Archives: Particles of Memory or More?
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As a nonnative speaker of English, I am not subtle in the use of the language. English came to me as a foreign language through Kipling and Shakespeare, with words such as swans, Thames, prince, murder and dagger and poison. Archival English came to me in the 1980s thanks to committee work for the International Council on Archives (ICA). So I was struck when Verne Harris claimed in his paper, “Law, Evidence, and Electronic Records: A Strategic Perspective from the Global Periphery,” presented at the Seville Congress on Archives , that his work belongs to those who are in the global periphery of our profession as opposed to those who are in the hub. I responded in an e-mail to him that real periphery now belongs to those who have a different mother tongue from English, the current international language of choice in ICA. Lack of intimate knowledge of the language—by which I mean really understanding concepts in their overtones and undertones—can be alienating. Language as carrier conveys concepts created over time by professional practice and theory and formed and biased by their surrounding administrative traditions and overall organizational and national culture and subcultures. I am not complaining about English or about having a different mother tongue; I am merely stating as a matter of fact that concepts go with language just as wines go with dishes in France. Native speakers may function as onlookers in their own culture by choice or character; nonnative speakers, however, too often function by necessity as onlookers for lack of active command of appropriate vocabulary or for lack of understanding of the hidden or implicit meaning of words exchanged by native speakers. Nonnative speakers have no choice but to use words without knowing their exact contextual or emotional meanings. Nonnative speakers are innocent of using words in an insulting way—at least in most cases—and are unwillingly guilty of abusing words, since their underlying values may allow for other uses in other languages. An example: for the Beijing Congress on Archives (1996), our Chinese colleagues organized a number of exhibitions. Returning from the magniacent tour of the Great Wall, our bus stopped at some municipal archives to see an exhibition of the repository’s most interesting items. The documents created by government agencies included a picture of Great Leader Mao swimming across a river, a printed poem by him carrying his signature , a calligraphy by a recently retired staff member, and a soccer trophy—a huge one. Each item had been put in a nice shrine, with an explanatory text in English attached to the outside of the display. All items were called archives. A colleague from England muttered aloud several times, his tremolos and pitch going up immensely in particular at the trophy and the calligraphy. He explained that he was disturbed by the exhibit’s inclusion of “nonarchival” material and by the abuse of English and of ofacial ICA terminology in many of the explanatory notes. More taken by the exhibits than by the explanations , I asked him to demonstrate a few examples of abuse. It took me some time to explain to him that as a municipal archivist, I was never concerned when a prize diploma and pictures and videos of an ofacial ceremony had to be accompanied by the trophy or by any other object or if the ales of a shipyard arrived with models of the boats constructed there. Keeping good relations with important players in a municipality is Lesson No. 1 of any municipal archivist. I am not rigid on such professional 215 ⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮ Archives Particles of Memory or More? Joan van Albada ⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯ issues and could therefore easily have mounted a similar exhibition with many objects and terms not mentioned in ICA’s Dictionary of Archival Terminology. In the end, we agreed it was not the exhibits themselves but the descriptions that caused his problem. Rebecting on my experiences when he had calmed down, we concluded that the word archives might have a different connotation in Chinese, something like “important object rebecting an event in the past.” On later visits to China, I learned that the Chinese deanition is indeed more permissive than the English one. In international exchanges, however, one sticks to the use of the received ICA terminology. Another example: four archivists, all nonnative speakers , enjoying lunch somewhere in Uzbekistan and discussing access to archives. I became rather puzzled by what was being said and therefore asked my three companions to deane the meaning...


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