I’ll conclude my foray into the intersection between archivists and historians by looking at an article published by Terry Cook, “The Archive(s) Is a Foreign Country: Historians, Archivists, and the Changing Archival Landscape.” Cook worked at the National Archives of Canada for many years (1975-98), as an archival consultant at Clio Consulting (1996-2014), and as a professor in the Archival Studies Program at the University of Manitoba (1998-2012). This article began its development as an address at various conferences and was first published in the September 2009 issue of the Canadian Historical Review (cited here); it was republished in the Fall/Winter 2011 issue of the American Archivist.
First a look at the title — the Alex Poole piece I looked at last week included a nod to this notion, and Cook actually provided the context. David Lowenthal wrote The Past Is a Foreign County, using as inspiration the opening line from L.P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-Between, which begins:
“‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there'” (500).
Lowenthal asserted that the distinct vision of past vs. present can be dated to the early 19th century, when the intersection of Romanticism and the Industrial Revolution spawned an idealistic remembering of the past that sharply contrasted with the harsh realities of the present. This notion encouraged the active collecting of artifacts, leading to the creation of numerous museums, libraries, archives (and zoos!) — but in the process, caused the past to be perceived differently than the present. Cook concluded the modern archives emerged out of this impetus to collect, guard, and venerate the past, “as if on a pedestal, separated from the present, thus bearing the pristine character that the new scientific historians required for their work” (515).
The distinction Cook made between the archive and the archives is as follows:
- archive: seen “as a metaphoric symbol, as representation of identity, or as the recorded memory production of some person or group or culture” (498)
- archives: the institution or profession
He used the designation archive(s) to refer jointly to the documents collected and the institutions that house them.
Cook contended that the split between archivists and historians resulted from misconceptions on both sides about records, largely related to a perceived objectivity of the archival record. Although this split in Canada occurred about four decades later than the split of the Society of American Archivists from the American Historical Association, his analyses and insights still have much to offer. He suggested that the archive(s) is foreign to historians — not for lack of contact, but for lack of understanding. He said historians approach the archive(s) more so “as tourists passing through, focusing on their guidebooks, intent on capturing appealing views, but overlooking their surroundings, not talking to the local inhabitants about what they do, thus failing to understand the country’s real character and animating soul.” In this metaphor, archivists are the tour guides, “content to lead the tourists to the obvious, the well known, the visually appealing, the easy to locate, the popular or politically correct, but less willing, or now, in some cases, less able, to take visitors off the beaten path” (503).
Cook contrasted the old role of archivists — which may still be perceived by historians as our current role — with a more postmodernist vision. While historians may look at archivists as the “honest broker” connecting researchers with original creators of the records (505), Cook asserted that through appraisal, archivists actually “co-create the archive” (504). He acknowledged the Jenkinsonian notion of the archivist as guardian or keeper and noted the longstanding acceptance of this “curatorial, neutered, and self-deprecating professional mindset held by archivists” (506). Cook credited W. Kaye Lamb as one of the first to jettison this passive role for archivists:
“‘Sources can wait for the historian for years, but if they are to be there to await his pleasure, some archivist may have to make up his mind in a hurry and act quickly in order to secure and preserve them'” (508).
Cook concluded that historians are likely in a state of denial about the activity of archivists because since the rise of the professional historian and the scientific approach to studying history, they prefer to believe they are conducting exhaustive research of all relevant materials, applying an objective methodology, and thereby discovering “the facts” about the past. These assumptions require a virginal archive:
“If records in archives were the critical portal to discovering the facts about the past, then the archive certainly could not be acknowledged as the product of the subjective process of archival appraisal, or of active interventions by archivists to shape and reshape the meaning of records in all the other subsequent archival activities across the never-ending life (dare I say, the history) of its documentary holdings” (509).
Cook identified appraisal as “the major act” that determines historical meaning (511). Yet he suggested many archivists seem more comfortable with focusing on process and administration than on appraisal. He said late 19th and early 20th century notions of archival work embraced the Darwinian concept of evolution, thereby eliminating any possibility of selection by the archivist and instead emphasizing the objectivity in the accumulated records.
Cook noted a finding that I also encountered during this series on Archives and History — that historians haven’t dedicated much ink to coming to any sort of understanding of the relationship between archivists and historians. He identified two primary misconceptions that define this relationship:
- historians don’t acknowledge the intervention by archivists — especially through appraisal, arrangement, and description — that shapes the records they research
- archivists neither acknowledge their impact on the archival record nor document their interventions in a way that can be made transparent to researchers
Although historians have for decades recognized there are gaps in the record — especially a paucity of sources documenting the poor and powerless — they have not connected this to active decisions by archivists. While perhaps on the one hand we should be grateful they aren’t blaming us for not having what may or may not have existed, honest dialogue between the professions should lead to more fruitful work on both sides.
Cook suggested archivists spend too much time focused on the means (i.e., the processes and methodologies of archival work) rather than on the end (i.e., the creation of the archival record). He promoted the notion that archivists engage in and share research that engenders “new knowledge” about the record’s context (518). He challenged archivists to partner with historians to develop an intellectual history of the archival profession, both from the inside out and from the outside in. Some topics that should be investigated include:
- the arbitrary distinction between public (government) records and private papers
- the valuation of textual vs. other documentary sources
- the preference for the records of the state over those of individuals and groups
- the focus on the “legal, constitutional, fiscal, defence, and foreign policy dimensions” of records over social and cultural concerns (526)
Cook asserted this sort of focused archival research will lead to better “archival praxis” (533). He concluded that the changing archival landscape has not only created a divide between archivists and historians but has engendered splits among archivists. He challenged archivists to embrace a “transformed archival landscape” (531):
- Appraisal should aim to create more “inclusive and democratic” holdings.
- Archivists should be involved with records creators rather than merely accepting their “residues.”
- “The focus in all archival activities would be on documenting function, activity, and ideas, rather than primarily reflecting the structures, offices, and persons
- Description of archival records should be less hierarchical and should incorporate the expertise of researchers.
- Materials should be evaluated regardless of media or format.
- “the records themselves would have detailed, contextualized, and interrelated histories, ever-evolving, opening up, rather than closed down in fixed frameworks when they cross the archival threshold”
- archivists should embrace our “subjective, mediative role, openly and accountably, as an agent less for buttressing institutional power than for
advancing archives for broader social purposes”
Cook argued the raison d’être for archives now has more to do with “accountability, freedom of information, and wider public/citizen use of archives for protection of rights, heritage education at all levels, and the enjoyment of personal and community connections with the past” (532). As such, archivists must “examine much more consciously, and historically, their many choices (and the assumptions behind them) in the archives-creating and memory-formation process, and they need to leave transparent evidence of their own activity so they may be held accountable for their choices to posterity” (533).