Reconceptualizing the Archivist: Contemporary Reimaginings of the Archivist’s Role

Reconceptualizing the Archivist: Contemporary Reimaginings of the Archivist’s Role

Archivists’ Recognition of Mediatory Role

The culmination of the post-custodial turn’s reconceptualization of the archive, as a space imbued with political power and with the potential to mediate injustice, is a growing call for archivists to also reconceptualize their role. This is primarily of question of shifting responsibility away from servicing institutional users’ needs, where the archival purpose is the replication and preservation of power, toward servicing public users’ needs, where the archival purpose is the equitable representation of society. It is a role that requires archivists to apply their skills in a way that acts independently of a purely administrative role in service of an institution to a generative role in which they actively create new forms of cultural archives to address gaps in the archival record that they themselves perceive or that public usership demands. Accepting this role, though, recasts archivists as social justice activists whose aim is to operationalize the historical record to address oppressive power structures embedded in or perpetuated by the collections they steward and develop. These arguments reallocate the authority over the archival space from those with civic or institutional authority to citizens in the public sphere, and they position archivists as individuals with a disciplinary responsibility to serve the greater needs of the citizenry over silent complicity in the replication of oppressive power structures. 

However, accepting this shift has been a slower moving force within the field. Much like the field had to come to terms with acknowledging the politicality of the archival space, there was also a growing call for the field to acknowledge the politicality of the archivist as early as the 1970s. In addition to his early arguments regarding the politicality of the archival space, Zinn was also among the first to argue that archivists themselves cannot take an apolitical stance. He was critical of the archivist’s tendency to be “scrupulous about his neutrality, and to see his job as a technical job, free from the nasty world of political interest: a job of collecting, sorting, preserving, making available, the records of society” (20). The reality, he continued, is that “the archivist, in subtle ways, tends to perpetuate the political and economic status quo simply by going about his ordinary business. His supposed neutrality is, in other words, a fake” (20). Yet even though the views he espoused regarding the archival space and the post-custodial purpose saw broad acceptance in the field throughout the 1970s and 80s, it took much longer for archivists to accept the implications of the turn for the nature of their own activities. Whereas the post-custodial turn was about recognizing the archive as a space of power and politics, not a neutral institution, archival scholars as recently as 1999 were still asserting that “even in the post-custodial age there is a sense that the archivist is a neutral party in the administration of the historical record” (Blouin 107). Although more recently, scholars are beginning to acknowledge that if the archive is not a neutral space, then neither is the archivist. 

In his 1999 article “Archivists, Mediation, and Constructs of Social Memory,” Francis Blouin notably begins to lay the theoretical foundations for reimagining the archivist’s role as active and influential by introducing the term “mediator” as a description for the archivist. He argues, “There is mediation between the archivist and the description, and there is mediation between the collection as described and the user” (107). Here Blouin asserts the influence of archivists through their archival processes that position the archivist “between the records and their readers,” and further claims that such a position has a significant impact on “the way the past is accessible” (Daniel 92). As a result, Blouin concludes that “archivists cannot be neutral” because the work “affects how people view the past,” and it requires archivists to “become much more aware of our role as mediators, that is, mediators between records creators and records repositories, between archives and users, between conceptions of the past and extant documentation” (111). This call for mediatory awareness is picked up by Tom Nesmith in 2002, who also argues that the field must begin “seeing archivists anew—as visible, active, agents in the construction of this history and the societal knowledge it shapes” (41). William Rosenberg also agrees with Blouin’s claim, asserting that the “procedures by which archivists select and classify documents, the ways and forms in which they decide to store them, the types of registers and other finding aids they prepare” are all ways in which “archivists serve essentially as mediators between the documents and their readers, between the types of knowledge created by the formation of artifacts themselves and the ways and form in which that knowledge is accessible and capable of scholarly use” (qtd. in Blouin 108). In 2010, Dominique Daniel noted that the post-custodial scholarship about the shifting nature of archives has forced the archivists to also “do away with the long-established understanding of their role as neutral analysts or custodians and to face their responsibility as shapers of the past” (91). Then in 2016, no longer grappling with the question of whether archivists are neutral or active participants in the processes of meaning-making from the archive, scholars Punzalan and Caswell prefaced their work “with an assumption that” archivists are influential “shapers of the historical record” (27).  These scholars argue that archival work cannot escape being consequential, and it is not possible to take a neutral stance when the archivist’s decisions so actively shape what we can know about the past, and even who can know it. 

Archivist as Knowledge Manager in Turn Toward Users

These reconceptualizations of the archive, as a power and as a place where artifacts do not only preserve knowledge already expressed but represent opportunities for new knowledge to be produced, force archivists to confront and take responsibility for the kinds of power generated by their work. These calls to become more aware, visible and active, and to face their responsibility as influential knowledge shapers quickly lead to questions about the pragmatic implications for archivists’ shifting role. Perhaps mirroring the shift in the post-custodial turn from thinking of archives as static receptacles of the past toward a source of power for future use, the reimagining of the archivist’s role is centered on accepting responsibility for future users. This turn in the archivists’ primary responsibility from attending to records toward attending to users is suggested in part by Blouin’s notion of the archivist as mediator. A mediator by definition is a node of connection between things, in this case the records and the user, and this necessitates an acceptance of the archivist’s responsibility moving across the archival network in ways that extend beyond a unilateral direction in service of the record, but now also to the users. As a mediator, the archivist must envision users as other meaningful nodes that exist in relation the archivists’ work, the confluence of which users must pass through in order to experience the record. In doing so, the user emerges with increasing importance as a fourth stakeholder in the archive along with the institution, the archivist, and the records themselves. 

Ciaran Trace connects these shifts to the influence of postmodern theories that posit “meaning does not reside in the text but in the interplay of text and reader,” which led to the “archival-embrace-of-the-user perspective” (59). It requires archivists to not only ask themselves how to manage the records themselves, but to also direct questions outwardly and ask: “How is stuff in the records used? How could it be used? How is it used in comparison with other forms of information and knowledge” (Cox 198). These questions center on use, which necessarily centers a focus on users. Geoffrey Yeo also explores the implications for archivists in becoming “user-focused professionals” and argues that the roots of such a focus is embedded in the need for records to be more than just preserved, but to be contextualized for users “because records do not usually bear their wider contexts on their faces, but are interrelated and can be elucidated by understanding their interrelationships”  (90). The argument implies that records require intervention and representation in order to be rendered with fuller meaningfulness by users. It orients the archivists away from record preservation and guides their working practices toward the direct management of users’ knowledge production. Yet having a responsibility to how records could be used implies that archivists must also start “looking at records as sources of potential knowledge” (Myburgh qtd. in Cox 190). It represents a significant redefinition of what the archivist’s work should be concerned with, what Richard Cox calls “a new wrinkle: managing knowledge” (187). Being a knowledge manager, as opposed to a records manager, is the fundamental change in the archivist’s professional identity to come from the post-custodial turn. 

This new wrinkle in the field requires the archivist to develop an understanding of the record as having both “structural capital” and “intellectual capital” (Cox 188). Whereas in the past, the record’s value (capital) was solely understood as a function of its role in maintaining institutional structures, the post-custodial position is one that sees the record as having intellectual value as well, stemming from its function in the production of new “knowledge that transforms raw materials and makes them more valuable” (Stewart qtd. in Cox 188). However, this argument ties knowledge production to the record’s value, and any discussion about a record’s value is deeply connected to the processes of appraisal that are established to determine value and placement in the archive. A user-focus necessitates a recentering of appraisal as one of the primary functions of the archivist. 

Shaping through Appraisal 

Determining value is only necessary is the archivist is working from an assumption that the value of a record is not only tied to past usefulness, but that there is an embedded potential value to future users, and if that value is related to knowIedge production, the archivist’s appraisal process is concerned with determining what that potential knowledge is and imagining what might be useful to future users and why. When archivists engage in decisions about which records should be included in or excluded from the archive, the work becomes intertwined in “the assignation of value, including evidentiary, juridical, and cultural” that is “conferred upon records during the process of appraisal” (Ridener 3). This assignation of value creates a lens through which the archivist is making decisions about artifacts, those present and those absent, that was not previously part of the responsibilities of archive management. However, the expansion of duties occurs as a result of the expanded notion of the archive. If the archive is to have a broader purpose than only managing received records, then the archivists themselves will necessarily have broader duties. In this redefined archive, one concerned with future use and social justice, the archivist must determine what records should be in the archive, not just archive the records they are given, and this requires a judgment to be made about the value, or potential value, of newly discovered and sought artifacts. In other words, it requires appraisal. Emphasizing appraisal represents an expansion of the role of the archivist. and the reality that such an expansion is an organic consequence of shifting the archive toward these extra-institutional, cultural, and justice-enabling purposes.

Many in the field recognize that the process of appraisal is the intersection between record and archivist, and the process functions as a kind of gatekeeping mediation between user and record, determining which records are valuable and thereby made available to users and which records are devalued and excluded. Heather MacNeil argues that although “it is now more or less accepted that archivists play an active role” in shaping users’ knowledge production, it is primarily exercised “through the process of appraisal that they establish,” which defines “the boundaries within which users may understand and interpret the records in archival custody” (xi-xii). Ridener explains, “Appraisal is the initial interface between archivist and a collection: if records are appraised as less valuable than others, they may never be archived and effectively forgotten, even erased, from institutional and public memory (3). In this way, appraisal directly controls the possible relationships between users and records, setting the scope of the archive and the data set from which users can produce knowledge. As knowledge managers, appraisals are the first decisions, and perhaps the most vital, that have significant implications for users’ meaning-making. 

Although appraisal is re-centered in the shift toward users in the post-custodial turn, it’s rise in importance really began as a pragmatic response to the  abundance of records produced in the post-WWII era. Faced with an overwhelming number of documents and artifacts, with more being quickly produced through technological advancements and population growth, than at any other time in history, Schellenberg was unable to process and preserve every record and turned toward archival appraisal as a necessary solution to efficient archival management. This represented the first significant shift from Jenkinson’s prescribed passivity toward an understanding of the archivist as one with direct control over archival contents. Schellenberg claimed that “it is not the administrator but the archivist who determines what constitutes the archive,” which suggests that the value of the artifacts is not inherent but rather assigned by the actions, namely appraisal and selection, of the archivist after it arrives from the source (Trace 56). Ridener explains that in his writings, Schellenberg “encourages archivists to make subjective decisions based on their evaluation of how records will be used in the future” (87). Exercising subjective judgment through appraisal in order to constitute the archive is a dramatic shift in understanding where the agency to construct archives is located, claiming the lion’s share for the archivist as opposed to the institutions engaged in record-creation.

Schellenberg’s emphasis on appraisal, however, was picked up with greater urgency again in the 1970s when scholarship surrounding the archive was focused on how the archive functions as a kind of political power. Daniel notes that “in his 1970 speech, Zinn argued that appraisal decisions served and reinforced dominant social and political structures” (90). More recently, Shilton and Srinivasan posit that when “archivists choose which records to preserve and discard,” they are “using the power of appraisal to consciously or unconsciously assert chosen narratives as truth while ignoring or reframing others” (88). Here, appraisal becomes an integral process through which political power is exerted and manifested. This recognition creates an urgency for archivists to become self-reflexive and to consider their own biases when enacting appraisal that will ultimately shape the record. It becomes necessary to see how appraisal “is an act of representation influenced by individual views and choices” and that archivists “own subjective views inform the choices they make”  in the creation of the archive (Daniel 102). Terry Cook and Joan Schwartz go further in contextualizing appraisal as not only a process influenced by the archivists’ own subjectivity, but also as one that is occurring “within a context of contemporary societal metanarratives where everything is filtered, mediated, or influenced by considerations of language, personal (or organizational) psychology, and power” (182-3). In addition to archivists recognizing that appraisal exists within these complex personal, social, and political systems, there is a simultaneous call for archivists to work with an understanding of appraisal as a “social action” that has a “responsibility to the world…for the public, in both the present and the future” (Johnson, E. 202). Taking responsibility for appraisal as the modality for construction of the archive, for making decisions that fundamentally shape the archival space that is itself politically and culturally significant, “represents, at the very least, a move to the forefront of the profession’s consciousness and a concrete manifestation of an identity shift within the profession” (Johnson, E. 202). The culmination then of the post-custodial turn is the reconceptualization of both the archive and the archivist, and the idea that the field must be “pushed toward an increased accountability for the processes we use in selection and appraisal” (Blouin 111). However, despite general consensus about these powerful shifts, there is still much room in the field to answer the questions of how that accountability should be enacted. What methods can, or should, archivists use to counteract this noted subjectivity in appraisal or to ensure accountability for ethical and responsible decision-making that honors the social responsibility of actively shaping what can be known about the past?   

Creating New Archives: From Record Appraiser to Record Creator

Appraisal theory forces archivists to attend to future use, the facilitation of users’ possible knowledge-production, and it forces attention inward in examinations of the archivists’ own subjectivity and ethical representation of the past. Appraisal decisions lead to the recognition of the archivist’s political complicity, which quickly turns to calls for archivists to serve larger human needs as opposed to primarily civic ones. One method for addressing these calls is to embrace and facilitate the archive’s potential for promoting social justice and the equitable representation of marginalized groups in the archival record. Yet wanting archives to have equitable representation is often not simply a matter of expanding appraisal criteria to garner more inclusivity in the record. The records may simply not exist, or the institutions that the archivist serves may not be actively delivering these records to the archivist for preservation. Archivists may find themselves in a situation where they are required to respond to the exigency of archival erasure through the generating of records that previously did not exist. It compels the archivist to not only passively receive artifacts for processing, but also to make determinations about what records are needed for greater representation and, ultimately, to actively move beyond the confines of the archive to become record creators, seeking out and inscribing new records to fill gaps in representation and to engage in the development of new cultural archives.  

Among the earliest scholars to call for such a shift in the archivist’s role from receiver to generator is Gerald Ham, who argued in his 1974 speech “The Archival Edge” practitioners have a responsibility to provide a “representative record of human experience in our time” and “hold up a mirror to mankind” (qtd. in Johnson, E. 193). Ham “denounced the bias and gaps in the archival record, and proclaimed that ‘the most important and intellectually demanding’  role of archivists should be to ‘provide the future with a representative record of human experience in our time’” (Daniel 82-3). This call to action was reaffirmed by Howard Zinn in 1977 when he praised the “pioneering efforts” of archivists who “take the trouble to compile a whole new world of documentary material, about the lives, desires, needs, or ordinary people” (25). Hugh A. Taylor carried this call in the 1980s, encouraging archivists to move away from “the battlefields of classification and original order, catalogues, inventories and other finding aids where our professions were defined” (152). Taylor imagines that “the archivist is an active mediator in interpreting and documenting social phenomena to find and reflect these deeper meanings…to address gaps in our perceptions…and engage the world, directly, actively, and imaginatively” (Cook 19). This thread is continued by Helen Samuels’ 1986 documentation strategy, which “encourages archivists to look at the context of creation rather than at the records themselves,” while also “implying that [archivists] should not just go after existing records and inviting them to intervene to ensure that records be created for the subject they are interested in” (Daniel 90).  MacNeil notes that these theories extend “the scope of archival purpose and responsibility beyond the protection and preservation of records held in archival repositories to include the creation and management of reliable and authentic records wherever they happen to reside” (viii). Such extensions result in the emergence of “a new professional identity for archivists” who have “recognized a greatly increased responsibility to future generations” and have “ensured that their repositories possessed a comprehensive record of society, thereby creating a past for everyone, rather than just for the elite members of society” (Johnson, E. 192). These theoretical changes in archival theory have irrevocably transformed the discipline and led to the emergence of “activist-archivists” or “field archivists” who are called and empowered to directly engage all members of society and initiate archival projects to specifically address social needs. This framework for archival work is also what sets the precedent for the archival endeavor undertaken in this dissertation.

Specifically in the context of marginalized groups, the activist-archivist model is one methodological approach to archival work that is, in some ways, an attempt by archivists “to remedy their early bias in favor of important ethnic organizations and leaders” and take a leadership role in “documenting everyday life in ethnic communities” by shifting “attention to the contributions of women, children, and family units” (Daniel 89). These efforts by archivists to move outside the walls of the institutional repository, “who consciously solicited records to shape the content of their collections,” represents a “new conception of the profession” in which archivists ensure “that their repositories possess a comprehensive record of society, thereby creating a past for everyone, rather than just for the elite members of society” (Johnson, E. 192). However, this reconceptualization of the archivist’s role, although rooted in a growing sense of social responsibility and the facilitation of justice, is not wholly embraced by all within the field.

Opponents of the post-custodial turn and the expanded role of the archivist to include the creation of records argue that such a turn is an abandonment of what they see as key tenets of the archival space: neutrality and impartiality. This stems from a view toward records as outlined by Jenkinson, in which the archive is solely intended to preserve records that have already been created and deemed worthy of preservation by their creators. Under this view, “the correct activities of the archivist” are limited to “acquiring, preserving, and making available those written documents that, through processes external to the archivist,” emerge as historically significant  (Hohmann 16, emphasis added). It is the prescription of “a passive role for the archivist,” who “should not interfere with records because the records were created without the archivist’s involvement” (Ridener 55). To operate as an activist-archivist would cross a fortified boundary, crossing an impenetrable line between record-creator and archivist that must be held sacrosanct in order to preserve the truth inherent in the archive. Luciana Duranti argues that “it is the duty of the archival profession to act as a mediator between those who produce archives and those who use them, as a facilitator of public memory making and keeping,” but clearly not to function as memory creators themselves (343). The implicit argument here is that the archivist does not make the archive, rather, the archive is constituted prior to being received by the archivist. The role for the profession, in this view, is to reduce or eliminate any interference of the archivist that could alter the record in any way. Duranti explains, “Throughout the centuries, the primary duty of the professionals entrusted with the care of archives has been to preserve them uncorrupted, that is, endowed with the integrity they had when their creators or legitimate successors set them aside for continuing preservation” (336). Scholars resistant to these professional shifts validly contend that by “abandoning the supposed objectivity of the profession,” there is a danger that “archivists become mere political actors subject to the whims of their own time” (Johnson, E. 194). The goal is to preserve the record of history without leaving their own fingerprints upon it in order to allow future generations to see into the past in as unmediated a way as possible.

Naturally, from this perspective the idea that archivists take on the most active involvement with records through deliberate acts record creation is even further removed from the philosophical and ethical positioning of neutrality. The proponents of archival neutrality see records as impartial in their existence, simply the “necessary fallout of routine” that “do not have an agenda beyond the fulfillment of a transaction”, which allows them, crucially, “to communicate certain objective data about the contexts and facts of their creation that other information artifacts cannot” (Hohmann 16). The danger in archivists transitioning into the role of record-creator, regardless of any nobility of purpose in mediating inequitable representation, is tied to the change this would initiate in the nature of the record itself; it would move from the impartial by-product of routine transactions to the necessarily biased product of purposeful intervention. The resulting archive then loses an objective stance toward historical artifacts, or at least the closest to objectivity that can be produced given the material conditions replicated by institutional record production. Such a move stands “in contrast with the procedural and formal neutrality of the archival whole,” and “undermines the impartiality and authenticity of its meaning” (Duranti 336).The role of the archivist is procedural, not compositional; the job is preserve what is there, political bias and all, and to do so without an attempt to intervene. Furthermore, this shift away from a goal of neutral execution of procedures may lead some to an “‘over-involvement’ in documentary efforts,” which “could result in the desertion of the primary archival duties of helping patrons, preserving documents, and processing collections” (Johnson, E. 194).This conflict is further articulated by Duranti who notes, “To be documenters of society is in conflict with this responsibility (343-4). 

In addition to preserving neutrality and avoiding the dereliction of the archive’s primary duties, archivists who cross the boundary into record creation also run the risk of skewing the historical record even further through a kind of archival performativity. Duranti argues that “if creators are made too vividly aware of the power of their documents, they may begin to draw or alter them for the benefit of posterity, and the documents would not be the un-self-conscious residue of action but a conscious reflection on it” (335). There is a valid criticism here that any activity that is designed “to self-consciously create records for posterity” is simultaneously working in such a way that “the possibility for historical objectivity and representation of truth would be placed in jeopardy” (Ridener 54-55). Activist-archivists, working with a self-conscious awareness to document and create records they perceive as necessary and valuable to future users, are by definition performing the archive for an imagined audience, which may have unknown ramifications for the quality and authenticity of the produced record. However, Zinn offers a counter-argument to this line of thinking, theorizing that “the rebellion of the archivist against his normal role is not, as so many scholars fear, the politicizing of a neutral craft, but the humanizing of an inevitably political craft (20). Like all human activities, there is certain level or error and flawed endeavors that must be accepted and expected when archivists become record-creators, but to turn away from the extant inequities of archival records and place concern for these injustices outside the realm of archivist responsibility is, for many, an uncomfortable complicity. While critics identify key points of tension that would-be activist-archivists should be conscious of and attend to, it may be that the field must accept a professional duality where decision to engage in “social justice is a personal, rather than professional, obligation” (Punzalan and Caswell 27).

The post-custodial turn in archival scholarship represents a series of fundamental changes to how archives are understood and redrawing the boundaries of the archivist’s duties and purpose. These changes are often about acknowledging the power of the archive in constructing history and social memory and subsequently accepting responsibility for archivists’ role in shaping that record and doing so in an equitable way. While this often leads archivists down a documentary path toward actively generating new records to mediate gaps in archival representation and ensuring a strong evidentiary body to support social justice causes, it also opens the field to a series of new questions about how that documentary work should be done and what it means to consider the needs of audience when crafting an archival product. Tom Nesmith, for example, arrives at the conclusion that “any work of archives-making is a type of authoring or creating of the archival records,” but finds this line of thinking to quickly lead to an even broader question: “What does it mean to author?” (32). This question constitutes a gap in the field of archival studies as activist-archivists grapple with the implications of their new role. However, it is a question that invites the application of rhetorical theories that can usefully map such spaces with insights into the nature of authorship and its influential power to shape meaning-making activities, potentially providing an important framework on which the field can build. 

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