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Evidence, Memory, Identity, and Community: Four Shifting Archival Paradigms

DOI: 10.1007/s10502-012-9180-7

Cook, Terry. “Evidence, Memory, Identity, and Community: Four Shifting Archival Paradigms.” Archival Science 13.2-3 (2012): 95–120. Web.

p.95: This essay argues that archival paradigms over the past 150 years have gone through four phases: from juridical legacy to cultural memory to societal engagement to community archiving. The archivist has been transformed, accordingly, from passive curator to active appraiser to societal mediator to community facilitator. The focus of archival thinking has moved from evidence to memory to identity and community, as the broader intellectual currents have changed from premodern to modern to postmodern to contemporary. Community archiving and digital realities offer possibilities for healing these disruptive and sometimes conflicting discourses within our profession. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.96: Many historians, to take but one example, are asserting that identity in the past is shaped by common or shared or collective memory animating invented traditions, and that such identities, once formed or embraced, are not fixed, but very fluid, contingent on time, space, and circumstances, ever being re-invented to suit the present, continually being re-imagined. As influences of race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexual orientation make their varying impacts felt, related groups in society shape their identities anew, seeking in the memory of past triumphs or abuses, traumas or achievements, very powerful ammunition to justify and strengthen their identity formulation, and re-formulation, to serve the needs of the present. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.96: It is this process of memory-making and identity formation that has attracted the attention of many scholars in the past decade, more so than the final product of memory or identity: the statue, the historic site, the archival document. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.97: Concepts like memory, identity, and community may well be outcomes of the use of archives by a growing range of researchers and citizens, but, so the traditional view holds, these outcomes do not—and should not—impinge on archival processes directly (see Piggott 2005). -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.97: Perhaps, however, we archivists need to be more self-conscious about the distinction, in our field, and in our work, between our many processes of archiving and our end product, the archive. Perhaps in such processes, we embed our own identity and our own collective memory and mythologies. Perhaps in defining and carrying out these processes, we have found our sense of community as like-minded professionals. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.97: The border between impartial archives, on the one hand, and researcher or societal interpretation of the archive, on the other, may well be a good deal more porous and interactive than often supposed. That ambiguity should be recognized, and embraced, as the desirable path for archives in the twenty-first century. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.98-99: What then is the "historical sociology" of archives, and archivists, and how may we "imagine archives" in the same way as Cantor suggests? What deeper memories and shared identities might allow archivists to feel part of a community, whether they work in public or private-sector archives; with photography, maps, or government records; in a large national or small local institution; alone, with other archivists, or in alliance with librarians, museum curators, or records managers, working as line archivists, archival managers, archival educators, archival writers? What have been, what are now, and what might be the inspirational bonds and intellectual possibilities that give meaning to our community? What makes us all archivists? Archivists are not archivists because they do the same things in different places (appraise, acquire, process, describe, preserve, make available), or because they or others find what they do to be "valuable," but because what they do has its own societal signicance and impact, its own community of meaning, its own transcendence beyond the mundane to the ideal, the individual to the communal. And how in such commonality of community do we reconcile evident differences, often fundamental, about the core values of the archival endeavour? For community is also about displacing old myths as much as constructing new ones, about embracing a future as much as defending a past. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.100: This dichotomy between evidence and memory has fuelled controversies in recent years that have divided archivists over such fundamental functions as appraisal and description; over approaches to such seemingly contentious issues as electronic or digital records, documentation strategies, and reference and outreach activities; or, more basically, over the nature of archival education and thus the very characteristics of what makes an ideal archivist at the beginning of the twentyrst century. This evidence-memory dichotomy—a kind of fractured schizophrenia—precludes a holistic identity within the archival profession and therefore inhibits presenting a coherent and convincing message to our many actual and potential publics, or even to our sponsors. It blinds us equally to possible synergies between these apparent dichotomies and across their paradigms. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.101: But beyond evidence, archives also preserve memory. And they create memory. Legislation, official mission and mandate statements, annual reports, and speeches of senior archives ofcials continually refer to the archival role in preserving the "collective memory" of nations, peoples, institutions, movements, and individuals; or they refer to appraising, selecting, acquiring, and then preserving records of "signicance," or of "value," or of "importance" which, put another way, means preserving those worth remembering, worth memorializing. From this perspective, then, archives are constructed memories about the past, about history, heritage, and culture, about personal roots and familial connections, and about who we are as human beings; as such, they offer glimpses into our common humanity. Yet memory is notoriously selective—in individuals, in societies, and, yes, in archives. With memory comes forgetting. With memory comes the inevitable privileging of certain records and records creators, certain functions, activities, and groups in society, and the marginalizing or silencing of others. Memory, and forgetting, can serve a whole range of practical, cultural, political, symbolic, emotional and ethical imperatives and is central to power, identity, and privilege. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.104-105: evidence, testimony, and records are themselves social and political constructs, each subject to mediation, interpretation, bias, and power relationships. Evidence and memory are not opposites, therefore, but friendly cousins. Evidence itself, for example, has hardly been any more fixed over time than has memory. Testimony given as evidence by women, in nineteenth-century courts of law in some countries, was prohibited or discounted by social convention. Oral traditions, the core evidence of events in Aboriginal societies, were only accepted as legal evidence in Canada as recently as 1998, in a landmark decision of the Supreme Court of Canada. In medieval England, by contrast, oral testimony was initially paramount, and written documents were considered hearsay, or second-best, evidence. (Clanchy 1993, Ch. 8) In the second half of the twentieth century, first microfilmed records, then computer-generated records, were initially not accepted in court as evidence, or were given little weight as evidence, until years of legal debate established the conditions necessary to consider such records as reliable (see Chasse 1984, 1985). Archivists themselves, from several perspectives and traditions, have recently also challenged the straightforward, legalistic, and traditional archival definitions of evidence based on strict provenance, where trustworthy records were only those arising from a demonstrable connection between an act, a document, and a creator (ofce or individual). In short, "evidence" has been, and remains, one critical dimension of our assessment of the value of documents and of archives, but evidence itself has been contingent in time, place, technology, ideology, and power. There is a memory, then, of evidence itself. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.105: Perhaps in understanding the historical evolution of these tensions, we may arrive at a more holistic paradigm for the future. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.110-111: As Peter Scott of Australia first demonstrated, and very powerfully, such constant administrative change signicantly challenged archival descriptive thinking (Scott 2010). Traditional definitions of provenance, original order, and the resulting archival fonds, let alone descriptive architectures which archivists presented to researchers, were quite inadequate to represent the new record-making and recordkeeping realities. Descriptive practice did not immediately follow suit, but the need for change was evident to many archival theorists. And gradually models for description became more fluid, rather than the classic hierarchical approach, now adopting multiple ways of seeing and viewing archival holdings rather than only one "original order." The Australian series system, now being imitated elsewhere much more easily in computer-based networked environments, is a fine example of casting description as multiple relationships (many-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many) between creators and records, rather than forcing this relationship, as traditionally, into a top-down one-to-many mono-hierarchal pyramid. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.111: Coupled with movements for greater accountability and transparency in government, promoted by new freedom of information legislation, archives became increasingly linked to justice and human rights. Archival records have been used to expose past injustices, whether apartheid abuses in South Africa, the Heiner Affair in Australia, the tainted blood scandals in Canada, or maltreatment of unwilling syphilis patients in the United States. Recordkeeping systems are now consciously designed to prevent future abuses and to promote better accountability for public affairs and governance through creating and maintaining better records, especially in a digital world. Illegal destruction of records is often exposed where such action denies justice. Truth and Reconciliations Commissions, first in South Africa, and now in numerous countries, have been established in part to create archives in order to promote the very healing and memory work referenced earlier in relation to the work of Eric Ketelaar. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.111: Yet ironically, as archivists were more confidently finding their own voice as societal agents, as social activists for memory-meaning, adopting a flexible, fluid, and pluralistic mentalité mirroring the values of postmodern society and the possibilities of digital technology, they were also developing more sophisticated means by which archives were managed, and evidence protected. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.112: If archivy is an "imagined community," in Benedict Anderson’s sense, it is one that, in its diversity, now is more fractured than pluralistic, more prescriptive than holistic in conception. How these strands of evidence and memory may be reconciled requires, in my view, a much more active engagement by the profession in the society and communities it serves, an external reorientation towards hospitality rather than an inward isolating gaze. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.114: In this new digital, political, and pluralistic universe, professional archivists need to transform themselves from elite experts behind institutional walls to becoming mentors, facilitators, coaches, who work in the community to encourage archiving as a participatory process shared with many in society, rather than necessarily acquiring all the archival products in our established archives. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.115: Participatory description of mainstream archival holdings through online tagging and commentary by users and community members, in early experiments, has suggested that by such means, records can come into sharper focus and clearer context, adding valuable information that archivists would not have the time or contacts or knowledge to unearth—to say nothing of building enthusiastic support for archives through such welcoming attitudes (Yakel 2011; Huvila 2008). -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.115: As the Librarian and Archivist of Canada has recently written, "We are beginning to understand that the construction and constitution of the civic goods of public memory are a collective, social responsibility requiring broad participation across all sectors." (Caron and Brown 2011, p. 20) -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.116: Community archiving, as concept and reality, evidently makes us think differently about ownership of records, replevin, oral and written traditions, the localism-globalism and margins-centre nexus, multiple viewpoints and multiple realities about recordkeeping, and so much else, including evidence, memory, and obviously identity, and, depending on our responses, around deeper ethical issues of control, status, power, and neo-colonialism. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.117: Patricia Galloway reminds us that, despite its merits in terms of community archiving, "the postmodern cultural arena... does not wholly displace premodern and modern practices, just as modern culture has not wiped out premodern practices. People don’t cease." she continues, "to be capable of the construction of oral narrative when they become literate, and some have even pointed to the increased importance of sound and visual media as a sort of return to repressed orality with modalities that ‘oral cultures’ are especially capable of exploiting." She notes that the official, administrative, and business records of a community may well be treated, if it so chooses, by "modern" methods and practices—the community de facto acting like a mini-state—whereas its cultural, operational, heritage, and oralvisual information resources may be better approached with pre-modern (meaning oral, pre-literate) and postmodern perspectives (Galloway 2009, p. 81). In community, then, we archivists may find a new identity that reconciles our twin missions of evidence and memory. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014