Information and Myth-making

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

Joseph Goebbels, Reichsminister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945

It has been said that the ability to perpetuate myths is one of the most powerful cultural catalysts: newspapers, cable T.V, and now the internet all play a crucial role but the most influential factor maybe society’s distant chords of memory, with emphasis on the memory (or in some cases, the lack of). Information and the mediums that support its delivery comprise the pedagogical tools that enable people to acquire and produce new ideas or revamp old ones. But what happens when information is disinformation or misinformation? When that occurs, what becomes of some of our previous premises that arose from such information? Do they continue as dominating cultural beliefs or are they eventually dismissed?

In the 1960’s, under the cauldron of the Cold War the United States and Soviet Union waged relentless asymmetrical warfare. The use of propaganda and disinformation took on paramount importance in this fight. Within the Central Intelligence Agency one source of “unplanned” disinformation was the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS)1. The purpose of the FBIS was to monitor radio broadcasting (including CIA fabricated information) around the world from more than a dozen listening posts located in such varied places as Hong Kong, Panama, Nigeria, Cyprus and San Francisco. The FBIS also determined whether pro-western clandestine transmissions were reaching their intended targets. Many of the programs monitored by the FBIS were disseminated within the U.S. government, media, and academia.

The FBIS did not differentiate between sources when it forwarded its reports to subscribers (government agencies, universities, corporations, and the media were the major subscribers to this service), so no one knew if they were getting accurate information or simply disinformation. Even though the editors of the FBIS were members of the CIA’s Intelligence Directorate, the operators in the clandestine services refused to reveal their covert operations (which included the above mentioned covert radio transmissions) to the FBIS, therefore a certain amount of information was simply disinformation (unbeknownst to the FBIS). The CIA’s Clandestine Services department seemed untroubled by this development, showing little if no regard for misleading the media, academia and other CIA analysts, State, and Defense department colleagues as well.

So can we differentiate between “good” information and disinformation, if that’s at all possible? I believe only by systematically studying the sources, context, and provenance of the information can we arrive at an approximate objectivity. In the case of the FBIS, a topological and functional analysis would needed to have been done before the information could have been evaluated for its degree of objectivity. The analysis could have asked the following questions: what function (role) does the FBIS have; how does this function relate and affect other departments within their parent organization; what are the records or information that are created as a result of that internal and external functionality; and what is the temporal and spatial influence of the information (who is using it and for how long)?  In addition to a functional analysis, a documentary analysis could also have been done, (if there were documents to study, see: previous blog post on, How to Study Documents), which could have yielded further positive results.2 By answering or attempting to answer these questions, a higher degree of scrutiny and possibly better understanding of the information could have been acquired.3

So, do we know the extent of damage done by the creation of disinformation by both Cold War protagonists? No and I would venture to guess that most people do not care. This should not be dismissed simply as a cynical remark but one based on the fact that our society is deluged with a constant flow of information. Some good and some not so good but when faced with an abundance of data, people will generally fall back on preconceived notions and myths (such as the popular urban legends of the CIA assassinating JFK or selling drugs in South Central Los Angeles).

“History is the enemy of memory,” cautioned historian Richard White, after researching the archival sources and discovering many of his mother’s stories (which consisted of her childhood memories in Ireland) to be false.4 However, did Richard White prefer the truth or were the stories told to him of greater importance even though they had a layer of hyperbole and myth-making (we could further discuss the ambiguity of truth5 and the influence of story telling in shaping societal constructs)? It is the responsibility of document curators, archivists, librarians and researchers to make sure myths and memories do not replace empirical truth (or at the very least we need to create a level playing field) but we must not lose sight of this dichotomy: people generally prefer a good story, even an embellished one, regardless of its veracity. While “the truth maybe stranger than fiction,” many times it is not as riveting. I began this blog with a quote from Joseph Goebbels and his views on the “truth,” and I will end it with my own observation.  “People may believe a lie if repeated long enough but people tend to get bored with the truth much sooner.”

(Click here to read more on the question of information permanence).

  1. Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks, The CIA and The Cult of Intelligence (New York: Doubleday, 1980).
  2. To read more about documentary analysis, see: Luciana Duranti, Diplomatics: new uses for an old science (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1998).
  3. To read more about functional analysis, see: Helen Willa Samuels, Varsity letters: documenting modern colleges and universities (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1998).
  4. Randall C. Jimerson, Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice (Society of American Archivists, 2009).
  5. William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (New York: Meridian, 1955).

Information Society and Finding Aids

The finding aid (sometimes referred to as the representation of records) has remained the main staple of describing, controlling and arranging of archival collections for the last century.  Digitally the finding aid has migrated into the digital world through MARC, EAD, XML and DACS markup tools. This migration however was only to describe analog objects in a digital environment, it did not truly address the quandary of born digital objects. While new systems are being built around EAD models (Archives Tool Kit, ARCHON) the dilemma of vast quantities of homogeneous and unique series being transferred, accessioned, and described to the same level of current analog objects does not truly exist (there are exceptions, the Maryland and Washington State Archives being the best example of archives doing mass digital transfer and preservation). Where does that leave the finding aid (in its current state), does it have a home in the new born digital world or will it be replaced…. with the google search?

Before we continue, it behooves us to describe the function and structure of a finding aid. The finding aid serves two main objectives: it provides both administrative and intellectual control. The administrative control addresses several points: location, the record source, provenance, and general description. The intellectual control answers questions pertaining to researcher needs: detailed information about records within a series or record group (such as biographical information); information on unique information that may be found and the relationship with other records in the collection or repository holdings. The structure of most finding aids usually follows the record group topology: preface, introduction, biographical sketch or entity history, scope and content, series description, container and item listing. There are exceptions to this rule as most governmental archives follow a series or functional description structure (the Australian Records Continuum and Canadian Macro-Appraisal theories being the most popular). Regardless of what methodology one follows, a finding aid should meet several basic criteria: they should be written for general researchers; have a certain level of objectivity; they must be well written, succinct and concise; they must take into account the different subject areas that a collection (or series)  may address; and finally something that has not been implemented-the annotation of the archivist’s pedegogy and epistemology.1

We have discussed what a finding aid does, now we will discuss the evolution of it. The five levels of arrangement: repository, record group (collection), series, file unit, and item were created by Oliver Wendell Holmes. But the anthropological evolution of archival representation and description go back to Archives Nationale and the Prussian State Archives (see previous blog on part of this discussion, Respect des Fonds and Original Order, breaking it and keeping it), their creation of the modern system of arrangement and registries had the most profound effect upon modern archives and consequentially the finding aid. The evolution continued with the founding of the National Archives (now known as the National Archives & Records Administration, or NARA) in the 1930’s, the (NARA) staff upon discovering the lack of records organization, decided to deal with the predicament by inventing a records management system to control the life cycle of records. But the real impetus for many of our current standards can be found in the Historical Records Survey and the organization of county court house records during the Depression. (For further discussion on this subject, see: Richard C. Brerner’s, Archival Theory and Practice in The United States.)

Philosophically, the finding aid is the hypostatisation of archival reification.2 If archiving were an abstract object (collecting and describing the physical documentary temporal spatial environment) than its resultant physical creation or byproduct is the finding aid (the hypostatisation of archival reality: the reification).3 However, within the digital world the need for this changes dramatically, or does it? If the finding aid is the representation of  structures, epistemologies and ontologies within an analog environment, how does the digital structure change it? While we could take this argument and pursue how society itself is going to be changed and therefore documentary creation and collection (read my previous blog: Archival Appraisal and Selection in the Information Society), instead I will focus my analysis on the final resultant (an attempt at a all encompassing analysis would be prohibitive).

So, returning back to my previous statement, “can a keyword (google like) search mechanism replace a finding aid?” This can lead us to many different tangents: pattern recognition, educational pedagogies, evolving societal structures, post-modernism (everything seems to be post-modernist now, see: Postmodernism and Logical Positivism in Archival Thought on the topic of post-modernism and archives) and so on. However, while keyword federated searching has its obvious strengths, it cannot possibly address the contextual, evidential and structural nature of unbounded finite interrelated items. The items within a records group, series or collection have the peculiar uniqueness of having both interconnected intrinsic and extrinsic substance and essence. Capturing a keyword (or any single meta data item) is very important for searching but it can never replace the macro-contextualization of information. Take the example of the Google book project; if Google were able to scan all of the books in the world and provide ocr’d searchable text, would we still need book cataloging? Many people out there would probably at first glance say no. But if we were to analyze this proposition further, we would deny ourselves valuable information that is only captured at the cataloging phase: the provenance, context, subject analysis, and many more areas to numerous to name (I’m sure catalogers could come up with a million).  However, the importance of the finding aid is even more critical to unpublished records.

The finding aid takes raw materials and contextualizes them. That contextualization describes the records provenance, history, structures, and external and internal relationships. Simply ocr’ing a text and making digital surrogates available, while incredibly useful for accessibility purposes, would not address those areas stated before. So, the question isn’t should the finding aid survive but what form will it take when records are no longer analog?  This will directly effect how the archivist analyzes data or digital forms on a server, optical disk or hard drive. We have stated the ontological importance of the finding aid. In the next blog we will go into the new areas of analysis that a finding aid must address in the new information age and further discuss the philosophical implications.

  1. Michelle Light and Tom Hyry, “Colophons and Annotations: New Directions for the Finding Aid,” American Archivist 65 (Fall/Winter 2002): 216-30.
  2. Joseph Gabel, False Consciousness: An Essay on Reification (New York: Harper & Row, 1975).
  3. For further discussion on hypostatisation and reification, See: Georg Lukacs’s essay, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.”

Archival Appraisal and Selection in the Information Society

With the amount of information being created it would seem that technology has only created more problems than it has solved. Now archivists have a plethora of information to analyze (but beyond the question of quantity, there is also the question of stability and ease of destruction) and more questions that seem to have no answers: new mediums of information, with criteria and categories that sometimes have no relation to the past? The belief that all appraisal is local and subjective,1 without acknowledging the digital world breaking down previous spatial barriers?  Finally, post-modernism2 points out that we are all prisoners of our subjectivity (or appearance)3 incapable from escaping the shadows in the cave, raising the specter of a totalitarian subjectivity. Regardless of the many questions that must be addressed, I believe a continued improvement of our archival causality will aid in overcoming the supposed subjective/objective (post-modernist) impasse.  In the mean time, all of these questions will be carried over into the new temporal and spatial contexts, with seemingly no answers. (I briefly touched on some of these points in a previous blog, History and Future of Archival Thought and Practice.)

At the heart of the new technological paradigm are still the same archival issues: what records (or data) describes our society, what mediums are people and entities using to convey their beliefs, needs and histories, and what means will we use to describe and arrange these new mediums. I don’t believe that we need to collect anything drastically different but we have to know how the new information topologies have created or altered content and we must document the process, intention, philosophy and subjectivity of documentary evidence.  Precedent will carry us forward and answer many of our selection and appraisal questions. It is not a-priori knowledge but a-posteriori that will be applied in many situations, we may believe we are recreating the wheel but in fact we really are borrowing and building upon previous pedagogies.4 But the most profound difference will lie in our ability to draw closer to archival causality.5 It is that search for causality or innate search for knowledge of the external world that will draw us towards better conclusions.

As Archivists we already have a-posteriori category knowledge (in other words many record series will be duplicated both for convenience and because of pattern recognition6) from our previous analog work but whatever form our selection and description takes us-it must be documented. It has been stated that we need to annotate our arrangement and description as a means to overcome the deficiency of subjective arrangement and description.7 I will take it one step further and declare that we need to annotate our appraisal and acquisition decisions as well.

Annotating our appraisal and selection decisions will give us greater insight into records and the systems that created them. With electronic records these annotations could describe how records were created (databases, HTML text, or on-line search engines). Another question that will need to be confronted is what are the functions of these systems and how do they lend themselves to the new records creating process. Also, documentation of why certain systems were used for retrieval and not others, will be significant. The how will not be as difficult as the why. The complexity of how, will be in the front-end costs of digital archiving and the specialized skills that are needed. This possibly will lead to increased cooperation among system creators,  (DSpace and Fedora are just two examples). But all of that will fail if we don’t answer the basic ontological and teleological questions and develop a more sophisticated systematic methodology of documentary causality.

One way to accomplish this important endeavor is to turn to the philosophy of science. Philosophers such as Bertrand Russell (and his five causal postulates),8Aristotle’s Four Causes and Mario Bunge’s work in the causal9 field give archivists a good starting point for developing an improved causal rule set. By adopting a more sophisticated methodology, archivist’s will draw closer to relevant facts (documentary evidence and its relations) and improved decision making (better appraisal and selection). Some will argue that it is not feasible to apply rules from the empirical sciences to archival work, to some extent that may be true (even others will declare this is being done already when they answer the who, where, when, how and why of documents) but we can still improve our decision making process by having a formal set of rules to guide us. In my next blog on appraisal and selection, I will address its feasibility.

  1. Mark A. Greene and Todd J. Daniels-Howel, “Documentation with an Attitude: A Pragmatist’s Guide to the Selection and Acquisition of Modern Business Records,” in The Records of American Business, ed. James M.O’Toole (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1997), 162.
  2. Terry Cook, “Archival Science and Postmodernism: New Formulations for Old Concepts,” Archival Science, vol. 1, no. 1 (2000): 3-24.
  3. H.A. Prichard, “Appearances and Reality,” Mind, Vol. 15, No. 58, (Apr., 1906): 223-229.
  4. Linda J. Henry, “Schellenberg in Cyberspace,” American Archivist, Vol. 61, (Fall 1998): 309-327.
  5. Not a simplistic causality (where the first is the cause of the next, usually associated with David Hume) but a more complex epistemology, more in line with Bertrand Russell’s Five Postulates of Causality. See, Human Knowledge.
  6. Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language: towns, buildings, construction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).
  7. Michelle Light and Tom Hyry, “Colophons and Annotations: New Directions for the Finding Aid,” American Archivist 65 (Fall/Winter 2002): 216-30.
  8. Bertrand Russell, Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits (London: Allen and Unwin, 1948).
  9. Mario Bunge, Causality and Modern Science (New York: Dover Publications, 1979).

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.

How to Study Documents

If there is a scientific aspect to archives, the study of Diplomatics would be that area. Its function is the same as anatomy is to a doctor, and grammar to a linguist. Its indispensable for having an understanding of the meaning and function of the constituent parts of a document. Luciana Duranti in Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science (London, 1998. The Scarecrow Press, Inc), elaborates on this well know analytical tool (used by Europeans for many years but only within the last 10 years has it been given any attention among American archivists).

Over the last several centuries the primary focus for diplomatics has been the document and all of the elements that it embodies. Diplomatists have used the document to analyze the relationships between it and persons, procedures, functions, acts, and the overall system that creates them. In essence the study of diplomatics is akin to using the inductive method of philosophy to analyze a specific subject or area without any previous notions or ideas (a-priori), such as what a botanist or biologist might do. So, instead of imposing some sort of meta-theory on to a body of documents or records (such as the macro-functional approach does) the archivist uses only what is available to them (for further reading on the meta-theory and empirical debate, see my previous post on this subject, Postmodernism and Logical Positivism in Archival Thought).

Duranti divides her work into six sections: first explaining the origin and nature of diplomatics; secondly, describing the relationship between fact, act, and the function of documents; thirdly, discussing the public and private nature of documents; fourthly, elaborating on the procedures of document creation; concluding with, how to actually analyze a document and elaborating on further uses of these tools.

Throughout her book, Duranti creates an argument for the superiority of her method (as opposed to macro appraisal) based upon the empirical study of documents. “It is by studying the form of documents objectively, that we come to know and understand the administrative actions and functions generating them without prejudice.” All documents have extrinsic and intrinsic elements that help an archivist not only appraise the document itself but draw conclusions about the contextuality of how, where, and why those documents were created.

While this method has been accused of being radically empirical (and its followers of being logical positivists, running very much against the predominanting postmodernist philosophy), this form of analysis does give the archivist “objective” tools, enhancing his ability to not only analyze documents but to understand the context in which those documents were created. However, these tools like everything else, is limited by the person wieldying them. No amount of mechanisms can eliminate the subjective form from any analysis.

Postmodernism and Logical Positivism in Archival Thought

The term postmodernism first came into existence in a 1939 article, “Our own Post-Modern Age has been inaugurated by the General war of 1914-1918.” by famed British Historian Arnold J. Toynbee to describe the post WWI era. Philosophically postmodernism would be put on center stage in 1966 when Jacques Derrida a French Algerian born philosopher delivered a lecture at John Hopkins University challenging the underlying premises of structuralism (unofficially ushering in the era of postructuralism). While the effects of postmodernism have been felt in all of the arts and sciences, archival science has been slow to embrace it. Part of the problem lies in archival sciences attachment to logical positivism and empiricism (part of the reason for this, is archivists deal with physical documentary evidence within the confines of a laboratory like setting, not unlike some physical sciences). There can be no doubt that postmodernism has created epistemological dilemmas that have shaken the foundation of the sciences, archives being no exception.  In this blog I will contrast two prominent archival thinkers: Terry Cook and Luciana Duranti. Terry Cook explores the dynamics of postmodernism, while Luciana Duranti delves into its antithesis-Diplomatics. Both explore how their respective theories influence archival epistemology and methodology. Terry Cook lays out a strong case for using postmodernism and having it replace (or override) aspects of archival empiricism (informational and evidential analysis); I differ in that I see it as another tool to be incorporated into the archivists skill set.

The two articles (authored by Cook) titled: Archival Science and Postmodernism: New Formulations for Old Concepts and Fashionable Nonsense or Professional Rebirth: Postmodernism and the Practice of Archives presents several archival paradigm shifts revolving around postmodernist modification of society and culture. While postmodernism has been around for several decades, it has not affected archival thought until at least the last 10 years (I would argue that many archivists are still oblivious to its effects). One new role espoused by this philosophy is to view records now as dynamic objects as opposed to static (they never were static but that is for another blog), another is how postmodernist’s rebellion against the notions of universal truth and objective knowledge, has affected archives and their function in society. This blog will focus on the latter.

Before we continue, I will digress to explain a little of postmodern thinking. As mentioned before, postmodernists distrust any belief in obtaining “truth.” The postmodernist trusts nothing at face value and questions all societal constructs as unnatural and in need of being deconstructed or analyzed to reveal their true meaning. It becomes more important to analyze power group’s, then actual facts or acts.

Postmodernism in archives addresses the point that all documents or artifacts are not neutral evidence but formed by societal context and the creator’s prejudices. But more then this, the document is not objective because it represents society’s power over memory and over the future. It is the state’s (or any entities) power, as contended by postmodernists, who control how the future will be told. Therefore it is more important to study macro- contexts then the content itself. Macro-appraisal theorists are representative of this form of thinking.

[Critics of postmodernist thought label postmodernist historians as “theory-mongers” who pass off a-priori theories for rational thinking. The subjective interpretation of the past becomes more important then the places, persons, and events. (One of the best critical accounts of postmodernism is Alan Sokal’s, Fashionable Nonsense.)]

On the other end of the spectrum lies the logical positivist school (The basic affirmations of Positivism are (1) that all knowledge regarding matters of fact is based on the “positive” data of experience, and (2) that beyond the realm of fact is that of pure logic and pure mathematics.). Luciana Duranti, Professor of Archival Science at the University of British Columbia, best personifies this philosophy within the archival framework (known as Diplomatics). Luciana Duranti bases her beliefs on the ability to use principles of documentary analysis, to derive truth from documents, that are universally valid and objective regardless of place. (See: Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science, to read more about this theory.)

The criticism of this theory is that it does not take into account the political and cultural contexts. Its basis in universally valid principles does away with historical and sociology circumstances. Instead it concentrates on the legal doctrine and juridical context of the creator, and the documents it analyzes.

These two ways of thought provide a dichotomy that is false and has really no reason to exist. Both theories have merit and neither can stand on its own (I contend that many of the analytical features of postmodernism have been used by archivists already but remain difficult to completely implement do to the physical, fiduciary,  time, and labor constraints).  Postmodernist thought in archives deems to have archivists rely on functionality and the contextualization of records creation (and societal contexts). While diplomatics provides content analysis tools devoid of any “prejudices,” and which lead to certain truths. When I examine these theories, I see two very different forms of methodology but both seeking the same objective, truth within a certain parameter.

Both of these forms of investigation can be reduced to deductive (beginning with a general concept or rule and working down to specific conclusions) and inductive methods (is a process of using observations to develop general principles about a specific subject or theory). Postmodernist’s represent what I believe is the deductive school. By starting out with general a-priori theories, regardless of the actual empirical data found in records, then move to decide what records are valid for permanent historical reasons. The inductive method personified by the logical positivist archival school clearly uses the available records (observations) and derives general acquisition and appraisal policies from such.

As mentioned before neither method can stand on their own. Understanding contextuality of both society and organizations that create records is highly needed, especially when the size of the documentary region is daunting. When trying to make acquisition and appraisal decisions for large series and record groups this theory proves to be a powerful tool in the archivist’s arsenal (also useful in relating records to other series and record groups in the description process).  However, knowing and analyzing content at the record level (diplomatics) is also very useful when seeking form, legal and historical authenticity of records. More importantly it also gives archivists tools for reappraising collections and making future deaccessioning decisions. (This is a very limited analysis of both within an archival framework, the uses of both have yet to reach their limits.)

Theories are very useful and both of these are no exception but archivists must always move beyond theory to applicability. The archive is the great historical laboratory where all theories and their results are played out. The question that should always be asked and one that I feel carries with it an aspect of objectivity that can guide us when decisions must be made with one eye on the budgetary bottom line (along with time, labor, and space) is, what records had and have the greatest effect upon society or geographical region (or describe events, places, and ideas better within the same societal and geographical context)? And how can these theories aid in answering that question? In the end, immediate physical realities play a much greater role then any theory.

[Another area of criticism by postmodernists is the lack of historical representation of all disenfranchised groups within archival holdings. While valuing all histories is admirable and should be archived if possible, to actually accomplish what postmodernists advocate is NOT feasible. If we are to believe that a collection of documents that describe for example: ethnic gardening methods, (regardless of how good their resultant creation may be) have the same value as the records of Standard Oil…. to even contemplate the thought… is ludicrous.]

What makes a record historical and another not?

In the archives world there always seems to be quandaries (I think there always will be) when deciding what to keep. Do we base it on precedent, major events, social theory, macro-appraisal theory, or another of the myriad of ideas that have taken hold. The easy answer is, “just save the historical record.” But what makes a record historical? Is it society, the “objective archivist,” an event, survival (what records survive and which ones do not), or a combination of all four?

Many times the historical record is simply what was left behind, such as the Domesday Book or the Bayeux Tapestry. Such archival appraisal decisions become self-evident. However, the luxury of being able to apply a simplistic acquisition and appraisal decision is no longer viable. Paper and recently with the growth of electronic communications, have rendered appraisal to be the most difficult of decisions. This brings us back to our original question, what then is a historical record? Is a record historical from the beginning or does it take time to acquire such a meaning?

There have been many theories related to this dilemma. Herodutus, the father of history, (while not addressing this question) tried to capture the memory of the past by telling of achievements and conflicts of the Ionian people. His reliance on oral records, with a few exceptions, such as his use of physical (descriptions of buildings, bridges, and sculptures) and oracular evidence proves the theory of using what ever is available at the time. The current era (the last 100 years) has definitely produced an assortment of new theories that shed further light on the quandary.

Some modern theorists conclude that the historical record is whatever the creator (creator here refers to one who gives “birth” to a record, not an infinite being or deity) decides it is, this is commonly referred to as Jenkinsonism, after famed archival thinker Sir Hillary Jenkinson. Some prefer that the archivist (supposedly staying objective) by applying evidential and informational theories, can capture the zeitgeist of society or rely on some form of a documentary strategy (using major themes or events as a starting point) to decide what is historical. While others have advocated the use of societal norms as the principle axiom for documenting society.

All of these theories still rely on the subjective individual entering the appraisal process at some point. Archival theorists contend (implicitly), that their theories remove the subjective element and allow for only an objective methodology. While this is a noble belief, it is delusional to believe that this is ever true. Even though G.W.F. Hegel wrote the following for historians, it can be easily applied to archivists, “any historian who claims to let the facts speak for themselves brings his categories with him and sees the data through them.” In other words, even when the archivist is using supposedly objective tools in deciding what is historical, he still processes them through the subjective. All of his prejudices, ignorance, and knowledge become part of the decision making process, regardless of what mechanisms are used. (This is especially compounded by limitations in repository storage space.) Without belaboring the issue or having some readers ask the question, “when are you going to answer the question?” here goes.

Any record can be perceived as historical, what we really refer to as historical and non-historical is a matter of degree. The problem is not what makes a record historical but what records define our society (past, present and future) and its ideas better then others. But the individual archivist can never hope to capture, even within a small geographical framework, a complete societal or institutional pathology. As mentioned before, an individual is restricted by his senses and can only perceive an infinitesimal small amount of events, words, and deeds. Even greater then these sensory limitations are societies scarce resources of time, money, and space (this will be the subject of another blog) and the other subjective actors involved in the record making process (that make the job even more difficult). All records regardless of form (written, oral, 3-D) give us insight into humanity; it is the archivist who decides to what degree.