Some observations on the “archival divide,” or what I said at AHA about historians and archivists

Well, I’ve just returned from participating in the AHA panel I wrote about in the previous post and for which many of you were so helpful in preparing me. I should say at the outset that Messrs. Blouin and Rosenberg were charming and gracious throughout and took the criticism of their book in good humor. They stated that they intended their book to spark discussion, and so are pleased that it has done so. And they said they looked forward to reading your comments here as they have not had much feedback yet from archivists. I’m too tired to try to summarize the session (which was very well attended had a very engaged audience) but I will share that the observations of all three panelists (myself, Peter Wosh, and Antoinette Burton) shared several similar themes.

I actually prepared written comments (which those of you have seen me present know that I usually don’t do) just to make sure I covered everything I wanted in the time provided. They are presented, for your delight and critique below, although you should bear in mind that I, of course, had impromptu digressions and clarifications. I could do better with more time and space, and I’m looking forward to doing more thinking and writing on these themes. When my energy level returns I’ll post more, but for now here are my remarks and I’m off to get a cocktail!

When Rob Townsend invited me to be part of this panel I thought it would be an interesting topic, but I had no idea quite how interesting it would eventually be until I started preparing my remarks, which was, I’m sorry to say, earlier this week.

The book under discussion here is an important one in seeking to begin a dialogue between archivists and historians about our common and differing concerns. When I began to read it I knew that this was an interesting topic, but it was only when I began to discuss the issue with archivists (and a few historians) that I began to have an idea of the breadth of the issues involved. In early discussions, a colleague reminded me of two other recent works by archivists that I should consider, Terry Cook’s “The Archive(s) Is a Foreign Country: Historians, Archivists, and the Changing Archival Landscape” in the current issue of the American Archivist and Tom Nesmith’s  2004 Archivaria article “What’s History Got to Do With It? Reconsidering the Place of Historical Knowledge in Archival Work.” In framing my approach to my remarks, I found Cook’s analogy a helpful one. Referencing David Lowenthal’s “the past is a foreign country,” Cook observes:

The argument here is that the archive(s) is a foreign country to many historians. Of course, it is one that they visit frequently—but perhaps mainly as tourists passing through, focusing on their guidebooks, intent on capturing appealing views, but overlooking their surroundings, not talking to the local inhabitants about what they do, thus failing to understand the country’s real character and animating soul. [605]

This seems very much in keeping with the recommendations of Blouin and Rosenberg that historians need to educate or re-educate themselves about the work of archivists and the formation of archival collections.

However, my approach to Rob’s direction to make some brief remarks about Processing the Past was to focus on the concluding recommendations to archivists about how they should seek to bridge the “archival divide.” These recommendations appeared to me to presume that most or many archivists lack sufficient understanding of history and the needs of scholarly researchers, and so cannot effectively appraise, process or describe collections. This may be somewhat overstating the book’s position, but that is the general sense that I came away with after reading it.

Based on my experience and observations of my colleagues, I found those recommendations disturbing. So I did what comes naturally to me, I posted my thoughts on my blog and asked archivist colleagues for their thoughts. Perhaps not surprisingly, the response was spirited and unanimous.  Commentors were quick to point out that many archivists are trained in both archival science and a humanities discipline, often history. I won’t try to summarize their arguments here; if you are interested you can visit and read them for yourself.

What was more interesting to me than the general agreement of the responses was what they revealed about the relationship between archivist and historians, and this lead me to seek out the historian Michael Kramer here at AHA to help me better understand the issues. In talking with Michael, as well the public and private comments from archivists I received about the blog post, I identified two areas that I (respectfully) suggest are more important for archivists and historians than the ones identified in the conclusion to  Processing the Past.

First, that underlying these discussions are undercurrents of fear and lack of trust, as well as concerns about jobs, and lack of professional respect. This is perhaps not surprising in the current uncertain economy, but I think it’s important to acknowledge these factors and recognize them as possible motivating factors for an instinctual defensive or “turf protecting” response.

Second, that perhaps many of the areas which appear to be sources of contentiousness need to be addressed by a better understanding of professional vocabulary, or at least the what we mean when we use the same words, which is often not the same thing. And the only way to solve that is through frequent, open and informal as well as formal communication between practitioners. Which I think is one of the goals of the books we’re discussing today. Put simply, we need to talk more with each other about archives, not just the records in archives.

Of interest in this regard is an observation made by Terry Cook, again from his most recent article:

In summary, despite the impressive external theorizing on the “archive” in recent historical writing, what is still missing is the voice of the archivist, who, after all, is the principal actor in defining, choosing, and constructing the archive that remains, and then in representing and presenting that surviving archival trace to researchers. Given the sensitivity of many of those same historians to the past marginalization from history of women, certain ethnic groups, the working classes, or First Nations peoples, it is all the more surprising that such historians studying the archive have marginalized the archivist. Can one imagine writing about the history of nursing or engineering without researching any of the literature produced by nurses or engineers? Yet in my reading of works by those few historians recently writing directly on the archive, I have almost never seen citations (with very rare and then very spotty exceptions) to any of the thousands of articles, books, and published studies, let alone internal reports, produced by archivists, in English alone, in the past three decades, including no few such writings by archivists that from the inside both theorize the archive, the archives, and their historical evolution. [614]

(Cook is happy to note some exceptions, including Blouin and Rosneberg’s own collected essays from the Sawyer Seminar.)

My third recommendation is therefore that archivists need to more aggressively infiltrate the historical discussions of “the archive.” It will be up to smarter people than me to determine how to do that and to successfully carry it out, but this seems an activity with clear benefits.

A fourth recommendation, which is drawn from both Cook and Nesmith’s articles, is that some archivists consider devoting more time to the formal historical consideration of the origins and formations of their collections, or as Cook refers to it, being “historians of the record.” (With, of course, the associated publication and dissemination of that research.) This would, I think assist in alleviating some of the problems with professional trust, respect and understanding identified above.

Additionally, I agree with what I think was at least part of the intention of Blouin and Rosenberg’s second concluding recommendation for archivists: that they more actively engage and collaborate with historians on the creation of tools and systems that open up access and promote greater understanding of archival materials. This could take many forms and is, I think, in some ways the most achievable of my set of recommendations. Achievable because many (and I would hope all) archivists are deeply committed to increasing user access, understanding and contributions and many of us are using new technologies to make this possible (as are many historians). Historians, as well as other scholars, hobbyists, enthusiasts, and users of all kinds are vital to make the archives less of a “foreign country.”

And I think as long as those efforts are pursued with respect and mutual understanding they will be of great success in helping with my final recommendation, which is that both professions recognize our mutual goal of increasing public appreciation for the study of history and the importance of archival collections. We have a great deal in common, although perhaps not as much, as Blouin and Rosenberg observe, as we once did.

I wasn’t in the session yesterday, but on Twitter John R. Dichtl of the National Council for Public History was quoted as saying “Historians need to realize we need allies. We should not be policing the boundaries of our discipline.” And although I’m addressing an audience of historians, these are words I will address to my archivist colleagues when considering our own approach to working with historians on archival issues. While, as Michael Kramer and I agreed, both professions (and the individuals in it) bring their own psychological and professional “baggage” to the discussion, with a little patient communication, that can often be quickly put aside and the real and exciting work of exploring the archives can begin.


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