Reconceptualizing the Archive: The Post-Custodial Turn in Archival Studies

Reconceptualizing the Archive: The Post-Custodial Turn in Archival Studies

Tracing the Rise of Appraisal 

Contemporary archival theory scholars are primarily concerned with two central questions: what is an archive and what is the role of the archivist? How the field answers these questions exists along a spectrum between a view of the archive as either a space in which records are received or one in which they are generated, with the archivist as either a passive steward or an active agent. To determine one’s conceptualization of the archive and archivist, it is necessary to confront the fulcrum on which conclusions about these definitions and roles rests: the archival process of appraisal. 

John Ridener argues, “If one is able to delve deep into the controversy that surrounds the history of archival appraisal, one can understand the heart of archival theory” (3). The controversy exists because acts of appraisal are acts of value assignation, and the question of how value is assigned to a record and by whom is at the very foundation of theorizing the archive, speaking to archival purpose and archivist agency. On one end of the spectrum, records coming to the archive are assumed to have been assigned value by virtue of their having been designated for archival preservation by the record creators, relegating the archivist to the role of neutral preservationist. On the other end, however, the archivist is imbued with the authority to appraise the received records, to make crucial decisions about whether records are included or excluded from the archive depending on the archivist’s adjudication of value. For those ascribing to the former theoretical approach, the process of appraisal is outside the scope of the archivist’s role, but it becomes a central tenet of the archivist’s work if the archive itself is understood as a space comprised of records requiring mediation.

Although the arguments in favor of both views have merit, appraisal has become widely accepted as an integral process of archival work in current scholarship. However, prior to 1956, the recognized authority in the field of archival studies was Sir Hilary Jenkinson, while his 1922 text, A Manual of Archive Administration, was recognized as the standard for archive management (Ridener 41). In it, the answers to the questions of defining the archive and the archivist’s role are clear: an archive is comprised of records created during institutional or governmental operations and designated by them to be valuable. The archivist is a receiver of these records, maintaining their original organization and preserving them because they have been deemed valuable prior to arrival at the archive. He argues that artifacts are “tacitly adjudged worthy of being kept” prior to arriving in the hands of the archivist (Jenkinson 12). The implication of this is that the archivist is not in a position to assign value and actively shape the archive, but rather to passively receive artifacts whose worthiness of preservation has already been determined by external sources. The archivist is not making decisions about what to preserve, but rather making decisions about the most effective ways to facilitate that preservation. 

Redefining Archives Necessitating Appraisal  

The Jenkinsonian rationale for this position is intricately tied to the purpose of the archive itself, and whether the archive serves the needs of the record creators themselves or the needs of a broader public usership. For Jenkinsonians, “archives are an accumulation of records, not collections brought together after the fact” (Ridener 52). The focus here is squarely on the records themselves, whereby a record is understood as an artifact necessary “to carry out the business at hand at the time the record is created” (Ridener 55). Francis Blouin explains this perspective as one in which records were understood as “vestiges of human interaction, unbiased by any self-conscious sense of historicism” (103). This concept of the archive suggests that its primary function is to exist in service of the institutions whose records they have been charged with preserving. Ciaran Trace understands this kind of archive as one in which value “was not tied to the future use of the archive” (56). It is an archive concerned with records whose value is tied to their past usefulness as facilitating institutional operations. It is about preserving records because they were important to people already and not because they could be important to someone later. What is absent in this theoretical understanding, however, is consideration for the archive’s use beyond the notion of being a repository of institutional records into one with implications in a broader social and public context.  

Addressing this absence begins with T.R. Schellenberg’s revolutionary book Modern Archives: Principles and Techniques published in 1956, which marked a significant departure from the widely accepted authority in the field. In it, Schellenberg argues that archives serve a social function beyond record preservation, that records are “valuable for any number of purposes” (Ridener 82). In direct contrast to Jenkinsonian notions, Schellenberg’s view opens an understanding that “the value of records in the archive is different than the reason the records were created” (Ridener 82). Contemporary scholars, such as Terry Cook, Bernadine Dodge, Verne Harris, Eric Ketelaar, Rand Jimerson, Tom Nesmith, and Brien Brothman, represent some of the current archival theorists continuing in the Schellebergian tradition who “have recently been writing and publishing extensively on the social role of archives…and emphasiz[ing] the broader role and significance of archives in society beyond their immediate pragmatic (administrative, organizational, strategic, and legal) importance” (Brothman 145, emphasis added). When the archive is understood as a record of the past, it implies that the archive is a static repository; it is complete and its meaningfulness finitely encapsulated in its records’ past utility. However, by archivists in the post-custodial turn attending to imagined potential future uses, there emerges what Brothman describes as a “consequentialist perspective,” powerfully shifting the field’s understanding of the archive’s purpose from a place where the responsibility is to the preservation of the records to one where there is a responsibility to the consequences of those records outside the archive (144). Jaeger et al. build on the claims of Anthony Cocciolo, arguing that archives must take responsibility for use, concluding, “Today’s libraries cannot simply present materials; they must ‘positively impact library patrons’ interest in becoming more critically engaged and foster a greater understanding of the issues raised’ by the materials” (4). It is a turn away from archival theory focusing on “looking to records of the past toward looking Janus-like” to potential future uses of the archive (Ridener 98). It is a turn away from archives as only a place of artifact custody to “looking at records as sources of potential knowledge” (Cox 190). This acknowledgement of the archive’s extra-institutional value and use represents a seismic shift that has been occurring within archival scholarship, termed the post-custodial turn.

Understanding the Archive as a Political Space

In this view, the question for archivists then becomes, if the archive is redefined as a site of knowledge production in addition to record preservation, then what kinds of knowledge are potentially being produced? Perhaps owing to the nature of many archives as civic repositories with government records, there was an almost immediate recognition among post-custodial archivists that one area of knowledge production is related to the political sphere, derived from the archive’s nature as a political space. Historian Howard Zinn was among the first to make this argument about the archive’s political nature in his seminal 1977 article “Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest.” He describes archives as “biased towards the important and powerful people of the society, tending to ignore the impotent and obscure: [and] we learn most about the rich, not the poor…the politically active, not the politically alienated; men, not women; white, not black” (21). The bias stems from representation in the records since the government itself and supporting institutions tend to be dominated by the least marginalized in society, the records then have an overrepresentation of the dominant group while rendering the contributions from already marginalized people even more invisible. Blouin contends, “Archives are not neutral parties in the process of exploration of the past. They may, in fact, be complicit in fostering certain perceptions based on institutional definitions and particular concepts of the state…as a product of culture, reflective of our politics, our biases, and our preoccupations” (101-3). In this way, the archive is a replication and preservation of oppressive systems that serves to record the dominant group’s dominant actions, providing an incomplete, or outright false, historical record. Brothman argues, “Even in their quietest moments of non-obtrusive neutrality, when not explicitly promoting a particular political or community identity, archives’ mere existence can serve as hidden political persuaders” (160). Trace also accepts that “the notion of power and politics is ever present in the archive” (59). These arguments shift the purpose of the archive from an administrative space to a sociopolitical force while also implying a disciplinary responsibility to acknowledge the political reality of the archive.

After acknowledging the archive’s potential for future uses and its inherently political nature, archival theorists then began to work toward understanding, more specifically, the political utility of the archive, understanding the ways the archive can be used to influence public understanding of and influence in the political sphere. One of the most prominent political influences that archivists contend is embedded in the archive is its potential to be harnessed for social justice causes. Social justice in the archives is an effort “to create frameworks to clearly identify, define, and analyze oppression and how it operates” (Dunbar 117). Those aligned with the post-custodial turn, such as Randall Jimerson, argue that archivists must “recognize the essential nature of their collective responsibility to ensure the preservation of evidence for accountability, individual rights, and social justice” (Archives Power 328). He concludes that archivists should commit to “preventing the archival profession’s explicit or implicit support of privileged elites and powerful rulers at the expense of the people’s rights and interests…to the values of public accountability, open government, cultural diversity, and social justice” in order to “say that we are ensuring archives for all and employing our professional skills to promote a better society” (“Archives for All” 281). Cox also makes this connection, arguing that there is “a relationship between archives, memory, justice and accountability” (256). Jaeger et al. note that “social justice was the theme of the 2015 Association of Library and Information Science Educators (ALISE) conference,” and posit that “this increased focus on social justice in information research stems from the fact that more organizations, professions, and governments view information as a social justice issue. Digital information has become central for education, employment, and civic participation in many places” (1). In short, it is redefining archives as “justice-enabling institutions” (Jaeger et al. 6). As correlated by Jimerson and Cox, justice is primarily enabled by the use of archival records to hold those in power accountable for past actions. Ridener more directly asserts the archival accountability function, claims that archives primarily serve as the foundation for “citizens’ democratic participation in government…specifically the accountability of the government to its citizens” (80-1). Livia Iacovino agrees with the view of an archive’s politicality expressed through its function in maintaining systems of accountability. She notes, “Historical accountability for individual, organizational, and social memory of events has always relied on records, which are often required to redress injustices through the legal system,” which has “led to a more political reading of the role of the archive” (184-5). The main channel through which the archive lends itself to supporting institutional accountability is by serving as an evidentiary body, a collection of records that can serve as indisputable proof of an inherent injustice. The archives become “arsenals of accountability” (Iacovino 203). Other scholars also assert the significance of the archive being used “not only to educate and provide material for histories about justice issues but also in court proceedings as evidence of injustices” (Jaeger et al. 2). It is a particularly powerful source for such evidence precisely because it is a collective. Where one record documenting an infringement of rights may be easily dismissed as an anomaly, an assemblage of records showing similar instances is persuasive and irrefutable. 

Closely linked to the idea of enacting social justice through accountability established in archival evidence is the issue of marginal groups’ archival representation as another kind of evidentiary body. If the records in an archive can be useful in establishing an evidentiary body of injustices, then what other realities can be established by the archival record? How can the lived realities of marginalized groups be substantiated by the archival record, and how can the inclusion and representation of such groups in official records foster justice? Or more significantly, how are such realities rendered invisible through omission from that record and with what consequences? Archivists thinking about these questions come to understand that any “truth” of the archive is rooted in, perhaps constructed by, its records. However, this becomes problematic as archival record creation is the “vehicle through which power preserves itself through history” (Blouin 106). James O’Toole argues that record-making is the mechanism by which power replicates itself, rooted in in the initial act of documentation by those in authority positions. He asserts that “record making is primarily about power,” and “those who have power confirm it, and perhaps salve their consciences about its exercise, by the making of records” (51). It stands then that this preservation of power in record-making will result in a collection substantiating the activity of the empowered while obscuring the concurrent activities of the marginalized. Blouin writes, “The underrepresented, the disenfranchised, the conquered, and the suppressed did not create documents or, if they did, sadly, those documents are not represented in the archives” becoming another way that “archives are not neutral in the process of historical inquiry,” creating absences in the record that are “purposeful in a way that skews the historical record” (104). Elizabeth Johnson describes the archives as “the site where some histories are empowered and others ‘silenced’” (191). She asserts that is significantly shaped by “ordinary people, and not society’s elite,” but that the archival bias toward preserving only the records associated with prominent individuals has “produced a skewed historical record” that “allowed power to remain in the hands of the elite” (191).These scholars highlight the field of archival studies’ growing recognition of the problem of archival absence for non-dominant groups, and the drawing of a corollary between the persistence of injustice for marginalized people and their relative erasure from the accepted, and often unquestioned, historicity of the institutionalized archival record.

A New Archive: From Social Justice to Cultural Archives

This recognition further shifts the conceptualization of the archive, moving from a space defined by “conventional utilitarian measures of public utility and legal justifications” to one that “often takes the form of a kind of cultural—not administrative—archive (Brothman 156-7). The cultural archive is “focused on the roles of archives in fair and equitable social documentation, the role of archival collections in addressing justice problems in specific communities, or documenting and preserving materials related to social justice issues” (Jaeger et al. 4). It moves beyond the purpose of preserving documentation related to a sanctioned and selective slice of society and aims to capture a fully representative material footprint for the full scope of human experiences.  

The notion that this cultural work is valid stems from the overall redefinition of the archive as a kind of self-governing entity, a fully independent organization with a purpose larger than the administrative repository function prescribed by civic institutions. It relocates the archive’s position from one of subservience to one with agency unto itself to function as a separate “social institution involved in acts that help to define, affirm, determine, and transform social relations” (Brothman 167). It is within this reconfiguration of purpose and power that “the link between archives and social justice cause is more prominently drawn” as the archive accepts responsibility for the “inclusion of underrepresented and marginalized sectors of society” and the “development of community archives” (Punzalan and Caswell 27). However, despite the schismatic redefinition, some in the field see a connection to even deeper archival roots than any example from recorded history. Brothman argues that post-custodial theories of the archive are more closely aligned with the “layers of literary, cultural, spiritual/religious, and psychosocial functionality and motivation in ancient practices of making and keeping permanent records” (154). Within these ideas about the culturally representative archive, there exists a recognition of a primal instinct operating within our humanity, a need “to save and remember portions of what has come before and faded into the past” (Ridener 81). In this view, the post-custodial turn in archival studies is less a break from traditional concerns in the field for administrative processes than a return to concerns for the inherent human desire to preserve the past that drives every archival action.

Yet wanting archives to be equitably representational and being able to amass representational records are, often, two incompatible aims. Prior to the post-custodial turn, the artifacts preserved in the archives were records of conducted business, commonly letters, forms, maps, ledgers, and legal documents. However, as Blouin notes earlier, the disenfranchised or marginalized may not be producing paper-based documents and artifacts. The means by which these cultures transmit history are more likely to be immaterial oral traditions or in physical objects that archives were not generally equipped to process. For archives to be representational, there would then also need to be a shift in defining what constitutes a record, namely the additional of narrative artifacts. For many in the field, the narrative artifact, in recorded oral interviews or recovered primary documents, holds the potential to capture the lived experience of individuals otherwise excluded from the historical record. So often, “leaving marginal voices out of the historical record” means that “instead of speaking, the dispossessed are often spoken for,” producing “distorted narratives, affecting an understanding of the history and social reality of marginalized peoples” (Shilton and Srinivasan 89). Therefore, these narrative-based active collection strategies have the potential “to shift emphasis from a narrow formulation of victors’ narratives to more nuanced and inclusive histories of struggle—histories that do not simply reproduce the dominant nationalist narrative” (Isaacman, Premesh, and Nygren 60). Punzalan and Caswell argue that the goal of mediating archival absences through representational narratives in cultural archives, what they call the “memory turn,” is one way the field can acknowledge “that official narratives rarely highlight community perspectives” while also aiding “in the recovery of silenced voices as well as in sustaining counternarratives” (29). From their perspective, the creation of such narrative-based archives is the organic culmination to the original recognition of the archive as a political space and subsequent calls for the field to take collective responsibility for the archival replication of power imbalances through enabling social justice. They conclude, “The creation of community archives may be situated as a form of political protest in that they are an attempt to seize the means by which history is written and correct or amend dominant stories about the past” (Punzalan and Caswell 30). These narrative artifacts change the concept of what an archive is because they change the contents that constitute the archive, moving from serving private needs to public ones.

Overall, the post-custodial shifted the focus in the field from being on the processing and administration of received records, with scholarship concerned with procedural standardization, to a far more theoretical focus with scholars in the field asking fundamental questions about the purpose of the archive, acknowledging and expressing concern for the sociopolitical implications of archival use, and calling for new kinds of public, cultural archives to address the problem of inequitable representation in traditional administrative archives. These shifts make possible the space in which this dissertation enters the field; it is the kind of cultural archive that seeks to remediate the archival absences of Azorean-American women for which the post-custodial turn ultimately calls. 

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