Archival Science

, Volume 16, Issue 1, pp 53–75 | Cite as

Records and their imaginaries: imagining the impossible, making possible the imagined

  • Anne J. GillilandEmail author
  • Michelle Caswell
Original Paper


This paper argues that the roles of individual and collective imaginings about the absent or unattainable archive and its contents should be explicitly acknowledged in both archival theory and practice. We propose two new terms: impossible archival imaginaries and imagined records. These concepts offer important affective counterbalances and sometimes resistance to dominant legal, bureaucratic, historical and forensic notions of evidence that so often fall short in explaining the capacity of records and archives to motivate, inspire, anger and traumatize. The paper begins with a reflection on how imagined records have surfaced in our own work related to human rights. It then reviews some of the ways in which the concept of the imaginary has been understood by scholarship in other fields. It considers how such interpretations might contribute epistemologically to the phenomenon of impossible archival imaginaries; and it provides examples of what we argue are impossible archival imaginaries at work. The paper moves on to examine specific cases and “archival stories” involving imagined records and contemplate how they can function societally in ways similar to actual records because of the weight of their absence or because of their aspirational nature. Drawing upon threads that run through these cases, we propose definitions of both phenomena that not only augment the current descriptive, analytical and explicatory armaments of archival theory and practice but also open up the possibility of “returning” them (Ketelaar in Research in the archival multiverse. Monash University Press, Melbourne 2015a) as theoretical contributions to the fields from which the cases were drawn.


Affect Archival imaginaries Cultural studies Evidence Human rights Imagined records 



The authors would like to thank Jamie A. Lee and David Thomas as well as the anonymous reviewers of this manuscript for their insightful comments on drafts of this article.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Information StudiesUniversity of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)Los AngelesUSA

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