Defining Archives: A Context Standard

Practitioners and theorists are posing many fundamental questions about the archival profession. Where is it heading? What are its core principles? Is it in jeopardy of becoming obsolete or even ending all together? The questions of what the archives profession is and what it means to be a member of it relates to how we define the archives itself. The articles for this week focus on this definition and the activities and functions entailed when using the word “archive” or “archives.” Archivists claim jurisdiction over what constitutes an archives and are fending off perceived misuse of the word by digital humanists, philosophers, businesses, and everyday people. This defense is part of archivists affirming their authority to decide what it means and their unique fitness to perform this work. At the same time, the changes of the digital era are challenging the applicability of archival theory. In this atmosphere, one wonders about the importance of arguing for a single definition.

A Professional Defense of Archives

Professionalization of many occupations in the United States occurred during the Industrial Revolution, a period of uncertainty similar to the changing digital economy that we are experiencing today. As Burton J. Bledstein demonstrated, starting in the late-nineteenth century, groups such as architects, accountants, etc., created professional standards, organizations, and schooling to establish themselves as professions and to gain authority within a specific field. They aimed to define a “coherent system of necessary knowledge within a precise territory, [and] to control the intrinsic relationships of their subject by making it a scholarly as well as an applied science.” Sounds familiar right? It should, because this is almost exactly the same path that archivists followed. The Society of American Archivists (SAA) formed and sets the standards for the profession, the MLS degree (and the legion of other acronym permutations) has become a standard job requirement, and archival science is both a scholarly and applied science.

achievement (1)

Acknowledging the current state of archives is more complex than I make it out, the situation largely seems positive profession-wise. However, as Trevor Owens demonstrated, other groups have (increasingly so with the advent of digital world) and continue to use the word “archives” under their own definitions and undermine the archivist’s professional authority over this term.

It is here where many, such as Kate Theimer, reassert the definitions established by SAA based on the traditional notions of an archives. These definitions focus on the ideas of controlling materials based on provenance, original order, and collective control. She asserted that “many other kinds of professionals (and non-professionals) select or collect materials, preserve them, and make them accessible” but the archivist’s value stems from doing these tasks based on the tenets referenced above. She fears that historical context will be lost by basing archival practice on other ideas. Theimer is emphasizing the importance of the archivist’s role both to inform the public that this information needs protection and to demonstrate it is the archivist that should be doing it. While it is reasonable to defend these tenets in a societal and professional sense, the historical context of the theories and the emergence of digital materials calls them into question.

A New Digital Order

Jefferson Bailey wonders how much the archival profession should be relying on Respect des Fonds (made up of provenance and original order) in his essay “Disrespect des Fonds: Rethinking Arrangement and Description in Born-Digital Archives.” Bailey revealed the theory’s contested past, showed that Respect des Fonds was born in a specific historical moment in France, and was merely a simplification of standards for new archivists, one that was never completely implemented there. He further demonstrated that multiple theorists have challenged these principles, complicating the idea that the archival core values are static and unchangeable. Additionally, Respect des Fonds becomes increasingly problematic when applied to born digital material.

I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords

Bailey asserted that analog records have clouded the possibilities of describing records and that digital materials do not function in the same way. For instance, original order is unobtainable on magnetic disks that store information in multiple places with no inherent order. He did not dispute the utility of original order and provenance but instead believes “it is time to revoke their privileged place in archival discourse and revisit the true goals of arrangement and description in light of the capabilities of digital records.” With all the problems with archival theory, why defend it so vigorously in the defense of the definition of archives?

You Say Archives, I Say Archives

It makes practical sense to defend the traditional idea of archives for professional reasons. Archivists have not been at the fore of handling digital material and part of this defense is reaffirming the archivist’s place in roles that would traditionally fall into their purview.  Digital humanists and IT departments attempted to fill the void in recent years, handling the preservation and access to digital materials in novel ways. Though these groups have different understandings of an archives than the traditional archivist, should the archives profession fight them if, as Bailey demonstrated, the archival ideas prove problematic? It is my belief that we should be learning from each other.

As Jaime demonstrated in her post, there are multiple ways to display and examine the context of a record just as Bailey stated that “the multiplicity of meanings possible with digital records can be better realized through an ongoing interrogation of archival traditions of arrangement and description.” Similarly, what I argue is for a multiplicity of meanings for the term archives, depending on the context of which it is used. The term can mean something and be useful in one field just as it serves its purpose within the archival field itself. I agree with Bailey in that the archival core notions need a reexamination. Archivists should embrace this complexity and learn from the other occupations to grapple with the digital material its terms of art are failing to fit. While it may feel wrong to allow other fields leeway into the archivist’s professional territory, failing to do so and learn from their innovations puts the archivist down a path where they could have no profession at all, relegated to only a mention in an archives somewhere.