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Evidence, memory, identity, and community: four shifting archival paradigms


This essay argues that archival paradigms over the past 150 years have gone through four phases: from juridical legacy to cultural memory to societal engagement to community archiving. The archivist has been transformed, accordingly, from passive curator to active appraiser to societal mediator to community facilitator. The focus of archival thinking has moved from evidence to memory to identity and community, as the broader intellectual currents have changed from pre-modern to modern to postmodern to contemporary. Community archiving and digital realities offer possibilities for healing these disruptive and sometimes conflicting discourses within our profession.

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  1. Cited from an online call for papers for the forthcoming (at the time of writing) “Myth-Making and Myth-Breaking in History and the Humanities: An International Conference, University of Bucharest, 7–8 October 2011,” accessed 8 May 2011, at

  2. I want to acknowledge Pat Whatley and Caroline Brown of the Centre for Archive and Information Studies at the University of Dundee, and their able team of assistants, for conceptualizing this conference, and to thank them especially for many gracious kindnesses and much warm hospitality, amid then unexpected brutal winter conditions. This essay is a reworking of my opening keynote address given at the conference. My thinking on many of these issues owes much to three archival kindred spirits, Anne Lindsay, Tom Nesmith, and Verne Harris, and I acknowledge as well close readings and helpful comments from Rachel Jones and Eric Ketelaar, to all five of whom I am grateful and indebted for a much improved text. I am alone responsible, however, for all interpretations advanced and any errors committed. I am not responsible for my footnotes being cast in the APA “in text” format, which is imposed on authors by this publisher, contrary to archival scholarship standards in English elsewhere, and inimical to the narrative flow of my prose.

  3. For an overview analysis (and case studies) of the themes of this identity literature, see the editors’ “Introduction,” in Bradbury and Myers (2005). For an influential early work on traditions invented or reshaped to construct a usable past to serve the present, see Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983).

  4. The literature on “memory” is vast. As but one good example of an entire book devoted to just the secondary academic writing on the subject, see Misztal (2003). For an admirable analysis of thirteen of the more prominent titles and especially noteworthy in terms of their archival implications, see Craig (2002). In addition to works that I cite later in this essay by Michael Clanchy, Patrick Geary, Frances Yates, and Matt Matsuda, two excellent sources that have much influenced me in offering stimulating overviews of the fields of memory and identity are Hutton (1993), especially Ch 1, “Placing Memory in Contemporary Historiography”; and Gillis (1994), particularly his sweeping introduction, “Memory and Identity: The History of a Relationship”; and Lowenthal magisterial and pioneering work (1985).

  5. On the intricate and fascinating influence of the nature of recording media on shaping the very tropes and possibilities of memory, see Williams (2009).

  6. On the archivist, ethics, and society, the most eloquent advocate has been Verne Harris; see the collection of his principal statements (Harris 2007) and his fine essay updating these ideas (Harris 2011a).

  7. On Jenkinson more broadly within the context of the evolution of modern archival theory, see Davies (1957), Cook (1997), and Eastwood (2003).

  8. For a summary statement, see Duranti and MacNeil (1996); for more detailed suggestions of how reliable and authentic records may be created and maintained, see Duranti et al. (2002).

  9. Of many possible references for continuum thinking, see the most recent summary by its originator (Upward 2005); and on the accountability emphasis, see McKemmish and Upward (1993). In fairness, in light of South African and Canadian critiques, among others, Australians have more recently broadened the more pluralistic possibilities of the continuum; a fine example of such expansive thinking is Reed (2005).

  10. In addition to a vast field of scholarship by others (alluded to in note 4 above) and many individual articles by archivists, see in support of these assertions the analyses by archivists in four recent key works: Cox and Wallace (2002), Procter et al. (2006), Jimerson (2009), and Harris (2007). More than anyone else, save Jacques Derrida who inspired him, Harris has injected this “power” perspective into the archival discourse; his most recent statement is Harris (2011b).

  11. On the mediating interpretive role of archivists and the complication of information technology in that process, see Hedstrom (2002).

  12. For a mere flavour, see on medieval archives and their purposes, (Geary 1994, pp. 86–87, 177, and especially Chapter 3: “Archival Memory and the Destruction of the Past,” and Geary 2006; Clanchy 1993; and Sickinger 1999). On war, see Winter (1991), especially the section: "Falsifying the Record;" and on using the record (including its archiving processes) in the battle for military reputations, see Cook (2006).

  13. Matsuda builds on the classic pioneering work of memory scholarship by Pierre Nora, Jacques LeGoff, and David Lowenthal in the 1980s. On the fascinating range of mnemonic devices and the practices and changing perceptions associated with them in the Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance worlds, see Yates (1966), which may be considered the foundational text of modern memory studies.

  14. The provocative work of Shapiro (1996) focuses on courts brushing aside female testimony—both oral and written evidence—that clashed with cultural norms, see especially Ch. 2; also Matsuda (1996), Ch. 5.

  15. Delgamuukw v. British Columbia [1997] 3 S.C.R. 1010.

  16. See Brothman (2002) for an incisive critique, as well as Meehan (2006). This new complexity of provenance, and thus the proper grounding for contemporary evidence, has been called, by various archival writers, postcustodial or postmodern or functional; or as ambient or societal or virtual provenance; or described as a search for pattern recognition and narrative cohesion in the records-creation processes. In all these cases, provenance is transformed from its structuralist origins to a series of iterative and ongoing discursive relationships centred on functions, activities, processes, societal forces, and the personal interactions and organizational cultures that collectively cause records to be created, within and across constantly evolving organizational and personal lives, offering multiple perspectives and many orders of value, rather than one fixed order.

  17. This is not to discount earlier archival and recordkeeping endeavours going back centuries in the state, churches, courts, businesses, and leading noble and merchant families, nor the efforts of enthusiastic private collectors of manuscripts, all of whom had their own mindsets and presuppositions about “the archive.” That must remain, alas, beyond the scope of this essay, as must archival traditions not manifested in or translated to the English language.

  18. For a complementary analysis of archival phases, but extending back to ancient civilizations and oral cultures up to the present digital age, see the broad contextual patterns of an evolving archivy in Katz and Gandel (2011).

  19. For the first three paradigmatic phases that follow, I have not footnoted my assertions for two reasons. First, in terms of evidence and memory, the first two phases, which tease out further the ideas advanced earlier in this essay, these have already been footnoted on the preceding pages. Secondly, for all three phases, I am summarizing, if in a rather new light, perspectives on the history of the evolution of archival ideas that I have published elsewhere, with very extensive footnotes; for the main works (and their sources), see Cook (1997, 2000, 2001, 2005a, b,).

  20. The term and role in this context of “archivist-as-apprentice” come from Patricia Galloway, and I think it is particularly apt; see Galloway (2009, p. 81).

  21. For specific suggestions for how archivy might be theorized anew, to its considerable enrichment, see the stimulating essay by Flinn (2011). He has been an early and prominent voice in bringing the community archives perspective to the attention of the profession, and this most recent work summarizes his earlier writing on this subject.

  22. This collaborative network is now the formal policy and active programme of Library and Archives Canada to research and launch discussions with partners across Canada. In October 2010, the National, Provincial, and Territorial Archivists Conference, representing all the major government archives of Canada, all with full “total archives” mandates to collect government and private records in all media, endorsed “the development of a Pan-Canadian strategy, involving the broader heritage community, that is, libraries, archives, and museums, and based on a collaborative or joint partnership model, to sustain our documentary heritage into the future.” (Canadian Council of Archives 2011).

  23. In addition to the essays in Bastian and Alexander 2009 volume already cited, for an excellent outline of the many theoretical, research, and strategic opportunities that community and indigenous archiving offers to the archival profession, see McKemmish et al. (2005).


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Cook, T. Evidence, memory, identity, and community: four shifting archival paradigms. Arch Sci 13, 95–120 (2013).

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  • Archival theory
  • Paradigm shifts
  • Evidence
  • Memory
  • Professional identity
  • Community archiving