Paper review – Self-determination and archival autonomy: advocating activism

Evans, J., McKemmish, S., Daniels, E., & McCarthy, G. (2015). Self-determination and archival autonomy: advocating activism. Archival Science, 15(4), 337–368.
This paper is a really important part of the growing discourse and awareness of the active role archivists in the profession and in academia can take. It illuminates the particular situation in Australia, as well as references examples around the world. The authors make it clear what needs changing – access, discovery, rights, appraisal, description and disclosure. Some of these are key archival terms that all archivists are aware of. But the key aspect of this paper that shines brightest to me is the continuum perspective. The authors state that they have taken a continuum point of view and they talk about recordkeeping, co-creators, multiple provenance, but the key to what they mean by continuum is in the use of the concept  – the system.
There are several ways this is mentioned in the paper and one of the first is the goal of addressing identity, memory and accountability needs that also includes redress, recovery, emotional, medical and psychological health, financial security and right to legal restitution of individuals and communities. This statement might make you think about context and yes, these are contexts, but these ideas are really about understanding the systems that underpin why and how records are created and how they become archives. Archivists often talk about ‘contexts’ and how context provides information about how records are created and managed before they get to the archive. Legal, organizational and social contexts. But these are not just impacting on the record, but are part of the record
A systemic view of archives acknowledges that records are not just things but are part of systems of many things – linked to activities, interaction, people and mandates. Recordkeeping is a term that embodies this notion of a system of records – not just the things themselves, but why they are created and how, as well as how actions related to the record (or records at various aggregations) impacts on what role the record might play. This is why the term archival systems is important and the notion of systemic issues is a vital position within the archival activism discourse, but also within a wider archival discourse.
From a social perspective, referencing Giddens (as the continuum models do), the notion of systems refers to the interconnectedness of things and processes, but also to how these enact and influence the evolution of the systems. How the system works is not just what the system does, but how it is adapted through various mechanisms, particularly power. This is why the concept of archival autonomy, which is raised in the paper, is so important. It is not just about understanding or advocating for rights in records such as access or privacy, but to change the system so rights are inherent in how records are conceived of within the system.
I have been working recently in articulating the core principles or theory that is continuum theory, or perhaps information continuum theory, as developed by the Australians. Yes, it references various other theories, including structuration theory, but what about information continuum theory is theory? One of my first suggestions is that information continuum theory posits that records exist within a system of interconnected networks. These networks act as contexts to help position the record within spacetime. The networks can be micro and detailed, such as an individual making a decision about deleting an email because it is spam, to macro and expansive, such as how archives build collections because they have a mandate to preserve memory. The macro point of view is inclusive of the micro – they are always connected in some way. Context can include technology, law, community, social norms, culture and so on. Incidentally, this is my fractal explanation of multiple complex realities existing in different planes. I have written about it in my PhD and am thinking about writing a paper on it.
The system and the network documents multiple complex realities. The archival autonomy concept in the system (or the fractal) means that at any point in the network an individual has a role to play and a voice to be heard. The paper refers to individuals and communities and although I understand the concept of a community having an identity and memory, I believe that only the individual can articulate that community identity through remembering and action. Shared memory only exists within individuals. Ultimately, what this is about is power and the individual right to power within a complex system.
So, two important things can be drawn from these ideas. Firstly, if information continuum theory therefore also posits that if there are multiple complex realities then there are also multiple ways to comprehend recorded information, including those that are yet to be discovered, or those that are hidden, as well as those that appear to be incommensurate. Secondly, if records exist within a system then the concept of the archive as being a stage or past a threshold does not make as much sense. Although, the threshold idea can be seen within the context of the fractal view and within an understanding of movement of power – part of the contexts or network. This is why the idea of archival autonomy is important because it recognises that the systems that support the archive need to include the idea that an individual is part of the network of contexts and are as valuable to design and decision making as the societal mandates for preservation of memory, or legal obligations etc. How the concept of archival autonomy plays out within the system is something that this paper explores. The case studies presented demonstrate very clearly what it means for an individual to be part of the system.
Two final thoughts:
  1. Can the concept of archival autonomy be considered within a cultural heritage framework, such as in my own work with understanding social media as cultural heritage?
  2. From this perspective, is all archival research activist? The paper mentions two archival research projects that are about particular communities in Australia that have strong advocacy identities. Is the topic what makes them activist? The research goals? Engagement with critical theory? Engagement with action research methods? Identification of change?