Essays in Honour of Michael Cook

Carl Newton (Visiting Professor of Archives, Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK)

Records Management Journal

ISSN: 0956-5698

Article publication date: 1 August 2004




Newton, C. (2004), "Essays in Honour of Michael Cook", Records Management Journal, Vol. 14 No. 2, pp. 94-95.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

It is notoriously difficult to produce a successful Festschrift. Ideally all the participants should write on topics on which the honorand has been a major researcher or on issues to which they have made singular personal contributions. Too often such works enable a degree of self‐indulgence to the contributors, resulting in essays having a minimal relevance to the career of their subject who, if referred to at all, is not infrequently presented as a cross between Savonarola and Mao Zedong. Moreover there is the danger of falling into the reminiscence school of historical writing. The present volume does not absolutely avoid such perils but it avoids them more than most of the type. The majority of the contributions are relevant to Dr Cook's distinguished career as an archives educator and records internationalist and at least three make valuable statements in themselves.

The three are those by Francis X Blouin Jr, Masahito Ando, and Peter Emmerson. Professor Blouin writes about the Vatican archives and their interpretation. This essay re‐examines the role of archives in establishing historical truth and points out that the written record is likely to be no more accurate evidence than any other kind. Archives are now part of the problem, not sources of the solution. It is interesting to reflect that as long ago as 1950 Renier raised similar caveats about the nature of historical evidence and more recently Derrida has attacked what he calls “archive fever”. The record is in effect made by the victor, and the literate victor at that, and the author rightly points out the multiplicity of, sometimes unacknowledged, motivations possessed by searchers in archives. These are challenges to the very raison d'être of the archive profession and it is unfortunate that limitations of space have prevented a more developed argument.

Professor Ando deals with the controversial topic of Japanese activities during the Second World War in relation to the archives of those South East Asian countries that fell under their occupation between 1941 and 1945. It is hard for Westerners to realise the extreme sensitivity of this as an issue. Where the Germans seem successfully to have faced the reality of their past history and put it behind them in Japan there has been a great reluctance to admit that anything untoward took place in the 1930s and 1940s. The story of Professor Saburo, who was prosecuted for challenging official school text book histories, is disturbing. Professor Ando is very blunt about the attack made on the culture of the occupied nations and the destruction, deliberate or incidental, which occurred in those years, arguing powerfully for the archive community to take what steps are possible towards restitution. He draws attention to the way in which the absence of records enable war crimes to be denied and points out that recent events in Kosovo and Iraq do not indicate that things have improved.

Peter Emmerson reflects, in characteristically trenchant manner, on the developments or otherwise in records management in Britain from 1968 when Michael Cook and others ran the first seminar on records management. He reveals a very mixed story with some undoubted achievements but also some real failures. Even where progress was made by the pioneers it has often failed to be maintained by their successors and the author is unlikely to win many friends in records management by suggesting that the successors have, in some cases, not been up to the challenge. Less controversially he draws attention to the high marginal cost of many records programmes, the misuse of professional staff time, and the obsession with savings rather than adding value which has tended to make records management a marginal activity in many organisations. While a number of extraneous factors have served recently to move the discipline more centre stage Emmerson suggests that there are signs that its practitioners are losing the plot.

There are contributions on international standards, notably the relevance of MAD and ISAD(G) to digital records. Inevitably there is much on training and archive education which tends to be specialist and personal. Indeed one does wonder here why it was necessary to have eight individual authors of an 18‐page essay. Michael Roper writes about the International Council on Archives’ role in records (mainly the production of extensive and sometimes unreadable publications). Finally David Vaisey reflects on 40 years in archives – the sort of article which I read these days with growing alarm, but which does bring out well the deep inertia of the powers that be in regard to the nation's archives; a situation unlikely to be much improved by the proposed new legislation. One is constantly reminded in an archive career in Britain of Baldwin's famous bon mot “you have no idea how difficult it in this country to get anyone to do anything!” Perhaps somewhat depressingly this work indicates that it can be elsewhere also, but it is indeed a worthy tribute to a much respected figure in the archive world, whose ability to achieve must be an inspiration to other labourers in this somewhat stony vineyard.

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