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Archives, records, and power: The making of modern memory


This article serves as the general introduction by the guest editors to the first of two thematic issues ofArchival Science that will explore the theme, “archives, records, and power.” Archives as institutions and records as documents are generally seen by academic and other users, and by society generally, as passive resources to be exploited for various historical and cultural purposes. Historians since the mid-nineteenth century, in pursuing the new scientific history, needed an archive that was a neutral repositories of facts. Until very recently, archivists obliged by extolling their own professional myth of impartiality, neutrality, and objectivity. Yet archives are established by the powerful to protect or enhance their position in society. Through archives, the past is controlled. Certain stories are privileged and others marginalized. And archivists are an integral part of this story-telling. In the design of record-keeping systems, in the appraisal and selection of a tiny fragment of all possible records to enter the archive, in approaches to subsequent and ever-changing description and preservation of the archive, and in its patterns of communication and use, archivists continually reshape, reinterpret, and reinvent the archive. This represents enormous power over memory and identity, over the fundamental ways in which society seeks evidence of what its core values are and have been, where it has come from, and where it is going. Archives, then, are not passive storehouses of old stuff, but active sites where social power is negotiated, contested, confirmed. The power of archives, records, and archivists should no longer remain naturalized or denied, but opened to vital debate and transparent accountability.

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  1. This pair of thematic issues ofArchival Science (the current volume and its successor) is dedicated with affection to Hugh Taylor, the dean of Canadian archivists. The ideas it explores owe much to his reflections upon media, documentary meaning, technological transformations, the evolution from ancient and medieval orality and mnemonics (archivists as remembrancers) through to archives without walls in a wired networked world, for purposes possibly good (his own bioregional, ecological, spiritual thrusts for the archival memory endeavour) or possibly ill (a mega-worldwide electronic corporate powerbase that could make the controlling exploitation of humans in the industrial revolution look modest in comparison). In his challenges to archival traditions, practices, and conventions, penned from the late 1960s to the mid 1990s, lay the germs of the editors' postmodernist sensibilities.

  2. Maurice Halbwachs,On Collective Memory, Lewis A. Coser (ed. and trans.), (Chicago, 1941, 1992), ch. 2, “Language and Memory”, p. 43.

  3. Thomas Richards,The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire (London and New York, 1993), pp. 73, 11, 6.

  4. John Tagg,The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories (Amherst MA, 1988), pp. 63–64. Similarly Rosalind Krauss, Allan Sekula, and others have used “the archive” as a “discursive space” in which photographic records, whether of landscape or the body, are made meaningful. See Allan Sekula, “The Body and the Archive”, and Rosalind Krauss, “Photography's Discursive Spaces”, both in Richard Bolton (ed.),The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photogrpahy (Cambridge MA, 1992), pp. 286–301, 343–388.

  5. See Verne Harris, “Redefining Archives in South Africa: Public Archives and Society in Transition, 1990–1996”,Archivaria 42 (Fall 1996); and his complementary “Claiming Less, Delivering More: A Critique of Positivist Formulations on Archives in South Africa”,Archivaria 44 (Fall 1997); as well as his essay in this volume.

  6. Jacques Le Goff,History and Memory, Steven Rendall and Elizabeth Claman (trans.), (New York, 1992, originally published 1986); Patrick Hutton,History as an Art of Memory (Hanover NH, 1993).

  7. Patrick J. Geary,Phantoms of Remembrance: Memory and Oblivion at the End of the First Millennium (Princeton, 1994), pp. 86–87, 177, and especially ch. 3, “Archival Memory and the Destruction of the Past” andpassim; and Rosamond McKitterick,The Carolingians and the Written Word (Cambridge, 1989).

  8. See Tim Cook, “Documenting War and Forging Reputations: Sir Max Aitken and the Canadian War Records Office in the First World War”,War In History (accepted and forthcoming); Robert McIntosh, “The Great War, Archives, and Modern Memory”,Archivaria 46 (Fall 1998); and Denis Winter,Haig's Command: A Reassessment (Harmondsworth, 1991), especially the final section, “Falsifying the Record.”

  9. For women and archives, see Gerda Lerner,The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-Seventy (New York and Oxford, 1993),passim, but especially ch. 11, “The Search for Women's History”; see also Anke Voss-Hubbard, “‘No Documents — No History’: Mary Ritter Beard and the Early History of Women's Archives”,American Archivist 58 (Winter 1995). See also the sources cited in note 25 below.

  10. For only one of many such writings, see Verne Harris and Sello Hatang, “Archives, Identity and Place: A Dialogue on What It (Might) Mean(s) to be an African Archivist”,ESARBICA Journal 19 (2000), as well asinter alia the articles by Verne Harris and Evelyn Wareham in these two issues ofArchival Science.

  11. See, for example, Susan Pearce,Museums, Objects and Collections (Washington, 1992), especially ch. 5, “Museums: the Intellectual Rationale”; and Tony Bennett,The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (London and New York, 1995). Joan M. Schwartz notes that there are “important parallels between museums and archives as ‘memory institutions’” in “‘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 especially the references in note 115.

  12. Pearce,Museums, Objects and Collections, p. 89. For a parallel analysis of archival history, and how past changes in ideas about the archive underpin much thinking, strategy, and practice today, as archives moved from a state-focused to a client- or citizen-focused approach, and thereby found their animating values less in reflecting and serving their sponsor than in society, see Terry Cook, “What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift”,Archivaria 43 (Spring 1997).

  13. Stephen Kern,The Culture of Time and Space, 1880–1918 (Cambridge MA, 1983).

  14. See Eilean Hooper-Greenhill,Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge (New York, 1992); and Kevin Walsh,The Representation of the Past: Museums and Heritage in the Post-Modern World (New York, 1992).

  15. For a critique of “archivalscience” as term and concept, as used by archivists, see Terry Cook, “Archival Science and Postmodernism: New Formulations for Old Concepts”,Archival Science: International Journal on Recorded Information 1.1 (2001), especially 11–16. The critique centres on two points: the mixture of “science” and “scientism” to gain professional status and respectability, and the failure to acknowledge the sustained critique of “pure” science since Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, let alone by more recent feminist and postmodern scholars.

  16. Archivists might do well to consider Donna Haraway's chapter, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” which begins: “Academic and activist feminist enquiry has repeatedly tried to come to terms with the question of whatwe might mean by the curious and inescapable term ‘objectivity,’” and concludes that “objectivity is not about dis-engagement.” See Donna J. Haraway,Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York, 1991), pp. 183–201.

  17. Archivists in recent years have begun to question, from a broadly “postmodernist” framework, the traditional, neutral, passive, positivist, and “scientific” mindset of their profession. 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). The themes were anticipated in his “Mind Over Matter: Towards a New Theory of Archival Appraisal”, in Barbara Craig (ed.),The Canadian Archival Imagination: Essays in Honour of Hugh A. Taylor (Ottawa, 1992); and continued in his “What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas”,Archivaria, and two interrelated articles: “Archival Science and Postmodernism: New Formulations for Old Concepts”,Archival Science; and “Fashionable Nonsense or Professional Rebirth: Postmodernism and the Practice of Archives”,Archivaria 51 (Spring 2001). Two pioneering postmodern archivists before Cook were also Canadian, Brien Brothman and Richard Brown. Among other works, see by Brien Brothman, “Orders of Value: Probing the Theoretical Terms of Archival Practice”,Archivaria 32 (Summer 1991); “The Limits of Limits: Derridean Deconstruction and the Archival Institution”,Archivaria 36 (Autumn 1993); his probing review of Jacques Derrida'sArchive Fever, inArchivaria 43 (Spring 1997), which was much deepened in his “Declining Derrida: Integrity, Tensegrity, and the Preservation of Archives from Deconstruction”,Archivaria 48 (Fall 1999); and “The Past that Archives Keep: Memory, History, and the Preservation of Archival Records”,Archivaria 51 (Spring 2001); and by Richard Brown, “Records Acquisition Strategy and Its Theoretical Foundation: The Case for a Concept of Archival Hermeneutics”,Archivaria 33 (Winter 1991–1992); “The Value of ‘Narrativity’ in the Appraisal of Historical Documents: Foundation for a Theory of Archival Hermeneutics”,Archivaria 32 (Summer 1991); and “Death of a Renaissance Record-Keeper: The Murder of Tomasso da Tortona in Ferrara, 1385”,Archivaria 44 (Fall 1997). Other postmodern statements by Canadians include Joan M. Schwartz, “‘We make our tools and our tools make us’: Lessons from Photographs for the Practice, Politics, and Poetics of Diplomatics”,Archivaria and “‘Records of Simple Truth and Precision’: Photography, Archives, and the Illusion of Control”,Archivaria 50 (Fall 2000); Preben Mortensen, “The Place of Theory in Archival Practice”,Archivaria 47 (Spring 1999); Tom Nesmith, “Still Fuzzy, But More Accurate: Some Thoughts on the ‘Ghosts’ of Archival Theory”,Archivaria 47 (Spring 1999); Bernadine Dodge, “Places Apart: Archives in Dissolving Space and Time”,Archivaria 44 (Fall 1997); Theresa Rowat, “The Records and the Repository as a Cultural Form of Expression”,Archivaria 36 (Autumn 1993); Robert McIntosh, “The Great War, Archives, and Modern Memory”,Archivaria; Carolyn Heald, “Is There Room for Archives in the Postmodern World?”American Archivist 59 (1996); and Lilly Koltun, “The Promise and Threat of Digital Options in an Archival Age”,Archivaria 47 (Spring 1999). Non-Canadian postmodern archival writers include Eric Ketelaar, “Archivalisation and Archiving”,Archives and Manuscripts 27 (May 1999); “Looking Through the Record into the Rose Garden”,Arkhiyyon. Reader in Archival Studies and Documentation, Israel Archives Association 10–11 (1999): XXVII–XLII, and “Tacit Narratives: The Meanings of Archives”,Archival Science 1.2 (2001): 143–155, among other works; and especially Verne Harris, “Claiming Less, Delivering More: A Critique of Positivist Formulations on Archives in South Africa”,Archivaria; “Redefining Archives in South Africa: Public Archives and Society in Transition, 1990–1996”,Archivaria; Exploring Archives: An Introduction to Archival Ideas and Practice in South Africa, 2nd edn. (Pretoria, 2000); “A Shaft of Darkness: Derrida in the Archive”, in Carolyn Hamilton et al. (eds.),Refiguring the Archive (Cape Town, 2002); “On (Archival) Odyssey(s)”,Archivaria 51 (Spring 2001): 2–14; and, with Sello Hatang, “Archives, Identity and Place”,ESARBICA Journal, among many other writings; Elizabeth Kaplan, “We Are What We Collect, We Collect What We Are”,American Archivist 63 (Spring/Summer 2000); and Francis X. Blouin Jr., “Archivists, Mediation, and Constructs of Social Memory”,Archival Issues 24 (1999). This (partial) list is constantly enlarging with established and new authors, as these two thematic issues ofArchival Science demonstrate.

  18. Steven Shapin,A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (Chicago, 1994); Mary Poovey,A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society (Chicago, 1998). Brien Brothman's work cited above, as well as his new article in the second of these two thematic issues ofArchival Science, exposes very powerfully the constructed and mediated nature of such archival concepts as evidence, order, memory, and value. See also Terry Cook, “Archives, Evidence, and Memory: Thoughts on a Divided Tradition”,Archival Issues 22 (1997); and Joan M. Schwartz, “‘Records of Simple Truth and Precision’: Photography, Archives, and the Illusion of Control”,Archivaria. On changing notions of “value” in archives over time, and how archivists have sought to preserve evidence and order in archives, see again Terry Cook, “What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas”,Archivaria.

  19. In this regard, the classic articulation is by Hilary Jenkinson, long a senior archivist in Britain's Public Record Office in the first half of the twentieth century: “The Archivist's ... Creed, the Sanctity of Evidence; his Task, the Conservation of every scrap of Evidence attaching to the Documents committed to his charge; his aim to provide, without prejudice or afterthought, for all who wish to know the Means of Knowledge.... The good Archivist is perhaps the most selfless devotee of Truth the modern world produces.” For a discussion (with citations) of Jenkinson's views within their historical context, and his impact, see Cook, “What is Past is Prologue”, 22–26.

  20. Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”, in herSimians, Cyborgs, and Women, p. 196. Here, Haraway makes reference to Katie King, “Canons Without Innocence” (PhD thesis, University of California at Santa Cruz, 1987).

  21. For a stimulating blending of these three streams, see Richard Tarnas,The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (New York, 1991).

  22. We are grateful to Lilly Koltun for raising these issues with us.

  23. For a more deailed critique along these lines, see Terry Cook, “The Impact of David Bearman on Modern Archival Thinking: An Essay of Personal Reflection and Critique”,Archives and Museum Informatics 11.1 (1997): 15–37; and the essay by Brien Brothman in the second of these two thematic issues.

  24. For a flavour only, see, for example, Eric Hobsbawn and Terence Ranger (eds.),The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, 1983); David Lowenthal,The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge MA, 1985); Michael Kammen,Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York, 1991); John Bodnar,Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, 1992); John Gillis (ed.),Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity (Princeton, 1994); and Jonathan Vance,Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War (Vancouver, 1997).

  25. See Bonnie G. Smith,The Gender of History: Men, Women, and Historical Practice (Cambridge MA and London, 1998). InThe Creation of Feminist Consciousness (1993). Gerda Lerner devotes an entire chapter to how women have sought to recover their own history by changing the way archives collect and describe records, often by having to sponsor archives themselves. See also herThe Creation of Patriarchy (New York, 1986); Riane Eisler,The Chalice & The Blade (San Francisco, 1987); and Leonard Shlain,The Alphabet versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image (New York, 1998) for critiques relevant to the patriarchal nature of the archival enterprise across the centuries.

  26. See especially Verne Harris, “Seeing (in) Blindness: South Africa, Archives and Passion for Justice”, draft essay for presentation to New Zealand archivists, August 2001

  27. Verne Harris,Exploring Archives, p. 45.

  28. Readers please note: The guest co-editors have standardized spelling and grammar to conform to Canadian-English style; however, author's varying footnoting styles have been respected and only made consistent within each article, but not across all the articles.

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Schwartz, J.M., Cook, T. Archives, records, and power: The making of modern memory. Archival Science 2, 1–19 (2002).

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  • archival theory
  • archives and power relationships
  • identity formation
  • representation and reality
  • social memory