Archival Representation
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In The Design of Everyday Things Donald Norman argues for a user-centered approach to the design of the daily artifacts we take for granted.1 While archives and archival collections are not everyday things for most people, they do document everyday things, and the archivist’s representations and representational systems must characterize these everyday things for potential researchers.2 The term “representation” is used to refer both to the process or activity of representing and to the object(s) produced by an instance of that activity. The process of representing seeks to establish systematic correspondence between the target domain and the modeling domain and to capture or “re-present” through the medium of the modeling domain, the object, the data, or information in the target domain. To the extent that this re-presentation corresponds to, or models, the object, data, or information in the target domain the two can be thought of as representationally equivalent.3 This essay focuses on archival representation as a buid, evolving, and socially constructed practice. Representation refers to both the processes of arrangement and description as well as the creation of access tools (guides, inventories, anding aids, bibliographic records) or systems (card catalogs, bibliographic databases, EAD databases ) resulting from those activities. Throughout this essay the term archival representation is used for the archival function commonly and variously identiaed as arrangement and description, processing, and occasionally archival cataloging. I think that the term archival representation more precisely captures the actual work of the archivist in (re)ordering, interpreting, creating surrogates , and designing architectures for representational systems that contain those surrogates that stand in for or represent actual archival materials. The nature of representational tools in archives also makes them everyday things for archivists. At the same time, the codiacation of these tools and systems has created barriers to use. Researchers must know the codes and understand the underlying classiacation system. Many archivists focus on the creation of representations as the ultimate function of the archivist. As a result, the inventories and anding aids have been either the muchmaligned or much-venerated objects of archivists either promoting or attacking archival theory.4 To achieve a deeper understanding of archival representation, this essay stands this argument on its head and studies archival representations and representational systems themselves in an effort to theorize about these artifacts, determine how meaning is imbued in them, and discuss the centrality of these activities to archival work. This more empirical deconstruction of archival representation owes much to the theoretical writings of Terry Cook and others who have aptly applied postmodern theories to various aspects of the archival endeavor. 151 ⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮ Archival Representation Elizabeth Yakel ⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯ A man hath perished and his corpse has become dirt. All his kindred have crumbled to dust. But writings cause him to be remembered in the mouth of the reciter. —Egyptian author, unknown Archivists actually need a deconstruction of the contexts they are trying to describe, remembering that “it is in the nature of deconstruction not just to see the wider context (those traces, or specters, stretching back into the past in an inanite regress), but also the buidity, the bexibility, the ultimately uncontrollable nature of the context.”5 This essay examines the representation of records by records creators, archivists, and systems. To accomplish this, it focuses on the representational practices, the artifacts of representation, and the evolutionary nature both of the primary sources that the artifacts are trying to represent and of the artifacts themselves. An examination of the activities, systems, and products of archival representation is long overdue. The past decisions by archivists have already been scrutinized in several other archival functions, and these studies have revealed assumptions and biases in archival practice. For example, the need to reexamine old appraisal decisions has been discussed frequently since Leonard Rapport’s article “No Grandfather Clause.”6 The collection assessment studies reported by Judith Endelman found that archivists ’ long-term perceptions of their collections were at times bawed, if not erroneous.7 However, the archival function of archival representation has not experienced such public scrutiny even though retrospective conversion projects have uncovered discrepancies and highly misleading descriptions.8 Despite the documented need to revisit previous collection descriptions, there have been few analyses of the nature of the original categorizations and descriptions, the revisions, or the evolution of descriptive practices. Yet descriptive practices are deanitely one of the narratives, although arguably not so tacit, that Eric Ketelaar identiaes in the archives.9 The present essay explains the salient dimensions in...