Two voices better known for their work in other realms of the archival world came together to provide their vision of archival description.  In a 2002 issue of Archival Science, Wendy Duff and Verne Harris published “Stories and Names: Archival Description as Narrating Records and Constructing Meanings.”  Wendy Duff usually focuses on digital curation and is on the faculty of the School of Information at the University of Toronto.  Verne Harris, who is the head of the Memory Programme at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, is at the forefront of the postmodernist movement within the archival world.  The currents running throughout this article include stories, names, and power.

They begin with an overview of three streams of archival thought.

  1. The first stream of archival thought begins, of course, in the 19th century with the three Dutch men, whose formative Manual focused on arrangement and description.  They argued that “the boundary between text and context is hard and stable” and that “[t]he archivist’s role in relation to records is to reveal their meaning and significance – not to participate in the construction of meanings . . .” (264).
  2. The second stream emerged from the 1940s to the 1990s and included thinkers such as Hans Boom, Helen Samuels, and Terry Cook.  Although this stream focused on selection and appraisal, it also created a new vision of the archival world where archival intervention overlaps with the construction of meanings and the exercise of power.
  3. The final, postmodernist stream incorporates some archivists such as Terry Cook but also ranges far and wide to writers outside the archival world.  What you recognize if you have read any of these postmodernists is that they tend to pose more questions than they answer.  Some relevant ones considered are: “Does the making of a record . . . have a beginning and an ending?  Do archivists participate actively in the construction of a record’s meanings and its significances? . . .  Do power relations, with their myriad privilegings and exclusions, find expression in archival intervention (or non-intervention)?  Does the archivist have a moral obligation to engage the marginalized and excluded voices in records?  Is the archivist a storyteller?” (265)

In considering the reasons for describing archival materials, they include the ideas of MacNeil, Hurley, and Bearman.  They cite Heather MacNeil for her opinion that description authenticates meaning.  Chris Hurley suggests that a finding aid is “‘an indispensable component in the making and keeping of records.’” And David Bearman “depicts documenting as seeking ‘to capture data about the relationship between the activity and the document created . . . in that activity which is necessary in order for the document to serve as evidence’” (273).

In contrasting the two common approaches to the arrangement of archival records, they characterize fonds-based description as “guided by the assumption that archival description is comparable to bibliographic description and produces . . . finding aids, that are predominantly static objects which describe a pre-existing order centred on one predominant provenance.”  The post-custodial series system, on the other hand, looks at records series as “dynamic and constantly changing and that archival description must represent multiple-horizontal as well as poly-hierarchical vertical relationships” (272).  As difficult as it can be to create standards, they conclude that developing a new liberatory descriptive standard is vital:

  1. “First, purism in this realm invites paralysis. . . .
  2. “Secondly, early twenty-first-century technological realities make it impossible to build a complex collective project without standards. . . .
  3. “Thirdly, whatever our view of descriptive standards might be, the dangerous work of naming, of building and applying descriptive architectures, proceeds in a myriad archival sites and localities.  More often than not, this work is characterized by an unquestioning replication of the power relations within which these sites and localities are embedded.  In our view, the descriptive standard is one of the few direct means available to us for troubling and perhaps challenging this replication.  . . . this provides us with an opportunity to unmask the titular” (283-84).

Duff and Harris see standards “as instruments for calling the future in” (266).  Though vague on details, they assert that archival descriptive architecture needs to be flexible, inclusive, and reflect the needs of users.  They contend that archival representations are shaped by personal histories, institutional cultures, gender dynamics, and class relations, but “[n]o representation can be complete” (275).

They explain, “In describing records, archivists are working with context, continually locating it, constructing it, figuring and refiguring it.  Context, in principle, is infinite.  The describer selects certain layers for inclusion, and decides which of those to foreground.  In this process, there is analysis, listing, reproduction, and so on, but its primary medium is narrative” (276).

So Duff and Harris settle on story telling as the best metaphor for archival description – “intertwining facts with narratives, observation with interpretation” (276).  The undercurrent throughout this article is the question of whether archivists can recognize and use their power appropriately.  They conclude, “archivists are, from the beginning and always, political players; . . . and . . . the boundary between constructive and oppressive power is always shifting and porous” (277).  Seeing that this sounds pretty scary, they follow with a list of five steps archivists can take to wield our power appropriately.

  1. First of all, they agree that archivists should “disclose their assumptions, their biases, and their interpretations.”
  2. Secondly, finding fault with both the fonds- and series-based approaches, they suggest that instead of choosing one we “begin to investigate the aspects of records that are not being described, and the voices that are not being heard” (278).
  3. Third, they call for hospitality, in the sense of “open[ing] up archival description to other ways of representing records or naming the information in the records.”
  4. A related fourth suggestion is that archival description should be more permeable, meaning “archivists will have to relinquish some of their power to control access to, and interpretation of, their records.”
  5. And finally, “[w]e need to create holes that allow in the voices of our users” (279).

They recognize that these steps will mean a leaking of power away from archivists, but they still believe it is the appropriate direction.