The fantasy of the corroborative and transformative archive: the authority of archival beginnings.
PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.
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What is the nature of the archive in the 21st century? What is the role of the archivist in a postmodern, electronic environment? To attain any absolute answers would be beyond the ability, or diplomacy, of any individual. Yet there are some questions, and subsequent dividing lines, which can be brought to the fore:
• Is the archive a resting place for non-current records, a repository that provides the connection between inscription and preservation in order to ensure the veracity of the record as an authentic and reliability piece of evidence?
• Should the archivist be distinct from the records manager?
• Is the historical canon, if permitted to even use the term, a construct of the archive? If the answer is in the affirmative then does this legitimise the archivist in imparting overt value to a record/collection?
• Is the archivist a custodian and keeper?
• Should the archivist interact with wider societal needs and concerns?
The ideal and idea of the archive and the archivist has become virtually unrecognisable from its early 20th century construct as questions such as these have been debated in the journals of archival science. The antiquated Jenkinsonian world-view has been dispensed with. The moral and physical defence of the archive is unsubstantial. Ensuring the preservation of the record and making it available to the public does not provide the archivist with a presence. Rather, the authority of archival beginnings has become the dominant, over-arching ideology.
Through the advocacy of records continuum theorists and the proponents of postmodernism, we are to “stop rowing, start steering”. In order to be accountable, transparent, open, and representative, the archival profession is to control context and master reality. The archive is to define its own truth criteria. The archivist is an agent of accountability. The archivist is to openly negate his/her independent, neutral, non-political, non-ideological role:
(1) There is an archive fever of audit culture. This is in response to the rise of the ‘consumer’ – “There is a risk, we’ll take care of it”. Continual monitoring, evaluation, and targets results in the record being a self-reflexive construct. Audit trails create a sense of truthfulness to the facts and of closeness to past reality. These perspectives have entered the archive. Perceived recordkeeping failures have made the archive unaccountable to wider society. The ‘right’ records are not reaching the archive. Records therefore must be programmed in advance by archivists working as records managers to produce acceptable outcomes. The archivist shapes the creation of the record. Archiving is auditing the recordkeeping systems of a record creating body. Archiving is the “active production of objectively truthful documents”.
(2) Postmodernism sanctions a creative reconstruction of the past. The archive is to “fabricate metaphors…[tell] imaginings of history”. The archive overtly interprets the record and creates interfaces that reflect this interpretation and subjectivity, reifying cultural essentialism to appear representative of all elements of society. The archivist becomes a conscious participant in the construction and advancement of meaning. The perception of the user towards the records is moulded. The archive becomes a means of memory rather than memory itself.
This thesis takes on what the author perceives as certain often rhetorical excesses of the records continuum theory and those of postmodernism. It engages on their terms, with their arguments, and with the interdisciplinary nature of today’s archival thinking. It shows that ‘traditional’ archival concepts and values are just as necessary and relevant today as in the supposedly homogenous and positivist society in which they arose. This thesis thus upholds the Jenkinsonian ideals for archives. However, it recognises the difficulty of achieving them, and that the proponents of postmodernism examined here do not intend to dispense with rigorous reasoning, balanced analysis, and truth seeking in favour of unrestrained ‘anything goes’ interpretations of records and archival concepts. Indeed, the author himself draws on leading postmodern thinkers such as Foucault and Derrida to develop his own socio-political analysis of audit records produced in the ‘audit culture’ of the past few decades. In so doing, the author hopes to show how postmodern analysis can be done in the spirit of the Jenkinsonian commitment to protection of evidential values through truth seeking.
That said, the author believes that the archivist does not create life but holds the materials within its institution in a coma, awaiting the user to awake them from their perpetual slumber. This is a true re-assertion of archival value and responsibility. In caring more for a record’s corroborative power and transformative effect we have got too interested in the way we deliver what we do at the expense of what we deliver – engineering over content. Yet by acting responsibly the archive broadens perspectives and enlightens the individual. This is the responsible archival performance worth pursuing.
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