Meeting the Challenge of Contemporary Records:
Does It Require a Role Change for the Archivist?
LUCIANA DURANTI, University of British Columbia
54th president of the
Society of American Archivists
address was delivered at the 63rd annual meeting of the Society of American
Archivists, Pittsburgh, PA, Hilton & Towers
The theme of
this year's conference is "Meeting the Challenge of Contemporary Records." Its
choice and the conference's design are based on two fundamental assumptions.
The first is that contemporary records represent a challenge for all archivists,
irrespective of their working environment, thereby constituting an issue that
unites us all and on which SAA can take leadership. The second is that the
of contemporary records can only be met through an inter- and multi-disciplinary
international effort. This effort includes, among other things, the ongoing
cooperation of record creators, preservers and users; the joint involvement
of educational institutions, all concerned professions, and archival institutions
and programs in research projects; and the development of graduate and doctoral
of these efforts, though, require an archival profession that is confident in
its role, has a strong sense of identity, and is able to contribute to the development
of new knowledge using its own unique body of concepts and principles. The profession
must accomplish this using its own unique perspective and world view.
In other words,
a conference like this serves us archivists as well as our colleagues from other
professions only if we know who we are, how we fit into the puzzle, what we
want to achieve from listening to each other's experiences, research endeavors,
problems, and why one or the other perspective is important to us.
Last year, when
I discussed with the Program Committee what this conference should accomplish
and the best way of doing it, I was under the impression that the archival
was getting over its balkanization, derived from the primacy of the working
place's mission or the position's skill requirements over the commonality
the profession's mission and body of knowledge. William Maher's presidential
address [last year] on "our reasons to exist" seemed redundant. We exist, he
said, "to provide an authentic, comprehensive record that ensures accountability
for our institutions and preservation of cultural heritage for our publics." (1) Sure, we know this, I thought. So what? The debate
has always been about methods rather than ultimate purpose. The improved original
order of Brenneke, the documentation strategies of Samuels or Hackman, the macro-appraisal
of Cook, even the continuum of the Australians have all been about how, not
about why. Our role or mission is not up for discussion: every archivist agrees
on what it is. This is what I thought then. Later, I picked up the most recent
issues of the American Archivist and Archivaria and my certitude
began to falter.
Volume 46 of
Archivaria opens with an article by Robert McIntosh, which discusses the "creative role" of the archivist in authoring the record. "As the author of
the archival record," McIntosh states," the archivist plays a critical role
in the construction of our knowledge of the past and, its logical obverse, in
creating silencesgaps in memory." "The creative role of the archivistauthorshipencompasses
the spectrum of archival functions." "...to acknowledge our authorship, our
vital place in the creation of society's memory. This is the agenda for a modern
archival science." (2)
In the next article
on the usefulness of Mintzenberg's theories on organizational configuration
for the appraisal of the records of an organization, Victoria Lemieux works
from the assumption that the archivist's role is to preserve evidence of the
way of functioning of an organization on its own merit, a responsibility for
which she does not think that we have proper instruments in our own body of
knowledge. (3) Finally, writing about the "total archives"
concept in Canada, Laura Millar advocates that the role of the archivist return
to be the preservation of "a balanced documentary memory of ... societyof
all aspects of ... societyso that future generations have a complete memory." (4)
Archivist (volume 61, number 2) opens with William Maher's presidential
address, followed later on by the passionate appeal of Linda Henry to dismiss
the new paradigm that sees archivists acting as "regulators, auditors, and 'internal
consultants...'" and to return to the archivist's traditional role. (5)
Without going into further detail, one could say that every article written
in the past year has explicitly or implicitly either put into question the mission
of the archivist or argued for the archivist's traditional role, the nature
of which does not seem to be very clear to anyone. I started wondering whether
this is a new trend or something begun years ago that I had missed in my reading.
Thus, I picked up randomly one older issue of another journal: it was the second
part of the 1995 volume of Archival Issues. The first article, by Richard
Cox, uses the words "mission" and "identity" in the very
first paragraph. Worrisome. If one's mission and identity are a generally known
and accepted fact, one does not need to talk about them. However, I was reassured
by Richard's confidence in what the archival mission is: "identification, preservation,
and use of archival records on behalf of the institutions it [the archival profession]
serves and society." (6) Too soon! A few paragraphs
later, Richard states: "the archival mission will always remain, but I am not
altogether sure about whether archivists and their allies or archival programs
as we know them will still be there." (7) And, he goes
on: "archivists have often seemed unable to change their mission, layering one
old mission and traditional function or activity after another even as the larger
organizational context of their operations has changed." (8)
All right, Richard
Cox is a provocateur by nature. I went to the following article, by Elsie Freeman
Finch. Quoting Larry Hackman, she reminds us that the archivist's role is
to "ensure the identification, preservation, and accessibility of archives for
years to come." (9) So far, so good. But, later on,
she states that "the central function of archives management and staff today
is the preservation and broadening of the program," that "our basic function
as archivists has changed from that of facilitator of research to preservers
of program," and that "support of all kinds for the continuation of the program
is their [the archivists'] primary job. Not the recordsthe program." (10)
I stopped reading. Obviously, the question about the archivist's role and identity
has been an ongoing issue for some time and unfortunately an unsolved one. But,
is it linked to the challenge presented by contemporary records?
In order to answer
my question, I looked at some very old archival literature, written before
the electronic records era. You know, the literature I studied in school.
for a short while on the reflections of Benedetto Croce, who, in 1916, wrote
about "the poor scholars, archivists..., truly innocuous and beneficial little
animals. If they were extinct, the fertility of the fields of the spirit would
be not just diminished but completely ruined, and it would be necessary to promote
urgently the reintegration and increment of those coefficients of culture." (11) The cultural component of the archivist's role
was very clear at that time and had been a stable component since the inception
of the profession in the 14th century. Another component that has always been
present is that of the preservation of memory. In 1972, Vittorio Stella wrote
that, regardless of the specific needs that the archives serves according to
the phases of its life cycle, the preservation of memory is a constant purpose
of the archivist. (12)
In fact, the
only dramatic change that has ever occurred in the archivist's role was brought
about by the French revolution. For the first time, the preservation of archives
derived from a duty of the state towards its citizens, and this new figure determined
the rise of new responsibilities for the archivist, who became also a guardian
of the rights of the people as evidenced by the records. (13)
Leopoldo Sandri, already in 1958, emphasized the fact that the relationship
between the new role of the archivist and his traditional role of preservation
of the documentary memory and culture of society is manifest in the recognition
that the historical record originates and must be protected in the office of
creation and that all users of the records are best served by the application
of scientific standards to archival work. (14)
If the archivist,
focusing on the needs of the researchers, becomes detached from current archives,
he divorces real life, renounces his responsibility of guardian of people's
rights, loses contact with the experience of change, and gets lost in the multiple
expressions of archival research. (15) If the archivist,
focusing on the needs of the creator, becomes detached from the historical records,
he divorces the life of the spirit, renounces his responsibility of guardian
of society's memory and culture, loses contact with future generations, and
gets lost in a myriad of administrative tasks.
If these responsibilities
are instead looked at as an integrated whole, one can see that the unique mission
or role of the archivist is the preservation of the authentic recorded memory
of society because of its destination to permanent public use. To fulfill
rolethe old literature saysit is essential that the archivist be
able to represent the world of the user to the administration and the world
of administration to the user, to act as a mediator between creators and researchers,
to be "all to all archives." In order to maintain the delicate balance between
often opposite needs, archivists must keep very clear three essential distinctions:
distinction between methods and mission;
2. the distinction between work and archival functions; and
3. the distinction between professional issues and archival science issues.
The first distinction,
that between methods and mission, is at the root of this entire discussion.
The relationship between society and its institutions is constantly changing,
and so is the way of functioning of organizations, the political and economical
context in which we act and the legal framework within which records are created
and used. Technology and the media of the records are in constant flux as well.
Does this mean that the archivist's role is to change in order to deal with
changing circumstances? I do not think so. At least, not in democratic societies.
The illusion of a need for change derives from the ever increasing complexity
of the work, which often requires special and diverse skills, and from the constant
shifting of the emphasis from the one to the other side of the pendulum, often
because of factors external to the area of influence of the archivist.
What really needs
to adjust to new conditions is the way of fulfilling the archival role, the
methods required by new circumstances. Contemporary records, just like the
contemporary to each and every era, challenge existing methods and stimulate
rethinking and renewal. In my view, the archivist must still be "all to
all archives," but not the same archivist, I would hope. What the old saying
means is that no archives, public or private, current or non-current, on paper
or on tape, is out of our sphere of responsibility. But...note...it says "archives,"
that is, organic accumulations of records, not documents, sources, information,
or data... only records... and I would think that they are enough to fill the
working day... Also, the expression to be "all to all archives" conveys
additional implied messages.
One message is
that the archivist must be neutral, objective, not driven by ideology or personal
quests or missions. Stella also wrote in 1972 that the archivist is in a
an institutional researcher. His research is instrumental to the fulfillment
of his responsibilities and is guided by the needs of his organizationbe
it a business or an archival institution, by the circumstances of his work
by the nature and characteristics of the material entrusted to him. (16)
Of course, to aim at objectivity does not mean that one can achieve it, but
only that one must strive for it. There is no doubt that the memory of future
generations is shaped by the selections we make, by the descriptions we do
write, and by the kind of reference service that we offer. But it is essential
that a specific intentionality stays out of it. In other words, the creative
act of the archivistto use McIntosh's wordsshould remain as involuntary
as possible, although well documented.
is thatas Barbara Craig once put itwe do indeed serve the records
and by serving the records we also serve every potential user, our organization
and the profession, as well as society and the future. If we did not primarily
serve the records, no other user could be served but the present and immediate,
and no program could be maintained other than for a very short time.
The second distinction
archivists must keep in mind, that between the work of the archivist and archival
functions, is the most relevant at this conference. The common area may be very
large, but it is clear that archivists carry out functions that are not archival
in nature, and that several archival functions are the competency of other professionals.
archivists act as managers of people and resources of all kinds, as conservators,
statisticians, or database designers. This does not mean that the archival role
is changed anymore than the fact that librarians are entrusted with functions
of record classification and scheduling, records managers with appraisal of
records for permanent preservation, or historians with the writing of archival
guides mean that their role as professions is changed. It does not mean either
that the competencies linked to each given job must be rearranged according
to functional-disciplinary lines. It simply means that the professions that
share several common competencies because of the requirements of individual
workplaces must share the pertinent body of knowledge. Archival functions remain
archival functions whoever it is who carries them out, therefore they must be
carried out according to archival theory, methods and standards.
I feel very strongly
about this especially when it comes to the functions affecting the first part
of the records life-cycle. In an article published in 1998 in the Irish Records
Management Journal, Michael Pemberton writes that "the body of knowledge
for records management remains poorly defined," and that its "theoretical roots...lie
in information science, cognitive science, system sciences." (18)
I could not disagree more with these statements. I believe that records managers
and archivists need the same body of knowledge to carry out all functions affecting
the records, that is, all archival functions. It is with regard to the non-archival
functions that must accompany and complement the archival ones that they are
required to have different knowledge, the type of which largely depends on
workplace. These non-archival functions, which fill so much of the archivist's
and records manager's day, are mostly core functions of the allied professions
whose members have joined us at this conferencelibrarians, computer scientists,
information technology experts, knowledge engineers, lawyers, auditors, historians,
conservators, business administrators, and cultural operators of all kinds.
This is the reason why we need to build strong alliances with these professions
through our respective associations, as well as through our organizations and
individually. One effective and increasingly necessary way of building individual
partnerships that will result over time in larger alliances involving associations,
industry and government entities is the development of inter- and multi-disciplinary
research projects, some of which will be presented in the course of this conference.
However, it is essential to remember that an alliance is very different from
a merger and in a way it is quite the opposite. It presupposes the existence
of distinct identities, diverse roles and purposes and the willingness to foster
common outcomes for the advancement of different but complementary interests.
Even when these interests concern social values, it is important to keep distinct
the various professional and disciplinary perspectives.
The third distinction
archivists must consider, that between professional issues and archival science
issues, is one that has created much confusion about the responsibilities
a professional association such as the Society of American Archivists. Professional
issues include concerns of broad scope, such as education, ethics, advocacy,
recruitment to the field, or compensation. Archival science issues include
concerns such as the concept of record, appraisal methods or technical standards,
the endorsement and distribution of which is however a professional concern.
Archival science issues are the primary responsibility of archival researchers,
be they educators, practitioners, doctoral students or a combination thereof,
while professional issues are the responsibility of the professional association.
The SAA Council respected this important distinction when it began to develop
a new strategic plan. Its goals in the spheres of education, membership,
leadership, publishing, external networking and standards reflect the SAA priorities.
I am confident that their development into specific objectives will help
to avoid the many ambiguities and dichotomies that have hurt SAA in the past:
graduate versus continuing education, manuscript curators versus government
archivists, cultural roles versus administrative ones, researchers versus
archivists versus the other members, etc. All the "versus" will easily become
"and" if the identification of the objectives for each goal will be based on
respect for the three essential distinctions I have outlined today, between
methods and mission, work and archival functions, and professional issues and
archival science issues.
a Canadian archival educator, once wrote that what we need to know collectively
as a profession is very different from what one needs to know individually as
a professional. The archival profession shares a common body of knowledge and
on that foundation each individual builds special knowledge and skills. (19)
I believe that the same is true with regard to the role of the archivist. The
role of the archival profession in democratic societies has not changed since
the French revolution: archivists as a collectivity must still be all to all
archives for the purpose of preserving the authentic record of their time for
the generations to come. However, individual archivists are called to different
responsibilities according to the context in which they work. While they must
never forget their ultimate mission, they may need to use different methods
and very diverse sets of skills to carry out their own specific archival functions,
and they may require the knowledge, methods and skills of other disciplines
to carry out other supporting functions.
The work of a
professional association like the Society of American Archivists is successful
in ensuring the well being of the archival profession only when it is able to
nurture its unique collective identity while at the same time satisfying the
diverse needs of its individual members: it is a very difficult balancing act,
one that this year's Program Committee has tried very hard to accomplish through
1. William J.
Maher, "Archives, Archivists, and Society," American Archivist, 61 (Fall
2. Robert McIntosh, "The Great War, Archives, and Modern Memory," Archivaria, 46 (Fall 1998):
2, 16, 20.
3. Victoria Lemieux, "Applying Mintzberg's Theories on Organizational Configuration To Archival Appraisal," Ibidem,
4. Laura Millar, "Discharging Our Debt: The Evolution of the Total Archives Concept in English
Canada," Ibidem, 139.
5. Linda Henry, "Shellenberg in Cyberspace," American Archivist 61 (Fall 1998): 321.
6. Richard Cox, "Archives and Archivists in the Twenty-First
Century: What Will We Become?"
Archival Issues, 20, 2 (1995): 98.
7. Ibidem, 99.
8. Ibidem, 106.
9. Larry Hackman, "Strategies for Archival Advocacy Nationwide," unpublished paper quoted in Elsie
Freeman Finch, "Archival Advocacy: Reflections on Myths and Realities," Archival
Issues, 20, 2 (1995):116.
10. Ibidem, 117,
Croce, Teoria e storia della storiografia, Bari,  1924, p. 24.
Stella, "La storiografia e l'archivistica, il lavoro d'archivio e l'archivista," in Antologia di scritti archivistici, a cura di Romualdo Giuntella (Roma:
Ministero per i beni culturali e ambientali. Pubblicazioni degli Archivi di
Stato, 1985), p. 30, nota 7.
Sandri, "La storia degli archivi," Rassegna degli Archivi di Stato 18
14. Ibidem, 109-134.
15. Oddo Bucci, "Il processo evolutivo dell'archivistica e il suo insegnamento nell'Universita
di Macerata," in L'archivistica alle soglie del 2000, a cura di Oddo
Bucci (Macerata: Pubblicazioni dell'Universita di Macerata, 1992), pp. 34-5.
Stella, p. 34.
17. Ibidem, p.
18. Michael Pemberton, "Records management: confronting our
professional issues," Records Management
Journal, vol.8 No 3 (December 1998): 9.
19. Tom Nesmith, "'Professional Education in the Most Expansive
Sense': What Will the Archivist Need to Know in the Twenty-First Century?" Archivaria 42 (Fall 1996):