Website Review: Reading Archives- a blog

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of working in the archival field is how it relates to broader subjects such as communication, memory, technology, and language. Every once and a while, I like to read a book that has some connection to archives and I often refer to a blog called Reading Archives for suggestions. Because of its broad interpretation of archives, I would recommend this blog to anyone even remotely interested in the field of archives and records management.

The blog is written by Richard Cox, a professor of Library and Information Science at the University of Pittsburgh. In his own words, the blog offers “critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society.” This description allows Cox to use his blog to comment on a wide variety of subjects- anything from government secrecy to the history of color photography to an analysis of cell phone texting. Although most of his postings provide summaries and comments about books, he also comments on articles, current events, guest speakers at Pitt, and events in the professional archives community. Together these sources clearly illustrate the broader importance of archives in society.

Dr. Cox started blogging in the fall of 2006 and adds to the blog about three times a week. The blog benefits from Dr. Cox’s past experiences which include writing 14 books on archives and records management subjects, serving four years as the editor of the American Archivist journal, and another four years as the publications director for the Society of American Archivists. The commentary on his blog is perceptive and succinct. He is an avid reader and I can only imagine what his personal library looks like. The books mentioned in his blog range from popular books you can buy at the airport to books on archival theory that are only available for purchase online. Even if I don’t read most of the books, I am amazed at how he relates everything to archives, its role in popular culture, and current events.

Click the link to access Reading Archives: http://readingarchives.blogspot.com/

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Respect des Fonds and Original Order, breaking it and keeping it?

The digital world has been a marvelous invention and has proven itself, regardless of the atavistic and anachronistic voices that are still sometimes heard. In the realm of the archives, most archivists are attempting and grappling with the plethora of issues that have arisen from the new technologies, both good and bad. For archivists, an area that will prove to be both challenging and enriching is how to address two very important principles in this new environment, Respect des Fonds and Original Order.

Before I continue on this subject, let us look at the definitions and etymologies of these fundamental archival axioms (for further reading on this topic, see my previous blog on the History and Future of Archival Thought and Practice). Respect des Fonds was developed between 1839 and 1841 by the French National Archives (known as the Archives Nationale). In principle, Respect des Fonds kept records together in the archives under the agency that originated them, and no longer scattered them among preconceived a-priori subject classes (the use of a-priori subject classes was devised by librarians).  However, within each fond (record group) records were arranged according to subject class (this form of segregation goes on at some archives, with the subject classes used as series arrangement levels). The internal rearrangement was usually intended for scholarly research.

The Prussian State Archives, who took the principle of Respect des Fonds but applied a further arrangement schema, Original Order, carried out the evolution and slight modification of this principle. In Original Order the internal structure of the fond is respected and a-priori subject classes are not used.  (In the United States the principle of Provenance has been used interchangeably with both Original Order and Respect des Fonds). One of the primary reasons for the difference between the Prussian and French models was ontological. The Prussians viewed records primarily for administrative and operational purposes, while the French believed they should always view them from research needs.

All archivists have respected these principles, and in the case of Respect des Fonds are followed but I will venture to say that the strict Original Order of the Fond has been overlooked or modified. This is not some nefarious conspiracy carried out by archivists but has more to do with practicality, precedent, research value and I dare say institutional culture and tradition. While in paper form both principles have been followed with some modifications, what will be the consequences in the digital world? Will the flexibility of the digital form allow us to follow a strict interpretation of both principles or can we folllow some hybrid form? I cannot foresee or discuss the possibilities that may arise at other archival repositories. I can however comment on what we will attempt to do at Youngstown State University.

Here at YSU we will be experimenting on how to keep both Original Order (within the Fonds) and Respect des Fonds but also break it as well…sort of. In a very short time we will commence the scanning of a large collection (Lloyd Collection) of unprocessed materials (I know the first gasps that are coming from everyone is how will you do that with out processing first, the answer to that is part of this experiment is to create a mock born digital collection and therefore help us to address born digital collections as well). These materials will be scanned in their Original Order and Respect des Fonds. There will be no a-priori series (description level of arrangement) created and then used to segregate the collection internally but we will use series  as a search mechanism. The structure will be kept in its order by using DSpace Institutional Repository Software and its segregating Community, Sub-Community and Collection level descriptions. The difference will be the use of the series field as a way to describe each meta-record to other similar meta-records and to create a series description meta-record that will be able to be used as a bibliographic record as well. By arranging the collection in this manner, we hope to service both the needs of the researcher and remain faithful to archival principles.

We obviously do not know the end results of this project but we hope to discover new ways of processing, arranging and describing even if they are completely different from any preconceived notions we may have. Stay tuned.