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.