Archive for the 'Archival theory readings' Category

Archival Theory Response

In reading the Ridener chapters, I was surprised to find just how complex the theory behind the compilation and maintenance of archives could be.  It had seemed a simple fact that those in possession of important documents and other historically significant items would naturally want to organize and preserve these items.  However, as Chapter 1 tells us, even this apparently simple plan of action is deceptively complex.  Before an archive can be begun, for instance, it is necessary to decide what should be stored there, and what ought to be left out.  These decisions are made based on some degree of appraisal on the part of the archivists.

It was also surprising to find that advancements in technology, which it would seem would always improve the archivists’ ability to preserve the an item and its information, are actually occasionally detrimental to this process.  For instance, with the introduction of the television, many official conversations no longer were accompanied with a written component.  Similarly, the wide-spread introduction of the type-writer made it more difficult for researchers to identify individual writers.  We will have to consider obstacles such as these as we delve into materials for our documentary projects.

Clearly, there is much to be done to build and maintain a useful, successful archive.  However, if we take into account the simple steps listed in the Joffrion PowerPoint, as well as keeping important theoretical considerations in mind, such as those posed by Ridener, we will hopefully be able to add an impressive new batch of projects to the burgeoning WDP archives.

Archival Theory Response

Reading the excerpts from Ridener started me down the path of pondering the importance of thorough archives being kept, not only for the sake of cultural memory, but also for the purposes of academic curiosity. Admittedly I had never considered archival theory to be important before reading these chapters, and to be completely honest I had no idea there even WAS such a thing as archival theory, however in learning a little bit about archival theory, I’ve started to think that I might just be a believer in it. The first pioneers in archival theory in some ways could have been the early European explorers and nobles who saved their most exotic finds in “cabinets of curiosities” instead of melting them down for gold pieces, without understanding the history behind it, I too have amassed my own cabinet of curiosities throughout my travels across the East Coast of the United States, and Canada. Without giving much thought into the importance of my archival, I have nonetheless spent most of my life collecting a small special collection of my own, although admittedly it is comparatively minuscule. The advent of greater technology and its importance in modern archival theory also interested me a great deal, while this did not necessarily SURPRISE me, I was taken aback by the zeal with which archivists seem to have taken to advances in technology, I suppose that’s because in my mind I liken archivists to historians, while in reality the two are quite distinct.

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.

How to Keep History

Last semester (Fall 2010), I had the opportunity to study in Washington, DC through William & Mary.  During my time there, I visited the National Archives and the Library of Congress archive building in Culpepper, VA.  There, we learned of the challenge of archiving and the constant innovation in technology.  For example, the Library of Congress told us that they had just purchased all Tweets, meaning they would house all Tweets ever Tweeted(?) in the Library.  To me, this seemed absurd, why would you want meaningless statements in 140 words or less? Especially given the universality of Twitter, that any Joe Schmo could tweet something and have it saved for posterity.  But it’s clear that with all the advances in technology over the past 20 years, archivists are meeting the challenge of appraisal head-on.  The only problem, well not the only problem, but one of the problems that sticks out to me is the culture divide.  Technology has advanced at a higher rate over the past two decades than ever before.  While this can be very beneficial for society, it also leaves some older generations in the dust.  Archivists who went to school in the 1960s or 70s may be less likely to be aware of things like Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media sites.  Therefore, archivists have the double duty of taking care of history as well as keeping up with the present, and that can be hard!  Even I have trouble with Facebook and I absolutely REFUSE to get a Twitter.  Don’t even get me started on texting!  But because these media get used so heavily by our generation, archivists have to re-orient there way of preserving history for posterity.  Instead of preserving letters of correspondence, they’ll be saving texts that don’t even have real words in them! How sad.  Anyway, I digress.

The reading we did this week was from a book by John Ridener on the study of archival theory.  The first part of the reading opens with a quote from George Orwell: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” [and the future!] –George Orwell.  The second part of the quote in brackets is my addition.  I fully believe that whoever is controlling how we preserve our present and our past, controls our future in the sense that, whatever is preserved and however it is preserved, determines future society’s interpretation of history.  Whenever I am studying history or reading a historical document, I keep a healthy dose of skepticism in mind.  To me, even primary documents are skewed but that’s because they are in the perspective of one person.  History is subjective.  How we interpret events in the present, determine how we shape that event as a historical one for the future.

Ridener says, “The often-contentious disagreement regarding if and how archivists should select material to become part of archives is the key to understanding the many discourses of archival theory” (Ridener 3).  I agree.  If it were up to me, we would save everything.  It’s impossible to say what did and did not have an impact on our culture.  However, I understand that choosing what to save is vital and can be quite difficult.  That’s Williamsburg Documentary Project is so important.  We study the history of a small town and write down and record memories that may have otherwise been lost with the passage of time.  Colonial Williamsburg is in the business of re-creating history from three or four hundred years ago.  As far as I know, no one besides us is taking the time to record life in Williamsburg after the colonial time period.  And really, Williamsburg’s history is just important as any other history, because everything that happened here, shaped the present state of the town, and that’s what we need to preserve.

Archival Theory

Ridener’s discussion of the relationship between research paradigms and archival work reminded me that we, the Williamsburg Documentary Project class, are doing cultural work and are looking to the present to construct the reality of the recent past in order to inform future generations.  Of course, complete objectivity can never be attained in any historical work, but I think it will be helpful to think of our research as, in part, dictated by the paradigms, technologies, and cultural values of the present.  Indeed, our own preconceived notions of history, inevitably expressed through our documentary work, may one day be the focus of academic study for future generations in order to understand how archival paradigms have shifted over time.  Ridener’s piece also caused me to pause and consider why I chose my specific topic to document and record.  How has my personal experience shaped the topics that I consider to be the most relevant to understanding our society in 2011?

Blast from the Past – Remembering Gender and the American Diary

I was pleased to find that Ridener included some information on archival appraisals in his book. Assigning value to archived materials has been of interest to me since my first experience with Special Collections last semester. I was enrolled in a course titled Gender and the American Diary, in which I worked to transcribe an original manuscript (diary) written in 1859. At the time, I assumed that the diaries and other materials housed in Special Collections were all donated. However, as I dug deeper into the project I learned that many of the archived documents were purchased…some even from eBay! I’m not sure why this fact bothered me, but it did, so much so that my final paper focused on the sale of such items and the values assigned to them. While I can appreciate the heightened significance of certain historical documents, I take issue with the implication that a monetary worth can be determined. Some questions that I asked during my previous research include: Who determines these values? What factors tend to lead to inflation? At the end of my project, I was able to understand the process of appraising and its role in building Special Collections. However, I still think of those “less valuable” pieces that are at risk of being overlooked or totally discarded.

Archival Theory Response

Archival theory is certainly something I’ve never thought about before. I guess I just sort of figured that people took primary sources and organized them according to date and author and that was that. I’ve never thought about archives or how they work at all, really. I had no idea there was so much controversy around deciding what gets archived and what doesn’t, not to mention the intense process of deciding how to best organize everything within an archive an procure materials. I’ve always taken for granted that there are so many materials available without thinking about how they got there or the work undertaken to preserve them. I thought the concept of respect des fonds was interesting, and really does make sense, although I have to wonder if that’s the best way for things to be organized if someone would prefer to look by subject or something and the particular originator of the documents touched on many different areas. I was a bit uncomfortable with the concept of appraisal, though. I know that there are some documents that are clearly pivotal (such as the Declaration of Independence), but I would personally have a really hard time assigning different values to things like oral histories. I have a difficult time thinking of one person’s story being more valuable than another’s, and appraisal seems as though it is more willing to regard people with different levels of importance, which is extremely difficult for me. I’m probably showing my ignorance of how archives work right now, having never used them in Swem or elsewhere. I can understand why archives are so important though, and I’m really looking forward to visiting and hopefully using them.

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.

Thoughts on Archives

I was struck by the process of controlling information during both readings.  There is a huge emphasis on selectivity, limiting the collection to the most valuable resources and limiting those with access to certain people.  Ridener made it very clear that there is the field is battling to maintain its place of importance.  Yet, with the proliferation of media and democratizing nature of the internet it seems like archives may be losing their importance. 

While Ridener emphasized the appraisal process as crucial to the archives, I was interested in the transfer of materials into the archives through the accessioning or description process.  There is a great concern with legal and material control and also intellectual control.  I never considered intellectual control in such explicit terms as described in Joffrion’s Powerpoint, but I can understand the importance of it in an archive.  Is citing work from archived material any different?  Would archivists like to see the archived material used in certain ways or for a certain purpose?      

I also enjoyed thinking about the link between the past and present.  One can learn as much about the past as the present in an archive.  Not only do archives hold some of the most unique, significant information available in their original form, but the entire process of categorizing, safeguarding and collecting these materials gives a great deal of insight into our own society.  What do you value and how has that changed over the years?  Who gets to choose what goes into an archive or which documents to associate or group with which?  Do some archives have a political agenda?  How have the materials changed over time?  Our own work with the WDP speaks to the changing nature of archival material as we will be passing along video and audio records.  I’m curious to see if I can get answers to some of these questions during our visit.

Archives Reflection

Archives differ from public library collections in both purpose and scope. Archives  are created for researchers and historians, usually containing the original records and manuscripts of an individual or organization. Libraries, however, are intended for more general use, containing both fiction and nonfiction pieces. Libraries usually house published items, whereas archives generally hold the original or modified documents themselves. Because of the rarity of the artifacts, the stack of archives is usually closed (a staff member must retrieve items for patrons) and there are strict procedures governing where and how a resource can be viewed. As collectors of archival material, we in the WDP must take into account the characteristics of archives when we are collecting material. Since our portfolios will be preserved for many years, we must be thorough and put any news articles, correspondences, notes, or other pieces we use into our collection. Of special interest are our dialogues with contacts and interviewees. The readings demonstrated the responsibility of archivists and those generating material for archives as we ultimately determine what will be preserved as history.

Both Joffrion and Ridener mentioned the appraisal process in their pieces about archives. This area of archival collection is particularly interesting to me, as I think it must be very difficult to decide which items to keep and which to discard. It also brings into question whether we disregard information that could be useful to future researchers because we think it’s either too commonplace  or too controversial.  Joffrion’s slide titled “What to Collect?” brought up guidelines which I found myself applying to the Special Collections Resource Center here at William and Mary. For example, Special Collections takes a particular interest in records documenting William and Mary’s history and Virginia’s history. They do accept restricted or confidential material, keeping many collections like that of Chief Justice Burger are locked until a future date. Their primary clientele is mainly students, professors, and researchers concerned with the past of William and Mary and Virginia.

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About

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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