Site icon Around Her Table

Rhetorical Claims on the Archival Space: Power, Knowledge, and User-focus

Rhetorical Claims on the Archival Space: Power, Knowledge, and User-focus

Rhetorical Conceptualizations of the Archive

The archive, as a concept, is a powerful boundary object. The term is used widely across fields and disciplines; its definition bending to meet the, sometimes contradictory, needs of those who invoke the archive. Although it is obviously discussed in archival studies, the field of rhetoric is also richly endowed with explorations of the archive. These explorations represent ways that the field that holds significant promise for those in archival studies in resolving tensions between traditionalists and those in the post-custodial turn. Archivist Sammie Morris and rhetorician Shirley Rose suggest that it is in fact this kind of interdisciplinary enmeshing that may be most useful for the field of archival studies to support the theoretical claims of the post-custodial turn. They argue that the “relevance of rhetorical theory to archival practices has not been explicitly recognized by the professional archivist community. Yet, because rhetorical theory addresses the creation, interpretation, and use of documents in specific contexts, it promises to be especially useful to archival practitioners” (53). The discussions that follow in this section illustrate some of that relevance in the application of rhetorical theory to the politics, power, knowledge production, relationship to users, and historicity in the archive.

For those in archival studies, the archive’s definition is more narrowly understood 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” (“Archives”). The emphasis is on understanding the archive as “materials” with a focus on archival processes of organization and management. However, as John Brereton notes, in the field of rhetoric “our term ‘archive’ is hardly static” (576). The shifting understanding of the term’s use can be understood in the field’s deconstruction of the two key concepts in archival studies’ definition: archival materiality and procedures. Drawing from post-modern scholars Derrida and Foucault, rhetoricians often divorce an understanding of archive from concrete materials and instead conceptualize and theorize the archive as a system, idea, drive, or transformative social force. It is the argument that “we must shift from thinking of archives as spaces (physical or digital) of preservation to thinking of them more as an action” (Rice and Rice 251). This shift away from the material and toward the function aligns with rhetoric in the sense that “as rhetoricians we are not as interested in what a text is as we are in what a text does” (Boyle 127). Less focused on what the archive contains, rhetoricians are more likely to think of archives in terms of their role in society.

Derrida’s 1995 publication of Archive Fever fully dismantles the archive as a tangible set of materials and practices. He writes, “‘Archive’ is only a notion, an impression associated with a word and for which…we do not have a concept,” but rather “the unstable feeling of a shifting figure, of a schema, or of an in-finite or indefinite process” (29). As a thought or feeling, untethered from records and materials, Derrida gives the archive over to the domain of philosophers and theorists and opens the discourse to new questions of purpose and function that lay beyond the scope of archivists’ concerns prior to the post-custodial turn. For Derrida, the archival purpose is not related, as archival studies contends, to the preservation of valuable records created in the “conduct of affairs,” but is instead connected to a restless universal human need to preserve evidence of our collective existence as an attempt to combat anxieties about the uncertainty of the future and awareness of our own eventual erasure in death, an “archive fever.” Archive fever, or the desire to create archives, could not exist “without radical finitude, without the possibility of a forgetfulness…without the threat of this death drive” (19). As we face this doubled-erasure, first of our physical bodies and then of any lasting remembrance by those still living, we are driven to collecting, preserving, and evidencing—assuring ourselves that we were and will be.  In this way, those who create archives are using them, as Malea Powell observes, as “a way to negate their own temporality and impermanence, and they accomplish that negation through the practice of history” (121). The desire to create archives is too tempting to ignore as it “seems to promise the recovery of lost time, the possibility of being reunited with the lost past, and the fulfillment of our deepest desires for wholeness and completion” (Biesecker 126). It is a powerful inducement to gather, collect, preserve, and propel into the future.

Derrida’s assertion that humanity suffers from archive fever and Powell’s correlation of archives to a negating practice move archive from a noun to a verb; it becomes more about the need to archive rather than maintain an archive. It also means the archive becomes less concerned with the past and much more concerned with the future, a way of time-travelling by flinging traces of ourselves into position for future discovery. He argues that the archive is about “the promise of the future no less than of recording the past,” providing an “opening on the future…that ties knowledge and memory to that promise” (29-30). This concept positions the archive as the connection or direct line from memory to future relevance, assuaging anxieties surrounding erasure. This orientation toward future use is a concept that appears earlier in Foucault’s 1969 publication of Archaeology of Knowledge in which he acknowledges that the archive is more than “that which collects the dust of statements that have become inert,” but is instead defined by the potential to “make possible the miracle of their resurrection” at some future point (129). However, for Foucault, this possibility is not the primary characteristic of the archive. 

Like the immateriality of Derrida’s definition of the archive as a notion and drive, Foucault defines the archive as something other than processed records; it is understood as a system. He argues that the archive is “that which determines that all these things said do not accumulate endlessly in an amorphous mass…but they are grouped together in distinct figures, composed together in accordance with multiple relations…it is the system of its functioning” (129). This definition sees the archive as a construction far more mediated than the passive accumulation of records; it is “composed”—a composition. This composition is an active process that determines something more than the value of a record; it determines relationships among records, governing then not only what “fits” in the archives according to composed groupings, but also how we understand the significance of records relative to the larger whole. It is this development of relative value and positionality that constitutes a functioning system of meaning-making that best defines the archive. The archive then is not about what we do to preserve records; it is about what we do to shape understanding of records.

It is this understanding of the archive as a composed system governing knowledge production that is at the heart of contemporary theories of the archive in rhetoric. It becomes about claiming the archive as a discursive composition while also assigning significance to the acts of composition in the archive, meaning that exists outside the records themselves, which are acts that have traditionally fallen under the purview of rhetorical theory. This definition of the archive as a composed system establishes a critical point of intersection between the post-custodial scholars and the work of rhetoricians, recalling Nesmith’s conclusion that “any work of archives-making is a type of authoring,” while also beginning to answer his subsequent questioning of “What does it mean to author?” (32). It is the assertion that, in part, what it means to author is to establish relationships between records, relationships laden with meaning and influencing understanding. Diana Taylor explains, “There are several myths attending the archive. One is that it is unmediated, that objects located there might mean something outside of the framing of the archival impetus itself” (qtd. in Johnson, Nan 290). For Taylor, the “framing of the archival impetus” is an act of mediation, or authorship, akin to Foucault’s composed system, and it is responsible for transforming objects into artifacts, neutral materials into something meaningful and significant. Continuing this line of thinking, Lynn Bloom also asserts that the true significance of the archive is in its relational system and not necessarily in the records, which she argues are transformed from an original state through their archivization. She claims that surviving artifacts in the archive have “suffered ‘a sea-change’” as they “become transfigured ‘into something rich and strange,’ more valuable and more beautiful than it was in its original incarnation…enriched and enhanced by juxtaposition with other materials in the collection” (278). Transformation through juxtaposition, transformation into something valuable, is a rhetorical position that further argues for an understanding of archive-making as a kind of meaning-making practice through the composition of relationships. James Purdy also claims archives as rhetorical tools of authorship, suggesting that “archives are rhetorical technologies, shaping as well as preserving texts and artifacts” (44). It is precisely this reference to “shaping” that concerns rhetoricians—the how and the why that shaping occurs along with what effects can be discerned as a result of it— and that aligns Purdy with these Foucauldian arguments moving archives further away from a more limited definition connected to material significance toward a conceptual or abstract definition of the archive as a shaping system, “as a work of persuasion” both constructed and capable of influencing what we learn from and how we think about the artifacts in the archive (Wells 61).

There is another consequence of detaching the definition of the archive from the sanctioned records contained within, which is the possibility then of understanding far broader constructs as archival systems of relationships. Rhetorical theories of archives are less about official procedures and authoritatively received records and much more about “reading” the traces of constructed connections and assertions of relationships, which, according to Cheryl Glenn and Jessica Enoch, allows scholars to recognize archives as everything “from small, local archives run by community members…to boxes of materials found in someone’s office, garage, or even in a relative’s attic” (17). These extra-institutional archives exist where one discerns relationships or significance, even within the humble attic box, and means that the work of defining and determining the archive is not only under the purview of the archivist; the researcher or observer can encounter these assemblages and qualify them as an archive if they are able to compose a system of relationships. This definition upends the approach taken by archival studies, whereby the archive comes into existence not because the records were placed deliberately in an institutionally recognized archive, but rather a kind of natural archive, an unplanned or organically accumulated grouping that someone recognizes as having value in being seen as a whole. However, despite the contradiction with traditional archives, recognizing archives more broadly allows scholars to engage with “new and fascinating archival questions,” such as, “Why should we see this collection of materials as an archive? What should happen to this archive and its materials? How do we recognize and respect this archive as a site not just to do research but as a site with other kinds of local, community, or familial investments” (Glenn and Enoch 18). It is questions such as these, emphasizing use and community, that further open the archives to rhetorical inquiry by expanding the theorization of archives from only looking inward into structural matters of composition to also looking outward into political matters of archival engagement within society.

The Archive as a Site of Politics and Power

Following in Zinn’s approach to the archival space, scholars of the post-custodial turn increasingly recognize the political nature of the archives and the implication that the field must take responsibility for the preservation and assertion of power that is rooted in institutional archives. In this sense, where we recognize differences perhaps between archival studies and rhetoric in terms of how the archive is defined, there is a shared understanding between the two fields in terms of understanding the political nature of archives. However, rhetoricians work toward sourcing the roots of that power, where it comes from and how it becomes inscribed therein, and move beyond a less-interrogated acknowledgement of the inherent archival power structures toward a theoretical explanation for its presence. This explanation is connected to the inextricable linguistic elements in the archive, the quality of the archive as a construction of language.

The tradition of exploring the intersection of power and language is rich territory in rhetoric, with many rhetoricians ascribing to a notion of rhetoric “as the strategic study of the circulation of power through communication” (Dolmage 113). James Berlin explains it more directly, stating that rhetoric examines “the uses of language in the play of power” (qtd. in Dolmage 113). Robert Johnson brings the notion of “power” into a more narrowly focused context, arguing that “rhetoric has historically been interested in language as a tool and a political force” (19). With this interest in how language exerts power, the archive—as both a construct of language and of sociopolitical authority— presents itself as a rich territory for rhetorical investigation. However, it also moves the conversation beyond the boundaries of attempts to define the archive—to explain what the archive is—by shifting the focus toward what the archive can do. Here, rhetoric becomes concerned with what actions are enabled by the archive as well as how we conceptualize the archival space. It asks what the ramifications of archival creation are and in what ways is political power wielded from and within the archive.  

This kind of attention to the archive is attributable in part to “some scholars, such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, [who] have tried to understand the archive as a kind of power rather than a kind of thing” (Povinelli 150). According to Derrida, the etymology of the word archive “apparently coordinates two principles in one;” first is the idea that the archive is “there where things commence—physical, historical, or ontological,” and the second is that it is “there where men and gods command, there where authority, social order are exercised, in this place from which order is given” (1). We see here that this view of argues that the very foundation of the archive is intentionally enfolding two views, one toward the past and the collection of material history, and the other toward the future in terms of how the archive is used to source and exert power. As evidence for the claim, Derrida sites the physical origins of archives as having been within the homes of “the superior magistrates, the archons, those who commanded” with “publicly recognized authority,” and who “held and signified political power” with “the right to make or to represent the law” (2). The archons as public authorities controlled the archival space with the singular “power to interpret the archives” as a means to “recall the law and call on or impose the law” (2). Thus, those who maintain the archives have the authority to use what is contained therein, through the lens of their own interpretation, to determine which archived laws are applicable and should be used as enforcement. The political power of the archive is not an inert presence in the records, but a dormant evidentiary potential to be drawn out by those in positions of authority as a tool of control. 

Derrida concludes that the “question of the politics of an archive is our permanent orientation here,” and that ultimately “there is no political power without control of the archive, if not memory. Effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation” (4). However, like Foucault, Derrida also works to understand the source of the archive’s overwhelming political power as a kind of composed system. He theorizes, “The archontic power, which also gathers the functions of unification, of identification, of classification, must be paired with what we will call the power of consignation…the act of consigning through gathering together signs,” which “aims to coordinate a single corpus, in a system or a synchrony in which all the elements articulate the unity of an ideal configuration” (3). The power of the archive is thus rooted in the act of consignation, or in the gathering of records into a unified, coherent configuration. This is arguing that the archival power is not inherent in the records themselves individually, but in the collection of the records by the archivist to construct a coherent system that represents an ideal version of history, law, politics, and culture. The power of the archive is in its form as a collective of linguistic signs.

Rhetoricians then critically examine these signs, questioning their contents and the very processes of gathering that brought them into their collective power—what has been gathered, what has not, who has the power to gather, and who does not, and, most importantly, what actions of power have been enabled by such a gathering. Expanding Derrida’s notion of political power, Susan Wells extends the power of the archive to include the  “power of doxa, of assumed cultural common sense,” which she argues is captured in its structures and contents (61). Similar to the archontic power to exert political control, Wells asserts that the archive asserts a kind of authority that sanctions certain beliefs and thoughts, a socializing effect that increases social homogeneity. However, if we investigate the archive itself, we can identify “the message that the archive can send us, that is the invisibility and ubiquity of doxa” (Wells 61). Wells’ identification of doxic power in the archive is significant in also identifying the covert nature of such messaging; the power lies in part in its invisibility, in its unseen circulation and perpetuation. A subliminal messaging that influences thought is more powerful than obvious propaganda because listeners are unaware of its influence, which is a quality attributable to uncritical attitudes toward the archive that assume it to be a neutral space—a cultural attic—that passively amasses that which was once important.

For others, the enabled power of the archive is most significantly expressed in the power to maintain oppressive control, to centralize power by disenfranchising and marginalizing others. The archive acts to enshrine evidence of the dominant group’s power, to further exert that power, while controlling access to and representation in the archive. By restricting access to archives, Malea Powell argues that these spaces participate “in the larger imperial project of ‘collecting knowledge’” that is “designed to keep the knowledge safe, protected, away from the prying eyes of the uninitiated and the uniformed” (116-7). Here, the archival power is not only in what signs have been gathered or what composed system is created, but is also significantly held in questions of who is authorized, and unauthorized, to see and potentially use the signs. Through the systematic practices of self-representation and exclusion, “archives can re-inscribe power structures and imperialist discourse” (Kirsch and Rohan 6). These reinscriptions not only maintain dominant power, but they also have the power to make people feel “tormented…by the material force that those words [in the archival holdings] recollected, represented, produced, and replicated on the bodies” of the oppressed (Powell 117-8). In this way, rhetoricians engage with the same premise that the archive is an inherently political construction as those scholars of the post-custodial turn in archival studies; however, they further such arguments by moving them beyond a recognition of the archive having political power in toward a recognition of having political power to—to oppress, to torment, to exclude, to colonize. However, the archive’s power to maintain oppressive political power is only one action within a larger constellation of socially significant enabled actions that exist within the archival space.    

Knowledge Production From and Through the Archive

Rhetoricians, like scholars in archival studies, also argue that archives are “sources of potential knowledge” (Cox 190). However, like the discussions surrounding the archive’s power, rhetorical theories are also focused on external action, less about finding potential information within the archive but about the possibilities that such information allows outside its borders. Lucille Schultz expresses this view, arguing that archives should be understood “not just as a source but also as a subject…not as sites of ‘knowledge retrieval’ but as sites of ‘knowledge production’” (vii). Graban et al. also broaden the scope of the archive, envisioning spaces that ultimately “support multiple functions beyond searching and cataloging, toward managing knowledge” (241). Archival knowledge production in rhetorical terms is two-fold: accessing knowledge in the form of stored records and synthesizing that knowledge into new and meaningful expressions. 

This theoretical approach is primarily articulated by Foucault in his discussion of what he terms “discourse positivity.” Foucault posits that there exists a “positivity of a discourse,” and it is this positivity that “defines a field in which formal identities, thematic continuities, translations of concepts, and polemical interchanges may be deployed” (127). By invoking ideas of continuities and interchanges, positivity of a discourse suggests that knowledge of a field requires more than the recognition or comprehension of individual contributions to the discourse, but rather needs a synthesized mastery of how themes and concepts move across multiple texts and statements and across time and space. However, in order to achieve this positivity, there must also exist a way to coalesce interrelated information in what Foucault terms the “historical a priori” (127). This is a kind of historical precondition for knowledge production, a recognition that “discourse has not only a meaning or a truth, but a history…a form of dispersion in time, a mode of succession, of stability, and of reactivation, a speed of deployment or rotation—that belongs to it alone” (127). Attending to this history allows us to “take account of statements in their dispersion, in all the flaws opened up by their non-coherence, in their overlapping and mutual replacement,” thereby contextualizing the dispersed statements within a historical discursive network that unifies the discourse across time and difference. We see here that knowledge about a discursive subject cannot be produced by a study of discrete statements alone; it requires a holistic view of history—the composed system that also serves as the defining characteristic of the archive. This holistic view is possible by examining the “systems that establish statements as events (with their own conditions and domain of appearance) and things (with their own possibility and field of use,” which Foucault proposes “to call archive” (128). This line of logic positions the archive as a key site where knowledge about a discourse is made more richly possible because discourse cannot be known from individual contributions but only from how those individual contributions interact with one another and within a specific history. More than a repository of history, the archive is a site of active meaning-making activity.

In addition to the systemic nature of the archive creating the conditions for knowledge production, Foucualt also qualifies the kind of knowledge enabled by the archive: one of possibility. In one line of discussion, Foucault claims that if we want to understand the reason why a statement is made, we should not look only at the things that were said within the statements, but we “should seek the immediate reason for them in the things that were said not in them, nor in the men that said them, but in the system of discursivity, in the enunciative possibilities and impossibilities that it lays down” (Foucault 139). In other words, knowledge about archival records comes not from within them but from their position in the larger system and what that positionality makes possible to know. It is not knowledge inherent in records, but the possibility of knowledge produced in the negative space between them, not certain knowledge but potential ways of knowing. This theoretical approach to archival knowledge as something that can possibly be created from the records is reiterated by Susan Wells, who argues that the archives offer a “possibility of reconfiguring” knowledge (60). Again, the knowledge is not a guaranteed outcome or a static eternal state present in the archive; the archive is a systemic presentation of materials from which the user can construct meaning.

This is a pivotal shift in thinking about the location of knowledge production. Where archival studies locates the knowledge within the archive, rhetoricians seem to see the archive as only a potential site of knowledge production, remaining in a potential state until it engages with the user. The possibilities of knowledge production are realized outside the archive in the cognition actions of those who engage it. Gesa Kirsch and Liz Rohan articulate this claim by asserting that  “the process of research itself creates new knowledge, not just published results. That is, researchers change and change others when they engage and make meaning of data, as they encounter people and places, and as they interpret and make meaning from archival data” (6). In this view, the archival data is somewhat inert, awaiting the researcher to apply interpretive methods from which meaning is constructed. James Purdy’s argument that “archival work is the foundation of knowledge production for researchers at all levels” can also be understood as advocating for the possibility of knowledge production (43). His statement notably does not claim that the archive is the source of knowledge; rather it is the foundation of meaning-making, the base from which something new can be constructed. 

What these theories reveal is that the possibility of knowledge is born out of user-interaction. The potential knowledge in the archive is only unlocked by the researcher, by user perceptions and engagement, and this marks a significant departure between archival studies and rhetoric. While scholars in the post-custodial turn and rhetoric have similarly begun to examine power and knowledge production, it is in theorization of users’ interactions with discourse that there is a significant departure between the two fields. While many archivists reject the argument that the field should be attuned to users’ needs in favor of strict adherence to a material responsibility, a privileging of records over possible researchers and potential knowledge production, rhetorical theories that position meaning-making as a transaction between text and reader, among other influences, hold significant promise for helping archivists better understand how their projects function once they are released to the public. These theories can offer some insight into that transactional interaction, which may allow for more intentional management of those user-based outcomes, an area of study necessary for those who wish to engage with the role presented by Cox’s “new wrinkle,” that of knowledge manager.

Theorizing Use: Transactional Meaning-Making from a User Perspective 

In rhetoric, the user—or audience—is critical to discussions of meaning-making. Porter et al argue that, among others, there are “two key rhetorical tenets: (1) awareness of audience matters, and (2) research on audience is an important stage of the writing (or production) process” (611). In an essential way, rhetoric understands that meaning exists not in the text, but in the transaction that occurs between the text and the audience. Thomas Tanselle argues, “The text of any document is not the work itself. The text simply gives instructions for each reader to reconstruct the ideal entity in his or her mind that was, for example, intended by the author…a document must be read by a reader to be understood, and the experience of this reading is different from the text itself” (qtd. in Mailloux 587). The text requires a reader for any understanding, or meaning-making, to take place. Another way of positioning the reader is a kind of participant or potential actant. Robert Johnson defines rhetoric as “the art of creating (inventing), arranging, and delivering language for the purpose of evoking action upon the part of an audience” (21-2). In addition to playing a key role in knowledge production, this view incorporates the audience into questions of purpose as well. At the heart of what brings discourse into being is a sense of the audience, what they should hear, how they should hear it, and what the rhetor hopes they will do as a result of the interaction. In both knowledge production and purpose, the audience is an inextricable element involved at the conception and reception of the text. For rhetoricians involved in studying archives, these approaches to audience require that “we view the archive as a critical rhetorical space that demands equally of its creators and users” (Graban et al. 233). The archival space cannot be solely dependent upon its creators, to imbue it with salience and purpose with internally-focused processes, and instead the rhetorical view brings users into an equitable position with archivists where both are integral to the construction of what we recognize as the archive. Users cannot be separated from the archive, in any manifestation of the archival space, their presence is embedded in its structures.

Extending these arguments further, some scholars link the user to the archive through the lens of interpretation. Brereton argues that “the users themselves need to perform acts of interpretation to bring the archive to life” and that one of the key issues related to the use and development of archives is attention to “the interpretive acts needed to make sense of the archives in the first place” (575-6). It is a way of suggesting that the archive is essentially dead and illogical in the absence of users’ interpretative acts. Similarly, Thomas Masters suggests that users, as archival readers, are not neutral observers, empty vessels being filled by the knowledge inherent in the records. He concludes, “Archival research, I would emphasize, is not the passive recording of objective data but a reader’s constructive, subjective ordering and making meaning out of what he or she chooses to examine. Archival research is a form of reading…this kind of reading—perhaps all reading—is essentially constructive” (157). By claiming archival research as a form of reading, this argument relies on the user to subjectively construct the archive through their own research activity. For Schultz, the user is also engaged in interpretive acts of reading, subjectively governed by the individual’s needs; she asserts that “a researcher is also interpreting: archival records are never simply transparent,” and they will always be “read from an interested perspective” (vii-iii). Glenn and Enoch bring the user into the archive as a reader as well, claiming that “archival acts of reading are tethered to and in the researcher’s own perceptions and prejudices as well as the theoretical frame used to approach the work” (21). Neal Lerner explains that the archive’s meaning exists in an active co-construction between “the partial documentary history as represented in the archives,” and the narrative that is “constructed as a reader of those materials” (196). These scholars introduce an important point about the user’s act of reading, which is that it is not an immediate transfer of text to knowledge production. All readers must filter the text through their own prior knowledge and lived experiences, transforming the materials along the way toward our ultimate sense of their relevance. It is a way of thinking about the meaning-making within the archive that “invokes Kenneth Burke’s idea of ‘terministic screens’ to describe the powerful filters through which we sift archival research” (Lerner 200). If the user influences meaning-making in a transaction with the archive, we can understand that these powerful filters are influencing how the users conduct that work. Our filters work on many levels, influencing how we navigate the archive and which leads we choose to follow, ignore, or simply do not recognize as potential avenues of exploration. They likely even drive one of the most important influences on the archival interaction: the researcher’s purpose for being there at all.

For the academic, one of the more powerful filters is that of disciplinary conventions, which shape research questions and methods and often drive our reasons for exploring the archives. Lynée Gaillet argues, “The researcher’s interests, prejudices, selection of subject matter, research questions, and biases inform and guide the research…The researcher becomes a filter and a lens—an integral and recognizable component of archival research” (36-7). Lerner also attaches significance to research intentions, asserting that “one key player, then, is the researcher him- or herself, given the power of the intents that one brings to bear on the act of archival research” (196). These questions and scholarly interests will predispose researchers to approach the archive from a certain angle, navigating in certain directions as they seek answers. Kirsch explains that “the premise, question, or hypothesis with which we start our research will ultimately determine what leads we pursue” and “what details we notice,” but she goes further to argue that these initiating reasons for being the archives will also likely determine “what claims we make about a person, historical phenomenon, or rhetorical problem” (24). In a similar way, Nan Johnson also acknowledges the throughline from researcher’s interests to conclusions, writing, “As I researched, identified, studied, found, made choices, and followed leads, I was giving contour, weight direction, and angle to the materials I collected. Those configuring choices affected the substance of the historical narrative I ended up writing” (292). Kirsch and Johnson’s observations here are significant because, in addition to influencing why the archive is approached and how it is read, they are also asserting that research filters will also shape the ultimate conclusions that the researcher articulates, the very knowledge being produced. 

But research questions are not the only influence that center users in archival meaning-making activities that has been noted by rhetoricians; there is also a recognition of the users’ imagination in knowledge production. There is a sense that the archival record is in many ways like an incomplete page from a coloring book. The framework is clear, with boldly delineated borders, but the space is incomplete and requires users to their imaginations in order to add the color. This kind of coloring brings these traces of the past into the researcher’s contemporary context, enriching their experience and connection to the people and events represented by the artifact. This is what Royster terms “critical imagination,” which she argues is a powerful “inquiry tool, a mechanism for seeing the noticed and the unnoticed, rethinking what is there and not there, and speculating about what could be there instead” (Royster et al. 20). Critical imagination takes on a key role in Kathleen Wider’s narrative article recounting her experience researching the life of 19th century lecturer Augusta Maguire in archival holdings. She remarks that when in came to working in the archives, “Not only would I search for the details of Augusta’s life and its historical context, I would also need to use my imagination, fueled by sense experience, to dwell within that life” (69). This reflection suggests that there is something more required of the user than merely encountering what is contained in the record, in the “black and white” of the text on the page, but that dwelling in the subject—truly embodying an understanding—requires users to engage the imagination. Wells also suggests the necessity of creativity in reading the archive, writing, “Many times, you yourself suture together the relation between one text and another” (55). In some ways, this statement recalls Foucault, who notes that the relationships between texts in the archive, the system as a whole produced by the significant juxtapositions composed by the archivist, is where the true power and meaning of the archive lies. For Wells, the argument here is that the sutures, the connective threads that develop between texts that Foucualt identifies as vital, are not necessarily developed by the archivist or inherent in the archive. It is instead “you yourself,” the user, who places the stitches and pulls the archive together in a relative system, which is an engagement of the imagination in seeing connections that are otherwise unarticulated. In a similar way, Katherine Tirabassi also sees user creativity as an essential way meaning is made. She argues that “artifacts already housed within a university archive could be reimagined with a fresh perspective by a researcher asking a different set of questions than those implied by the archive’s established categories” (170). Regardless of “the laudable efforts of archivists who develop categories and multiple finding aids for archival materials, there will always be a researcher coming to the archive with a question that is not best served by these finding aids, though material in the archive might exist to respond to the question itself” (Tirabassi 175). Like Wider, Tirabassai argues that the user is able to identify meaningful qualities within the artifacts that were not intentionally highlighted by the organization decisions made by the archivist. Kenneth Lindblom concurs with this view, and also argues that “a good historian can breathe new life into dead documents, making them useful again for a new audience with new purposes” (252). Although these arguments for the role of the imagination convey a rich approach to the archive, it is also important to remember that “the use of critical imagination does not at all negate the need to do the hard work of engaging systematically in theoretically grounded processes of discovery, analysis, and interpretation” (Royster qtd. in Royster et al. 19). In combination with traditional methods, the imagination enables an unrestricted or unobstructed view of the archive, supporting an approach of coloring outside the lines of imposed taxonomies and purposes, wherein the user is creatively repurposing the archive. In moving beyond archivist intentions and choices, imagination becomes another way of centering the user in the archive and strengthening the claims that archival meaning-making should be understood as transactional.  

Others argue that imagination may not only be an avenue toward user-developed archival purposes, but that it is also a necessity as a result of the inherently incomplete nature of the archive. The archive is, as Derrida argues, merely “spectral;” it is “neither visible or invisible, a trace always referring to another whose eyes can never be met” (84). The archive cannot contain all of history, nor does it contain history directly. It is history passed through time, lost in negligence and disregard, selected or excluded, framed and described. It is a reality that means users looking for knowledge must account in some way for this fragmentary nature. Tirabassi explains, “Because the archival record is inevitably incomplete, an awareness of such silences and gaps leads the researcher to look past established categories, established in the finding aids, in the archive in an attempt to fill gaps, to ask new questions of the current archival record, to conceive of new labels for materials in the archive, and to look for materials that are not yet in the archive but that corroborates the researcher’s developing thesis or fill in certain gaps in understanding” (172). It is through the attempts to fill gaps and the creation of new conceptions that users can arrive at a more full understanding than the archive can provide, but these tasks require a measure of imagination to carry out. Lisa Mastrangelo and Barbara L’Eplattenier use different terminology to articulate this idea, writing, “As we look over archival materials, we know we make educated guesses. We do not work with complete pictures, nor can we ever truly create them. We know that human beings have left these records and sorted through them, and as a result, they are flawed” (164). These educated guesses are necessary for a more complete understanding of the subject, but the guessing is a way of offering an imagined piece of the puzzle that the archive only partially completes. 

It is important to note here a caution against thinking that these arguments position the user in a superior position to the archive, working unidirectionally upon the inert archive to produce knowledge. Although there are valid reasons for incorporating the user into theories are archival meaning-making, this role should not supersede the archival structure as an influential element. In the same way the the users’ research interests will shape their navigation and conclusions, so too will the archive itself. Lerner argues, “Our filters as researchers work in parallel with additional filters, a veritable purification process of social forces: the choices made by those who donate institutional and personal records, the choices made by those who collect and grant access to those records, and the choices we make as researchers in terms of what to examine and what motivates us to do so” (200). Masters also recognizes the archive as an active influence along with the user, asserting that “what you dismiss and what you deem meaningful depends upon who you are and your prior experience,” thus “a researcher’s investigation gradually assembles the archive,” but he notes that through this process “the archive shapes the research and the researcher” in a kind of mutual exchange like two rocks in a tumbler both shaping and being shaped by one another (158). Purdy also expresses this idea, noting that “archives are playing an increasingly important role in the texts we access, use, and create and, in turn, are shaping the ways we think about, write, and research texts” (28). The user participates in meaning making, in conjunction with the records and the archivists. Research is shaped by “the historical moments that influence which documents are produced, used, and ultimately preserved; by the disciplinary paradigms that influence the kinds of questions researchers tend to ask; and by researchers’ cultural and intellectual position relative to the archival materials they seek to study” (Ramsey et al. 2). Meaning is not only made by the user, nor is it only contained in the archive. 

This co-construction of meaning theorized by rhetoricians is ultimately useful for archivists, particularly in digital archives, who are interested in more effectively accounting for user needs, and this is especially found in the pragmatic extension of these arguments through the development of and advocacy for user-centered design (UCD). UCD is “focused squarely on creating contextualized experiences for engagement,” which can “ensure successful outcomes” (Potts 259). From the initial stages of design through to completion, UCD prioritizes user experiences in the decision-making process. Robert Johnson argues that “a user-centered view asks design and implementation questions like, What tasks will the user be performing within the given situation? How would the user represent these tasks within that situation? Are these tasks user tasks, or are they couched within the terminology or construct of system features” (31). Johnson’s questions begin to build a method for activist-archivists to incorporate into their archival practices as a way to achieve their desire to support social action and justice causes, to increase the efficacy of these goals for the users who are in a position to enact such changes and not to simply reinscribe and privilege disciplinary standards that may marginalize users further rather than be tailored to their needs. The theory takes the argument further than just laying claim to increased efficacy of products to include user-focus as a question of ethics, arguing that UCD “places an ethical and a moral responsibility upon the rhetor/maker/artisan to make artifacts that suit the needs of the audience or, in the case of technology, the user” (Johnson, R. 23). Often in digital archives, the end-product is not constructed with the user in mind. Instead, Liza Potts argues that they are “often inwardly facing, aimed at their own research partners and, perhaps, their own specific field,” and while this prioritization may be necessary to secure funding or align with the standards of digitization set by the archive’s governing institution, many users find that what the archives “desperately need is a sense of audience, appeal, and interaction” (255). She concludes that although “over the past several decades, we have witnessed a race to build, archive, and distribute various scholarly materials,”  these systems “prioritize data above experience” when really “we need to architect archives that are focused on engagement” (255). SInce UCD requires a rich understanding of “purpose, context, and audience,” which “are major concepts in rhetoric, ones that we emphasize repeatedly within our pedagogy and our practice,” the field of rhetoric is uniquely capable of offering insight into “what UCD can and should be” (Potts 259). These are qualities that rhetoric studies and understands, which could be intertwined in the thinking that determines archival processes for archives that ultimately offer stronger experiences for users. This framework would suit activist-archivists well as a guiding principle for their work; it operates from the concept emerging prominently within the post-custodial turn that archivists should attend to future use. 

The UCD framework is useful for activist-archivists by offering a set of heuristic guidelines that can more effectively direct design and lead to increased user engagement with a research tool that is well-suited to their needs rather than well-suited to design standards that may not align with the way researchers will ultimately use the archival records. However, the arguments concerning the transactional nature of meaning-making between archive, archivist, and user can also be seen as another potentially useful application of rhetorical theories to archival work. In their essence, the positions make clear that what we understand as meaning or knowledge production are as always negotiated. This may help resolve some of the tension between traditional archivists who strive for a kind of neutrality in the archive, a product that comes as close as possible to providing direct, unfettered access to the records without inserting their own presence in an influential way, and activist-archivists whose aim is to mediate injustice with purpose and influence. This tension exists in part because “we are enamored of the things that technology can promise, but we simultaneously live in fear of the power that unchecked growth and dissemination of technology has over our lives. We want technology to help us get where we want to go, but we feel uncomfortable if we are unable to control the direction and speed of the journey” (Johnson, R. 20). Traditional archivists strive for neutrality as an attempt to support a wide-range of research needs without imprinting themselves on the records in ways that may change how they are used, but the effect is that strict adherence to standards in lieu of catering to perhaps the fickle needs and goals of an ever-changing user is also an effort to work against the discomfort that comes from surrendering a measure of control. Considering the user requires the archivist to relinquish some power, to compromise, to collaborate, and at times even disagree with certain choices. However, if we accept from rhetorical theories that meaning is transactional, than the concerns over whether to act intentionally or strive for neutrality may not necessarily be a true dilemma. All information will be processed through the filters of the users, remembering that “all users and creators or archives cannot be expected to share similar motivations or approach the archival space with similar concerns,” which means that any intention of the creator will only be one part of the overall interaction and received information (Graban et al. 235). The user will be part of the archive regardless of intention, so working consciously of how they experience the product can only help archivists more successfully achieve any of their goals. 

Many of these theories surrounding users are connected in some way to the quality of the archive as incomplete and influential. We see that the user must engage imaginatively with the records in order to fill in gaps and enliven the historicity of the research subjects. There are also important discussions of the transaction that occurs between the archive and the user as each contributes to what and how knowledge is produced while also reciprocally shaping one another. For some rhetoricians, these qualities stem from the construct of the archive as history, inherently incomplete and essentially persuasive. 

The Archive as Persuasive History by Interested Historians

Rhetoricians recognize that the archive is political; it is a site of knowledge production. However, by incorporating the essentialness of the user in the enactment of political power and meaning-making, scholars in the field also recognize that the archive is not a site of neutrality, despite archivist intentions. It is a persuasive discourse. Although some in the post-custodial turn understand that there is an influence of the archivist, that it is not neutral as those who reject the post-custodial turn advocate, but they attach this influence to the series of configuring decisions made by the archivist—the outcomes of decisions around appraisal, selection, description, and arrangement. Yet rhetoricians take a broader view of these choices, arguing that taken in their entirety, the archival processes work to construct a history. This is history in the sense of story, of narrative, which can powerfully persuade users. Regardless of intention, the archivist works with partial traces of the past, so any archive is an incomplete, constructed space that is read as a story. Rhetorical theories of history as a persuasive narrative offer insight into how and why that narrative is constructed and what effects are produced by interaction with historical narratives.

Establishing the historicity of the archive, Linda Ferreira-Buckley argues that “archives have long been understood as providing the stuff from which histories are constructed” (578). The argument contains two important tenets. First, the archive contains elements of history, the “stuff” of the past, but secondly, that stuff requires a “construction” in order to be transformed into what we understand as history. The artifacts themselves are not interchangeable with a sense of history; the objects alone are simply raw materials. History, on the other hand, invokes something larger—a system of organizing the past into a coherent story. It is an understanding of the archive as merely an “instituted trace” of history, not history itself, because “history is what is not in the archives, not in any archive, not even in all the archives added together” (Biesecker 127). History is instead what we create from the archive. Robert Connors expresses a similar idea, defining the archive as the place “where storage meets dreams, and the result is history” (17). Again, the idea emerges that the archive as storage for artifacts is transformed a creator’s vision, or dreams, into a sense of history. Barbara Biesecker also invokes the concept of construction, or invention, from within the archival space. She writes, “Whatever else the archive may be—say, an historical space, a political space, or a sacred space; a site of preservation, interpretation, or commemoration—it always already is the provisionally settled scene of our collective invention, or collective invention of us and it…the archive may be best understood as the scene of a doubled invention rather than the site of a singular discovery” (124). The argument is that the archive is not a repository of historical artifacts as settled facts, but rather a site of historical invention whereby we invent a collective identity for ourselves and our culture and an invented notion of the archive itself. It is an identity constructed from the remnants of the past, a story of the self rooted in elements of the past in the archive. What can be understood by these discussions is that history is not delivered into the present in an unaltered state; there is a need for the past to be translated for the present, to be composed from the traces. It is in this capacity as a composition of history that rhetoricians offer useful theories about the archives. 

First, extending the arguments that the archives provide a foundation for a constructed history, rhetoric offers a theory of history as a kind of narrative. James Berlin suggests this connection, advocating for “acknowledging the narrativity of…historical writing” (qtd. in Dolmage 113). For Ferreira-Buckley, this historical writing is connected to rhetoric, arguing that we should view “history as a narrative spun from rhetorical practices” (581).  Graben et al. reiterate the claim, arguing that “material processes will influence both what gets archived and what historical narratives we constructs from archival aids” (Graban et al. 234). Schultz develops the claim further, reasoning that if the history written is a rhetorical narrative, then the writers themselves are rhetoricians. She asserts, “When an event has taken place, what we know of it comes from various accounts constructed as rhetorical acts in a theoretical space by writers who, while engaged in historical research, assume the subject positions of rhetorician” (vii). Biesecker also brings the product of the archive, the historical construction it enables, into the realm of rhetoric, writing that “scholars of persuasive speech have not yet begun robustly to engage the entailments of the archive’s irreducibility even though we are uniquely positioned to do so” since we cannot “reduce the contents of the archive to ‘mere’ literature or fiction,” but that it instead “delivers that content over to us as the elements of rhetoric” with the power to construct a “historicity” (130). History is then a creation from the archive drawing on rhetorical practices and elements, including invention, arrangement, style, and delivery that work together to compose the historical narrative, but it is a discursive form that invites us to “recall that history was a division of rhetoric, and as such, its primary office was to persuade” (Ferreira-Buckley 579). As a rhetorical construct, the archive should be engaged “as the opening onto the vicissitudes of rhetoric…in its strict sense as the art of persuasion” (Biesecker 127).  Recognizing the rhetoricity of history as narrative is a recognition of the power of such archivally-constructed histories to persuade users.

Positioning historians who use the archives to construct persuasive narratives as rhetoricians emphasizes that archives are “highly mediated constructions of the past” that produce highly mediated constructions of history (Warnick 91). It instructs us to remember that, ultimately, historians are storytellers” (Mastrangelo and L’Eplattenier 165).  However, rhetoricians also argue that storytelling necessarily introduces an element of bias from the historians interested position against the archival facts. Wendy Sharer explains, “Writing history is not merely an exercise in the objective recording of factual information. Rather, it entails the careful selection and arrangement of historical traces from among an infinite number of possibilities” (53). The writing then is always subjective. It is an individualized construct that requires the application of judgment to bring historical traces into logical cohesion, but that process of elucidation is but one of many possible organizational strategies that cannot be safeguarded against the influence of personal biases. Ferreira-Buckley recounts scholars of history who have argued that “histories could not be disinterested” and that a “‘measure of ‘bias’ in historical accounts was accepted as inevitable, and it was conceded that scholarship could not produce ‘certain’ knowledge’” (580). The archive cannot be used to produce histories that do not in some way represent the writer’s own perceptions of the past or desires for how it should be read. Writing history from the archive is an act of interpretation, filtered through the same positions that also shape user interactions with the archive. It requires an acknowledgement that “histories are always partial and always interested—partial in the sense that it remains incomplete with respect to the reality they presume to depict and interested in the sense that it is an interpretive rendering of evidence” (Glenn and Enoch 21). These arguments can be applied to the work of archivists. We can view their work in the same way these scholars view the work of historians, as a kind of biased storyteller working with fragments on the past to cohere a partial and interested narrative of history. If the archivist is a historian and the historian is a rhetorician, then the archivist is empowered to view their work as encompassing more than a routinized application of procedures.  

Rather than adhering to concepts of a neutralized archival space, a willingness to embrace archival rhetoricity allows archivists to see that the archive is “not merely about the artifacts to be found but is ultimately about the people who have played a role in creating and using those artifacts” (Lerner 196). It is a way to understand how they themselves are some of “the people who have played a role” in not only creating the archive but also in constructing history as we know it. It is a way to avoid the rejection of their own influential presence that exists at time in traditional scholarship in archival studies. It is a way of acknowledging that “any particular archive is at once a fragmentary and an interested record of textual production, the consequence of innumerable local decisions and unforeseen contingencies about the production and preservation of a large array of texts” (Schultz et al. qtd. in Warnick 91). The archivist should recognize that these “innumerable local decisions” accumulate to great effect. The archive cannot be constructed without such influences, and Lerner argues that an “understanding these many influences is essential, lest they imagine some pure narrative that an archive will offer” (196). Archivists as rhetoricians asserts the archive is always already biased, persuasive, and constructed.

Rhetoric also offers some explanation for the necessity of historical construction by cting this work to the partiality of the archive, as suggested earlier in the discussion of users imaginatively filling gaps left by the incomplete archive. In this way, rhetoricians also see a need for imaginative work on the part of the historian working from an archive that “anchors nothing absolutely,” offering only the uncertainty of the unknowable past. (Biesecker 127). We cannot use the archive as a way to “authenticate absolutely” our knowledge of the material, only to “authorize nonetheless” a version of that past (Biesecker 130). Nothing in nor from the archive can offer certainty, which means that that “all of historical work, then, is provisional, partial–fragments we shore against our ruin. We are trying to make sense of things. It is always a construction. It is always tottering” (Connors 21). The concept history is constructed is directly linked to the archive as an ever-incomplete trace. Kate Davy argues this from the position of her own experiences in the archive, reflecting that “the dynamics of archival work threw into relief the very nature of cultural memory,” which is that “like lived memory, every source of information was incomplete” (130). With an incomplete record, the history we glean is also necessarily incomplete, requiring some element of historical reconstruction. It suggests that rather than pretending to create something neutral and representational, there should be an acceptance of the necessity to narrativize history. It is a way of acknowledging that there is in many ways a kind of randomness to the archive that should not be ignored; far from systematic and uninterested collection practices, the archive is constructed from both “selected and consciously chosen documentation from the past and also from the mad fragments that no one intended to preserve and just ended up there” (Steedman qtd. in Ramsey et al. 1). The “mad fragments” must survive time, making their way out of their original contexts and into a position where they become absorbed by the archival apparatus. 

This is especially true for historians working with biographies and looking to the archive to discover a life. Reminiscent of Derrida’s description of the archive as “spectral” traces, history must be constructed to fill biographical gaps in the record since “any figures we encounter in the archive are ghosts, mere shadows of the past. Their actions are complete, and their original significance will remain undetermined, open to interpretation” (Freshwater qtd. in Biesecker 126). It is not possible for historians to encounter something certain in the archives because it is not possible for the archivist to capture something certain in the archival record. The historian must be content to explore “the cool archival spaces occupied by spirits, listening to their stories whispered in historical traces” (Birmingham 139). These traces, as suggested by Wider’s recollection of using her imagination to better embody an understanding of her research subject’s life, eliminate any expectation or possibility of certainty. Wider explains, “Making sense of a person’s life is always a work in progress, since each life is embedded within the complex web of connections that constitutes reality. To come to a complete understanding of any one life requires understanding the entire complex. Since it is impossible for humans to attain such understanding, we must settle for a partial and ongoing modification of our understanding” (Wider 71). The archive cannot contain completeness; it cannot offer certainty. Constructed biographies from archival records will necessarily be affected by the fragmentary nature of the archive, susceptible to writers’ biases and swayed by archival structures.

In addition to the constant state of imperfection in the archive, rhetoricians also argue for history as necessarily constructed from the perspective that the archive is unstable and not a fixed, static entity however incomplete. The arguments around the constructed narrative of history imply that the archive as an unaltered or accurate glimpse of history is a myth, and this must be considered by both archivists and users. However, another way we can understand the mediation of history in the archive is by recognizing “the radical instability of all objects of study” as the significance and understanding of objects over time will necessarily change as they are filtered through future users’ shifting knowledge and cultural attitudes (Knapp qtd. in Biesecker 125-6). Graban et al. note, “Rhetoricians—concerned as we are with an object’s context, its use and reception through time, our relation to it, and its future historiographic perceptions—look to archival aids for unstable narratives, not stable ones” (234). That instability is linked to future perceptions that will necessarily change given that “cultural norms can change quickly and will always color the researcher’s interpretation of archival materials” (Kirsch 24). We must always keep in mind that users will approach the archive with a purpose shaped by their place in time, and that “these intents are a product of the contemporary world’s particular narratives of the past” (Lerner 196-7). However, the instability of the archival materials over time due to shifting user perspectives and cultural norms is also a gift to collective knowledge. In the same way that imagination can reconceive archival records in new and unintended ways, shifts in cultural and scholarly attitudes can also lead to new interpretations of the archive. Glenn and Enoch see this as “a rich bounty of archival recuperation,” which “galvanizes our field as we identify new materials or reread old ones and contextualize those materials in terms of contemporary scholarly conversations” (12). Although instability over time must be accounted for when composing histories from the archive, with historical writers critically and reflexively examining their contemporary perspectives lest they arrive at misappropriated conclusions, it should not be discounted that changing norms can reinvigorate archival research to draw out historically significant narratives that were obscured in other eras of prevailing thought.   

In the same vein of thinking of instability as a benefit to archival research, Susan Wells’ article “Claiming the Archive for Rhetoric and Composition” offers ways to frame the challenges of the archival histories as interested, incomplete, and unstable as “precious gifts” that provide researcher’s the invaluable challenge of “resistance to our first thought” and “the possibility of reconfiguring our relation to history” (58). The realities of the mediated archive require a more cautious approach that looks to render visible the influences in operation that are shaping the archive and researcher. However, rather than seeing how “the archive resists knowledge,” how it only presents a fragmentary and biased narrative, as a deterrent for conducting archival research, Wells argues that this resistance to certain knowledge is a kind of “resistance to closure,” which “is fruitful” as “it forbids totalization” and forces researchers to “resist early resolution of questions that should not be too quickly answered” (58). Instead of having concerns about the incomplete nature of the space, we can think of the archive as providing an opportunity to be challenged in productive ways. Without complete and uninterested answers, the researcher must triangulate results, find creative approaches to generating information, and arrive at insights that are strengthened or more nuanced as a result of confronting different perspectives than those held prior to entering the archive.

These perspectives surrounding the historicity of the archive argue that ultimately history cannot be known for certain, the record of the past is incomplete and will inevitably be viewed through ever-changing contemporary lenses. There will always be acts of interpretation and bias from narratives of history constructed by interested parties that communicate a persuasive argument for what we should understand as the story of the past. Rhetorical theories work to explore not only how we define the archive, but they shift our attention to users—how they participate with the archive to make-meaning and what kind of historical meaning they are making. Although traditionalists in archival studies have drawn a border around their discipline with these perspectives standing firmly outside the line, activist-archivists engaged in social justice may be interested in engaging with rhetorical theories to effectively engage users and more successfully reduce injustices of marginalized representation. Incorporating rhetorical theories of historicity may also provide a way of resolving some tensions between the two divisions of archival studies. One of the main critiques of the activist models of archival work from the traditionalists is that the resulting archive will be biased—a less accurate rendering of the archival record that will be to the detriment of the artifacts and researchers. However, rhetoricians have richly theorized a concept of the archive as inherently inaccurate, incomplete, and always interested in some way by the people who have a hand in its creation. This is presented as an unavoidable fact, which could be construed to include all archives—regardless of the archivists’ intentions, meaning that all archivists must accept and account for bias and gaps and none are free from leaving traces of their fingerprints on their work in significant ways.

Resolving Tensions in Archival Studies with Rhetorical Genre Theory and Feminist Practices

Rhetorical theories on history and historical writing are one way of potentially resolving tensions between the two areas of archival studies, but there are additional theoretical lenses that may be applied productively. Rhetorical genre theory offers ways of thinking about archives that can make room within the field for both traditional and generated cultural archives to co-exist with greater mutual respect for their differing situations and also by viewing them through a lens of social action and use.  Feminist rhetorical practices offer another set of theories that may also empower activist-archivists by validating their affective motives and scholary activity with an emphasis on a ethos of care, social justice, and the production of community-relevent knowledge.

Rhetorical Genre Theory 

Thinking about the archive as a genre is a productive way to resolve tensions between traditional archivists that prioritize standardized processing of received records and activist-archivists who work to generate new artifacts and cultural archives to mediate injustices. Rhetorical genres extend the definition of a genre beyond an internally-focused understanding of them as classifications based on similar form, style, and substance by including externally-focused theories of how genres come into being and also how they enable social action. 

Carolyn Miller’s article “Genre as Social Action” enumerates several qualities of a genre that are useful to archival studies. First, Miller builds on Campbell and Jamieson’s assertion that “rhetorical forms that establish genres are stylistic and substantive responses to perceived situational demands” (qtd. in Miller 153). This is a significant argument in that it directly connects the style and substance that the author chooses for the discourse to the rhetorical situation that the author perceives and is addressing in the text; the way the rhetor interprets the rhetorical situation becomes the impetus for the generic response.  Although “rhetorical situations are defined in a varied ways in theory and practice,” it can be understood in the context of archival studies as the specific social needs, such as inequitable representation in the archival record, that inspire archivists to respond with the production of new archives (Miller and Bowdon 592). Morris and Rose also articulate the rhetorical situation as discursive purpose, claiming that it is “the context and events that gave rise to discourse,” which “is critical to understanding that discourse” (56). This view corresponds with Lloyd Bitzer’s positioning of the rhetorical situation as the well-spring for discursive acts, “the source and ground of rhetorical activity” (6). He contends that the rhetorical situation is a “natural context of persons, events, objects, relations, and an exigence which strongly invites utterance (5). This view of the rhetorical situation as a motivating force is an important aspect of understanding that the development of archives as a response to situational elements constitutes a rhetorical act. It is positioning the archive as rhetorical specifically because the archival product is generated as a result of the “situational elements” being “used in a purposeful manner, for rhetoricians have maintained that purpose is the ‘controlling’ aspect of discourse”  (Miller and Bowdon 592). However, the extension of an invitation to purposeful response by these natural contexts will only result in meaningful rhetorical discourse if it is readily received. Richard Vatz argues, “No situation can have a nature independent of the perception of its interpreter or independent of the rhetoric with which he chooses to characterize it” (154). For Vatz, “Rhetors choose or do not choose to make salient situations, facts, events, etc. This may be the sine qua non of rhetoric: the art of linguistically or symbolically creating salience” through perception (160). The assertion of the rhetor’s agency in making choices around the salience on situational elements is an important addition to Bitzer’s theories, but Robert Johnson further develops the concept with an equally significant corrective.

Johnson defines “the concept of situation” as “what was necessary to plan, arrange, and deliver a piece of discourse” is an equally significant corrective (34). Johnson’s argument suggests that in addition to making elements of the situation salient, to perceiving a situation and desiring to compose a response, the rhetor must also have an understanding of pragmatic elements of discourse production. The rhetor must be equipped with the skills necessary to produce the actual work; there must be knowledge and experience related to planning, arranging, and delivering the discursive form appropriate to the situation. It is in this understanding of the rhetorical situation that combines the rhetor’s social and material circumstances with an individuated perception that inspires action and the requisite technical skills that is a useful explanation for archivists. While others may perceive situational elements, the receipt of newly donated letters or the absence of representation for marginalized groups for example, archivists move beyond simple recognition to perceive that their actions are required; they must employ their training in the field and developed skill-set to create archival mediations of the situations they hope to address. Because these archival responses are recognizable as taking a certain form with stylistic and substantive conventions—the organized compilation of ordered and described artifacts—and because their origins are directly linked to the situational impetus, they can be understood as rhetorical genres. 

As a rhetorical genre, the archive “acquires meaning from situation and from the social context in which that action arose” (Miller 163). However, even though genre theory establishes the situation as the initiating factor of discourse production and as a meaning-imbuing set of material, intellectual, and technical circumstances, it also recognizes that the articulation of the acquired meaning must conform to certain rules that govern form, which are necessary for guiding reader interpretations. Miller argues, “It is constitutive rules that tell us how to fuse form and substance to make meaning and regulative rules that tell us how the fusion itself is to be interpreted within its context” (161). In constituting the archive according to governing rules related to its form, it creates conditions for users that facilitate knowledge production, ways of recognizing objects as “artifacts,” as valuable in their preservation and relevant in their description. Miller asserts, “Form shapes the response of the reader or listener to substance by providing instruction, so to speak, about how to perceive and interpret; this guidance disposes the audience to anticipate, to be gratified, to respond in a certain way. Seen thus, form becomes a kind of meta-information, with both semantic value (as information) and syntactic (or formal) value” (159). The form itself becomes a strong influence in users’ meaning-making processes. The connection between genre and meaning is also noted by McNely and Teston, who note that rhetorical genres “are also ways of knowing and being in the world” with “powerful epistemic and ontological functions” (114). On one level, the kind of meaning that can drawn from genres is related to cultural knowledge, which is a natural extension of the theory given that the idea of socially recognizable forms invokes a sense of communal knowledge, a coalescing of people around mutual agreement of what is or is not part of the genre. From this shared constructive activity, it is possible to see that “genres help constitute the substance of cultural life” (Miller 163). This aspect of rhetorical genre theory seems especially relevant to archival studies, particularly for archivists working with cultural archives. In that case, there is a kind of doubled cultural constitutive process, first in the substance of the archive being artifacts that transmit cultural value and information and second in the presentation of those artifacts in a generic form that reinforces shared social views.  

More than the rhetorical situation that the archive responds to, the situation that governs how discourse comes into being, it is the form of “archive” that users understand, the form achieved by the employment of “regulative rules,” that is centered as the governing force of how the discourse participates in society. The rhetorical situation may implant and gestate the discursive purpose, but the form births the discourse and determines how it moves through the world outside the rhetor. The tension between archivists as traditional or activist may be bridged productively by rhetorical genre theory as it positions constitutive rules as the means by which form and substance are able to interpreted in meaningful ways, and not the initiating purpose. In the application of this theory, it can be argued that what makes a discursive product an archive is not tied to why it came into being but how. The situational elements may be differ from archivist to archivist, acknowledging that “in constructing discourse, we deal with purposes at several levels, not just one,” but having multiple purposes does not negate valid claims to the form because these claims are validated from its construction according the genre’s conventions (Miller 162). Under genre theory, archivists who contradictorily perceive situations and the appropriate response to them do not need to exist in tension, but can instead be bound together in understanding that singularity of purpose is unrealistic as the unifying element defining the archive. If the ultimate product have similarities of form that allow for their recognition as archive, have been produced with consistent rules of construction, then form will productively guide, or “instruct” as Miller states, the user toward an understanding of the substance of the archive. The long tradition and history within archival studies of developing consistent procedures for the work of archiving that gives shape to the archive is its constitutive factor, allowing the umbrella of the genre to open wide enough for contributions coming from different situations.

Another way that genre theory helps resolve the tension between the traditional and an activist model of the archivists’ role is by theorizing that genres is not a singular entity, but is a lamination comprised of genre sets and genre systems. The genre set is “the collection of types of texts someone in a particular role is likely to produce” and a genre system is “comprised of several genre sets of people working together in an organized way” (Bazerman 318). In this view, we can understand that all archivists share a genre set of written texts, including artifact descriptions, finding aids, accession number logs, and appraisal criteria. Activist-archivists may also produce new records as part of their archive development projects. While the traditional and activist archivists are working with different genre sets, it may seem that their work is disparate. However, we can see that these different types of archivists are producing sets that “are intimately related” in a larger genre system. The genre system includes all texts produced in a multitude of genre sets related to the creation, development, maintenance, and publication of archives. This means that in addition to the traditional and activist archives, the genre system would also include the genre sets produced by others in the network of archival production, including, for example, the texts produced by institutional stakeholders who generate records, set protocols for preservation, or request record retrieval. It also includes texts produced by digital specialists who write search algorithms for accessing materials in the archive and compose code to organize the archival interface. It may also include texts produced by related institutions, like libraries or historical societies, who develop reference tools that include guidelines for using the archives. In thinking about the two types of archives as existing within a larger genre system, we can further bridge the gap between these practices as seeing them not in opposition to one another, but as different nodes within a larger system of interrelated genre sets. It is a way of understanding that although the term archive is a “well-known name for a genre within a world of practice,” it is also possible that “people may in fact understand somewhat different things by a single shared name” (Bazerman 325). Genre theory in this way creates room for both types of archive, the received and the generated, to lay legitimate claim to the term, occupying the same space while having practices that produce different, although related, sets of texts.

Thus far, Bazerman and Miller have defined and theorized rhetorical genres in ways that acknowledge how differing purposes and practices can co-exist within the same form, which may help reconcile some of the debates in archival studies. However, another important tenet of rhetorical genre theory is that genres are translated by users into social action. In this way, genre theory gives further support to activist-archivists qualifying their work as legitimate by defining the genre of archive as more than a set of forms and procedures, but also by the activity it produces. Graban et al. see the archive as “an evolving and dynamic genre of possibility for academic and nonacademic audiences alike” (238). This invocation of possibility reflects Miller’s assertion that above all else, genre teach us about our potential. She writes, “What we learn when we learn a genre is not just a pattern of form or even a method of achieving our own ends. We learn, more importantly, what ends we may have…We learn to understand better the situations in which we find ourselves and the potentials for failure and success in acting together” (165). These terms, possibility and potential, foreground a facet of genre that is connected to users, to what transformations take place and what new options we discover by our interactions with the genre. The focus on these terms is future-oriented and outward looking; they are not about what has already happened nor what is cemented in the discourse. They are ways of understanding a genre by what it produces, by new activity generated. Bazerman also makes this claim, drawing a direct line from the genre’s form to its consequences, writing,“The typification gives a certain shape and meaning to the circumstances and directs the kinds of actions that will ensue” (316). Bazerman grounds this user-focus in a theory of rhetorical genre that situates genre systems, the totality of interrelated genre sets, within larger systems within systems of activity. The system of activity represents the actions that ensue from the interaction of texts in genre sets and systems with users. This framework “puts a focus on what people are doing and how texts help people do it, rather than on texts as ends in themselves” (319). Miller also more explicitly connects form to action, arguing that “a genre becomes a complex of formal and substantive features that create a particular effect in a given situation…more than a formal entity; it becomes pragmatic, fully rhetorical, a point of connection between intention and effect, an aspect of social action” (153). These arguments are similar to Miller’s earlier argument that form offers interpretive instructions to users, but it is extended here to encompass not only interpretations but also outcomes. Genre is more than a classification, it is “a rhetorical means for mediating private intentions and social exigence; it motivates by connecting the private with the public” (Miller 163). Genres take private responses to exigencies, translated through regulative rules, and installs them into the public sphere as action-enabling, culturally recognizable forms. This definition of genre as social action is, what Miller terms, an “ethnomethodological” approach to classification, which “seeks to explicate the knowledge that practice creates” (155). The emphasis on social action offers archivists a way of understanding their discipline not solely through the study of archival processes, but through an examination of the effects that such processes have in a broader social context, which is a position for which the post-custodial turn is advocating that the field undertake. This is of particular utility for archivists as a productive way to analyze the archive in terms of the types of activities afforded by the archive; genre theory brings the study of use and action into the purview of the archivists and expands their role beyond the focus of just how the genre is produced to include what the genre produces as well. 

The focus on action is another way genre theory works to alleviate the tension in the archival field between the scholars who place the study of use outside the boundaries of the field in favor of a more narrow focus on practical matters of archival development by making clear that the connection between how a genre is produced and how it is used is inherent and inextricable. Bazerman writes, “Because genres are recognizable by their distinctive features and those features seem to tell us so much about the function, it is tempting to see genres just as a collection of these features” (322). It tempts analyses that measure every example “against an abstract standard of correctness to the form rather than whether it carries out the work it was designed to do” (323). This potentially could shift the focus in archival scholarship away from evaluating archives based on how well they follow protocols and best practices of the form and onto how well they produce the desired result. Even if the goal is to produce an archive with a neutralized influence, the evaluative criteria presented by Bazerman would guide assessment based still on whether the archive functions as intended. To aid in this assessment of use outcomes, tt may be useful for archivists to think of archives using the rhetorical analysis of the three levels of speech acts, or “what was literally stated, the intended act, and the actual effect” (Bazerman 315). The records in the archive are the literal statement, but the archival processes of record-creation (for activist-archivists), appraisal, description, arrangement, and delivery constitute an intended purpose, perhaps preserving institutional records or mediating gaps in cultural representation. However, the archive users may arrive at an actual understanding that differs from these intentions. Bazerman argues that texts “can travel into entirely new situations where it may serve unanticipated uses for new readers,” and that we cannot assume “that everybody understands these texts exactly as we understand them—that they share exactly the same kind and level of textual and social knowledge, and that we all share the same textual culture” (321). These arguments are true for both traditional and activist archives. Regardless of intention, a neutral or persuasive goal, the archivist can never fully control the actual understanding that users take away because intention does not equal outcome. 

However, an analytical framework that elucidates the gap between intended and actual use is an approach to archival design that can assist archivists to more effectively develop archives that close the gap between their goals and users’ conclusions. It is a framework that “puts the focus on questions” about how users “build concepts and knowledge” and how we create “opportunities for learning” and “support and structure learning” as well (Bazerman 319). Understanding the archive as a genre, analyzing it as not only a set of typified forms but as forms situated in larger activity systems, can yield insights into how the archival product  functions in conjunction with society rather than as a discrete, closed object. Bazerman writes, “Understanding these genres and how they work in the systems and circumstances they were designed for, can help you as a writer fulfill the needs of the situation, in ways that are understood and speak to the expectations of others” (311). He continues to argue that understanding genre can help authors “diagnose and redesign communicative activity systems” to mediate documents that may be “redundant or misleading,” understanding “how to disrupt or change the systems by the deletion, addition, or modification of a document type” that may result in the creation of new “interactional patterns, attitudes, and relationships” (311-12). It is a theory that is some ways eliminates the tension between the two archival models by deconstructing the traditionalist notion that a neutral intention can be achieved or the criticism from the field that activist intentions delimit possible interpretations. Attending to use does not negate traditional notions of neutral archival purpose. Instead, by recognizing the link between the form of a genre and its function, archivists would be in a better position to evaluate the effectiveness of the work practices in achieving their aims, whether that is neutral or influential, and make adjustments as needed to better achieve them in future iterations. It further creates common ground between archivists working on different types of archives by creating a shared perspective on the value of attending to user and social activities stemming from archival interactions.

One final note about genre theory and a focus on use is that user conclusions should not be understand as static. The archive’s meaning is not stable over time because it relies on culturally-shared recognitions of the form agreed upon regulative rules that undergird social action. Bazerman explains, “The definition of genres only as a set of textual features ignores the role of individuals in using and making meaning. It ignores differences of perception and understanding…and the changing of genre understanding over time” (317). Inevitably, what is recognized as a genre will shift. The genre of the handwritten letter merges with an email, sharing elements of form such as the salutation and closing, only to morph again in the migration of email access from the laptop keyboard to the cell phone where generic conventions of the text message, the casual tone or use of emoji, erode previous aspects of the form. Genre is “an open class, with new members evolving, old ones decaying,” which represents true “rhetorical practice” (153). This open nature of rhetorical genre sits in opposition to “closed classifications, which sacrifice the diversity and dynamism of rhetorical practice to some theoretical a priori” (Miller 154). Genre is theorized as a dynamic form, and it cannot be fixed in a set of unchanging constitutive laws of construction. In terms of archival studies, it offers a way of the development of archivist-activist created cultural archives not as a schism or departure from previous archival forms, but as a “new member” that has “formed from typifications already on hand when they are not adequate to determine a new situation” (Miller 157). Although the cultural archive is developed from the materials of traditional archives—the raw materials of records, descriptions, appraisal decisions, and arrangement—it is an evolution of the genre to address a new kind of social situation external to institutional needs for preservation. Instead of contesting the boundaries of what constitutes the archive, genre theory allows for a kind of multiplicity in the field whereby the form is freed from a static, fixed conceptualization to one that establishes separate, but similarly constituted, iterations of archival genres that can co-exist in overlapping space.  

Feminist Rhetorical Practices

Approaching archive development with a framework of feminist rhetorical practices has the potential to empower activist-archivists by offering theories that validate scholarly activivty that incorporates personal and socially conscious purposes and methods. They offer further ways for rhetorical theories to usefully supplement archival studies, particularly for archivists interested in social justice as additional way to tether their field’s more recent incorporations of user concerns, generated archives, and activism to rich scholarly traditions. Feminist rhetorical practices are an evoloving of methods and methodologies, practices that guide the how of  conducting research and epistemological approaches that encompass the what and why of research. Patricia Bizzell outlines three important tenets that acknowledge the affective reasons scholars engage with a subject, prioritize ethics, and advocate for communal knowledge production. Bizzell notes that feminist rhetorical practices are rooted in an “‘acknowledgement of passionate attachment’ to the subjects of one’s research; ‘attention to ethical action’ in one’s scholarship, which requires one to be rigorous in the traditional sense and at the same time ‘accountable to various publics;’ and ‘commitment to social responsibility,’ which indicates the need not only to think about the social consequences of the knowledge we generate but also to use it ourselves for the greater common good” (15). Jacqueline Jones Royster, Gesa Kirsch, and Patricia Bizzell highlight these qualities of feminist practices while also adding an argument for methodologies that are “dialogic, dialectical, reflective, reflexive, embodied, and anchored in an ethos of care, respect, and humility” (67). For activist-archivists, the practices here provide a way of approaching the creation of archives for marginalized groups from different perspectives than those traditionally foregrounded in archival studies. Rather than prioritize the processes of archiving, feminist rhetorical practices carve out the scholarly space for archival activity that works collaboratively, dialogically and dialectically, with the community to develop archives that are participant driven, not institutionally driven. Approaching the community ethically, with respect and humility, with a critically self-reflexive examination of one’s own positionality and interestedness, is a methodological argument for the prioritization of people over product. It does not place the archivist in the dominant expert role, but instead casts them as a fallible facilitator who has a willingness to both learn from and support the aims of the cultural groups with whom they are working. Feminist rhetorical practices empower those who embrace these methods, strengthening a resistance to those who criticize such approaches as unscholarly, non-standardized, unrepeatable, and superfluously emotional conduct leading to only localized knowledge that cannot be productively generalized. Examining some of the practices in more detail, specifically the role of emotion, ethics, social justice, reflexivity, and research goals, it is possible to further bolster activist-archivists who are pushing against archival studies’ traditionalism.  

 

Although traditional scholarship typically avoids writing from and in a first-person perspective, and even when the writing is argument-driven, the writer strives for logical, empirical claims grounded in a depersonalized style, feminist methods honor the emotional within the scholarly, the affective within the logical. It invites the scholar to enter the scholarship more fully, to dwell there and be seen there. One of the most important ways that emotion and the individual engage scholarship is through the selection of a research subject. Bizzell argues, “We perhaps need more discussion of the part played in the setting of scholarly research agendas and the constructing of scholarly arguments by our emotions about our research topics—or subjects—and our imagined readers” (12). Often the selection of an area of study are highly personal choices, driven by passion, interest, or embodied experiences, and we should not suppress these instincts nor hide them when they ground our inquiries. Sharer contends that emotion does not need to be the controlling force in guiding research, noting we should not “omit the process of thinking critically about what we select and what we omit in our setting of research agendas,” but she contends that it is important that “we look favorably on and in fact encourage affective connections to our research projects” (54). She urges “researchers not to dismiss the inspirations that they cannot fully articulate as part of a rational effort to locate themselves as researchers” (54). Royster et al. also acknowledge the connection between engaging the personal in research and strengthening our academic identities. They observe, “We have the habit of choosing for ourselves symbols from our past experiences that help us translate and align new experiences and to transform them into knowledge and insight. By such transformative connections, we can see more clearly where and how we stand, how we interpret what we see, and consequently how we make sense out of the chaotic effects of various encounters and observations in creating new knowledge” (15). For Sharer and Royster et al., the arguments not only honor the role of affective attachment in research agendas, but also suggest that it is a powerful way for scholars to “locate themselves.” There is an empowering aspect to intertwining an emotional component with critical ones, an aspect that provides original angles into a subject while also helping scholars position themselves in their field of study. It stakes out ground on which the scholar can firmly stand; where so often we can feel like imposters or battle with questions of whether our work is valid, the surety of knowing our emotional attachment is genuine can offer reassurance. 

Rohan articulates an example of Sharer’s claim, writing from her own experiences, observing that “the more I listened to my intuition and synthesized what I was learning with issues related to my identity, the better I could think about what I read and saw” (246). This is a way of thinking about emotion as a natural part of being human and this a natural part of conducting the human activity of research, but it is also a way of asserting that there are personal and intellectual gains that are afforded by emotional inclusion. Rohan concludes, “The instinct to create communions between emotion, personal experience and epistemological systems might furthermore indicate a need to rearticulate linkages between belief and knowledge making, links made taboo in a twentieth-century academy that privileged scientific and empirical claims over emotional and personal ones” (246). Feminist rhetorical practices are one way to reestablish the connection between what we feel and how we know, which may have positive effects for activist-archivists as a framework for approaching decisions around engaging social justice in archival action. This aligns with archival studies scholars, like Randall Jimerson who argues that “social justice is a personal, rather than professional, obligation” (Punzalan and Caswell 27). Jimerson’s view places an emotional response at the foundation of activist work. For archivists who feel obligated, who feel personally affected and compelled, to use their skills and time developing archives that potentially mediate injustice, the feminist approach to that emotional response is to honor it, to combine it with traditional methods, and draw on it to deepen knowledge and scholarly identity. However, scholars should also be aware that although following an emotional instinct promises deepened knowledge, it is also a method closely connected with a need for greater emphasis on ethical actions. 

Bizzell concludes that we must be mindful of how a “personal connection” to the subject will likely lead to caring more deeply for the subjects, creating an intersection of the researcher and the researched “where emotional attachments come most clearly into the open” (13). In the case of activist-archivists working with cultural communities, this increased care and attachment to research subjects requires an equally increased attention to ethics as the researcher becomes more personally involved in the histories and lives of the research subjects. This is similar to the reasons why any academic research involving people is required to undergo extensive reviews by the IRB to evaluate the ethical concerns of becoming involved with subjects. Wherever there is an intersection between scholarship and the public, where the researcher and the subject are intimately connected, it is commonly understood that more care be taken to ensure that such interactions present minimal risks for participants and sensitive information is handled with respect and security. Becoming connected to individuals, caring for them deeply, introduces a facet of research that locates the researcher in the lives of individuals and not only in the pages of academic journals. In an acknowledgement of the sensitive nature of researcher attachment, feminist rhetorical practices advocate for an “ethics of care,” which are usefully applied to the work of activist-archivists. This approach is based on the understanding that the researcher and subjects are engaged in “interlacing and ongoing relationships of mutual obligation” (Punzalan and Caswell 32). The key point highlighted here is that in caring for the subjects, the researcher is ethically bound by certain moral obligations. Punzalan and Caswell interpret this obligation as being “bound to records creators, subjects, and users through a web of mutual responsibility,” a web that replaces “the abstract legal and moral obligations of archivists (as heretofore conceived through scholarship and professional codes of ethics) with radical empathy” (32). An ethics of care privileges empathy for the cultural contributors over archival procedures; it is an argument that it is more ethical to develop an archive based on participant needs and goals than to adhere to the abstract codifications and standards set by the field. It validates the instinctual understanding that developing archives for marginalized communities requires a willingness to adjust techniques for appraisal, selection, description, arrangement, and access that best serve the feelings and needs of the community, not the archivist. 

An ethics of care is significantly explored by rhetoricians who work with archival figures, but it is applicable to activist-archivists who work to develop the collections. The moral and ethical obligation is expressed by Elizabeth Birmingham as a kind of debt; she acknowledges, “As scholars who work with historical figures, we always know that we owe those figures some sort of debt, as we mine their lives (and deaths) to build our careers” (139-40). This position foregrounds that when, whether in rhetorical scholarship or archive development, we decide to use the lives of others as the foundation of our work, we must do so with care and a commitment to ethical treatment. Gesa Kirsch summarizes the work of Anne Ruggles Gere who “cautions that historical figures—those who can no longer speak back—depend on the researcher’s ethical treatment of their work” (25). Kirsch argues that these historical figures “have left behind many kinds of written artifacts, but it is the researcher’s job to put these documents into a meaningful context,” understanding that “these now dead and defenseless women” depend upon “ethical choices in textualizing their interior lives” (25). She concludes that “making appropriate ethical choices in representing” research subjects is one of the “most serious challenges” we face as scholars working in the lives of others (25). In a similar way, Vicki Tolar Burton also emphasizes the ethical concerns of archival work. She asks, “As we cross into the archives of others, what is the ethos of the historian of rhetoric?” (111). As part of the answer, Tolar Burton uses the analogy of the researcher as a border-crosser. She explains that “when we cross borders into the archives of others, we may be more like…strangers,” so “we had best think carefully about our ethos as border crossers, especially as rhetorical studies go global” (111). For Tolar Burton, the ethos of care she defines is rooted in “principles such as respect for the local, non-exploitation of people and cultures, respect for the challenges of language difference, and the ambiguity of working in translation” (112). These principles are equally applicable to archival work that engages with marginalized communities for more equitable representation in the record: centering empathy, approaching the community as someone crossing a border, as someone being hosted as a guest in another’s homeland, engaging respectfully and appreciatively, and working with a conscious awareness of exploitative potentials. It is this “ethos of humility, respect, and care” that feminist rhetorical practices can offer archivists, and it is one “critical to achieving qualities of excellence” (Royster et al. 21). Although “much more work is needed to further delineate what a feminist contribution to archival ethics would entail,” it is an especially important consideration for archivists who decide to undertake activist projects (Punzalan and Caswell 32). Following an affective instinct and developing a deeply caring attitude toward participants is a valid approach to archival work; however, it is the archivists’ moral obligation to develop a robust ethical framework in order to avoid reinscribing an oppressive binary in the archive, one in which the archivist is dominant, further marginalizing participants by co-opting indigenous cultures for one’s own scholarly gains.

In addition to the emphasis on ethics of care in dealing with historical figures and marginalized groups, feminist rhetorical practices extend this notion of ethics beyond research subjects to include research outcomes. These outcomes, or consequences, of research must also be taken into account as an ethical concern. It therefore becomes important that the ends of feminist rhetorical research are just, fair, and beneficial to the communities affected. These concerns are a key area of scholarship by feminist rhetoricians, but it is one that is built on a long tradition in the broader field. Royster et al. note that this is a committment that is not attrituable solely to feminist rhetoric, but that the rhetoircal tradition has had “long-standing agenda of changing hearts and minds; bringing enlightenment; forging social, political, and cultural relationships; getting problems articulated and solved; and addressing geopolitical concerns and challenged” (17). Miller and Bowdon also make this connection, claiming, “Historically, rhetoric has not just been about the teaching of composition. It has also been about civic action” (591). This “commitment to social responsibility,” as cited by Bizzell, is an important aspect of feminist methods, but it is also central to those in the post-custodial turn in the archives who express a moral responsibility to society, which is enacted by the call to engage in social justice projects. However, what rhetorical theory offers here is less about introducing an idea to archival studies, which is already deeply involved in discussions of social justice as discussed previously, but it is more about moving beyond only recognizing the possibility of using archives to mediate injustice toward a theoretical framework for why that mediation is possible and how representation shifts attitudes. 

Rhetoric also acknowledges the theory that archives are capable of mediating injustice, and there exists a common appeal to ethics within the field “to participate in social justice and advocacy as well as archival activity with a social purpose” (Glaser and Micciche 207). These calls to action through archival work is made primarily from the perspective of feminist rhetorical practices that expand the canon of what is traditionally understood as rhetorically significant discourse. These research priorities make a significant distinction between writings about theories of rhetoric to writing that exemplifies rhetorical practices; it broadens the scope of the field from theorizing rhetoric to analyzing how various groups employ rhetorical strategies. They look beyond canonical figures and texts in an effort to “map out the rhetorical practices of groups who were denied access to public forums,” which “has enabled us to include women, people of color, and the laboring classes within our histories” (Miller and Bowdon 592). A kind of revisionist historical practice, feminist rhetoricians advocate for a “a radical shift in attitudes toward who counts and who was worth writing about” (Ferreira-Buckley 578). The result of such discursive recoveries “from an increasingly varied spectrum of raced, classed, and cultured backgrounds” is that we are not simply making additions “to the history of rhetoric,” but we “use their recoveries to revise our thinking about rhetorical theory and practice…’our perception of rhetoric englobed’” (Enoch 115). This historiographic recovery work, especially in recovering women’s rhetorical work, is an important part of feminist practices, and feminist rhetoricians articulate an ethical obligation to do so. Wells argues, “It is really nobody’s work but our own to recover these texts; through our reconstruction and reading, their production of literacy speaks more loudly than the arrogance that neglects it” (60). As an empowering activity, historiography has emerged as an important scholarly focus, but there is an important recognition of the role that archives play in enabling such recoveries.

Increasingly, scholars argue that the archive enables historiographic revisions; as a repository of historical evidence, it is necessary to “use archival research to achieve the civic potential that opens up as rhetoric expands its purview beyond the teaching of academic discourse” (Miller and Bowdon 594). K.J. Rawson and Charles Morris also assert the inextricable link between recovering marginalized voices and archival research, observing, “Our collective attention to archives has developed out of the lineage of revisionist rhetorical historiography, with its critical shift from historical subjects to historical production itself,” but as we make this shift in attention, we come to the “the significant realization and revelation that the archive is a key site of that historical production, materially and ideologically constitutive and thus consequential” (74). Where the marginalization of certain rhetorical voices has led to false notions that those voices simply did not exist, “archival recovery corrects such ignorance” about our collective histories (Wells 59). The archive can be mined for “evidence of so many women never written into history and long lost to memory,” for evidence of “existence” while bringing “invisible lives and untold stories to light” (Davy 134). Purdy and Wells frame the recovery of archival evidence as a kind of archival gift. Purdy claims that “this gift is evidentiary—archival proof that justifies claims,” and he asserts that because it comes from the archive, we can capitalize on the sanctioned authority that comes from the archival space to “provide evidence that scholars…are more likely to accept as trustworthy and reputable” (31-2). In addition to giving weight and validity to the significance of marginalized rhetorical practitioners, Wells also argues that there is an archival gift of “freedom from resentment,” which we can achieve by using the record to mediate injustice, to substantiate our historical critiques and correctives. Wells argues that we should recognize “how powerfully the archive supports strategies of containment and distancing that allow us to get even rather than to continue to stay mad” (63). The assuagement of anger by remedying injustices through archival recovery is framed here as a kind of liberation through action, a way of acting upon a feeling and resolving some of its root causes. However, despite the promise of the archival record in rendering evidence of existence, we must also recall the incomplete and interested nature of the archive. We must grapple with the fact that texts produced by marginalized groups were “barely collected at all or existed in hard-to-find places,” and work harder to uncover what scant materials do exist in the archives that “await the vision of scholars to bring it to life” (Brereton 574). Although challenging and often frustrating work, these efforts are importantly restorative and they illustrate the rhetorical positioning of archival representations as justice enabling by validating the experiences of marginalized people while resisting dominant historical narratives.

Archival representation is a critical concern because “for marginalized communities constantly involved in struggles for visibility, political identity, and space,” having collections “about their existence are critical acts of documentation’” (Ramirez 116). Rawson and Morris also note the ways that representations of the LGTB community in the archive stand as “as a politically motivated response to their longstanding omission from the archives,” which works “to counteract the oppressive normativity that dictated what would and wouldn’t be preserved and made publicly available” and “constitutes an intervention against (hetero/homo) normativity’s retrospective governance and discipline” (76-7). This argument can be broadened for all groups omitted from the archive, with the larger claim that archival visibility is “a fundamental revelation, indeed a declaration, that ‘we’ were here,” whereby such declarations counter “longstanding and ongoing contexts of erasure” and “remain profound and necessary” (77). Archives combat erasure, and working to bring greater visibility to communities otherwise rendered invisible remains critical work for archivists and scholars to continue. Thus, archival recovery and historiographic work comprise one significant way that scholars can commit to socially responsible outcomes that engage social justice. However, engaging in archival recovery work recalls some of broader ethical concerns of feminist rhetorical practices that should be incorporated into rhetorical inquires into the archival space of marginalized groups.

Jane Donaworth and Lisa Zimmerelli invoke an ethical stance in the discussion of historiographic recovery work. They argue, “Feminist archival research demands that we not only find lost women of the past but also become conscious of our positionality in relation to their positionality” (qtd. in Kirsch 23). The claim suggests that we must be mindful of our positions as scholars, as women, as individuals privileged to move through and outside the archive and, ultimately, as writers of histories—those interested and persuasive narratives. We must acknowledge that these positions are powerful in shaping our research and conclusions, but they must always be measured against the positions occupied by those we study, learn from, and use in our work. Recognizing our positions against our research subjects is necessarily a positioning of the scholar within the research, a way of locating ourselves within and among the subject and interweaving our own experiences with the experiences of those we uncover in the archives. This method of locating the self requires a rhetorical practice that consciously examines our own role; it is an ethical practice that is both “reflexive” and “reflective,” as delineated by Royster et al. as a significant feminist approach. A reflexive and self-critical practice to ensure ethical conduct is analogous to the practices of those in teaching or counseling professions who similarly must cultivate awareness positionality. In these professions, people become closely entangled in the lives of others, but there is an inherent imbalance of power within the relationships: assigning grades, making diagnoses, being entrusted with personal information but not disclosing any. As a result, professionals are encouraged to engage in continual reflexive examination of one’s actions. It is about asking whether the connections being made are appropriate, whether healthy boundaries are being maintained, whether or not there is balance between one’s own thoughts and feelings and the professional responsibility to the subject. Failing to maintain this critical self-awareness leads to negative outcomes in any professional setting, but in the case of historiographic archival research and activist-archivist projects, the dangers are in compromising relationships and research outcomes. Becoming too enthusiastically attached may create discomfort for research subjects or undue pressure to accept and comply with requests. It can also interfere with the research as one may be swayed by discovering qualities or viewpoints in participants that are personally problematic. We may be less likely to engage honestly or be tempted to omit truths with our conclusions if we feel they reflect negatively on subjects we like. 

If left unchecked, these attachments and personal involvements could lead to judgements that are unfairly critical or forgiving, altering relationships and outcomes in unethical ways. Rather than avoid attachments, which can be powerfully motivating and rewarding, and to check the power of our positionality, feminist rhetorical practices advocate an ethical self-reflexivity. Royster et al. explain, “Feminist rhetorical practices focus questions persistently on the adequacy of our own actions and judgments, rather than questioning more unidirectionally and without reflexivity the quality and value of our subjects and their performaces” (16). From this stance, the researcher is not only directing critical attention in one direction, toward the subject, but also inwardly toward the self. This is a method by which “we admit the partialness and situated nature of our knowledge” by “acknowledging that we may sometimes conceal the partialness of our knowledge under the cloak of academic authority” (Tolar Burton 112). Royster et al. call for scholars “to critique our analytical assumptions and frames, to critique guiding questions reflectively and reflexively” (14). This attitude of self-reflexive critique aims to examine  our own biases and positions within the research through the same analytical lens used to investigate research subjects; we interrogate our practices, goals, and methods to ensure we do not reinscribe oppressive power structures on our research subjects and that we generate ethical research. This approach is especially powerful for activist-archivists, particularly as it relates to transparency. As established, the archivist us an influential component of how meaning is generated from archival interactions, shaping the archival record and framing artifacts in certain historical narratives. Given the archivist’s position against and within the archive, this attention to reflexivity is necessary to guiding decisions, identifying personal biases for corrective action, in order to produce ethical outcomes. By turning a critical eye toward one’s own work processes, and giving users a clear sense of the archivist’s hand, is an important method from feminist rhetorical practices that works to resolve tensions, not in this case between traditionalists and activists, but between archivist and user. 

Reflexivity in the processes of research and composition, or in archive-making, contributes to ethical outcomes, but ethical outcomes of research are not the only goal for scholarship within a feminist framework. A final tenet of feminist rhetorical practices that is valuable to archival studies is the reimagining of the purposes for research projects, the reconceptualizing of valid scholarship and knowledge production. Patricia Bizzell observes that feminist rhetoricians “are not in fact making any objective truth claims—that is not the kind of truth they are interested in,” which is not a deficiency of the scholars but is instead a result of working to attain a “‘community-relative view of truth’” (10). Although traditional scholarship is likely to articulate a single or overarching claim the writer intends to present as an objective conclusion based on logical, evidence-based claims, a production of certain knowledge. However, feminist approaches to research conclusions “acknowledge the limits of knowledge” and caution scholars “to be particularly careful about ‘claims’ to truth” (Royster qtd. in Royster et al. 19). Instead of aiming for a singular conclusion or “correct” way of thinking about subjects, Royster et al. claim that feminist scholars have shifted away from this goal, asserting, “One shift is that we no longer provide a singular, isolated interpretation without considering other possibilities” (140). This way of approaching scholarly production encourages multiplicity, which can be seen as an extension of reflexivity and humility in that it does assume the researcher’s first and most strongly held perspective on the subject is the best, most accurate, or only way of thinking. It also, as suggested by Bizzell, is prioritizing knowledge production that is relevant to the community instead of the larger discipline. What is privileged, or at least encouraged, as a research outcome is to arrive at “truth” derived from communal knowledge, which stands in contrast to outcomes that reflect scholar-relative truths. Collaborative constructs of truth, knowledge that is encompassing of multiple community perspectives, is an approach to research that values inclusivity over elitism. This focus on community outcomes is useful for activist-archivists who can apply this practice to their own goals in developing cultural archives by allowing for products that deliver archival “truths” that are recognizable and constructed by the community, and not singularly derived products that meet the needs and vision of the archivist. These principles for research outcomes mirror in many ways the claims from user-centered design scholars who argue that “when ends are selfish—devoid of, or at least not centered on, human concerns—then the products that result often have an absence of essential communal human qualities, such as those of ethics and social responsibility” (Johnson, R. 24-5). Research outcomes and archival products that are communally constructed and communally relevant eschews individualistic goals or glory and operates instead from a utilitarian ethical stance that seeks to do the most good for the most number of people. It is also a methodological approach to archival work that adds an additional theoretical underpinning for activist-archivists whose archival projects center community needs over institutional ones, validating this as an approach to archiving even as it contradicts traditional approaches that center standardized archival processes. Although traditionalists may not accept these community-relative outcomes, or incorporate them into their own work, it is bolstering to know that other disciplines make room for these practices, which may also alleviate some tensions in the recognition that a uniform approach to outcomes does not need to be adopted by all practitioners in the field nor does such diversity weaken the validity of the whole.  

Reciprocal Gifts: Rhetorical Production of Archives and the Importance of Archival Traditions

Feminist rhetorical practices focus on ethical and multivlaent outcomes and rhetorical theories of user-centered design also emphasize outcomes as the point to which design must be attuned and from which analyses of efficacy are drawn. However, another way that rhetoricians have turned their attention to outcomes is by reconsidering the ends of scholarly production, expanding definitions of scholarship to include the creation of archives in addition to writing histories of archival figures or about the rhetoricity of the archival space. As part of the rhetorical trend toward revisionist historical writing and the increased use of the archival record as an integral part of research, rhetoricians are becoming more aware of the gaps in the archives. As scholars trained in textual analysis with the need to examine primary documents as part of recovering rhetorical figures, the dearth or absence of evidence in the archival record quickly turns scholars attention to the need for more robust archival collections for their research interests. The turn toward archival production is also emerging as many scholars create a kind of de facto archive as a by-product of long-term study and the gathering and curation of research. They are already “in some cases literally creating archives to document the conceptions of discursive action that are implicit in the rhetorical practices of various groups” they study (Miller and Bowdon 592). Given the reality that “historiography is becoming archival at its core,” Graban et al. observe that “rhetoric and writing scholars have increasingly recognized their potential to act as both archivists and researchers” (236, 234). Miller and Bowdon argue that this dual-role is well-suited to scholars in rhetoric who “have the engagement with writing and learning that is vital to doing this archival work well, and the commitment to civic action needed to make it a productive public resource” (596). This argument is two-fold in that it argues rhetoricians have the appropriate training to work effectively with texts and intertextual relationships that is necessary in archival work, while also having the appropriate attention to civic and productive outcomes. For Miller and Bowdon, it is this “productive engagement with political action that values practical application over theoretical speculations or aesthetic refinements” that is key to having a rhetorical stance toward historical work (592). The emphasis on practical political outcomes over theoretical ones, implies that the creation of new archival materials that can potentially affect social change constitutes a valid form of rhetorical scholarship, perhaps reaching publics in ways that traditional academic writing cannot. The connection between rhetorically-crafted archives and their function as a change agent is also noted by Purdy, who argues that archives have the potential to “inspire productive change,” because “when we create and study archives of ‘other’ voices…we can learn something about ourselves and shape our disciplinary identity in useful ways” (34, emphasis added). Purdy also bring archival creation, particularly in their digital form, under the realm of rhetoric by way of digital literacy. He argues, “Literacy in a networked, digital world will increasingly involve the ability to ethically, critically, and effectively create, navigate, evaluate, and use digital archives” (25). Collectively, rhetorical claims on archival production emerge organically from the amassing of evidence in historiographic recovery work, expertise in intertextual studies, commitment to civically productive outcomes, and in understanding digital fluency requires the inclusion of production activities in addition to learning the tools of effective use. 

The call to make archives from a rhetorical stance is especially prevalent for scholars working with the rhetorical practices of marginalized groups. These researchers are actively facing questions of “how access [to the archival record] can be broadened,” especially if the holdings are not digitized and limited only to scholars who can fund research travel to visit the analog archives in person, as well as “what is missing from the archive and how it can get there” and whether there are “things we should be working to preserve right now?” (Brereton 574). There is a natural transition that occurs between what is “learned as an archaeologist” in the archive and realizing the “crucial significance of creating and maintaining evidence of the lives and work of dominant culture’s marginalized groups” (Davy 135). This creation work falls naturally onto the rhetoricians as the need for greater access and availability creates a perceived exigency; it is necessary to the further development of their own research interests. It is not always possible to shift this production work to archivists who may have other mandates and projects that take precedence over the subjects in question. The urgency experienced by researchers creates a kairotic moment that, if seized, presents an opportunity to create new access points for study by a wider field of scholars as well as developing outcomes with positive civic impacts. Developing archives of marginalized people also offers “an expanded conception of archives” that “teaches the value of attending to how our family, social, and cultural history is intertwined with more traditional notions of history and culture” and “explore the fissures of historical narratives, the places at the margins where voices have been suppressed, silenced, or ignored” (Kirsch and Rohan 3). Locating artifacts, interviewing members of the group in question, uncovering or recovering perspective-shifting texts, and determining the relative connections between materials in the processes of description and organization are all ways that archival development can bring the researcher to powerful new insights about the group that may otherwise stay hidden. Scholar-archivists “conserve and interpret the past,” engaging in the work of “collecting that forms libraries and repositories great and small,” which will bear “on the interpretations and narratives that help shape consciousness” (Brereton 575). These arguments that making new archives from a rhetorical perspective is one way to engage civic outcomes while also enriching scholars’ knowledge of their subject and presenting broader communities with archival possibilities of their own are compelling reasons for undertaking archival work, but it is also possible to see a benefit to archival studies here as well. Graban et al.argue that “historical recovery in rhetoric finds great value in digital archives and digitization projects that recover underserved figures or build exhibits of texts” as these efforts reveal “how various dilemmas surrounding location, migration, and access inspire new methodologies at the intersection of rhetorical and digital work” (233). The claim suggests that as rhetoricians approach archival-making from different backgrounds than those trained as archivists, with different goals for research outcomes, with different sensitivities to subjects, and different perspectives as experienced archive users, they are uniquely positioned to develop different methods for making archives. These methods could offer innovations or insights useful to archivists working with similar social justice intentions.

Thus far, arguments have been presented regarding ways that rhetorical theories can be productively applied to archival studies, culminating in the conflation of the two fields with a shift toward the production of archive by rhetoricians. Although the reasons for moving into this field are valid with potential for valuable contributions to be made, rhetoricians must be conscious that, as suggested by the feminist rhetorical practice of humility as a “border-crossers” into the worlds of historical figures, the field of archival studies has long traditions and sound methodologies that must be respected. Rhetoricians with some experience in the archives are careful to advise rhetoricians to “think like an archivist” in order to better understand archival materials, and that “we as a field need to learn more about the process of archival work” to accomplish that goal (Warnick 99). Miller and Bowdon assert that we “need to challenge ourselves to attend to the methods by which these archives are constructed” (595). We must ask ourselves, “now that we’re in a position to assemble archives of our own, what principles will guide us? How should we consider the creation, preservation, and best use of archives, both those we’ve been using and those we’ll be creating” (Brereton 575). To answer these calls and questions, it is necessary that the exchange between the two fields is not unidirectional but reciprocal, with rhetoricians willing to humbly learn from archival studies as well as offer their own theories. This call is voiced most strongly by Ferreira-Buckley who argues that as a field, rhetoricians “are underprepared in the specialized research techniques necessary to revisionist histories” and that our “theoretical sophistication does not obviate the need for practical training” (582). She continues to “urge all progressive historians to master traditional and emerging research methodologies—tools crucial to revising traditional accounts of history” (582). This is an important tempering of archival enthusiasm, bringing forth an understanding that the archive, as a genre with certain constitutive rules, must be approached as rigorously from a pragmatic perspective as from a theoretical one. Graban et al. argue that rhetoricians may be well-suited to “making user-centered decisions about what information is documented and how it gets displayed,” but they also claim that this shift in focus toward the user must be done “without disavowing important knowledge of trained librarians and archivists in the preservation process” (236-7). Rhetoricians interested in working in the historiographic recovery need to find ways of “expanding the boundaries of a collection without blocking the archivist’s mission to preserve and protect” (Graban 208). There needs to be respect for the theories and practices enacted by archivists to stabilize artifacts to ensure long-term accessibility maintain original order and manage collection accession, which may be at odds with the purposes of rhetoricians seeking to rapidly increase archival holdings. It is also a gift of archival studies to rhetoricians that the processes of archivization are also avenues of productive engagement with a research subject, as “there can be rhetorical and intellectual value in documentation and encoding, long thought to be the unattractive work of service providers” (Graban et al.236). Making decisions about how to document (describe) artifacts and encode information about the artifacts in a finding-aid or how to navigate an exhibit through a digital archive interface are all significant and influential choices that give weight and contour to the archive and user experiences. By not looking inwardly to what is contained within the text but outwardly to how an imagined user will or should view them individually and in the context of the larger archival system, rhetoricians approaching the artifacts from these different perspectives are presented with important learning opportunities not otherwise afforded. 

What becomes clear is that the fields of rhetoric and archival studies present mutually beneficial traditions, whether for an activist-archivist seeking theoretical validity for the divergence from traditional archival methods or for a rhetorician engaging historiographic recovery work and the need to develop sustainable archival holdings for their research interests. The reciprocal gifts of one field to the other enrich both disciplines, and scholars from one field who are willing to exchange and adopt ideas from the other are ultimately better positioned to reach their research goals. Although the discussions thus far have explored the mutuality of more abstract concepts like theories surrounding situated archival power or transactional meaning-making and the generalization of methods such as approaching archives with an ethics of care and acquiring appropriate training in methods of archive-making, there is another potentially useful exchange that emerges from the closer examination of how the specific archival processes of appraisal, description, design, access, and preservation mirror the composition processes in the five canons of rhetoric.

Archiving the Archive: Archival Processes as Rhetorical Elements

While we can recognize the reciprocity of gifts that theories and methods of rhetoric and archival studies exchange, we should also, lastly, recognize that there is mutuality between the archival process and the composition process as well. In directly comparing the practical elements from archival studies of appraisal, description, design, access, and preservation with the rhetorical elements of invention, arrangement, style, delivery, and memory, we can not only begin to answer archivist Nesmith’s question of “what does it mean to author,” we can also begin to answer for rhetoricians what it means to archive? When we understand the archivist as a kind of author, we must attend to questions of process in the same way we would for another discursive form. Kennedy and Long acknowledge the importance of processes, claiming that “theories of rhetoric and writing can benefit from a focus on the material, organic processes of authorship,” and it helps us confront the “larger questions of performance, agency, and power—the larger questions of the discipline” (148). Sharer applies this same attention to archival compositions, arguing that “we cannot afford to ignore the various material processes—acquisition, appraisal, collection management, description, indexing, preservation, oxidation, and deaccession—that affect the corpus of records on which we may be able to construct diverse and subversive narratives to challenge previous, exclusionary historical accounts of rhetoric” (qtd. in Glenn and Enoch 20). Daniel also notes the impact of process decisions on the archive’s interpretation, a “mediating process,” that must be analyzed in “each one of the major tasks performed by the archivist: the selection of documentary materials, their arrangement in relation to others in the archival setting, their description, their preservation, their recontextualization with the addition of new records over time, and their presentation to the public through reference and exhibits” (92). These scholars, notably one from each of the fields in questions, recognize that these processes of composing the archive are inextricable from processes of its interpretation. 

For Derrida, the archivist’s decisions do more than influence the ways artifacts are selected and framed or how users access and interpret those materials. He argues that they are actually creating the archive through archival processes, reiterating the claim that the archive is not synonymous with the artifacts but is instead a composed structure around the contents, what he terms  “the archiving of the archive.” The “archiving” that Derrida observes is the work of processing an archive. He notes that it is “the technical structure of the archiving,” a verb used to denote that action of the archivist, that “determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future” (17). He concludes that “the archivization produces as much as it records the event” (17). The processes of creating the archival structure serve a productive role; they produce the structure of the artifacts, how they are understood by future users. Drawing on Derrida’s theory of archivization, Nesmith further argues for the important role the archivist through the observation that “the process of archivization” is a “mediation of reality,” a powerful translation of any actual reality contained in the artifacts into a version of reality as perceived by the archivist (30). This mediation is influenced by archivists’ “personal backgrounds and social affiliations, and their professional norms, self-understanding, and public standing,” whereby the result is that “archivists help fashion formative contexts for their work, which influence their understanding of recorded communication and position particular archives to do particular things” (Nesmith 30). Like Derrida, Nesmith also concludes “that by constantly adding layers of meaning and modifying them, ‘archives may actually make a greater contribution to the creation of the record than the inscriber’” (qtd. in Daniel 92). These arguments illustrate that the role of the archivist is not neutral, and in fact, the agency of the archivist is powerfully articulated through their decisions in the making processes, even if those choices are also shaped by personal filters of influence. A failure to account for the presence of the archivist as a structuring force in the archive may lead users to mistake the archived content for an unmediated glimpse into the past. 

This attention to process then is also necessary as a counterbalance to the lingering attitudes toward archivists, both within archival studies and rhetoric, as passive agents who disinterestedly carry our perfunctory duties. This is what Nesmith calls “the central archival professional myth: enormous power and discretion over societal memory, deeply masked behind a public image of denial and self-effacement” (32). An examination of what each process entails reveals that “the professional archivist’s intellectual work comprises a series of judgment calls” (Morris and Rose 69). These judgment calls, decisions, and choices are not neutral, each with its own ramifications, and they are altogether significantly constitutive. We must, as Glenn and Enoch argue, have instead a concept of “archivists as vital agents in the archive…who decide what to preserve and how to catalog it, thereby controlling the materials we can access and the processes we take to get to them” (20). What Glenn and Enoch are citing as the reasons for that control are the archival processes of selection and appraisal (“decide what to preserve”), description (“how to catalog it”), and interface design (“controlling the materials we can access and the processes we take to get to them”). This line of argumentation further solidifies the need to fully grasp the spectrum of decisions made by archivists in order for rhetoricians to be better archive users and makers. We must always be aware of “the ‘presence’ of the archivist” an “important element to consider” (Gaillet 36). However, we must also be aware that searching for that presence requires a thorough examination of the archivist’s procedural choices.

The first of these procedural choices to examine is in the archival processes of appraisal and selection, or what can be understood in rhetorical terms as invention. Graban et al. bring this into focus, arguing that “being rhetoricians in public archives involves coming to terms with our hybrid roles and recognizing how they become sites for invention” (238). In modern rhetoric, invention can be defined as “the processes one can use for devising what to write about and how to create the composition, whether written, oral, or digital” (Bourelle et al.312). Invention is about selecting content and subject matter for a discourse and making decisions about the means through which to bring it into being. These invention decisions that carve out a particular topic from all possible topics involves the same processes as archival appraisal. In archival studies, appraisal is a process of determining artifact value; it is an evaluative function that shapes the archival record directly and immediately by determining whether a text or object is valuable enough to be selected for inclusion in the archive. Particularly in digital contexts where the volume and rapidity of production of new archives requires careful archival decisions about value in order to make the best use of financial and physical resources. When there is more content than can be archived, making appraisal decisions becomes a significant part of the archivist’s work. We know that these decisions will largely depend on how archivists conceptualize their “roles,” which “subtly directs their principal goals and functions. It governs their selection of archival material” (Nesmith 30). For activist-archivists, for example, the goal may be to increase holdings related to a certain cultural group they see as underrepresented by the current record. If this is foremost in the archivist’s mind, then their selection of what they deem relevant to that community may be included over other artifacts deemed to be redundant information pertaining to the dominant group, and they are far more likely to go out to actively collect records that are needed to fulfill this evaluated need. On the other hand, if the archivist sees their role as primarily civic in nature, preserving the records of government business, than certain cultural artifacts may be excluded. In this way, we can “observe that a single decision made by archivists, “ such as “whose papers are worth collecting,” will “greatly influence accessibility and coherence of materials as well as the recognition accorded to an individual’s achievements and contributions to public life” (Kirsch 21). These appraisal decisions directly constitute the archive, they invent the archive, shaping what we can experience, and it correlates to rhetorical concepts of invention. 

Rhetoricians working with archives also see invention as a key element of archival production, both in terms of collecting and generating artifacts. In her work recovering 19th century parlor rhetorics, Nan Johnson describes how she started collecting books over the course of several years of research and travel, stopping in every “antique mall, antiquarian bookstore, and second-hand whatnot shop,” slowly building what she terms an “archive of my own” (294, 292). Much like the process of appraisal that constructs the archive, determining which texts she discovered were of value to the archive and thus selected for inclusion, Johnson came to see “collecting as invention” (296). It was the process by which the archive is invented, but it is not a mindless hoarding; it is rhetorically inventive because it is purposeful and intentional. Not every old book is chosen—it must “fit” the idea of the archive that the collector is building. The acts of collecting give the archive contour, but the collected artifacts also symbiotically influence future appraisal decisions. In this way, the invention through appraisal decisions both builds the collection that constitutes the archive and develops archival purpose and potential knowledge. Johnson argues that “acts of collecting and the formation of the collection epistemologically constructed the argument I would eventually make” (294). Appraisal invents the scope the archival corpus but also the persuasive thrust of its totality, the invention of its narrativity and the possibility of meaning constructed from it. In addition to Johnson’s work with collecting parlor rhetoric texts, Lucas and Strain also see invention in generating new artifacts, specifically oral histories. They argue that in preparing and planning for the oral history interview, the processes of generating questions and “the collaborative ‘conversational narrative’” of a well-conducted interview are both examples of how producing new artifacts will “require invention processes” (269). The work of generating oral histories as a rhetorical practice is especially exemplified by the way interviewers remain open to following unscripted directions in a dialogic conversation with interview subjects, to be willing to abandon pre-scripted questions and follow subjects into unconsidered territories. In this way, an oral interview will “generate material as well as the means for its creation,” a co-construction of “historical meaning” that “falls into the first canon of rhetoric” whereby the interviewer and interviewee “‘participate in what rhetoricians call invention’” (Lucas and Strain 268). The collection of an oral history for the archive specifically requires an invention of content and a co-constructed narrative of history, but this claim can be generalized to any artifact that the archivist is directly responsible for its creation, such as a new digital image or documentary video. 

Although not directly related to rhetorical definitions of invention as a process, there is another interesting connection to archives that can be made from a related concept: inventory. Mary Carruthers, in exploring classical explanations for the creative impulse and its link to memory, notes that “the other modern English word derived from Latin inventio is ‘inventory’ (10). She explains, “This word refers to the storage of many diverse materials, but not to random storage…Inventories must have an order. Inventoried materials are counted and placed in locations within an overall structure which allows any item to be retrieved easily and at once” (10). The argument she builds from this definition is that invention and inventory are interrelated concepts, whereby “having ‘inventory’ is a requirement for ‘invention,’ since “ one cannot create (‘invent’) without a memory store (‘inventory) to invent from and with” (11). It is, she asserts, a “fundamental assumption about the nature of ‘creativity’ in classical culture” that “some type of locational structure is a prerequisite for any inventive thinking at all” (11). This is a striking invocation of the archive, the locational structure with inventoried and retrievable materials, as a site of invention that provides the material from which and with which we can create. It is a similar approach to the archive taken by Foucault, who writes, “The archive is the first law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events” (129). Both arguments suggest that invention, the determination of “what can said” or created, is connected to the archive as a site of inventoried materials, and it is this emphasis on location which calls attention to the processes by which the materials are amassed and the location constituted.   

The second process of the archive with a rhetorical correlation is description, which closely mirrors arrangement. For rhetoricians composing a text, invention is necessary to determining content, but it “‘‘will remain a confused heap until dispositio, or arrangement, orders and interrelates it’’ (Kennedy 77). Through arrangement, writers are able to present “to their most rhetorically successful effect,” by maintaining “a clear and logical progression” to establish the “document’s architecture” (Bourelle et al. 314). The organization of ideas, effectively ordering and presenting them in relation to one another, is the primary function of rhetorical arrangement, but in composing highly visual products like brochures or websites, it can also refer to “the document design principles that are core concepts of technical communication curriculum, such as balance, alignment, grouping, consistency, and contrast” (Bourelle et al.314). For archives, the need for this type of process is equally necessary. While appraisal will generate content for the archive, that content must be ordered and interrelated to bring logic to an otherwise “confused heap” of artifacts. There are also the technical aspects of arrangement in the design of the archive, particularly in the curation of digital archives, that require the archivist to organize the visual presentation of the artifacts. In archival studies, description is a process in which archivists determine “how they describe or represent [an artifact] to make it intelligible and accessible,” which is nearly identical to rhetorical definitions of arrangement as a logical ordering (Nesmith 30). However, archival description also determines how artifacts are interrelated by contextualizing artifacts, such as placing them in groupings. This work in establishing relationships is important because it denotes a form of creation, of identifying, clarifying, and articulating connections between documents that are not inherent in their contents; it is the application of an external organizational system devised by the archivist and attached to the artifacts. Nesmith argues that archivists “contextualize their records and work,” they “shape what may be known from archival materials. As these contexts themselves change, they change the records by altering how they are viewed” (31). What is suggested then is the idea that the archivist’s descriptive processes are not the same as passive cataloging of materials, a simple one-to-one correlation of making one notation in a log to correspond to one record. It requires evaluative judgments about how to frame artifacts. Morris and Rose see archival description as “the activities involved in creating a narrative account of the contents of a collection” that “involves more than creating catalog records” to instead “provide information from which a story about the collection and its contents could be constructed” (61). It is a process with “a complexity that rhetoric and composition researchers can appreciate” (Morris and Rose 61). This complexity is rooted in the subjective nature of descriptive work; it requires judgment and decision-making to constitute what users ultimately experience as the archive. Just as appraisal, description is another way that the influential presence of the archivist is inscribed through process.

The subjectivity of description emerges from the fact that “archival materials are one-of-a-kind,” so “there is no one right way to arrange or describe them, and the archivist will always have to make his or her own decisions about how to proceed, informed by an understanding of the materials, their creator, and the context of their creation. Though professional archivists have, over time, developed a set of agreed-upon best practices…those best practices are more like guidelines and principles than like a rulebook” (Morris and Rose 67). In that regard, without strict rules for arrangement or singularly correct ways of contextualizing artifacts, the question of “grouping” becomes an especially significant ordering function of description that depends upon archivist intervention. Most archives organize artifacts into collections, groupings of artifacts related by an archivist-determined category, and these analog or digital “containers” convey relationships to users that shape how they understand the meaning of a particular artifact. However, we know that researchers “will draw inferences about the intellectual relationships among the materials from their physical relationships to each other,” and that “materials in files organized alphabetically by subject will have a different relationship to one another than materials in files placed in chronological order” (Morris and Rose 56). In this way, the way artifacts are organized through descriptive practices will “prompt complex rhetorical negotiations” (Finnegan qtd. in Rice and Rice 246-7). For example, does the archivist place an 18th century family bible with birth, marriage, and death dates handwritten on the inside covers in a collection of early American religious texts or within a collection of genealogical records and practices? Does the archivist’s written description mention the inscriptions or does it only include the physical descriptions of the book? Placing it with religious texts highlights its function as a bible, and would facilitate researchers interested in that subject, but it would likely obscure the artifact from other researchers interested in pre-revolutionary family life. This is a key area for rhetoric to inform archival studies since, as Margaret Hedtsrom writes, “archivists have only begun to explore the interpretive aspects of description” despite the significance of this practice to researchers, especially for those “who attempted to use archives to explore women’s history, the history of minorities or native peoples, environmental history, or the history of mentalities” and “often found that archival descriptions obscured as much as they revealed about the contents of archival collections” (38). Descriptive elements like categorization, digital tags, artifact nomenclature, and finding aid subjects can all limit users’ search results or search activity, masking certain aspects of the artifact and pre-determining what is relevant about it. The ramifications of these decisions will have significant impact on how users engage the archive and the eventual conclusions about the artifacts that they draw, meaning that description is a rhetorically complex set of decisions that should be considered thoughtfully. However, these thoughtful considerations are further complicated by a requirement that the archivist works to establish these categories in ways that they can only imagine will be useful to users. Morris and Rose explain that “appropriate description” is about “characterizing the folder contents in a way that would help a researcher locate the materials,” but that in order to do this, the archivist has “to construct this figure of the ‘researcher’ from her own experience” (69). This claim further locates the archivist in the archival structure by introducing another instance of bias into the process. Archivists make determinations about description, categorization and interrelativity, based on their own understanding of who will be using the archive with what research interest. It opens the archive to further mediations.

Thus far the discussions of archival processes have centered on how they require decisions by the archivist that collectively constitute the archive, but some scholars see the subjectivity embedded in descriptive work as a kind of deconstruction as well. Graban argues, “Contrary to how we may understand their role—archivists have already been involved more in cultural and social deconstruction than in mere arrangement and preservation of texts (208). This argument is based on a way of thinking about description as taking “heap” of materials that is in and of itself a whole entity and breaking it down into lesser parts, a process of developing “taxonomical systems” that cannot be extricated from “the social strata out of which they were created” (Graban 208). The archivist operates from a certain interested and influenced position, shaped by personal experience, disciplinary conventions, and institutional requirements, and these factors sway decisions about how to conduct that breaking down into lesser parts, privileging the creation of certain categorizations as opposed to others. It is incumbent on archivists, and certainly users, to understand that “not unlike appraisal decisions, archival descriptions reflected as much about the mindset of the archivist writing the description, and the research interests at the time of its writing, as they revealed about the records” (Hedstrom 39). There is also a deconstructive implication in Gail Okawa’s discussion of archive development as working with “bundles.” She describes potential archival materials as often existing in bundles, loose groupings of both intentional design and random placement, that are at some point given over to archivists. In their hands, the materials are subjected to “unbundling and rebundling processes” that are “as intricate as the bundling itself” (94). In this view, the archivist is not neutrally transferring materials in their original state. Instead, there is an intricate process of unbundling, or deconstruction of the received groupings, and a rebundling through the descriptive process of categorization. Thinking about description as the subjective and socially-influenced deconstruction (and subsequent reconstruction) of materials may open archivists to more critically reflect on their determinations, to question first instincts for description or to investigate other approaches, and to resist descriptions that reinscribe insensitive and oppressive social attitudes.

In addition to descriptive practices that create structural categories and relationships for the archive as a whole, description as a process is also influencing user interpretations on an artifact level. Lucas and Strain make the claim that “transcription and editing” is “a practice of arrangement” (269). Rhetorical arrangement, as an archival process of description, is taking place in the archive when archivists manipulate users’ interactions with specific artifacts through editing. It is another tool that effectively frames the way users see the material. Although the work of transcribing an oral history, reformatting an artifact to an updated technology (i.e. creating a pdf from microfilm), or cropping, enlarging, or adjusting the brightness of a digital image may all seem like minor changes, they can have a significant impact on users’ interpretations. Miller and Bowdon argue that “whoever controls the editing of archival texts controls what those texts are taken to mean” (595). We must recognize that the “acts of editing, selection, distortion, and omission are integral to all data collection activities,” but that “each type requires rhetorical scrutiny” (Lucas and Strain 261). However, editing does not only influence user interpretations, we can also see the process of editing itself as being an interpretation of the original artifact. Steven Mailloux argues in “Reading Typos, Reading Archives” that “editing is an extension of the same rhetorical activity of interpretation,” but that as such, it is an activity influenced by “its embeddedness in traditions of theory and practice” and “its institutional and cultural locations” (586). Just as the other aspects of description discussed, here too in editing we see that the archivists’ processes are not mechanical applications of standards but subjective decisions about how to interpret an artifact, decisions which, as in all processes, are influenced by the archivists’ situatedness. To edit is to interpret, and this is readily seen one particular kind of editing work: transcription. Lucas and Strain explain, “The grammatical tools of transcription can be wielded for powerful interpretive bias. Ostensibly, punctuation and other textual manipulations facilitate readers’ comprehension, syntactically and semantically…The differences in pacing signaled by a dash, ellipses, or period are subtle but significant because ultimately the editor is trying to convey not only the content of the speech but also the persona of the speaker” (271). Here we see that the archivist engaged in transcription work must interpret meaning, not simply transcribe the words, and try to capture in the mechanics of writing the tone, pace, or emotionality of the speech artifact. We only need to think of the many instances when a single omitted comma can drastically alter meaning or how replacing a period with a question mark or exclamation point will shift our perceptions of the speaker’s intent. Particularly when being read only without the original audio, the edited artifact in the form of transcription will strongly influence how users understand the interview or oral history. Archive users should engage artifacts critically and attend to any information about how they may have been edited. However, archivists should also build understanding of how edited artifacts have the power to shift interpretations and how their own editing is itself an interpretation subject to bias. It is also imperative that archivists practice transparency and communicate clearly with users how artifacts may have undergone editing, the rationale for these changes, and how to access original or unmediated versions whenever possible.

The third canon of rhetoric is style, which in traditional rhetoric refers to the manner in which the invented and arranged discourse is presented. It is about “using an appropriate tone” for the audience and purpose, while incorporating effective variations of evidence “using the appeals of ethos, logos, and pathos” (Bourelle et al. 315). In contemporary and digital contexts, style is often associated closely with design. Eyman and Ball argue that design is “an integral element of digital rhetoric practice,” where “design is equivalent to style…concerned with understanding all the available elements of document design, including color, font choice, and layout as well as multimedia design possibilities including motion, interactivity, and appropriate use of media” (68, emphasis added). For the digital archivist in particular, these stylistic elements related to design will influence users’ overall perceptions in the same ways that a well-designed website can convey a company’s professionalism or trustworthiness while a jumbled layout where images divide text mid-sentence and font size or color shifts randomly will likely communicate a sloppy or unknowledgeable organization. The design decisions will impact the look and feel of the archive, influencing whether the archive is taken seriously, understood as an authority on the subject, and thus whether the researcher should accept or reject the artifacts as part of their body of knowledge. Design decisions can also include how many artifacts to present on a single page or in what pattern; a grid pattern of images may encourage users to explore more deeply by presenting the totality of images on the screen simultaneously where a vertical presentation that requires scrolling down to view all the images may encourage users to only select images at the very top. A vertical presentation could also subtly communicate importance where users associate the first images with greater significance than ones located at the bottom or toward the end of a multi-page format. Style is also established in archival artifacts with recorded interviews or documentary video recordings with the overall tone of voice and/or body language exhibited by the researcher/archivist and the participants. Lucas and Strain note that “style is developed, managed, and performed throughout the dynamic, from the establishment of rapport to the vocalization of questions and answers—the rhetorical delivery for both parties” (269). Like edited transcriptions, the verbal and non-verbal cues communicate to users in ways that the semantic meaning of what is being said alone do not. In this way, the overall design of the archive and stylistic choices related to artifacts must be understood as something more than adornment and insignificant decoration; we must recognize “the importance of design as a rhetorical vehicle for scholarly argumentation” and “the function of design as an enactment of rhetorical practice” (Eyman and Ball 68). Again, the correlation of archival processes with rhetorical elements of discourse offers archivists an opportunity to more robustly interrogate the connections between the fundamentals of archival work and their impact on users’ experiences and meaning-making activities. It illustrates how significance is imbued in every level of the making process, encouraging greater reflection and attention to each set of decisions.

Although the next canon, delivery, was first defined as the public speaking techniques needed to effectively deliver the discourse, it is now generally interpreted as a question of distribution—how access to the work is granted, to whom, and through what mechanisms. Bourelle et al. explain delivery as “the consideration of how an audience will interact with all elements within the final, ‘audience-ready’ version” of the work, which also requires writers to “think critically about which medium would best ‘deliver’ their message and ultimately the final product to their audience” (317). Prior et al. also invoke this approach to delivery, arguing that it “involves the way particular media, technologies, and social practices disseminate a text and what a particular network signifies” (20). Rhetorical delivery is the careful consideration of how best to craft the meeting place between the discourse and the audience, a construction of that intersectional space and the means by which both entities arrive there. For archives, this process entails all the decisions made that govern access, the work that makes the archive both “physically and intellectually accessible to researchers” (Morris and Rose 52). This can include the choice of digital platform and content management system that house the archive, and whether that platform is open-access or embedded in an institutional network requiring membership, such as an active university identification number. This application of delivery to archival access means that “the choice of digital space” and the rules dictating how the archive is distributed to the public are “rhetorical acts deploying arguments about relations, power dynamics, and gate-keeping methodologies and should be treated as such” (Graban et al. 237). It is important therefore to “consider carefully what texts we save, how we organize them, and to whom we make them available” because “these decisions have significant influence” (Purdy 35). By allowing or disallowing entry in the archive, the discussions around delivery highlight the overarching claim about processes that, “no matter the motivation,” those “who build archives do more than just proliferate digital information—they participate in a larger dialogue about access, proprietary rights, the boundaries of technology, and the conflicts between personal and communal interest” (Graban et al. 235). In composing digital archives, the archivist also confronts other “rhetorical concerns about delivery,” including “intellectual property, fair use, and the public domain as well as engaging issues of textual appropriation in digital environments” (Walls 216). Each of these issues is complex and nuanced, and each requires thoughtful consideration. The arguments here suggest that questions of access are not only technical in nature; they are the product of certain values and have an ethical component as well. For example, if an archivist or rhetorician decides to work with a marginalized group to develop a cultural archive, but then the final analog and digital products—for financial and institutional purposes—are built within and stored by the university library, as is often the case with institution-affiliated scholars, then it may become partially or wholly inaccessible by the original community, further disenfranchising them from the public sphere. If there is a monetary component to the archive, perhaps as part of a museum exhibit for which admission or membership dues are collected, then the archivist must confront the question of ethical appropriation of original or digitally reproduced artifacts that such a delivery decision poses. Delivery cannot be overlooked as merely making an archive accessible, but it must be understood as, intentionally or not, communicating the archivist’s stance on the larger issues of who deserves and maintains control of the archival record. It extends appraisal in some ways, determining in this case not which artifacts a researcher can encounter but making a values-based decision about who can encounter them and how by constructing the rhetorically-salient interface surrounding them.

The final archival process that can be examined as a rhetorical canon is the work to preserve artifacts and keep the archive sustainable over time. This is, of course, related to rhetorical memory. The word itself, memory, has connotations that deeply resonate with our common understanding of the archive as a repository of the past, like an external addendum to our internal functions of rendering experience into narrative that we store in our neurological network, securing it with categorizations and connections to related moments, people, places, and objects. However, it is important to remember that also like the human mind, archival memory is not stable. As in discussion related to the historicity of the archive, it should be noted here also that what is preserved is subject to bias and degradation. In terms of bias, Lucas and Strain offer the claim that “one of the most compelling issues surrounding oral interviewing is the element of memory” (269). As the oral interviews are prepared for the archival record, they relate that “the veracity of memories” becomes “a subject of regular debate, particularly regarding events deep in an individual’s past,” knowing that “memories are prepared and performed for an interview” (269). Memory is only a facsimile of the past, and should not be mistaken for certain truth, and the processes that preserve memories for the archive will also inscribe these questions of veracity into the record as well. Yet the instability of preserved memory is also related to another preservation issue, which is the sustainability of memory over time. Traditional definitions of rhetorical memory are related to memorization and the ability to recall the prepared work at the point of delivery, and it is in this function of recall that we can make a connection to archival preservation. When artifacts are incorporated in the archive, the archivist is essentially making a commitment to the records that they will be maintained into the future, so they may be “recalled” by future users to meet their needs at the point of research. Like a good steward of history, the archivist must take measures to secure the “memory,” removing deteriorating elements like paper clips and storing in acid-free folders. The vital role of preservation for digital artifacts is also connected to a key issue in “digital scholarship in general,” that of “sustainability, which includes both access and maintenance” (Eyman and Ball 74). Digital artifacts require even more mediation to be sustained over time, with processes in place to continually create back-up copies, update obsolete technologies, and guard against corruption and bit rot. A failure to carefully carry out these processes will result in artifacts that can no longer be recalled usefully, which means they are, for all intents and purposes, forgotten. What born-digital artifacts highlight is a truth about all artifacts universally, which is that the methods and materials used at the moment of record creation will bear on their long-term sustainability. The digital file or the fragile parchment with fading ink are both difficult to preserve by way of their material form, but the decisions the archivist makes can improve their stability and support their accessibility for a longer period of time. One of the principal goals of the archivist is the preservation of archival materials, which “prompts their commitment to its indefinite retention and the special measures they take to preserve it over the long term” (Nesmith 31). However, with the growing recognition, particularly with digital artifacts, that methods of record inscription will have a significant impact on preservation processes, archivists are exhibiting a “growing desire to influence the actual conception, literal or physical inscription, and management of records long before they enter archival custody” (Nesmith 31). This ties preservation, memory, back to invention. In knowing what is needed to effectively preserve artifacts and digital data in the long-term, many archivists want to focus record-producers’ attention on better practices and formats for initially inscribing the records to facilitate easier maintenance once in the archive. The consideration of preservation at the moment of record-creation is particularly important for rhetor-archivists who may not be as familiar with archival preservation as archivists, and who may be less knowledgeable about challenges to long-term maintenance, leading to the inscription of artifacts in less stable formats that resist sustainability. 

By looking at archival processes as rhetorical elements, archivists who see their new role as knowledge managers gain insight into the pragmatic application of the theoretical role. By connecting their decisions in each of the major archival processes to specific rhetorical functions, it is possible to more richly understand, and control for, the inextricable link between constitutive process choices that ultimately shape of the archive, thus shaping (and better managing) user knowledge. Invoking the rhetoricity of archival processes further develops the claim that rather than functioning as neutral custodians engaged in the preservation of archival records for posterity, archivists are in fact active authors of history, giving contour to the archival space and the potential knowledge that can be constructed around the artifacts contained therein. In this way, the archivist’s work, the archival processes of appraisal, description, and arrangement of artifacts, the archival interface design and delivery, and the plans for long-term sustainability, represent a series of rhetorically-laden decisions that are determining not only which artifacts are available to users in the archive, but also contextualizing the significance of the artifacts and their positioning relative to the larger collection. Ultimately, these purposeful activities configure the archive, influencing users’ meaning-making activities as a direct result of archivist decisions and intentions. In his book Lingua Fracta: Towards a Rhetoric of New Media, Collin Gifford Brooke also uses rhetorical canons as a lens through which to interpret new media concepts. Here, in applying the canons to archival processes, it is also important to recognize as does Brooke that although “the canons are by no means the only way to accomplish this goal” of gaining greater insight into a subject, “they have the advantages of familiarity for rhetoric and composition scholars and flexibility as a framework that has persisted across a number of shifts in medium in the centuries since their inception” (7). We can understand also that using the canons in relation to objects of study in other disciplines is a “mutually transformative encounter” in which each field is enriched and usefully shaped by the other (Brooke 7). For rhetoricians engaged in archive-making, the application of the rhetorical elements to archival processes builds on a foundation of effective compositional strategies and offers useful steps and categorizations of the kinds of work necessary to sound archive development. It also honors the kind of serious engagement with the traditions of archival studies that rhetorical scholars recognize as necessary and for which they strongly advocate. The intersection of archival processes and elements of rhetoric is another mutual gift that strengthens both fields working in archives; archivists can better understand how their decisions are shaping the final product in these categories and rhetoricians can work in familiar elements while also attending thoughtfully and carefully archival standards.

Exit mobile version