Imagining Archives: Essays and Reflections by Hugh A. Taylor

Edited by Terry Cook and Gordon Dodds. Lanham, Md. and Oxford: Society of American Archivists, Association of Canadian Archivists, and Scarecrow Press, 2003. vii, 254 pp. Available from the Society of American Archivists, $29.95 members, $35.00 nonmembers. ISBN 0-8108-4771-X.


Review essay published in American Archivist (Vol. 68, No.2, Fall/Winter 2005)


Hugh Taylor retired from archival work in the early 1990s. Though he began his career in England, he spent the better part of it in Canada, where his prestige is illustrated by being named to the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian award. A working archivist or archival administrator from 1951 through 1982, Taylor then spent ten years as a consultant, primarily teaching archival studies. Though one of the few non-Americans to serve as president of the Society of American Archivists, and though he published some of his best writing in American Archivist, it is fair to say Taylor is much less well known in the United States than in Canada, where, as the editors of this volume note, he was the “much-admired mentor for an entire generation of archivists.” If this compilation of selected essays serves to introduce (or reintroduce) Taylor to a U.S. audience, our profession will be the better for it.

In “Information Ecology and the Archives of the 1980s,” one of the better-known essays in this volume, Taylor critiques what he calls the “historical shunt” of the archival profession (p. 93ff). By this he does not mean to suggest that archivists shun interest in the meaning or information contained in records and instead hew only to structure, context, and evidence. Rather, his complaint is much narrower, that archivists became the handmaidens solely of academic historians, rather than embracing the full scope of the humanities or social sciences. But neither does Taylor eschew records management, information science, or diplomatics for a purely humanistic conception of archives. For him there is no contradiction in stating that archivists must be “capable of supervising archives and records management, forms analysis…and information management” (p. 98) and simultaneously of “creative nonalignment” among the disciplines and professions that together seek to comprehend the “aggregate of all consciously apprehended and communicated experiences” (pp. 54, 59). Taylor envisions archivists equally at home as mediators of content and culture and as masters of process and context.

Yet this book of essays is not a careful, studied effort to balance two streams of archival philosophy. While Taylor reaches for a complex, nuanced synthesis, it seems apparent that the weight of his conviction falls toward a conception of archives that is not only humanistic, but also pragmatic, user-centric, and even mythic. (“Humanistic” is used here not as the antonym of “religious,” but in its older meaning of embracing the humanities.) In the hands of a lesser writer, this collection of essays could be esoteric and even off-putting, particularly to U.S. archivists who continue to gravitate toward the down-to-earth rather than the conceptual. But Taylor’s synthetic approach to archives blends (among other things) the roles of intellectual and practitioner. As Terry Cook writes in his introductory essay, “the dreamer could always bring things down to the ‘coalface’ (as he like to call it) of workplace reality” (p. 18). Specifically, in this regard, U.S. archivists may find Taylor a congenial and accessible guide to the complexities and relevance of postmodernity for archival thought and practice.

But while postmodernism is perhaps the single strongest thread across the essays in this volume, Taylor’s writing contains substantive discourses on documentation, appraisal, archival professionalism, electronic records, audio and visual materials, the evolution of recordkeeping, whether archives is an art or science, even the role of spirituality in confronting the modern “technological imperative” (p.226). The choice of the book’s fifteen articles was a collaborative effort by the editors with Taylor himself. The editors state that “Our final decision has been to include those essays that are, to us, the most stimulating, that reduce duplication in themes across essays between those chosen and not chosen, and that give a sample of the several phases and breadth of Hugh’s career” (p. x). It would have been gratifying to see an extended discussion of why certain choices were made: as is inevitably true for any selection of articles from a prolific and substantial author, the specific choices about what to include and exclude can be questioned (though never rebutted conclusively). Particularly in assessing someone’s life work, the specific decisions of editors would help illuminate the oeuvre.

In any event, the essays are presented in chronological order, with no editorial intervention beyond the introductory essays, but each with a brief “Reflection, 2000” from Taylor, looking back on every piece. The volume concludes with a longer afterword from Taylor, looking across his career. What will jump out at most readers, in addition to matters of style—for example his ability to appear at once erudite and unprepossessing—is the ease with which he finds myriad intersections between traditional, perhaps it is fair to say insular, archival discourse and the wider world of which we are a part. He was an early (1984) proponent of the idea that “there is in reality no break between the ‘current’ and ‘archival’ record” (p. 100) and that therefore “archivists…be present at the creation of documents” (p. 96). For most archivists writing in the past fifteen years, such aggressive records management concepts would be incompatible with notions that archivists develop a closer “relationship with museums and art galleries” as well as libraries (p. 98), because the former concept identifies archivists with structure and context while the latter aligns us with meaning and content.

For Taylor there is no contradiction. He urges on archivists the study of art as documentation, which “will not only help us extend our range, it may also enable us to develop the faculty of the artist to program effects and recognize new patterns within an information environment…” (p.87). Thus, comprehending art assists archivists both in subjective mediation of culture and also in grasping the nonlinear structure of automated recordkeeping. Yet his affinity is more for archival humanism than archival technocracy. “In public records, do we keep too much that is evidentiary, too little that is informational? A great deal may be just bureaucrats talking to each other to very little purpose” (p. 58). And he is skeptical of our profession becoming too narrow and rigidly specialized: “because, essentially, we practice a craft, we must seek to preserve our oral tradition of instruction, our empiricism and flexibility, and our holistic approach to the archival scene, so that we enter the whole information field from a position of strength and not as a desperate leap onto the bandwagon of information science” (p. 55).

Those who are most comfortable with specific case studies and formalistic analysis will be frustrated. Taylor writes under the axiom “let us not be afraid of broad canvasses” (p. 126), and that breadth gives his essays continuing relevance. He continuously strives to ask the big questions and knows he can only sketch the outlines of answers. But he is never too far from the pragmatic. Take his contemplation on the “the loss of the automated record which is, at present and proportionately, so much higher than is the loss of paper records” (p. 113). He asks whether that concern is a vestige of the age of paper and whether, even then, it was the wrong concern. Rather than worry about the proportion of material preserved, should we instead be asking, “What do we really need?” (p. 114) and pursue the implications this might have on appraisal? Here and elsewhere Taylor relies on wide context of archival and nonarchival writing, and, still unusual in archival writing, a persistent and practical appreciation for the role our users play (or should play) in how we approach our profession.

Some readers will find Taylor disconcerting when he speaks of archivists as “tribal” “shamans” who “prophetically” select and keep “the permanently valuable” (pp. 69, 87)—this is metaphor, to be sure, but calculated to convey his conviction that our profession should be, at its core, transcendent of specific formats and media, of all other fields (whether information science or history), of wholly rational and scientific definitions, and of the dispassion of bureaucrats and technocrats. Fundamentally, he sees the archival mission in rather mythic terms. This is in no small part because Taylor’s understanding of communication and organization in human history strongly links the current “postliterate” computer age with the preliterate era, the tribalism of the “global village” with the ancient tribal communities. “To perceive, by projection, the future patterns of our documentary galaxy, and to act in the light of this knowledge, must be our awesome task” (p. 87). If disconcerting to some, in Taylor’s hands these ideas have weight and substance enough to invite reckoning with.

The volume does not succeed in all respects. The absence of editorial intervention is occasionally annoying, as when Taylor begins one essay by alluding to previous work which is not identified. Similarly, though even more frustrating, the book does not include a complete bibliography of Taylor’s work, against which to set the selected essays. The editors note that a much earlier festschrift for Taylor ( Barbara Craig, ed., The Archival Imagination: Essays in Honour of Hugh A. Taylor, Association of Canadian Archivists, 1992 ) did include a full bibliography, but that is insufficient rationale for omitting it here, since the two works are completely independent. Most noteworthy and disappointing, Taylor’s short “Reflections” after each piece generally are superficial and unsatisfying. Fortunately, his longer afterword is more substantial and serves as a fitting conclusion. Though these weaknesses are not trivial, they do not undermine the fundamental worth and enjoyment of the book.

In Imagining Archives, Taylor provides us with an eclectic, optimistic, and stimulating perspective on our role and our work. He is, as he says of a favorite seventeenth-century recordkeeper, “a man of unquenchable spirit and enthusiasm” (p. 61). While he does not shy from the frustrations and unknowns of the computer age, he believes in the ability of the archival imagination to overcome them. “Archivists and librarians alike are swimming for their lives in a sea of symbols, and technology is only of limited help. We must design our own rafts from the riches of humanism and a new cosmology which, for Matthew Fox, consists of ‘a scientific story, our psychic response to the universe, and art which translates science and mysticism into images’” (p. 178). It is this complex but stimulating creativity that Taylor sees at the heart of our profession. “If we fail to use our imagination in what we do, then we will lose our sense of the full magnitude and possibilities of our professional task….” (p. 249). Taylor offers a challenging and evocative vision to a profession that continues to seek definition for itself in the twenty-first century.


American Heritage Center
University of Wyoming