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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Historical Truth?

Recently, I came to be fascinated by the historical theories of Oscar Handlin and William McNeill, which focus on whether or not history is true.  I was exposed to their essays while reading Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in American History, Volume II Reconstruction to the Present for one of the History classes I am taking this semester.  I tend to favor Handlin’s theory more than McNeill’s, but both encourage thinking and question their readers’ belief in historical truth.  If anything, Handlin and McNeill are capable of making one see history through different eyes.

Oscar Handlin opens his essay, “The Uses of History,” by saying that the world has a desire for facts, for knowledge, and also for reassurance and relevance.  This need for reassurance and relevance can be a problem for historians seeking the truth.  Historical data becomes distorted as historians try to meet these demands. To make the past usable, to “solve the world’s problems,” historical data has to have a scientific approach, a formula.  Historical truth is NOT influenced by the desires or visions of the viewer.  Historical truth is evidence.  This evidence forms a record; the record is the truth.  Oscar Handlin says evidence is chronological, evidence is vocabulary, and evidence is context.  He says without a record, there could be no “counting of time, no reading of words, and no perception on the context, and no utility of the subject.” Fact is something of common ground for all historians despite the difference in their interpretation.  Scientific methods must be used to distinguish between fact and opinions.  Handlin warns the historian to be careful of the difference between fact and interpretation, and confronts the arguments of falseness in historical truth.  Such is false when influenced by external pressures (as in Stalin’s imposition on Russian history), when opinions get involved with evidence, when information is manipulated for convenience, when the distinction between fact and interpretation disappears, and when it becomes a means to an end of someone’s preconceived notions instead of arriving to the truth based on the evidence alone. All these external pressures and choices are the basis of William McNeill’s opinion of historical truths or myths.

McNeill’s essay, “Mythistory, or Truth, Myth, History, and Historians,” emphasizes the falsehood of historical truth, seeing history as evolving through the discovery of new data and exposure to intellectual choices and subjective judgments on the arrangement of historical facts.  These judgments and choices have nothing to do with scientific methodology.  The scientific method of finding historical truth is meaningless and is of no use to the historian. Unlike Handlin, McNeill believes all the “evidence” becomes nothing but a catalogue; it has to be put together for the reader in order to be understandable, credible, and useful because facts alone do not give “meaning or intelligibility to the record of the past.”   Everything evolves, causing emphasis on what is important to change.  Previously important facts become “background noise” while others remain constant.  This picking and choosing of facts is what makes history elastic and evolutionary.  Every culture has its own version of truth; truth about its own culture as well as the “truth” about other cultures.  Truth to one is another person’s myth (mythistories).  Therefore, all these outside forces of culture, background, relationships, society, etcetera, affect what is true whether the individual realizes it or not. Because of this, history tends to be biased and, according to McNeill, the past is influenced by the way an individual wants it to be.  History (or myth) becomes self-validating.   What historians need to do is to view history and group identities on a more general scale. Specialization with a focus on documents should be avoided.  Historians need to view history as ecumenical and parochial.   It evolves as groups evolve.  The main important figure he states is “ever-evolving mythistories will indeed become truer and more adequate to public life, emphasizing the really important aspects of human encounters and omitting irrelevant background noise more efficiently so that man and women will know how to act more wisely than is possible for us today.”

This is what makes history interesting and dynamic, not static.  It makes for new and fresh versions of history.  How one views historical truth can influence his or her outlook on events and people in history. Can history be based on science and knowable things (Handlin’s chronology, words, and context) or can that even be manipulated by the people of that time because it reflects their “truth,” which can be other’s “myths”?   What about things which are “common ground” to historians and people?  Everyone can say “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492.”  Is this based on scientific evidence or is it an evolution of an important fact that didn’t become “background noise,” whereas some other facts may have? Is history true? Such is not up to the historian only, but also to the reader’s interpretation of the historian’s interpretation, which is all influenced by theories of historical truth.

History and Future of Archival Thought and Practice

When I’m asked what I do for a living and respond that I am an archivist, the usual response is, “so you’re a librarian,” (if I don’t get the deer in the headlights look first). This prompts me to delve into my ever-expanding lecture on, “what is an archivist.” This lecture has evolved and metamorphosed over the years into an explanation of the epistemological difference between archives and libraries, and the underlying historical premises and philosophical precepts of archives. I recently came across an excellent article that summarizes both the historical and philosophical aspects of an archives, and delves into not only what we as archivists do, but more importantly how, why, and what the future holds for archival science. For those not willing to slog through all forty-eight pages, I offer a brief synopsis.

The article titled, “What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift,” by Terry Cook and originally published in Archivaria (The Journal of the Association of Canadian Archivists), analyzes the history and philosophy of archival thought from the Dutch Manual to the present day electronic age. Through his time travel of the last one hundred years, we are treated to an anthropology of archival thought; and how that thought continually effects us to this day, even with the rise of new forms of communication. Nowhere is this felt to a greater degree than in the basic tenets of archival theory.

Throughout the article two basic archival principles are explored (and shown how they have changed through time): the theories of Provenance and Original Order. Both principles are “dogma-like” to archivists. Provenance is defined as the separation of record groups based upon their creators, not upon chronological, geographical, or subject heading. Original Order is generally considered the practice of organizing collections based upon the original organization of the archival collection, which should correspond to the administrative body or person that created the records. For the latter part of 100 years these principles have been axiomatic for the archival profession. However, the last 10-20 years has seen archivists question the continued validity of these premises with the rapid rise of new forms of technology.

Cook discusses the difficulties that archivists are facing under the new technological paradigm and how they can overcome them. Rather than simply jettison provenance and original order because they seem to be anachronistic, we need to reevaluate and redefine core archival theory. Cook states that “Provenance must change from being linked directly to a single creator, to becoming a concept focused on functions and processes that gave rise to the causality of records creation.” Original Order should change “from being viewed as a single physical place of records creation to one that reflects several authors and therefore belonging to several series and original orders.”

All these changes espoused by Cook, reflect a move away from the actual record content and towards a new paradigm based upon intent, functionality, context and topologies. The greatest change, according to Cook, will be felt in what is considered a record: “a record should change from being perceived as a single piece of recording medium that integrates the structure, content, and context of information in one place, to becoming a virtual composite of many scattered parts linked together (databases, mainframe systems, audio visual and text files) to perform, or bear evidence of, a transaction or idea.” This new understanding of a record brings up another problem, which is how and when to preserve such a medium? Especially when such a medium is difficult to contend with, because of the ever-changing nature of the digital form.

Consequently, the ephemeral nature of electronic records behooves archivists and systems developers to address the issue of capturing “archival records” when they’re born. This will undoubtedly put greater emphasis on building archival components at the beginning stages of information systems development and not wait until it is time to transfer records (when those records could be obsolescent because of technological change). Time is no longer a luxury for archivists. The last hundred years allowed archivists the benefit of paper, and its corresponding permanence as the central medium of communication and preservation, the next hundred years will unfortunately not.