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.