What’s the Deal with Archives? Does Anyone Really Know?

Disclaimer: I am not an archivist and I have minimal experience with archives. However, I thought that I at least knew what an archive was. Boy was I wrong.

This is an archive right?

This is an archive right? The Library of Congress thinks so at least.

I assumed there was a single definition of an archive. Now it is clear that this topic is so hotly debated that the difference between a digital historian’s “archive” and an archivist’s one could potentially bring people to fisticuffs. Is an archive based on the collection’s subject, its purpose, provenance, its collector, something else entirely? Really shame on me for thinking it would be that simple. After all, my mom did teach me the saying about assumptions.

I thought an archive was a collection of documents, either online or physical, with a related subject, purpose, or provenance.

Apparently not. It would seem that the provenance is the most significant category. But why?

Kate Theimer’s article “Archives in Context and as Context” examines how differently archivists and digital humanists understand archives. She quotes the Society of American Archivists’ definition of an archive as

Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control.

According to Theiman, digital humanists “describe the collections they have created as archives, seemingly in all sincerity that their usage is appropriate and not in contradiction to the practice of archivists.” Yet she believes that  “the archivists’ definition is more specific, and therefore […] conveys greater meaning.”

Evidently, this disconnect, which she tries to explain and resolve, causes many problems, particularly when it comes to a single, unified method of sorting collections.

Archives adhere to the “respect des fonds” organizational system, in which a records’ originating source dictates its placement and filing. Theimer sums it up as,

In other words, records originating from different sources are never to be intermingled or combined. It is important to note in this regard that the “source” of a record is not necessarily the same as its author.

Jefferson Bailey’s article “Disrespect des Fonds: Rethinking Arrangement and Description in Born-Digital Archives” traces the origins of this organizational method to the French Revolution, but shows that it hasn’t always been an ideal system. He says that,

Respect des fonds, then, was never a perfectly realized theory. Its formation was a contingency of a unique historical moment; its conception depended upon practical necessities and its implementation was inconsistent and disputed. What today seems near dogma—that archives be arranged by fonds—was at the time novel and simplistic, more the product of utility and political manipulation than a grand inspiration regarding the functional authenticity of fonds or evidential purity towards their arrangement.

Further, he mentions that “as early as the 1930s, some archivists were taking issue with the methodology of arranging collections according to original order.” For example, he states that when it comes to personal papers “original order is seen as particularly problematic, since a chronological arrangement seemingly provides the greatest meaning and value to the records of an individual, but is unlikely to be the order of records upon accession.”

Jeremy Schidt and Jacquelyn Ardam’s article, “On Excess: Susan Sontag’s Born-Digital Archive” reemphasizes this point, saying that “in archival theory, [original order] generally signifies the state of the collection at the moment of donation, but that state itself is often open to interpretation.”

What about this one? It has archive in the title, but it's not necessarily respect des fonds.

What about this one? It has archive in the title, but it’s not necessarily respect des fonds.

It seems to me that if respect des fonds has its issues in physical archives, then it must surely be even trickier for the digital world. In a physical archive, people look through one box from one provenance at a time. Online, however, people can search with keywords, which gives them materials from related subjects, but not necessarily from a single source.  And that’s not even getting started on “born-digital” documents, which are those that “began their lives electronically and in most cases exist only in digital form” to quote Schidt and Ardam. So as valid as the points Kate Theimer raise are, maybe we really do need to look at digital and physical archives as completely different entities with their own definition and methods.

Organizing a collection by its provenance makes sense in some respects,but so does organization by subject or author. It almost seems like a case-by-case basis would be practical. Except that of course it wouldn’t be. It would be pandemonium without some standardization.

So, I have no solutions for this problem. To some extent, I still stand on shaky ground when it comes to defining an archive. I just hope that the experts can collaborate and find a mutually-beneficial way to organize their records, so that we the people can access this abundance of information.


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