Archives and History: Tom Nesmith

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This week, I turn to our neighbors to the north for insights on the connections between archives and history.  Tom Nesmith worked at the National Archives of Canada (1978-1990) and served as general editor of Archivaria (1984-86).  He is the founder and director, since 1990, of the University of Manitoba’s Master’s program in Archival Studies in the Department of History.  This article, “What’s History Got to Do With It?: Reconsidering the Place of Historical Knowledge in Archival Work” was published in the Spring 2004 issue of Archivaria.

Nesmith began these ruminations – which first appeared as his keynote address to the 2003 annual conference of the Association of Canadian Archivists (ACA) – with a synopsis of the career of Tina Turner.  He asserted that her musical resurgence could be explained by the fact that “Historical memory . . . inspired strength, hope, and renewal” (3).  An untraditional but yet an intriguing springboard for considering the role of history in archives and a potential renewal for the profession.

Nesmith defined an active role for archivists and tied it to his opening musical story by suggesting:

“archivists help make old records . . . and their stories or ‘lyrics’ new or relevant again, reshaping them for new audiences, helping people to make something new of them, something of their own, something that speaks or ‘sings’ to a new generation, a new world different from that of previous users, or the original creators” (4).

Just as Turner redefined and renewed her career, Nesmith argued that archivists need to embrace historical knowledge and interests “in order to perform better their distinctive archival work and to meet the challenges they face as a distinct profession.  This is not hankering after an archivist cum historian, but for an archivist to be, like Tina Turner, inspired and renewed by history” (4).

Nesmith succinctly described archivists’ raison d’être:

“Archivists exist as a distinct profession to identify, protect, describe, make available, and preserve records that have long-term value, as carriers of information from the past that is relevant to the present and future” (5).

He provided a summation of his points in this article:

  1. The ACA was born in 1975 out of a concern that historical knowledge inhabited too central a role in the archival realm, but there is an increasing sense that more historical knowledge is necessary in order for archivists to do our work well.
  2. There has been a simultaneous growth of interest in popular history.
  3. Along with the rise of historical interest in general was “a remarkable transformation and diversification of society’s historical information needs” (5).
  4. The Internet and TV services have dramatically changed the accessibility of historical information.
  5. New intellectual currents (i.e., postmodernism), “which emphasize the importance of understanding the production and characteristics of communications, have further strengthened the role archivists can play in providing information about the past” (6).

Nesmith grounded his arguments with a brief reflection on archival history.  He asserted as the archival profession emerged in the 19th century, archivists dealt almost exclusively with old records and perceived themselves as historical researchers.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, archivists diverged into two groups, with one taking more of a contextual approach to their work, emphasizing provenance, and the other believing that archivists also needed to have training in the subject content of the records.  Nesmith explained that Canadian archivists remained committed to the latter model longer than most.  But in the 1970s and 1980s things began to shift, and the new agenda included (9-10):

  • “clarifying a distinctive archival theory and method”
  • “establishing descriptive standards”
  • “improved processes and techniques for management of all archival functions”
  • “computerization of archival work and services”
  • “electronic records”
  • “archival law and policy”
  • “relationships with records and information management”
  • “university-based archival education, largely apart from departments of history”

Although this agenda arose out of an intention to separate archival and historical work, Nesmith contended that work to accomplish these goals actually underscored the importance of historical knowledge in dealing with records.

Nesmith acknowledged that the growth of electronic records and new theories of appraisal in the late 20th century on the surface minimized the necessity of historical knowledge by archivists.  The relative newness of electronic records inherently made them more of a contemporary source rather than ones needing historical interpretation, although Nesmith pointed out with good long-term preservation, these electronic records will also eventually need contextual understanding.  Instead of “seeking to protect records with valuable academic historical subject matter,” macro-appraisal focused primarily on recent records.  However, Nesmith argued that macro-appraisal does include historical elements in its decisions:

“Macro-appraisal aims to identify those records which best document functions and activities which have long-term enduring value or which in effect, convey what is deemed important to know about the history of a given institution, including its impact on society” (16).

Nesmith provided a number of examples of recent growth in interest in Canadian history alongside new usage of archival records by academic disciplines outside history departments.  He asserted that “historical information needs have been radically transformed since the 1970s, in volume, variety, and complexity,” therefore, archivists must embrace this change and incorporate more historical information in our work (23).  In perhaps his most significant insight, Nesmith provided a summation of postmodernist thought as it relates to archival work: “an act of interpretation is always at the heart of the management and use of documents” (25).  He went on to explain what this notion means for the role of archivists:

“the utility, reliability, and authenticity of archival records are directly related to the ability of the archivist to interpret or contextualize records as fully as possible, rather than based simply on observing and guarding those attributes of records.  This work adds to the archivist’s responsibilities and accountability, and thus to the need for archival history of such activities” (26).

In conclusion, Nesmith summarized the developments since the 1970s that have reinvigorated the importance of historical knowledge for archival work (26):

  1. the information revolution
  2. “an expansion of popular and academic interest in historical information from archives on an array of topics”
  3. new modes of mass communication
  4. “intellectual trends have raised awareness of the complexity of interpreting documentation of all kinds and of the formative role of intermediaries in the knowledge formation process”
  5. demographic trends (i.e., eager baby boomer researchers)

Nesmith acknowledged that the voluminous quantity of records currently being produced precludes archivists from old-school appraisal decisions, so he provided this analysis and suggestion:

“Archivists cannot anticipate all the countless uses of the records or have in depth knowledge about the many and varied uses they do encounter.  The best strategy in these circumstances is to base archival work on as much knowledge of the multiple provenances, many contexts of creation, or the overall history of the records as can be obtained – and then use the power of this provenance information to locate, appraise, describe, make available, interpret, preserve, and protect the integrity of the records” (27).


Archives and History: David Lance

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This week’s article comes from the oral history realm.  David Lance was a pioneer of oral historical research and Keeper of the Department of Sound Records of the Imperial War Museum in London in the 1970s.  From 1975-1981, he served as Secretary General of the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives and then served three years as the Association’s President.  He then set up the Oral History Unit in the National Archives of Singapore.  He moved to Australia in the mid-1980s, first becoming Curator of Audio-visual records at the Australian War Memorial, then moving on to the Assistant Directorship.  His last professional position was as Manager of Policy Development at the Museum of Australia.

Lance published “Oral History Archives: Perceptions and Practices” in the Autumn 1980 issue of Oral History.  He provided a fascinating overview of the development of oral history archives, contrasting those in the United States and Britain.  He quoted another contemporary author in Oral History, Ron Grele, who wrote about oral history centers:

“‘Unlike archival projects . . . we did not seek to collect autobiographical narratives, but rather to establish a collection of information . . . on certain limited topics'” (62).

Lance pointed to the genesis of the practice of oral history in the United States at Columbia University under the direction of Allan Nevins.  He argued that the historian Nevins took an archival approach to gathering oral histories, listing four tendencies (59):

  • “a selection process which led to recording the same kind of informants as tend to leave written records”
  • “to try to produce autobiographical records for those personalities who had kept no such personal manuscript collections”
  • “wide range of questioning that sought to elicit from such informants any aspects of their experiences that might possibly be of interest to posterity”
  • “not to impose any hypothesis or detailed aims on the interviews conducted”

Lance explained that this autobiographical format of oral histories was not embraced in the same way outside the United States.  He drew these contrasts:

U.S.: focus on collecting; personalities; individuals

Britain: focus on research; subjects; groups

Lance cited several oral historians for other approaches to gathering oral histories:

  • Willa Baum recommended first doing a community survey to evaluate interesting developments before choosing interviewees.
  • William Moss suggested developing guidelines for an oral history program that would identify issues, subjects, and events.

Lance acknowledged that oral history archives were in flux, moving toward a more research-directed approach while not embracing the narrow focus of many projects organized by academic historians.  Browsing the finding aid of a repository near me, the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, it seems that Moss’ emphasis on subjects and issues over prominent individuals has certainly taken hold in recent decades.

Archives and History: Randall C. Jimerson

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Two weeks ago, I reviewed the chapter written by Fran Blouin in the 2011 book published in honor of Helen Samuels, Controlling the Past: Documenting Society and Institutions.  This week I turn to Rand Jimerson’s chapter from the same volume entitled “How Archivists ‘Control the Past.'”  Jimerson revised a similarly-themed 2007 conference talk at the International Council on Archives’ Section on University and Research Institution Archives, and after submitting this essay, he also incorporated parts of it into his 2009 book Archives Power.  My earlier review of his 2005 SAA presidential address includes a brief biography.

Jimerson provided context for Helen Samuels’ 1986 article in the American Archivist, “Who Controls the Past.”  Jimerson asserted that rather than posing a question, Samuels used this quote from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as her title to demonstrate “a direct connection between archival documentation of the past and the potential political power and societal influence of archivists” (363).  Jimerson provided a brief overview of the history of archives to underscore the idea that “official government records should be created and used to protect the rights of all citizens, not just the political, social, and clerical leaders” (364).  He also summarized the relevant themes of Orwell’s fiction and nonfiction, which showed that

“personal memory could expose the falsity of collective memory and historical accounts of events that he had witnessed.  However, without records (archival memory), the necessary corroboration could not exist” (365).

It was in a February 4, 1944, “As I Please” column for the Tribune that Orwell wrote, “History is written by the winners.”  Although Orwell didn’t write specifically about archives, Jimerson contended that his interests in authenticity and truth mesh with the purpose of archives: “Read from an archival perspective, Orwell clearly seems to suggest that trustworthy recordkeeping and archival systems could even preclude the rise of totalitarianism” (370).

Ostensibly Samuels’ article title prompted the exposition on Orwell, but at the end, Jimerson more directly related his analysis to archival appraisal and Samuels’ contributions in the realm of documentation strategy.  Jimerson argued that archival principles and functions emerged from hierarchy and power; therefore, archivists should alter these basic functions in order to overcome biases and to document more adequately marginalized populations:

“Archivists may need to consider going beyond their custodial role and filling in the gaps, to ensure that documentation is created where it is missing, and to address the needs of those outside the societal power structures” (375).

Jimerson also identified as one of her “great breakthroughs” Samuels’ idea that archivists need to cooperate with librarians, museum curators, and other information professionals in order to provide information and document society (377).

Jimerson concluded with several challenges:

  • “archivists have a moral professional responsibility to balance the support that archives have often given to the status quo by giving equal voice to those groups that too often have been marginalized and silenced” (377)
  • archivists should take “decisive steps to counter the biases of previous archival practices” (377)
  • archivists should join with librarians, museum curators, records managers, and other information professionals in committing “to the values of public accountability, open government, cultural diversity, and social justice” (378)
  • “By shaping the documentary record of society, archivists indeed control the past and thus the future, at least to some degree.  Unless they recognize and accept this power, thoughtfully and transparently, they will fail to meet their most significant professional and societal responsibility” (378).


Archives and History: Roy Rosenzweig

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Roy Rosenzweig published “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era” in the June 2003 issue of The American Historical Review.  Rosenzweig was a long-time professor of history (1981-2007) and founding director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University (1994-2007).  He was a trailblazer in the arena of digital history.

Rosenzweig asserted that in the early 20th century, historians helped shoulder the “responsibility for preserving as well as researching the past” (738).  My attempt in this series of posts to alternate between the voices of archivists and those of historians will be difficult to maintain for the reason Rosenzweig identified:

“Archivists and librarians have intensely debated and discussed digitization and digital presentation for more than a decade.  They have written hundreds of articles and reports, undertaken research projects, and organized conferences and workshops.  Academic and teaching historians have taken almost no part in these conferences and have contributed almost nothing to this burgeoning literature” (758).

Rosenzweig suggested this lack of involvement by historians results both from the technical and seemingly future nature of the problems alongside the rift between archivists and historians that has led to a more narrow focus by academic historians.  But I’ll try to keep this alternation going as long as I can!

Rosenzweig’s title reflects two challenges that face historians:

  1. Digital documents are much more fragile than paper ones, which threatens a scarcity of historical documentation because of the complications of digital preservation.
  2. The explosion of born-digital documents could create the abundance of “an essentially complete historical record” (737).  Given the propensity of historians to feel compelled to investigate every source, the ability to research this quantity of data could be impossible.

Rosenzweig identified three challenges to historical goals and methods as a result of the rise of the Internet and other digital media:

  • Expanded access to scholarly materials has blurred the traditional sense of historians’ audience.
  • The rules and restrictions of the paper and ink world no longer make sense in the age of digital publishing.
  • “The simultaneous fragility and promiscuity of digital data requires yet more rethinking — about whether we should be trying to save everything, who is ‘responsible’ for preserving the past, and how we find and define historical evidence” (739).

As for the fragility of digital data, Rosenzweig acknowledged the issues created by the media, hardware, and software of digital records.  He suggested the “most vexing problems of digital media are the flipside of their greatest virtues” (742):

  • The “lingua franca” of bits can encapsulate much complexity, requires little physical storage space, and can easily be shared, but these bits retain no meaning without hardware and software to translate them.
  • While the complexity available in digital objects is useful, there are many complications to preserving dynamic, interactive objects.

Rosenzweig suggested the “social, economic, legal, and organizational problems” wrought by the growth of digital documents are even more ornery than these technical issues:

  • Authenticity is difficult to prove because digital information can so easily be changed and copied.
  • The system of developing trust in repositories of print materials can’t be replicated for digital repositories (though perhaps the work that went into the
    Trustworthy Repositories Audit & Certification documentation after the article was published is beginning to address this problem).
  • Copyright confers clear ownership of print materials, but many digital objects are either licensed or exist in a semi-published state on the Internet, thereby clouding ownership.  And many licensed products come with the armor of digital rights management that complicates their long-term preservation.
  • Analog documents have generally been preserved by one of four systems: research libraries, national/state/local archives, local historical societies/specialized archives/university special collections, and enthusiastic individuals with a penchant for collecting.  But without clear ownership of digital media, it is nearly impossible to assign who should be responsible for digital preservation.  And due to the aforementioned fragility of digital objects, this is not a decision that can be long postponed.

Rosenzweig summarized the common technical solutions for digital preservation:

  • conversion to analog media (i.e., paper or microfilm)
  • preservation of the original equipment
  • migration of data from one medium or format to a newer or more stable one
  • emulation of the original system

He concluded that there is not perfect solution, quoting Margaret Hedstrom and her wisdom in understanding that “‘the search for the Holy Grail of digital archiving is premature, unrealistic, and possibly counter-productive'” and should be set aside in favor of “‘appropriate, effective, affordable, and acceptable'” solutions (747).

Rosenzweig reflected on a couple of digital preservation efforts.  The first was the “Pitt Project” run out of the University of Pittsburgh School of Information and Library Studies from 1993-1996.  One of this projects key premises was that electronic records should be seen through the prism of evidence rather than information.  “Pitt Project” guru David Bearman explained that mere information is “‘non-archival and unworthy of the archivist’s attention'” (748).  While this project made strides in addressing issues of trust and authenticity, from the perspective of an historian, Rosenzweig questioned its narrow focus on digital records as evidence rather than information and pointed to Terry Cook for his analysis that this focus privileges the powerful over those typically living on the margins of society.

The second effort considered was Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive, which began in 1996.  While it is a much more grass-roots approach to digital preservation, it is inherently limited by the vast arenas of the Internet that are not accessible to its crawlers that regularly harvest websites and by the websites that post “robots exclusion” files that prohibit such crawling.

The development of the Internet Archive together with what was in 2003 the nascent efforts of Google to capture digital content caused Rosenzweig to question the privatization of digital collections where the archival repositories of analog objects are predominantly in the public sector.  He suggested a number of reasons why government hasn’t taken the lead in digital preservation:

  • Digital objects are just as likely to challenge national boundaries as to engender nationalism, so the incentives for governmental involvement are limited.
  • The “anti-statist Reagan revolution of the 1980s” coincided with the emergence of the digital preservation crisis and hampered the allocation of resources to address these problems (753).
  • The Library of Congress was more focused on digitizing analog objects and placing them online (“American Memory”) than on preserving born digital objects.

Yet he didn’t rule out the possibility of appropriate support from government entities.  He pointed to successful efforts in Australia and Scandinavia as well as to work by the National Archives with the San Diego Supercomputing Center to develop “persistent object preservation” (POP).  He also pointed to the Library of Congress initiative launched in 2000, the National Digital Information Infrastructure Program (NDIIP).

Rosenzweig also quoted Kahle’s prediction that all information would be digitized and readily available, thereby “democratizing access to the historical record” (though Rosenzweig acknowledged in a footnote the privacy concerns that would be inherent in such indiscriminate preservation) (755).  Implicit in this plan of democratic access is “disintermediation,” or the removal of librarians, archivists, and historians from the process and instead providing people “direct contact with the documents and artifacts of the past” (756).  He polled his colleagues for feedback on these ideas, and the results were clear:

“Historians are not particularly hostile to new technology, but they are not ready to welcome fundamental changes to their cultural position or their modes of work.  Having lived our professional careers in a culture of scarcity, historians find that a world of abundance can be unsettling” (757).

Rosenzweig concluded that historians’ methodologies must change to incorporate digital media.  He suggested future history graduate programs would need to include courses in social-scientific and quantitative methods, “digital archaeology,” “digital diplomatics,” and data mining (758).  Having already acknowledged that archivists and librarians are devoting much time and resources to digital preservation, he contended historians can’t afford to abdicate their role in making decisions about systems and priorities.  Assuming historians will fret over the potential scarcity of records while archivists will question the necessity of perpetuating information abundance in an era of financial shortfalls, he challenged historians to take four steps:

  1. lobby “for adequate funding for both current historical work and preservation of future resources” (761)
  2. advocate for “the democratized access to the historical record that digital media make possible” (761)
  3. lobby for expanding copyright deposit of digital materials
  4. “embrace the culture of abundance made possible by digital media and expand the public space of scholarship” (762)

Rosenzweig asserted, “the stakes are too profound for historians to ignore the futures of the past” (739).  I hope that other historians will take up his call to arms.