity, and the Preservation of Archives from deconstruction,”Archivaria 48 (already cited); and Richard Brown, “The Value of ‘Narrativity’ in the Appraisal of Historical Documents: Foundation for a Theory of Archival Hermeneutics,”Archivaria 32 (Summer 1991): 152–156; “Records Acquisition Strategy and Its Theoretical Foundation: The Case for a Concept of Archival Hermeneutics,”Archivaria 33 (Winter 1991–1992): 34–56; and “Death of a Renaissance Record-Keeper: The Murder of Tomasso da Tortona in Ferrara, 1385,”Archivaria 44 (Fall 1997): 1–43. In addition to the incisive articles by Preben Mortensen, “The Place of theory in Archival Practice,” and Tom Nesmith, “Still Fuzzy, But More Accurate: Some Thoughts on the ‘Ghosts’” of Archival Theory,” both cited above fromArchivaria 47 (Spring 1999), other Canadian archivists reflecting postmodernist influences, at least in published form in English, include Bernadine Dodge, “Places Apart: Archives in Dissolving Space and Time,”Archivaria 44 (Fall 1997): 118–131; Theresa Rowatt, “The Records and the Repository as a Cultural Form of Expression,”Archivaria 36 (Autumn 1993): 198–204; Joan Schwartz, “We make our tools and our tools make us”: Lessons from Photographs for the Practice, Politics, and Poetics of Diplomatics,”Archivaria 40 (Fall 1995): 40–74; and Lilly Koltun, “The Promise and Threat of Digital Options in an Archival Age,”Archivaria 47 (Spring 1999): 114–135. Non-Canadian postmodern archivists include Eric Ketelaar, “Archivalisation and Archiving,” and Verne Harris, “Claiming Less, Delivering More: A Critique of Positivist Formulations on Archives in South Africa,” both already cited, as well as Verne Harris' complementary “Redefining Archives in South Africa: Public Archives and Society in Transition, 1990–1996,Archivaria 42 (Fall 1996): 6–27, and implicitly at least some of the writing of Americans Margaret Hedstrom, Richard Cox, and James O'Toole, and Australians Frank Upward, Sue McKemmish, and Barbara Reed. Planned symposia and publications scheduled for the next year to investigate archives and the construction of social memory will do much to expand the numbers and nationalities of archivists involved in considering the implications of postmodernism for their profession.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Eric Ketelaar, “The Difference Best Postponed? Cultures and Comparative Archival Science,”Archivaria 44 (Fall 1997): 142–148, reprinted in Horsman, Ketelaar, and thomassen (eds.),Naar een nieuw paradigma in de archivistiek. Jaarboek 1999 Stichting Archiefpublicaties, 21–27.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    See Lewis J. Bellardo and Lynn Lady Bellardo,A Glossary for Archivists, Manuscript Curators, and Records Managers, Society of American Archivists (Chicago, 1992); Glenda Acland, “Glossary”, in Judith Ellis, ed.,Keeping Archives, second edition (Port Melbourne, 1993), 459–481. While these are glossaries directed to practitioners, they reflect input from theorists and reflect the state of professional literature at the time. “Archival science” has recently gained greater acceptance as a term in North America based on wider availability and appreciation of European archival literature in the past decade, and the influence of Luciana Duranti, a Canadian archival educator from Europe, and some of her students. Nevertheless, for many, the term still strikes a discordant note.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Of course, the articles as a whole do implicitly explain aspects of “archival science,” for that is why they were written, but they do not explicitly explain the term itself or what aspects of archives it encompasses. See Paola Carrucci (Italy), “Archival Science Today. Principles, Methods and Results,” in Oddo Bucci. ed.,Archival Science on the Threshold of the Year 2000 (Macerata, 1992): 55–68; Bruno Delmas (France), “What is the Status of Archival Science in France Today,”The Concept of Record: Report from the Second Stockholm Conference on Archival Science and the Concept of Record 30–31 May 1996 (Riksarkivet, Sweden, 1998): 27–35; and Eric Ketelaar (Netherlands), “The Difference Best Postponed? Cultures and Comparative Archival Science,” already cited. I advance these examples only to be suggestive, from three well-known writers whose works were on my bookshelf; in the time available to preapre this article, I have done no systematic research into the various uses of “archival science” by European writers. Bruno Delmas of France might be mentioned as the father of the distinction between practical, descriptive and functional archival science (and maybe Angelika Menne-Haritz of Germany as its stepmother). The most recent overview of European archival science, that both analyzes the concept and traces its development over time, is Theo Thomassen, “The Development of Archival Science and its European Dimension,”The Archivist and the Archival Science (Landsarkivets i Lund Skriftserie 7) (Lund 1999): 75–83.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Oddo Bucci, “The Evolution of Archival Science and its Teaching at the University of Macerata,” in Bucci, ed.,Archival Science on the Threshold of the Year 2000, 18, 34–35; and “Preface,” 11.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Cook, “What is Past is Prologue,” 48. Other major writers in the “social” or “societal” or “archivalisation” school of archival thinking in addition to Eric Ketelaar evidently, and myself, include, most prominently, Hans Booms, Helen Samuels, Hugh Taylor, David Bearman, Margaret Hedstrom, Rick Brown, Brien Brothman, Tom Nesmith, Frank Upward, and Verne Harris. On the social as opposed to statist basis for archival theory, see Cook, “What is Past is Prologue,” 30–36, and below in this essay.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    See Luciana Duranti, “Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science [Part One],”Archivaria 28 (Summer 1989): 8–11 for quoted ideas; and her “Archival Science,” in A. Kent,Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science 59 (1996), 1, 5, 12. For a fuller characterization and critique of Duranti's “scientific” views, see Mortensen, “The Place of Theory,” 2–3, andpassim; his analysis is based on wide reading in the history and philosophy of science.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    I recognize that there is debate in many disciplines about what “modernism” is, and thus it is rather important here to state my position, if what I mean by premodernism (and postmodernism) is to make sense to the reader. For some, modernism is contrasted with medievalism and has its birth in the Renaissance; for others, modernism is situated in the rationalism of the Enlightenment and its rejection of the religious passions of the previous century. I take the narrower view that modernism is the mindset and values dominant in many disciplines and arts in the first half or two-thirds of the twentieth century, as contrasted to Victorianism. On this distinction, and for a stimulating intellectual history of the West in the past century, see Norman Cantor,The American Century: Varieties of Culture in Modern Times (New York, 1997). This approach is complementary (although not exactly parallel) to Theo Thomassen's useful distinction (in “The Development of Archival Science and its European Dimension,” already cited) of pre-paradigm archival science (Victorianism), classic archival science from the Dutch Manual of 1898 until recent years (modernism), and now the prospect of a new paradigm for archival science (postmodernism). I believe that the three phases are somewhat different: premodern archival science encompasses the Victorian values (as Cantor sets them forth) evident in diplomatics, the Dutch Manual, and on up to Jenkinson; modernist archival science is represented by Schellenberg and the impact of organizational/managerial thinking on archives; and postmodern archival thinking is, as Thomassen says, the new paradigm, the nature and impact of which is the subject of this essay. Put another way, premodernists had faith in the document as reflecting empirical acts and facts and in historical science of the von Ranke school as capable of interpreting such documents to get at the objective reality of the historical past; modernism questioned the objectivity of history, realizing that there were different historical interpretations possible from the same set of documents describing the same subject or event; postmodernism questions the objectivity and “naturalness” of the document itself.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Neil Postman,Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York, 1993), 144–163, andpassim.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    For Foucault, his key works for archivists areThe Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York, 1970, originally in French in 1966) and especiallyThe Archaeology of Knowledge (New York, 1972, originally in French in 1969). A good introduction to his thought is Gary Gutting,Michel Foucault's Archaeology of Scientific Reason (Cambridge, 1989) see especially pages 231–244 for analysis of Foucault on documents. For a pioneering example of applying some of these postmodernist insights to the documentary record, see J.B. Harley, “Deconstructing the Map”,Cartographica 26 (Summer 1989): 1–20. Harley explores the powerful social context behind the map, as well as seeing in the map metaphorical and rhetorical elements where before scholars only saw measurement and topography. He demonstrates that cartography is less “scientific” than assumed, and reflects the functional predilections of its sponsor as much as the earth's surface. For a similar analysis and conclusion for another archival medium see Joan Schwartz, “We make our tools and our tools make us”: Lessons from Photographs for the Practice, Politics, and Poetics of Diplomatics”, already cited.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Evelyn Fox Keller,Reflections on Gender and Science (New Haven and London, 1985) pp. 11–12, 5–9, 130, andpassim. See also Carolyn Merchant,The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (New York, 1980, 1990), pp. xvii-xviii. She demonstrates that the new thermodynamics and chaos theory also support similar conclusions about contextual, interdependent, process-based thinking. For an archival examination of these issues regarding the ideological nature of science, which also explores the implications this has for archival work, see Candace Loewen, “From Human Neglect to Planetary Survival: New Approaches to the Appraisal of Environmental Records”,Archivaria 33 (Winter 1991–1992): 97–98, 100, andpassim. Her ideas are reflected in part in Hugh A. Taylor, “Recycling the Past: The Archivist in the Age of Ecology”,Archivaria 35 (Spring 1993): 203–213. The rich notes in both Loewen and Taylor's pieces can guide interested readers to many other supportive sources. Among many historical analyses showing that “science” is as much a product of ideology as of disinterested observation, see David F. Noble,A World Without Women: The Christian Clerical Culture of Western Science (New York, 1992) or Margaret Wertheim,Pythagoras' Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender Wars (London, 1997).Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    See note 12 above.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    See discussions and citations in Cook, “What is Past is Prologue”, 23–26.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    These following discussions reflect my analysis of the history of archival ideas since the Dutch Manual, as presented in ibid. I will not repeat here the extensive reference notes given there that support these summary conclusions.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Eric Ketelaar, “Archives of the People, By the People, For the People”,South Africa Archives Journal 34 (1992): 5–16 reprinted in Eric Ketelaar,The Archival Image. Collected Essays (Hilversum, 1997): 15–16.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    See Ian E. Wilson, “Reflections onArchival Strategies”,American Archivist 58 (Fall 1995): 414–429 For archivists merely (and meekly) to do what they think their government sponsors want regarding their own institutional records, or what archivists think will please these sponsors and thus show that archivists are good corporate “players” worthy of continued funding, is, as Shirley Spragge says, too easy an abdication of the archivist's mission and responsibilities. See her “The Abdication Crisis: Are Archivists Giving Up Their Cultural Responsibility?”,Archivaria 40 (Fall 1995). 173–181.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Eric Ketelaar, “Archival Theory and the Dutch Manual”,Archivaria 41 (Spring 1996), 36, reprinted in Eric Ketelaar,The Archival Image Collected Essays (Hilversum, 1997): 62–63.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    For rethinking the nature of the archival fonds and thus archival description as involving many-to-many virtual relationships rather than the traditional one-to-many hierarchical and physical arrangement entities, see Terry Cook, “The Concept of the Archival Fonds in the Post-Custodial Era: Theory, Problems, and Solutions”,Archivaria 35 (Winter 1992–1993): 24–37. The pioneer of such thinking three decades ago was Australian Peter Scott, as outlined in my “What is Past is Prologue”, 38–39 (which has references to all Scott's key works); for the latest update on Australian descriptive thinking (with many additional references), see Sue McKemmish, Glenda Acland, Nigel Ward, and Barbara Reed, “Describing Records in Context in the Continuum: The Australian Refordkeeping Metadata System”,Archivaria 48 (Fall 1999): 3–43. For description based on creator functional metadata rather physical arrangement, see David Bearman, “Documenting Documentation”,Archivaria 34 (Summer 1992): 33–49; and Margaret Hedstrom, “Descriptive Practices for Electronic Records: Deciding What is Essential and Imagining What is Possible”,Archivaria 36 (Autumn 1993): 53–62. For a working alternative based on such rethinking of the fonds, now operational at the Ontario Archives in Toronto see Bob Krawczyk, “Cross Reference Heaven: The Abandonment of the Fonds as the Primary Level of Arrangement for Ontario Government Records”,Archivaria 48 (Fall 1999): 131–153.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    For an introduction to “macroappraisal” or the appraisal of functions and activities rather than records, see Terry Cook, “Mind Over Matter: Towards a New Theory of Archival Appraisal”, in Barbara Craig, ed.,The Canadian Archival Imagination: Essays in Honour of Hugh Taylor (Ottawa, 1992), 38–70; and hisThe Archival Appraisal of Records Containing Personal Information: A RAMP Study With Guidelines (Paris, 1991); and Richard Brown, “Macro-Appraisal Theory and the Context of the Public Records Creator”,Archivaria 40 (Fall 1995), pp. 121–172. Similar approaches have been adopted by the national archives of the Netherlands with its PIVOT project, and in South Africa and Australia, among other jurisdictions.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    The work of David Bearman has most prominently advocated this approach. For an overview, see his collected essays published asElectronic Evidence: Strategies for Managing Records in Contemporary Organizations (Pittsburgh, 1994); as well as Margaret Hedstrom and David Bearman, “Reinventing Archives for Electronic Records: Alternative Service Delivery Options”, in Margaret Hedstrom, ed.,Electronic Records Management Program Strategies (Pittsburgh, 1993), 82–98. The initial statement for the distributed management or noncustodial approach to preserving archives was David Bearman, “An Indefensible Bastion: Archives as Repositories in the Electronic Age”, in David Bearman ed.Archival Management of Electronic Records (Pittsburgh, 1991), 14–24, that has generated many articles both attacking and supporting this concept. Nevertheless, recognizing the new realities, the national archives of the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia have adopted policies for the distributed management by other bodies of some categories of electronic records.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Terry Cook
    • 1
  1. 1.University of ManitobaGloucesterCanada

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