What is archival theory Pt. 2

I am back in the US now, although still not home. Today I am giving a talk to the UCLA student chapter of SAA. I go home tomorrow. Right now I am living off caffeine. For some reason the trip across the pacific going back in time really knocks me around, but going forward in time is not as bad. Time travel is not as fun as you would imagine.

I have had time to spend thinking more about this archival theory issue. I have been reading Anne Gilliland’s book; Conceptualizing 21st Century Archives and it helped me realise a few things:

  • Archival theory is born from practice. In particular, I am referring to the principles of fonds, provenance etc. The principles were formed from understanding and reflecting on practice.
  • New archival theory is born from reflection on existing archival theory and practice taking into account new environments.
  • Not all models represent or ARE archival theory. Rather they reflect a philosophical position. But the theory has yet to be explicated.

This last point got me thinking about the life cycle model which has only been around for a short period of time. In Australia, we all exclaim how strange the life cycle model is because it treats records as if they were a living thing, i.e. have a life/death. It sounds odd because records are not living things, but then again in Australia we talk about living archives, so this seems to be a contradiction in my mind. In fact I believe the issue is more about the focus on processes and stages rather than evolving context and use – the “living” is articulated from the archivist’s point of view, not the records. Records are and conceptualised constructed before they are created and continue to evolve and change over time according to multiple contexts. What this leads me to believe is that the life cycle model is born from a particular worldview and specific philosophy. This philosophy has been articulated in the context of archives and records, but has it been explored, analysed and discussed as a worldview in the abstract? What is the paradigm that supports this view? And should people working in it state their position? Of course people do say that they are in the Schellenberg or Jenkinson camp, and this is totally valid way to articulate a worldview in the archival discipline. But what are the principles that articulate these world views? What is the theory? What does it mean to have a Schellenberg worldview? Is it the same as being a constructivist? I have not read much on how Schellenberg’s work is contextualised as theory so if there is something out there you think I should read that provides answers to this, please let me know.

These thoughts lead me to explore other areas of archival theory and ask what the worldview is. For example: I can quickly explain macro-appraisal as a top down approach that seeks to document or appraise according to a totality of human experiences. Yet, what is the philosophical position here? Other terms in the archival vocabulary also articulate a worldview. I am thinking of the concepts in particular of the archival bond and archival threshold.

In my own research I position myself as a continuum theorist (a researcher using continuum theory and models as a framework). The continuum lens is my habitus, using Pierre Bourdieu’s term for his concept that refers to how an individual “becomes” through developing values, judgements and approaches to social interaction (their habitual state), but also to how individuals participate in practices: their predisposition to action (Bourdieu, 1984; Webb et al., 2002*). My interpretation and application of continuum theory also assumes that social actors have multiple, non-linear and non-hierarchical ways of seeing and knowing. Social transactions and interactions are activities that provide meaning across time and space that can be communicated in various formats and utilising a range of technologies. These assumptions are closely aligned with an interpretive research paradigm. However, there are many positions within this overarching paradigm and I have yet to explore them in enough detail to identify with one or more. I will leave myself as a continuum theorist for now.

External to the research world is there a way for an archivist or anyone else to articulate a worldview? There is an assumption I think that all archival theory comes from the same place and is just different articulations about records. I am not sure this is entirely true. But then again I am not entirely sure how not true it is. Why this is important? To me, to be able to contribute to the profession and the discipline it is essential to be able to explain and defend ideas and decisions so that they are transferable and able to be articulated clearly by anyone. Why is it so hard for people to understand the records continuum model? Maybe because it is a different worldview and there has not been good enough explanations of what kind of worldview it is. Another way to explain is to apply and use examples, but this can only be successful if the principles underlying the ideas are easily transferable. I am working on this for continuum theory by exploring continuum informatics.

These thoughts also bring me back to the idea about what archival means in relation to archival theory. Can there be an archive without records? Why is it not then called records theory? Because surely records can be archives at any point in time?

I am interested in when, why and how records become archives. And how long archives as being records of continuing value actually is. This is often referred to as appraisal, but I do not want to get involved in the archival terms for this process. I am interested in how anyone makes these decisions. I am not interested in whether or not people do create records and archives or not, but want to speak to those people who do or who want to. People who would not identify as archivists. Or even use terms such as record or archive. I am interested in how these people use technologies, specifically social media as part of their own documentation strategies as personal recordkeeping. I think this would help to reveal something of what it means to archive, to record, and what worldviews people have in relation to this.

Wouldn’t it also be interesting to then talk to archivists who create archives because they want to? Rick Prelinger would be a great person to speak to. Brewster Kahle would be another. There are archivists who helped to create archives such as the People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland who would be great to speak to. There are non-archivists creating archives as well such as those who created the Digital Archives and Marginalized Communities Project.

Others such as those people who create Facebook groups to support a community would also provide great information about why people document and how they think about ongoing work in relation to it and what this means in relation to archives. There are some complexities here in relation to what an archive might mean and this would be the exciting part of the research. Although, I can already see the work growing exponentially.

The ideas I share in this blog are in progress and are not necessarily formed. I welcome any comments and feedback.

*From the dissertation. If you want the full references, please let me know.





What is archival theory?

Here I am in Adelaide, Australia, sitting and thinking about archival theory.  As you do. This week I gave a speech to the Doctoral student consortium at the Australasian Conference on Information Systems about my experiences undertaking a PhD. While I was writing my presentation I realised there is not much in the way of methodology or research design in the archival literature about how to build theory. I think there are two reasons for this: firstly, that archival theory is assumed to be somewhat static or the principles are set in stone. Even new ideas stem from old ones such as “new provenance theory” or “macro-appraisal theory.” The second is that there is very little research in the sense of systematic, rigorous, reflexive research as a science that has resulted in developed theory for archives. I had to figure it out myself and this is in part the story I tell.

I thought I would have a look at Wikipedia’s definitions of archival science and archival theory to figure out exactly what archival theory means. This kind of thinking for me is linked to a conversation I had many years ago about what was an archival research question. And now I see that the FARMER conference is taking Anne Gilliland‘s idea about what archives do that nothing else does. I reckon that the idea of archival identity in relation to formulation of research questions and an understanding of the discipline are linked.  Continuum models, my field of expertise, did not exist more than 25 years ago as a coherent theoretical contribution, but now they are part of the archival discourse and archival theory. So what makes archival theory archival theory?

I see the first line of Wikipedia’s entry on Archival science states that first of all archival science is synonymous with archival studies. This might be the case for some people, but in Australia we do not call anything archival studies. Along with archival records, archival theory, and archival research questions, I am not sure entirely what this means.

Secondly, Wikipedia says that archival science is the “study and theory of building and curating archives.” Archives in this sentence links to another article that says that an archive is: “…an accumulation of historical records or the physical place they are located.” This I also have an issue with as it excludes the practice of constructing archives, which contributes to the theory as much as theory informs practice. The idea that archives are built is at least recognition that construction takes place, but it also implies that once an archive is “built” it is finished (conceptually), which is something I disagree with. It also implies that the building and curating of archives as a practice is studied, rather than the conceptual foundations of what contributes to the construction of the archive.

The next thing I notice is that it says “An archival record preserves data that is not intended to change.” This is problematic as well as what data is being referred to? Contextual data (metadata) is part of how a record is defined and this will change over time according to what and who is accessing the record and how it is used. So, not static at all.

In my mind I translate these ideas to mean an archive is a place where stuff has inherent and time-bound value based on the information contained in the object. Once it is built then archivists organise the pickings so that people may be amazed at their content and marvel over their historical look and feel. Not true.

Archives do not even have to exist physically to exert power, fear or to silence.

Records can be deemed archival before they are even born.

The online dictionary defines “archival” (adjective) as being “of or relating to archives or valuable records; contained in or comprising such archives or records.” In an archival theory context this definition focuses on the grouping together of records (as archives), the identity (valuable records) and holdings (contained). Archival is therefore subjective understanding of value of informational content and context. How is the subjective value established? This identity is equally as part of how archival can be understood as the grouping or the holdings. There exists theory, but I believe it is entwined in an understand of grouping and holdings. 

continuum-diagThe term archive has been adopted by others outside of the discipline and practice. It would be interesting to explore in more depth how others see and understand the archive (not just Derrida). I have a feeling it is through this understanding of subjective value. This area of interest is something I want to explore in more depth. In my research and in the model I created I removed the archive (it appears in the Records Continuum Model) to look more closely at the concept of archival systems and how these fit into and are an extension of other information systems. My concept of archival refers to establishing continuing value by whoever at whatever point in time. It is not about the archive as a place or a collection but the application of subjective value.

In this context, archival theory is then about understanding the conceptual principles of how decisions (including what decisions and their implementation) are made in relation to subjective value. By anyone, at any time.

ACIS Conference – digital cultural artefacts – who owns them?

An interesting project from Brett Leavy using gamification to preserve songlines in a digital cultural artefacts.

Brett tells us in this conference session that he works in a do-first, ask for forgiveness later practitioner-focussed way. He says the IP belongs essentially to the community (communities), but what about the game? If is a product – a commodity. What if a museum or archive wants to acquire and/or use the game? What about beyond Brett’s lifetime? Admittedly, the technology may not last that long, but the potential for preservation by an institution seems reasonably high.

I found this presentation and project particularly interesting because decisions about how preservation can be conceptualised and carried out can be widely different. The Monash Country Lines project is about a similar topic, but is conceptualised in a different way. Yet is also about preservation.

What both make me wonder if the digital artefacts, created from a perspective of cultural heritage and preservation, actually become the archive. The externalisation of stories presents an interesting idea about how it fits into the notion of cultural heritage within the community the stories come from. Listening to Shannon Faulkhead from Monash about the Country Lines at CIRN Conference a couple of weeks ago I got the impression that in this project the artefact is part of an ongoing archive (and narrative), not the embodiment of cultural heritage.

In the context of my own work what I am interested about is how these artefacts contribute to evidence – what are they evidence of? Whose evidence are they? One of the most interesting things about it is that they are evidence not only of indigenous stories, but also of use and knowledge of digital technologies. In the context of Brett’s game, it is evidence of the role that games play in current society in relation to learning, for access and to communicate. Brett harnesses the power of the game to present information. Is it preserving it though? What exactly is being preserved? Whose memory is it? It would be great to explore in more detail the construction of this project, as well as the Monash Country Lines project. Not to compare, but to explore how the decisions made in their inception and ongoing activities contribute to a diversity of cultural heritage and how.