Reflections on Archival Theory

One thing that the Ridener reading made me think of was how important the preservation of parts of history is to an understanding of our present-day situation and how we want to move forward. The first chapter also did a good job laying out the difference between a historian and an archivist. An archivist preserves and records different aspects of history that they decide are important. This is where archival theory gets interesting to me, because this is where the theory starts raising questions of what is important/ historically significant? Who gets to answer these questions? Who has the power to preserve some things for posterity and exclude others?

Joffrion describes a similar relationship between archivists, appraisers, and the institutions that preserve and make available the archived materials. I hadn’t really realized the scope of the term. According to Joffrion, archives can include things like art, music, architectural drawings, and even maps. In my mind, I had imagined archives to be written works, like journals, books, research papers, etc, that represented a particular part of history. I like the idea that an archive can be any sort of material culture, scholarly or otherwise. I was surprised by the sense of great control over archive materials that emerged in Joffrion’s work. There are specific appropriate means of access, and Joffrion establishes the “Intellectual, legal, and physical control over records” that she sees in archival practice. This shows the great value we ascribe to these records, and how much the current system seeks to protect them. This highlights further the importance of questions of what gets preserved and who makes those decisions.

Joffrion shows how the appraisal process is, in part, an economic decision. She says that appraisers look at a potential or actual acquisition and calculate whether the cost of preserving the document is worth the value that that document will have over time. This gets confusing because this theory seems to conflate economic value with value in the sense of having meaning, significance, or a helpful perspective for people living in the future. But she could also mean that appraisers want to make sure they don’t lose money and that the money will come back to them if the documents are valuable enough for people to pay to see them or to buy them. It’s unclear exactly how an appraiser looks at this dilemma.


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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