Archival Theory and Practice: An Applied Philosophy, I Do Believe

September 28, 2009

One question that was a topic of conversation in my archives management courses at school was whether we were training to be archivists or historians. The courses were not part of a library science curriculum, but rather a history degree program with a concentration in public history. My fellow students, along with my instructor, felt certain we were archivists first and historians second, largely basing this on our supposed ability to avoid adding our bias to our professional activities in a way that historians could not. I, on the other hand, saw (and still see) myself as a historian who chooses to practice my profession in a variety of fields, mainly related to archives and special collections. I was torn between emphasizing museum studies or archival management, and opted for taking all the courses in both areas and including the use of museum studies techniques applied to archives management as part of my thesis. I resisted (and still do) any attempt to require my allegiance be placed in one area or the other based on another’s criteria. To do so would be to deny the complex nature of both the current state of the professions and their history.

Such discussions are not, of course, confined to school. They originate in the literature, conventions, meetings, list serves, blogs, social networks, and day-to-day conversations of the professions. I find it fascinating the heat that sometimes accompanies them. Although I saw no such heat displayed by Russell in his post “Why Not ‘Records Science’?” at Records Junkie, I was still reminded of the discussions of the past. Like Russell, I hearken back to grad school.

The archives profession in the United States has its origins in a tradition of collecting historical manuscripts, not just in the retention of records that are the byproduct of human activity. This is also true to varying degrees in other nations and cultures. Of course the history of some civilizations is still retained only through oral traditions and some cultures are only known through documents that are not, strictly speaking, “records.” As the means of communication changed, society both shaped and was shaped by the various communication and recording media. To separate history from records, records from other documents, other documents from objects and artifacts, has meaning on one level but is meaningless on another.

Like the Venn diagrams we used as children to learn about sets in math class, (or am I betraying my age?) the lines that define the professions that deal with these subjects often overlap or are blurred. This should not be a surprise when one considers that the subject of all of them is ultimately human activity, something far too complex to as yet be explained by scientific method. It is the reason that archivists denote a single record as being unique. The activity that created the record occurred only once. There might be similar activities, but there will be differences. Setting aside for the moment the fact that the definition of an original record has been greatly affected by digital technology and the ability replicate records in such a manner that uniqueness of a document has far less meaning than it did in the past, the activity is still complex and unique, particularly when viewed in different contexts. It is thus appropriate that the subjects that I took were in the field of archival management not archival science, museum studies not museum sciences, and my degree was a Master of Arts. Without meaning to be insulting, although I am sure I am managing such a feat anyway, I have always found it a bit humorous that the library field chooses to call itself library and/or information sciences.

Not that the terms we apply are all that accurate either. I would prefer “Archival Theory and Practice,” a term that I used almost exclusively in my thesis, and a Master of Philosophy degree. As I argued in a paper in a historical methods class, history is not a science, although historians use the tools of science in attempting to measure, quantify, reproduce and prove their theories. The fact is that scientific method requires being able to test ones theory and then reproduce it for it to be considered proven. History cannot do this because we are dealing with intangibles that cannot be fully measured and certainly not reproduced. In short, historical theory can never move beyond theory, where science requires at least the possibility that some of the theories can become laws. Even though historians change their theories (sometimes) in response to newly discovered “evidence,” they still build their cases on reason rather than observable and measurable phenomena. No, while historians use logic, a tool of reason used in science and mathematics, it is one that is in reality rooted in philosophy. (I will note here that I discovered long before grad school that many of the historians whose works I read made astounding logical errors in their reasoning that convinced me they had never studied the subject. I know that, years ago, I would have failed tests in logic class with half the number of such errors as I found in many texts. I have since discovered that few, if any, of my fellow students from school or my colleagues of today with whom I have discussed the subject, have ever taken even a semester of logic.)

Archival theory and practice, records management (theory and practice?) and library “science” (theory and practice?) are in the same boat. The practitioners of these fields use their intelligence, experience and education to define theories that are logical, argue them to be the best solution to a problem or means to an end, and attempt to execute them in a consistent framework of rules and best practices. They are quite systematic in their approach, creating the illusion to some that their fields are, in fact, science. An examination of the history of all these fields should show that their best practices did not change based on a better understanding of demonstrable facts and natural phenomena, but rather based on changing views and beliefs of the human element. Neither do they do their craft for its own sake; despite some statements I have heard made to the contrary. While one can accept an artist creating a work to express some inner muse, art for art’s sake, it is hard to justify the preservation of a record just because it is there. It has value because it may be used, otherwise it would be locked away where no one would ever see it to be preserved for its own sake. In other words, philosophy, not art or science.

Full disclosure here: I started my college career years ago double-majoring in Mathematics and Computer Science, and have been an electronics technician and attended technical engineering school. After leaving school for some years, I returned to become a historian. I have a tendency to shift from right to left brain and back. I sometimes see an issue from both sides, sometimes no side at all. (The way you take that last statement might say something about which side of your brain is dominant. Perhaps.) I also spent a couple of decades doing research in archives, libraries, museums, etc. and see things from that side of the desk as well.

As such an individual, I do not put any more value in declaring something a “science” than an art, or philosophy, or practice, or in using the word management. I see the changing lines that define the various fields of endeavor as making these distinctions of less importance anyway. Ultimately all of these professions focus on retaining sources of information and attempts to convey thoughts, and finding ways to facilitate the transfer of such information and thoughts to others. Many of their techniques are quite similar, many less so. The motivation of the practitioners varies as much as that of their end users. Let us at least acknowledge that science is not an accurate term, but take pride in the work we do regardless.

Oh. One last thing. My academic friends include those that say I can’t be a historian either, as somewhere along the line they have found a rule that says one must have a PhD to be a historian. (Ah-ha! Revenge for the librarians!) Alas. Unfortunately for them, I have read too much work by PhDs who did not know how to avoid simple logical fallacies to accept their statements without some fairly strong evidence. In 5 or 6 years of this debate, no one has supplied such evidence.

The Heretic

The Heretic is the nom du plume of a historian and archivist who works with the public and in religious institutions. He has been accused by others in his professional world of “heresy” as a historian, archivist and Christian (not formally, of course.) He does not zealously guard his identity, but on occasion voices opinions that he feels might embarrass others. It is out of respect for those persons that he uses the pseudonym. When he is convinced that it no longer serves a purpose, he will discard it. It is really just in fun, anyway. Most people who know him recognize the source of his words, or so he believes.


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One Response to “Archival Theory and Practice: An Applied Philosophy, I Do Believe”

  1. [...] Junkie posits using the term “Records Science” instead of management. The Heretic responds, suggesting that the term “theory and practice” should replace both terms for both the [...]

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