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).