Archival Science

, Volume 2, Issue 3–4, pp 263–285

Stories and names: Archival description as narrating records and constructing meanings

  • Wendy M. Duff
  • Verne Harris


The authors of this essay, coming from very different traditions and modes of archival discourse, explore together archival description as a field of archival thinking and practice. Their shared conviction is that records are always in the process of being made, and that the stories of their making are parts of bigger stories understandable only in the ever-changing broader contexts of society. The exploration begins with an interrogation of the traditional and ever-valid questions of the what and the why of archival description. Thereafter they offer a deconstruction of these questions and of the answers commonly proffered. In these sections of the essay their concern is with descriptive architecture, the analysis covering a number of specific architectures and including only oblique references to descriptive standardization. The concluding section attempts to draw out the implications of their analysis for endeavours—irrespective of the architectures being used — to define, and to justify, descriptive standards. Their call is not to dispense with standardization, but rather to create space for a liberatory approach which engages creatively the many dangers of standardization.


deconstruction description standards user needs 


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    Of course, we brought to the exercise a host of other differences, including gender, global positioning, and culture. Some we are aware of; others we are not. Some seem significant; others not. While we have worked hard at fashioning a coherent “voice” for the essay, we determined not to hide the tensions generated by these differences. It is our hope that the tensions are creative ones. For the record, Verne produced the first drafts of the introductory and concluding sections; Wendy the middle section.Google Scholar
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    This essay presents two different points of view on description: one based on the principle ofrespect des fonds, and the other focused on the series. It presents these approaches as opposites to tease out and explain the different perspectives that underlie and influence much of the debate. In reality many archival descriptive systems contain some elements of, and are influenced by, the perspectives of both.Google Scholar
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    We chose not to label the series system the “Australian” system for two reasons: it is not applied universally in Australia; and many non-Australians are supportive of the series system, have written about it, and have influenced its development. Of course, “series system” is also inadequate as a label, for as it is being elaborated today by people like Sue McKemmish and Chris Hurley, it embraces far more than the idea of the series.Google Scholar
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    This statement is not to suggest that all supporters of the series system are opposed to studying users. Many supporters of this system, including Terry Cook, Adrian Cunningham, and David Bearman have promoted the importance of understanding how users seek information and the how they use descriptive tools.Google Scholar
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    David R. Olson,The World on Paper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 197. In this paragraph, we are consciously deploying the word “represent” with the “postmodern” resonances it now carries. We see archival description as a form, or mode, of re-presentation.Google Scholar
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    See, for instance, Michel Foucault,The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language (New York: Pantheon, 1992); Bruno Latour, “Visualization and Cognition: Thinking with Eyes and Hands”,Knowledge and Society 6 (1986); Derrida,Archive Fever; and Ann Stoler, “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance: On the Content in the Form”, in Carolyn Hamilton et al. (eds.),Refiguring the Archive (Cape Town: David Philip, 2002). These commentators have influenced, and are influencing, a growing number of “postmodern” archivists. In terms of discourse, the most prolific of the latter are the Canadians Terry Cook, Brien Brothman, Joan Schwartz, Tom Nesmith, and Richard Brown.Google Scholar
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    Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star,Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences (Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 1999), pp. 5–6.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., pp. 13–14.Google Scholar
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    Brien Brothman, “In the Name of the Name: Keeping Archives in the Late Modern Age”, in Ethel Kriger (ed.),Wresting the Archon from the Arkheion: A Question of Right(s) and a Call for Justice to Always Come? (Pretoria: National Archives of South Africa, 2001), pp. 152–161.Google Scholar
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    Olson, “The Power to Name”,, 640.Google Scholar
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    Bowker and Star,Sorting Things Out,, p. 230.Google Scholar
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    We do not claim originality in the outline of a liberatory standard which follows. Bowker and Star, explicitly, have influenced our thinking. But a number of “archival” thinkers, notably Terry Cook, have also influenced us. Cook's ground-breaking ideas are spread through numerous texts, but are concentrated in a text which appeared after we began work on this essay: “Fashionable Nonsense or Professional Rebirth: Postmodernism and the Practice of Archives”,Archivaria 51 (Spring 2001): 14–35.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 308.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Wendy M. Duff
    • 1
  • Verne Harris
    • 2
  1. 1.Faculty of Information StudiesUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada
  2. 2.South African History ArchiveBraamfonteinSouth Africa

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