Please Stop Calling Things Archives: An Archivist's PleaRoundup
tags: research, archives, archivists, primary sources
B. M. Watson is a PhD student at the University of British Columbia’s School of Information. They tweet @brimwats.
Various disciplinary “archival turns” over the course of the past few decades have resulted in a tendency towards the over-casual use of the word “archive” as a shorthand to refer to, well, just about anything. While historians are not the most egregious of offenders, this exasperating tendency has led to an increasing sense of frustration and alienation on the part of librarians, archivists, curators, and other cultural heritage workers, who are loath to see their professional terminology co-opted in imprecise ways.
Arguably, historians should be less prone to slipping into this shorthand, due to their longstanding disciplinary dependence upon and engagement with archives and archivists. Unfortunately, sometimes this is not the case—nor am I the first to point this out.
In 1945, the second Archivist of the United States Solon Buck wrote, “A fundamental fallacy that runs through most of these misconceptions is the supposition that a single document may be an ‘archive’ and that therefore a number of such documents constitute archives.” Nearly four decades later, Acting Archivist of the United States Frank G. Burke lamented that historians, “formerly the proud and paternal cohort of the archivist,” had abandoned engaging archivists and become a “parent who skipped out and hasn’t been heard from for a decade or more.”
More recently, archival studies professor Michelle Caswell rebuked the historical field for this tendency. She writes, “There seems to be little understanding in the humanities that professional archivists have master’s degrees . . . . Archivists have been relegated to the realm of practice, their work deskilled, their labor devalued, their expertise unacknowledged.”
As a historian-turned-archivist, this is a tendency I was initially sympathetic to. Like many historians, my graduate training was bereft of archival studies literature. Furthermore, there is a certain cachet that comes with the term “archive.” As program specialist and independent scholar Hannah Alpert-Abrams noted in conversation with me, it allows historians to discuss and think about power and historical memory in specific and useful ways.
Over the course of my archival training, however, I came to share my new colleagues’ frustration with “the archive.” Over and over again, journalists report breathlessly about a historian who has “discovered” or “uncovered” or “found” something exciting. Most of these articles leave out the fact that the researcher only found something so exciting because it was appropriately described by a cultural heritage institution and made accessible to them—description and access being just two of the services cultural heritage professionals provide. There was the case in 2019 of a researcher “stumbling over” a Sylvia Plath story—a story that has been catalogued and available for decades. Last June, sources gushed that the original Juneteenth order was “unearthed” in the National Archives, and then described the archivist going to the shelf to locate it based on its cataloging information. While researchers may discover previously unrecognized or unknown content, or make new connections, the documents and books themselves are rarely newly “discovered.”
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