The Future of Archives and Recordkeeping: A Reader

Duncan Birrell (Andersonian Library, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 6 September 2011




Birrell, D. (2011), "The Future of Archives and Recordkeeping: A Reader", Library Review, Vol. 60 No. 8, pp. 723-735.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

In the context of rapidly evolving web‐based technologies and increasing demand for remote access to archives and public records, the challenge which faces (the often lone) archivist, not only of improving the visibility and usage of their collections amidst the escalating volume of online digital artifacts and cultural heritage sites, but of maintaining the integrity of the materials they manage whilst meeting the competing needs and expectations of stakeholders and end‐users, can seem epic in proportion; they must look to the past, preserving and making available historical items and records for end‐users, and provide the collections they manage safe transit into the future, implementing new methods of delivery as they do so. In other words, in order to serve the same inherent function over time, archives, like digital objects, must be progressively transformed.

The Future of Archives and Recordkeeping: A Reader edited by Jennie Hill of Aberystwyth University, is a bold effort to address this herculean challenge by gathering together the best international thinking on archival science from the UK, Europe, Canada, USA, Australia and South Africa. Less an exercise in forecast and prediction, the work explores, rather, the history of the current situation, and surveys the impact of social media on access and use, offering an appraisal of the function and necessity of the archive and archivist in a digital age. Although the text leans from the combined weight of its contributors towards archival science, with far slighter representation from the adjacent domain of records management, there is much of relevance and significance to be retrieved from its four themed sections for those working across the spectrum of information management and research.

Part 1 Defining Archives foregrounds the often intangible nature of perceptions – those of both archivists and end‐users, asking how archives are perceived by users, in what ways archivists conceive of themselves, and how best the profession can site itself in relation to other disciplines. Of the three essays which offer opening definitions, “Strangely unfamiliar: ideas of the archive from outside the discipline” by Alexandrina Buchanan is the most engaging. The essay explores the impact of the so‐called “archival turn” on a number of disciplines, which has intensified interest in documentary practices in the humanities and beyond, and also raises the issues of data protection and freedom of information in the management of public records; significantly it offers a spirited defense of first principles against those postmodernist critiques which have sought to characterize archival methodologies, with their “fanatical” list making, levels of description and numerical categorization as tools in the apparatus of oppression and imperialism.

To the attack made by Ernst van Alphen in Archival obsessions and obsessive archives (Holly and Smith, 2008) whose work on literature and art representing the Holocaust led him to conclude in 2008 that “The Nazis were master archivists” and that “Auschwitz […] was modeled on archival principles”, Buchanan responds by pointing out that “Auschwitz destroyed existing relationships and [was] thus in direct contravention of professional archival principles”. In this fascinating engagement with Professor Alphen (better known in Britain for Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self (van Alphen, 1992)), Buchanan advances the founding values of respect du fonds, provenance and original order which Alphen accused of being an inherently sinister syntax, to establish that, whatever nightmarish bureaucratic covenant helped to execute the Nazi's Final Solution, “the physical sorting of Jews from non‐Jews, men from women, potential workers from the infirm” which was undertaken at Auschwitz to the destruction of family relationships, simply could not have taken place if, as claimed, concentration camps had operated to archival doctrines.

In Part 2 “Shaping a discipline” Luciana Duranti considers in depth the impact of the digital environment on archival appraisal, whilst Eric Ketelaar contributes an historical and comparative investigation into the methodologies and boundaries of both archiving and archival science as they have been differently interpreted over time and place, asking whether archiving is substantially an art or a science. Despite its unsurprising conclusion to this framing question: that it is a bit of both, the value of Ketelaar's contribution, which examines early European definitions of archiving from nineteenth century manuals, lies precisely in its skillful juxtaposition of science and history. Ketelaar demonstrates that, far from existing in the hinterland of the humanities, archives play a pivotal role in the links between academic disciplines and also offer an effective route to the public realm. The chapter not only offers insight into how founding principles are interpreted in contemporary archival theory and practice, but also suggests how established knowledge and skills might be understood and transmitted in future.

Part 3 Archive 2.0: archives in society, illustrates the inventiveness and pragmatism with which the profession has responded to changing sets of requirements and competencies in the digital age. Here, the contribution of Kate Theimer, Interactivity, Flexibility and Transparency: Social Media and Archives 2.0 can best assist those seeking to attract a wide online audience for their archives and special collections. Her discussion of the “new interactivity” accessible to archives and their users through web 2.0 tools collates successful accounts of how archives have picked up the challenge of social media, citing their innovative adoption of Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter feeds and microblogging as they endeavor to place their collections in the path of online user traffic. Theimer points, additionally, to the competition the public sector faces in the realm of social media from commercial sites such as footnote and ancestry which currently supply access to interactive archival materials online.

How the profession meets this challenge will be a key measure of the significance of the archivist in the digital age – the question posed here in Part 4. In this concluding section, Nicole Convery explains, that the “postmodern multiplicity of information contexts […] challenges the defining archival principles of appraisal, preservation and access”, and suggests that unless an adequate response is found to this issue, archives run the risk of being unable to address the range of contemporary need and could become incapable of keeping pace with changing patterns of use. Yet, many from within the domain are already addressing this call for a fresh understanding of core principles and practice. In What are Archives? Cultural and Theoretical Perspectives (Moss, 2008), Michael Moss argues that, far from being a threat, it is precisely this new multiplicity of perspectives in relation to archival documents and records which presents the greatest opportunity for the profession to move beyond traditional paradigms, to replace a canonical “static” view of the archive, dependent as it is on hierarchical arrangement and standard levels of description, with one which situates the archive at the locus of a (non‐hierarchical) “interpretative moment”.

As vitalizing as this sounds, it is, perhaps, Benjamin Taylor, the Editor of Saul Bellow's recently published letters, who offers us an illuminating account of the archive user's experience unencumbered by the obfuscations of theory, but which nevertheless helps to support Moss's vision. Taylor likened his time working in the Bellow Archive at the University of Chicago as being akin to seeing the underside of an iconic tapestry. Whereas critics and readers are used to seeing only the published output and the often polished public image of cultural figures, the researcher who diligently visits an archive will encounter numerous knots and threads to pull apart and re‐weave for the benefit of scholarship and future readers. It is the task of archives, then, to emulate this physical experience in the digital realm using emerging web applications and discovery tools to annotate and aid retrieval, and to empower end‐users to pull apart the tapestries and re‐configure them in multiple ways; thereby enabling them to uncover and re‐connect the narratives and histories which potentially lie buried within archives, and encourage the forging of links between items, collections and disciplines which previously might have been considered unrelated. It is in this way, that archives can remain effective sources of counter statement to the forces of repression and orthodoxy, powers which, at certain points in their history, they have been accused of helping to legitimize and sustain.

What is significant, in terms of the impact of this volume on the archives domain for the future, is that its contributors engage critically with the discourses of literary and cultural theory in fashions that have outgrown the garments of deferential handmaidens. However, if criticism were to be leveled at such a comprehensive and ambitious reader as this, it would be twofold:

  1. 1.

    that The Future of Archives and Recordkeeping, is perhaps, hindered by its belatedness: a new digital archival object has been evident since the early 1970s and the postmodernist turn, so ardent in the 1980s and 1990s, now seems a rather jaded party to be crashing; and

  2. 2.

    that future editions of the text will be required to address the issue of long‐term digital preservation far more extensively than is the case here.

After all, revisionist debate would do well to consider what the cost to history would have been had our only written accounts and documentary evidence of the Holocaust been recorded in electronic formats long since rendered obsolete and unreadable, risking vital testimony slipping beyond the reach of history. Yet, the archives and record keeping community still seem undecided as to where responsibility should lie on this most protean of issues – an issue to which their respective futures will be intrinsically bound. The adaptation and preservation of human knowledge, if we recall a quote from Valéry (1964), has long dogged our Promethean, technological society, but in terms of safeguarding the historical record, the problem of digital preservation may ultimately prove to be its Achilles heel:

[…] the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power.


Holly, M.A. and Smith, M. (Eds) (2008), “What is research in the visual arts? Obsession, archive, encounter”, Clark Studies in the Visual Arts, Sterling and Francine Clark Fine Arts Institute, Williamstown, MA.

Moss, M. (2008), “Opening Pandora's box: what is an archive in the digital environment?”, in Craven, L. (Ed.), What are Archives? Cultural and Theoretical Perspectives, Ashgate, London.

Valéry, P. (1964), “The conquest of ubiquity”, Aesthetics, Pantheon Books, New York, NY, p. 225 (translated by Ralph, M.), quoted in Benjamin, W. (1992), “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction”, Illuminations, Fontana Press.

van Alphen, E. (1992), Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self, Reaktion Books, London.

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