- Revisiting Archival History
The article included here, which I wrote in 2000, owes its origins to an invitation to contribute to a volume celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Library History Round Table. This is hardly a sufficient explanation for the final version. When I was requested to write this article, a request I happily accepted, I drew on my own interests and experiences, gathering my thoughts about what was known about the history of archives and recordkeeping, where and how such research was being carried out, and why such scholarship was being done. What I concluded then surprised me.
When I entered the archives profession in the early 1970s I did so as so many did: because of an intense interest in history. I gravitated, naturally, to being interested in the history of archives, recordkeeping, and related aspects of the field. This led me to read both within the archival literature and more broadly in other disciplines considering closely related topics (from information and library science to the social sciences relying on archival sources—such as represented by the other articles in this special issue). My initial impulse was to learn as much as I could about archives and the nature of recordkeeping, often inspired by questions formulated in the course of working with manuscripts and other documentary materials. However, my own general interest in history was what kept me exploring this topic.
While I found much of interest to me, I must admit that I was genuinely surprised by the spottiness of coverage on this topic and what seemed to me to be a superficial commitment to studying this aspect of the archival profession and mission. Archivists produced institutional histories marking anniversaries, biographical studies of archival pioneers and collectors, analyses of particular documentary forms, and the occasional assessment of an interesting historical event or case study in the development of the profession. To a certain extent, little has changed, explaining why I adopted a very broad, some might say eclectic, reading [End Page 4] program covering a wide array of disciplines and topics. Because documentary sources are so important, every discipline, from the sciences to the humanities, has found a need to assess and use them. In my article I noted how I detected a growing interest in archives from scholars outside the profession—those who were examining topics such as literacy, writing, and memory. I also noticed the archival implications of the increasing attention on the history and societal role of the computer. Such interests continue to expand and deepen. Now I look back on my own research and writing as they slide back into the archival past, and I don't know how they will hold up over time.
History and Archival Beliefs
I have never considered myself a theoretician or an adherent to a rigid set of principles regarding my professional and scholarly work (although this is not to say that others have not claimed me as one of their own or used me as a foil to state their own positions). The primary exception to this may be my long-term conviction that as members of a profession, archivists must possess some distinct characteristics and authorities. Nevertheless, I have for a long time held to the rather simple belief that in order to lay claim to being an archivist, one must know something about archives and records; part of this knowledge is grasping the ever-changing nature of the record and recordkeeping systems, and an important aspect of this is their historical evolution and context.
History is an essential tool for understanding archives, although it is difficult to say this with conviction, since it still remains fairly spotty in its coverage. In the 1980s and 1990s I wrote a series of essays about the importance of archival history, calling for new research and scholarship on the topic from within the field. It is fair to say that the profession's focus on digital records has absorbed much of the intellectual vitality of the field since then; if you announce that you are engaged in work on any aspect of archival history, others may encourage you to abandon such efforts—there...