Archives Readings Reflections

I have thoroughly underestimated the field of archiving!  I admit I hadn’t really given much thought to the concepts and practices involved with archives before now.  I suppose if you’d asked me about it before I would have said something about how archives are where you collect documents for safekeeping so historians and people writing their dissertations have an idea of what life was like in a particular place, time, social class, economic situation, etc.  Libraries, on the other hand, are for storage and circulation of things people would spend their leisure time reading. Archives are for serious inquiries only–you have to have a purpose in mind when going there, they’re not always open to just anyone, etc.

Archives aren’t a new thing, of course—from Classics classes I’ve learned that ancient Greeks and Romans often had personal archives in their homes to store their household documents, including marriage licenses and records of business transactions.  It’s strange to think that someday someone might want to see my documents. In my desk drawers I have old brochures, copies of Lips (a campus zine for expressions of female sexuality), and various class notes.  There are other more important documents I keep in other, safer places—like my Social Security card, my high school diploma, my driver’s license, and my passport. Are these going to shed light on what my day-to-day life consists of?  Sure, but they won’t reveal everything about me.  I think that’s an important thing to keep in mind: that documents may be very revealing of particular aspects of an individual, time period, community, etc., but these things are a lot more complex than can be fully described by a collection of papers.

After our readings, theory and concepts behind archives are starting to take shape in my mind.  There’s a great deal of politics involved, as Joffrion’s slides implicitly show.  The idea of appraisal, addressed also by Ridener, is interesting and likely problematic at times, as a question of authority: who gets to decide what is of lasting value?  Before I read these, I hadn’t considered the process of appraisal at all—I probably would have said that archives should accept and catalogue all documents they are given, because they’re probably of use to someone.  Having read this, I understand that some types of documents aren’t going to be useful in a particular archive, considering the institution and type of audience they’re providing service to (as well as who runs it and where the money comes from—again, power issues).

As always, technological advancement is a gift and a curse.  Handwritten documents slowly declined as the typewriter became more widespread, which meant that individual authors couldn’t be identified as easily.  Now there are all kinds of electronic documents that are not stored on paper but online.  Of course, this newer technology also allows archivists to better store and index materials—so it goes both ways, I guess.

I enjoyed these readings, and I’m glad to have read them before visiting Special Collections.  I’ll definitely keep these ideas in mind while I’m there.


The Williamsburg Documentary Project (WDP) strives to collect and preserve the rich past of Williamsburg, Virginia. By conducting oral history interviews, building physical and digital archives, and creating online exhibits, the WDP interprets Williamsburg’s recent past. The WDP works towards developing a better understanding of Williamsburg by bringing together individuals, local groups, Colonial Williamsburg, and the College of William & Mary.

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