Part II. Archives in the Production of Knowledge
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Whether even the most well-intentioned and neutral scholar could ever produce an objective, scientiac history has long been the subject of fractious debate among historians, as many archivists are aware. That “noble dream,” as Peter Novick described this quest in an important volume some afteen years ago, rebects for many historians a quaint legacy of romantic positivism, the failure to recognize how facts and historical truths are accessible only through creative acts of imagination.1 The issues here are complicated. They range from whether the kinds of presuppositions historians bring to their research necessarily affect their determination of what is “factual,” to an epistemological quandary about the very accessibility of the “realities” of the past, given the layered processes of mediation by which events are recorded, remembered, and retrieved.2 Language itself is also relevant , insofar as historical narration always imposes a degree of order and meaning on what historically may actually have been experienced as chaotic and senseless.3 These issues are not about the integrity of historical scholarship but about its authenticity: the ways and degrees to which documents and other artifacts serve to authenticate historical “facts.” Although Mary Poovey has shown convincingly that the “modern fact” has a complicated history of its own, most readers of history, if not most historians, understand facts simply as those fragments of past experience that can be veriaed by some reliable source.4 History is “objective,” “scientiac,” and “true” if it is based on authentic materials that in and of themselves constitute the links to what “really happened .” As repositories of “original” materials, the notion of authenticity is thus embedded in the very meaning of archive. Whatever their views about scientiac history, archival historians unwittingly reinforce this idea with a stylized grammar of citation. Like the modern fact, the citation is also a relatively modern invention, part of the move toward “scientiac history” and “social science” in general .5 In effect, the archival citation insists that the historian ’s descriptions are factually accurate because they are based on authentic materials and are veriaable. Even though it is often quite difacult for others to verify archival references, the citation itself connotes research as an objective process of uncovering historical truths whose very preservation in archival documents also represents them as authentic. In this common perspective, archival documents “speak for themselves.” Archival research thus reinforces many of the assumptions about objectivity and scientiac history that debates among historians have, in fact (so to speak), destabilized. Absent from these debates, however, and missing in the scientiac perspective, is a careful consideration of archival practices themselves: the tasks of appraisal, acquisition , classiacation, and description. The historians’ discussion has been about how documents and archives are used, not about how they are created; how they can be accessed, not how they are selected, described, or preserved . Even less has the discussion considered how the processes of archiving might function in these ways as something more than simply the preserving of knowledge . In contrast to the ways historians have interrogated their own discipline, archives and archiving remain for most historians little more than documentary collections and the institutions that house them. Do the professional activities of the archivist actually conform to these traditional assumptions? Is the archivist really an impartial and disinterested “keeper of the record,” trained to carry out whatever tasks of acquisition and preservation the archive has been created to perform ? In this perspective, the only way archivists are thought to affect the production of knowledge is through their control over access to their materials. 85 ⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮ part ii Archives in the Production of Knowledge ⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯ These were some of the most interesting and contentious questions our seminar explored. On the whole, seminar participants took quite a different position, arguing that an understanding of the past is quite actively shaped not only by how archives themselves are constituted (an issue taken up in some detail in parts IV and V of this volume) but also by both direct and indirect interventions and mediations of archivists at all levels of the archival hierarchy. Indeed, several archivists themselves took the matter even further. They argued that we are currently moving into a very active age of archival intervention , one that can be described as beyond postcustodial , in which the processes of selection, access, and even description are increasingly structured by particular cultural values, social biases, and political inclinations. Restrictions on access to archival materials, either through systems of classiacation or requirements that users be credentialed in certain ways...