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.