Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Book Review: The Future of Archives and Recordkeeping

John Azzolini reviews an anthology of perceptive essays on the challenges presented to archival thought and practice by Web 2.0, postmodern perspectives, and cross-disciplinary interchanges.

Librarians, archivists, and records managers do not share identical challenges or controversies in their practical endeavours or theoretical queries. However, a common issue for all the information professions and a dominating topic of discussion in their literature is the fundamental change in the structure and distribution of knowledge caused by mass digitisation. The proliferation of daily digital content, in quantity, reach, and manifestation, is confronting them all with a disquieting role ambiguity. The expanding tools and expectations of Web 2.0 have made this self-questioning a recurrent one, but they have also stimulated invigorating debate on the purpose and direction of these fields. The perception is one of extraordinary change initiated by emerging technologies, unprecedented knowledge production and dissemination, and a new centralised role for the information user. In these galvanising changes leading library and archives practitioners are sensing opportunities for confirming the professions’ relevance, in the estimation of other scholarly disciplines and of society at large, but, perhaps most of all, in their own eyes as well.

The diverse ramifications of Web-based communications for the archival perspective are a pivotal narrative underlying most of the essays in The Future of Archives and Recordkeeping: A Reader. But, as this compilation’s contributors make clear, the archives profession is coming to terms with several transformations, only one of which is technological. The book is divided into four thematic sections, each of which highlights a change-driven contention in which the discipline is engaged. In addition to the Web 2.0 juggernaut, the chapters explore the elemental provocations of: post-modern thought; the spreading interest in archives and archival thinking among other disciplines and by the public; and the archival profession’s critical exchanges with other fields, such as history, literary theory, and knowledge management. Together, they offer a glimpse into the field’s critical self-assessment of its conceptual and political presumptions, its societal role, and its future potential as a domain of viable knowledge.


Chapter 1, 'Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Situating the Archive and Archivists', by Victoria Lane and the book’s editor, Jennie Hill, calls attention to several of the profession’s vexing issues by setting Hilary Jenkinson’s highly influential perspective as a theoretical baseline. The authors see Jenkinson’s canonical work, A Manual of Archive Administration, as establishing a positivistic ideal, which fixes the genuine archivist as 'unobtrusive, passive, invisible, disinterested, neutral, tacit, objective and innocent' (p. 4). Lane and Hill broach the social trends and evolving disciplinary thinking that cast powerful doubts on the notion of the archivist as impartial custodian. These include the post-modern scepticism toward fixed meaning and singular truths, the role of the archivist as active creator of archival artefacts, the records continuum model, and the impact of cyberspace on the notion of context. However, in acknowledging the perseverance of Jenkinson’s approach in the writings of thought leaders such as Luciana Duranti (a contributor to this book), Lane and Hill fairly portray an archival field alive with healthy dissension and debate.

In Chapter 2, 'Encounters with the Self: Archives and Research', Sue Breakell discusses the increasing popularity of the idea of the archive in mainstream culture together with the move of the everyday user into prominence as both creator and researcher. This focus on the needs and desires of 'the people' reflects the recent growth of public interest in history and genealogy as well as the Internet environment’s expectation of personalised user-driven content. Breakell nicely conveys the very real effects of the shifting interpretations of archival objects through intertextuality with other cultural objects and the engagement of subjective understanding, whether this comes from the archivist, the researcher, or the casual visitor. She makes a solid argument for the profession’s recognition of and creative responsiveness to this personalisation of the archival experience.

The cross-disciplinary use of archival perspectives is the topic of Chapter 3, Alexandrina Buchanan’s 'Strangely Unfamiliar: Ideas of the Archive from Outside the Discipline'. The author looks specifically at the interdisciplinary attempts by history, art, and literary studies. She considers the various narratives and anecdotes these other fields have critically borrowed from archival thought, arguing how these 'turns' have revealed both the theoretical weaknesses and possibilities of archival paradigms. Buchanan’s conclusion is to reaffirm the profession’s disciplinary self-direction while remaining generous and open to other knowledge fields: 'Far from being a storehouse, plundered by other disciplines, the archive is, or could be, the shared territory in which scholars make encounters, across which bridges can be built to mutual benefit' (p. 55).

Appraisal, the central practice of determining value for the sake of archival inclusion and retention, is understood by Luciana Duranti to necessitate a scientific analysis, one that accords a vital place to rigorous empirical methodology. In Chapter 4, 'Structural and Formal Analysis: The Contribution of Diplomatics to Archival Appraisal in the Digital Environment', she affirms the functional and organic nature of records. Records exist in a definite structural context, usually an administrative hierarchy which grounds the formal relationships embedded in it. Duranti introduces the reader to diplomatics, 'a science for the purpose of determining the authenticity of records of unproven origin' (p. 71). She sets out to demonstrate the applicability of diplomatics to the study of the digital record and the design of resilient recordkeeping systems. In a rather dry prose, she surveys the formal requirements of digital records per se as well as the manifestations of a record’s authenticity and integrity. Despite its unadorned textbook descriptions of such concepts as stored and manifested records, static and dynamic entities, and identity and integrity metadata, this chapter stands out as a strong defence of adopting a systematic context-based approach to description and appraisal. Duranti underscores the empirical necessity of ascertaining common provenance and therefore archival value. As such, she submits a worthy counterpoint to most of the other contributors in this book, who decidedly embrace the fundamental doubts and potential for ground-shifting re-conceptualisation ushered in by post-modern perspectives.

In Chapter 5, 'Archivistics: Science or Art?' Eric Ketelaar devotes a short piece to the field’s image of its status as a separate scientific branch of study in possession of its own body of functional methods and logical classification schemes. He discusses the early yet continuing influence of the writings of Hilary Jenkinson, T.R. Schellenberg, and of the Manual for the Arrangement and Description of Archives, published by the Dutch Society of Archivists in 1898. While this chapter might be of interest mainly to archivists with a keen eye on their profession’s historical self-perception, it reasonably stresses the need for the simultaneous and mutually beneficial workings of cross-disciplinary inventiveness and traditional theory-driven frameworks if the archival field is to avoid obsolescence in a rapidly changing world.

The inescapable presence of political motivations and relations of power in the archive’s creation and content-building is the subject of Chapter 6, 'Archons, Aliens and Angels: Power and Politics in the Archive', by Verne Harris. This contribution is the book’s most dramatic example of the field’s advocacy of post-modern notions of truth and meaning. As such, it evinces both the strengths and drawbacks of such a leaning. On the one hand, it rightfully draws attention to the often neglected or wilfully ignored realities of politically contested interpretations of cultural objects. Especially consequential is the privileged power of those who control information and the classification systems used to implement it. On the other hand, the post-modern view can exaggerate, almost giddily, the instantiations of political power. If all social interaction and cultural production are manifestations of this power, then simply declaring a situation a product of unequal power relations does not really explain anything.

Harris does an excellent job of reminding us that the archive is a natural site of contestable meaning, that 'The call is to dirty one’s hands in the mess of the political, reaching always for a politics which is just' (p. 112). However, he also tends to veer into theoretical overstatement, as in ‘.. “the archive” is to be found whenever and wherever information is marked, or recorded, on a substrate through human agency..' (p. 105) and metaphorical indulgence, as for example, in his assertion that the archive '…sounds at every level of our being, speaks to and of every persona and every identity we adopt…We play in it and with it' (p 118). Perhaps these heady assertions should come as no surprise issuing from someone who ‘work[s] within an unashamedly deconstructive framework' (p. 121) and who is heavily involved in the South African archival field, a country where past disparities carry incomparably heavy layers of power implications for the future. Particularly thought-provoking is Harris’s observations on six 'sites of recordmaking' – the government correspondence file, the state-sponsored truth commission, the oral record of a small collectivity, the family archive, the marking of ‘private parts’, and the psychotherapist’s consulting room (p. 112-117). Here, the author accentuates the inherently political nature of these public and private domains by posing several questions to each regarding very basic decisions of inclusion, content, policy, and access. Each of these questions, outwardly simple and of an everyday nature, nevertheless, 'suggests, invites, or demands, the adjective “political”. Each question provokes a play of what is right, what is possible, and what is supported, or supportable' (p. 117).

The impact of Web 2.0 on archival practice and attitudes is given full treatment in Chapter 7, 'Interactivity, Flexibility and Transparency: Social Media and Archives 2.0.' Kate Theimer begins with a description of the technical and interactional hallmarks of an Internet understood to be so different from earlier versions in its functionality that it was given a next-level designation. She then covers several of the productive uses of 2.0 social networking tools, as individuals and institutions have successfully used programs such as Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, blogs, and wikis for the mass dissemination of archival content. Theimer believes this move towards user-centred interactivity, flexibility, and transparency is a positive trend, indicative of a more democratic, collaborative relationship with the public. Allowing significantly more user input expands archival collections and broadens contextual comprehension. As a result, '…the archives can create a public with greater understanding and emotional connection to the archival mission' (p. 141). As the author of the blog, ArchivesNext [1], and the Archives 2.0 wiki [2], Theimer writes convincingly from an optimistic, practice-informed stance on the potential of social networking instruments.

The implications of local, non-professional collections for the established archival field are addressed in Chapter 8, Andrew Flinn’s 'The Impact of Independent and Community Archives on Professional Archival Thinking and Practice'. As the straightforward title indicates, the increase in the quantity and perceived legitimacy of community-based archives has prompted debate among archivists as to the legitimate boundaries of their profession. Examining the definitions, scope, and history of independent archives leads Flinn to such probing questions as: What is an archive, Where is an archive kept, and Who looks after the archive. He concludes that:

A document or object has archival status whenever someone (be it an individual, a community or an employee of a national archives) gives it that status on the basis of whatever value (evidential, informational, legal, cultural, personal) that individual, group or institution deems significant or valid' (p. 164).

This fine chapter reaffirms the call for a more transparent and beneficent relationship between the professional archive and its community counterpart, whether this be a local history group, an ethnic heritage library, or a regional working-class documentation project. It stakes out a more dedicated place for creator-based control and the assignment of significance in the advancement of archival thought and practice.

In Chapter 9, Adrian Cunningham scrutinises the idea of 'The Postcustodial Archive.' He takes as his departure point an address given 30 years ago by F. Gerald Ham, then the State Archivist of Wisconsin. Ham referred to the need for the profession to mobilise for a 'postcustodial era' on both the theoretical and practical fronts. He urged a necessary recognition of the growing complexity and decentralisation of 'the archive', which entails moving beyond an archive identified chiefly as a place of physical deposit. Cunningham surveys the field’s evolving constructions of archival custody, particularly in light of ever-increasing electronic records and expectations of 24/7 virtual access by all types of users. He declares that the post-custodial approach is now the normal state of affairs and not simply a choice of method. Among its beneficial yields are an authentic and persistent linkage of records to their societal contexts in preference to an unthinking adherence to original order, a strong valuation placed on the distributed custodial programmes of community and grassroots archives, and the admission that archivists are proactive records makers rather than merely handlers.

In 'Information Management, Records Management, Knowledge Management: The Place of Archives in a Digital Age' (Chapter 10), Nicole Convery looks at the substantial transformations brought by digital culture on information consumption and preservation. Although this section’s themes closely track those of preceding chapters, the author contributes a distinct vantage by comparing and contrasting the digital challenges faced by archives with those of related information professions. All these professionals are wrestling with across-the-board user engagement, the spreading power of social media, and the inflation of contextualised information. However, Convery focuses on the varied challenges they face in their organisational environments. Business goals (i.e., profit-making) and corporate governance imperatives (such as risk management) frequently result in very different determinations of the value of these professions to their employers. Archivists in particular have to be aware of how they are perceived; for their commonly held image as lacking in quantitative benefits can ultimately have negative consequences for the preservation of social memory, not to mention the devaluation of their profession by those who control powerful resources. The author speaks incisively to the information professions (if not to business managers) when she articulates the need for their specialist borders to be opened for the sake of a more unified field. There must be an acknowledgment of the 'information management continuum', a fruitful recognition that 'Records and knowledge managers as well as archivists and librarians all essentially manage information in its various guises based on very similar methodologies' (p. 207).

Richard Cox situates appraisal, 'the central and most important archival function' (p. 213) in the context of the digital technologies that are transforming so much of his profession. In Chapter 11, ‘Appraisal and the Future of Archives in the Digital Era,’ he sees generational and status issues as interacting with the new information technologies to create a precarious state of affairs, above all, a detrimental hesitation on the part of older practitioners to adapt to digitisation’s emerging roles and  expectations. Appraisal, the determination of long-term research value that warrants inclusion in the archive, will have to be thought and done much differently in this 'digital documentary universe.' One major difference is the acceptance of appraisal as a continuous process that incorporates iterative re-appraisal and a sincere respect for accountability by the appraisers. It is also crucial for archivists to disabuse themselves of the belief that everything in this digital age can be preserved. Cox is in firm agreement with this book’s other contributors when he admits that the new generation of archivists (digital natives, all) 'will be more documentary shapers than documentary custodians, more digital forensic experts than documentary describers, and more archival activists than passive reference gatekeepers' (p. 231). Interestingly, he feels the emergence of the Information School (I-School) model among library studies programmes offers distinct opportunities for broad, innovative learning for next-generation archivists to meet the challenges ahead.


As its subtitle makes clear, The Future of Archives and Recordkeeping is intended as a reader; one for postgraduate archival students specifically, as the editors state in the introduction. However, the editors also point to its interest level being apparent for anyone seeking a grasp of the profession’s thematic debates and pressing issues. With that opinion I wholeheartedly concur. This compilation is an outstanding introduction to contemporary archival controversies. Clearly written yet far from an oversimplified presentation of ideas, this book spurred me to read further by tracking down several of its cited references for further engagement as well as googling phrases such as 'archival theory' in the title segment of Web pages. While not written as a guide, it provides a good deal of guiding insights into the current positions of meaningful vocabularies, abiding oppositions, and underlying principles.

As a librarian who previously had no interest in the theoretical anxieties and practical struggles of archivists, I found myself pleasantly surprised to discover that many of the challenges of archival work are shared by librarianship. They include the centralisation of the Web 2.0 user in the creation and manipulation of digital information and the attendant need to consider such users’ increasing expectations and expertise in shaping the discipline’s prospects. In both fields these trends implicate a reconfiguration of professional identity and purpose. And like many learned examples by librarians, The Future of Archives and Recordkeeping furnishes an optimistic standpoint on the future, backed by well-grounded theory and discerning observations from day-to-day practice. It foregrounds much unsettling change while also taking a reasoned grasp of it.

For a librarian, one striking characteristic of the archival encounter with knowledge formation is its earnest contemplation of post-modern perspectives on the effects of power, subjectivity, and political identity on official and unofficial interpretations. Whether the individual approach is labelled as deconstructionism, post-structuralism, or semiotics, many leading archivists take the contingent nature of truth claims and the fluid mediation of socio-political contexts to heart. Perhaps this reflects the high stakes inherent in the notion of 'the archive', an idea and a place representing such ideologically and emotionally loaded conceptions as national heritage, cultural identity, and family history. Other information professions, like librarianship and knowledge management, appear comparatively free to carry on organising and indexing without these politically fraught parameters.

I cannot speak for practising archivists, but I strongly recommend The Future of Archives and Recordkeeping as an enriching read for librarians of all types. It sheds much light on the common goals and dilemmas faced by all information professions while also introducing non-archivists to issues of knowledge and culture that are too important not to be conscientiously analysed.


  1. ArchivesNext: well, what will come next? http://www.archivesnext.com/
  2. Archives 2.0 http://archives2point0.wetpaint.com/

Author Details

John Azzolini
Reference Librarian
Clifford Chance US LLP
New York

Email: john.azzolini@cliffordchance.com

John Azzolini has been working in private law firm libraries in New York City for over ten years. He began in technical services and cataloguing but later realised that the challenges of reference were too tempting to pass up. John is always interested in discovering new legal research content and methods as well as in the continuing possibilities of digital libraries.