I am fairly new to the world of archives. In terms of collections, I am much more familiar with the world of lending libraries, where books are organized according to Library of Congress or the Dewey Decimal System, and where librarians can track circulation records to weed unused books. The internal geography of a library is constantly changing, as books get taken out and returned, as books are weeded and acquisitioned, and so on. Libraries fulfill many values, the primary of which is the needs of its patrons.
Before this class, I had never considered how archives might resemble or differ from this description of libraries. Archives and libraries, as houses for collections of mostly text-based documents, often get lumped into the same category. I imagine that many researchers make this mistake too: seeing archives as a library of primary documents. Debates about the purpose, organization, and formation of archives reveal this disagreement about archives.
In one camp is Sir Hilary Jenkinson (1882-1961), who saw archives as an exact preservation of an institution’s records. He saw archives as “impartial evidence” of an institution’s transactions and history, and thus that evidence should remain untouched. He does allow for an Administrator, usually the creator of the collection, to weed out unnecessary files, but restricts archivists from doing the same. Thus, the provenance and original order of the archives are maintained.
Reading about Jenkinson reminded me of a passage in Arlette Farge’s The Allure of the Archives. While doing archival research in French police records, she encounters a file containing a number of seeds that fall out. Of course, these seeds have no informational value and do not help her research. However, those seeds remind her of the human origin of the police records: questions about who wrote them, what were they doing, what were their interests. A reminder of the real people behind the archives, which I imagine is an important byproduct of provenance.
However, this model becomes unsustainable as the amount of records increases, and the United States ran into this very problem around the 1930s-1940s. The National Archives was founded to curb this issue, and around the same time, Theodore Schellenberg (1903-1970) developed his own archival theory to challenge Jenkinson’s. While Jenkinson focused on the creator of records, Schellenberg includes the researcher. Considered to be the father of appraisal theory, Schellenberg describes a number of values to determine which records should be preserved. Thus, Schellenberg looks to the future of the archives, considering how the archives will be used by researchers and others to come.
As we move through a period of intense cultural and technological advances, libraries continue to debate their form and function, such as the place of computers and other community services in a library space. Archives, too, are going through their own conversations, such as how to deal with outdated technologies and accessibilities. Inevitably, these conversations will be fueled by the opinions and methodologies developed by archivists like Jenkinson and Schellenberg: what are archives for? Who are archives for? And how much of this should archivists themselves control?
Cook, Terry. “What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift.” http://www.mybestdocs.com/cookt-pastprologue-ar43fnl.htm
Farge, Arlette. Allure of the Archives. Yale University Press, 2013.