Archival Science

, Volume 2, Issue 1–2, pp 21–43 | Cite as

Archives, memory, and interfaces with the past

  • Margaret Hedstrom


Archival interfaces are critical nodes in archival systems where archivists negotiate and exercise power over the constitution and representation of archives. Drawing on notions of interfaces from physical, technological, and computer systems, archival interfaces are both a metaphor for archivists' roles as intermediaries between documentary evidence and its readers and a tangible set of structures and tools that place archival documents in a context and provide an interpretative framework. Interfaces in modern institutions and technological systems are neither natural nor neutral. In probing archival interfaces, what may appear as neutral and objective processes are revealed as places where archivists determine what constitutes legitimate evidence of the past and shape social memories. The emergence of computer interfaces as an increasingly common mode of user interaction with archives demands that archivists confront the interpretative nature of their work and exploit opportunities to place themselves visibly in the interfaces they construct.


archival description archival systems digital documents (electronic records) interfaces representation 


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    This article has evolved over the past four years. I first presented these ideas in the keynote address called “Interfaces with Time” at the Australian Society of Annual Meeting in Freemantle on 7 August 1998. Since then, my thinking about archives, memory and interfaces has progressed as has the broader archival and historical discourse on these matters. I would like to acknowledge insights and support from several colleagues who have pushed my thinking and helped me become more confident in the ideas expressed here. Over the years I have benefited from discussions with Fran Blouin, Richard Cox, Wendy Duff, Bob Frost, Verne Harris, and Eric Ketelaar. I have learned a great deal about interface design from my human-computer interaction colleagues at the University of Michigan, especially Judith Olson and George Furnas. I also thank Terry Cook and Joan Schwartz for their thorough and helpful comments on the pervious draft of this article. Perhaps a new cohort is in formation.Google Scholar
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    Although this proposition may seem naïve and utopian, the type of power sharing and mutual respect that I am advocating grew out of a year-long discussion between historians and archivists around the theme of Archives, Documentation, and Institutions of Social Memory, sponsored by the Bentley Historical Library and the International Institute at the University of Michigan during the 2000–2001 academic year. In addition to producing a wealth of papers on the topic, which are being edited by Francis X. Blouin and William Rosenberg for publication by the University of Michigan Press, this seminar helped to demystify historians and archivists to each other and to reinforce the needs for a much deeper understanding of memory in both communities.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Margaret Hedstrom
    • 1
  1. 1.School of InformationUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA

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