Archives Principles and Practice

Michael Moss (University of Glasgow, UK)

Records Management Journal

ISSN: 0956-5698

Article publication date: 12 July 2011




Moss, M. (2011), "Archives Principles and Practice", Records Management Journal, Vol. 21 No. 2, pp. 162-163.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Laura Miller is a distinguished Canadian Archivist and Information Manager with an impressive record as both an educator and practitioner. This book is yet another “how to do” guide for the inexperienced and uninitiated. Like all other manuals it covers all the archival bases from the ontological question – what are archives? (Chapter 1), through the complex issue of trust (Chapter 3), provenance and original order and respect des fonts (Chapter 5) and ending with the challenge of digital archives (Chapter 9). This is all very worthy and motherhood and apple pie, but one wonders why the publishers should have thought there was a need for yet another manual at such a price by an author who could have persuaded to challenge much of this content.

The weakness of the volume as a practical guide for the uninitiated is that, although the title includes records management, the contents are almost exclusively about archives. The term does not even appear in the index. This is a pity as even a collecting archive is likely to find itself asked to address current record keeping issues, either within its own organization or those of clients; otherwise how will it be able to go on collecting. The way in which information becomes archives is explained somewhat simplistically in an inverted pyramid diagram on page 4. The author adopts a traditional approach, as might be expected from someone who taught at the University of British Columbia, in distinguishing “records from other items with historical or informational value, such as artefacts” (p. 4). She continues “It is, this documentary quality that imbues records with an aura of authenticity or truth...(p. 5). Such an approach is questionable, for example it is now possible to date accurately when a wall was built or hedge planted from pollen analysis. This is the sense in which Walter Benjamin, the philosopher who coined the term, would have interpreted “aura” that goes far beyond such problematic concepts to embrace all the associations that might surround an object with informational properties.

This is essentially a book by an archivist for archivists and fails to draw on a wider frame of reference or to consider the relationship of archives and archival practice to information and knowledge management more generally. The chapter on “archival service: a matter of trust” plunges into the archival code of ethics (pp. 47‐50), impact of legislation (pp. 51‐52, the vexed question of copyright (pp. 53‐56) and so on. Nowhere is there a discussion about the fiduciary role of the archive in a democratic society, or the burgeoning literature on trust and the relationship of good governance and the rule of law to record keeping. The treatment of provenance and original order is equally uncritical, nor is there any reference to the library manuscript tradition, which may respect provenance but certainly has no truck with original order in the archival sense. To an outsider and even an insider, such as this reviewer, original order seems to be a construct and certainly does not mean what the term implies. It may be the order in which the records were placed by administrative practice or the order in which they were “put away”. It does not necessarily convey meaning.

The absence of any discussion of contemporary records management has the unfortunate consequences that the migration to the digital environment is left rather as an after thought to the final chapter, when in fact it impinges on almost every aspect of work in archives, as the author admits – “The archivist who sits in her institution waiting for historical papers to arrive on her doorstep will soon be washed away in the technological storm” (p. 225). The discussion of cataloguing (pp. 164‐173) is mostly about competing cataloguing formats (MARC, EAD, RAD and so on) rather than about the characteristics of resource discovery in a digital environment and the way in which search engines operate when catalogues are exposed to the web.

Despite these reservations, this should be a useful handbook for anyone who finds themselves in charge of an archival collection with no professionally trained archival assistance to hand and as an introductory text for archival trainees and students. There are, however, a number of such texts on the market and it would have been more interesting if Laura Miller had been given a stiffer challenge, which would have encouraged her to explore some of the issues in this book in greater depth.

A About the reviewer

Michael Moss is Professor of Archival Studies in the School of Humanities at the University of Glasgow, where he directs the Information Management and Preservation MSc programme. His recent publications include: with Laurence Brockliss as editors, Advancing with the Army Medicine, the Professions and Social Mobility in the British Isles 1790‐1850, 2005, “Opening Pandora's box – what is an archive in the digital environment?” in Louise Craven (Ed.) What are Archives? Cultural and Theoretical Perspectives: A Reader, (2008), “Brussels sprouts and empire: putting down roots”, in Dan O'Brien (Ed.), The Philosophy of Gardening (2010). He is a member of the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Council on National Archives and Records, and a Non‐Executive Director of the National Archives of Scotland.

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