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Chapter 3 January 13, 2010

Posted by Kate T. in Chapter 3.
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I found Chapter 3 somewhat problematic. I was engaged by its opening and closing sections (131-140 and 185-189) but found the lengthy discussion of the works of Orwell and Kundera to be less compelling in supporting the argument about the role of archives and records in resisting political power. I won’t dispute Jimerson’s analysis of Orwell and Kundera and certainly I learned a great deal about the two authors, but I do think that this chapter would have been more persuasive for me if it had either focused on the presentation of archives and records in fiction more broadly, and so included discussions of other writers, or if it had built more directly on the discussion presented in the opening section about archives and political power by discussing real-world examples. What was your response to the structure of this chapter? How persuasive did you find the discussions of Orwell and Kundera?

On a different topic . .

It seems to me that the kind of power being discussed here only works if people are interested in facts, in knowing the truth, in learning. If people equate history with “heritage”—with repeating myths and stories that have been handed down, or only hearing material that reinforces their own beliefs, then do archives still have this kind of power?

“The authority that archivists exercise within their domain partakes in political power, since access to information and knowledge conveys such power. Yet it is a power often unrecognized by most members of the society, who do not see or understand the role archivists play in the contested realms of power, distribution, and control.”(p.140)

Is power really power if people don’t accept or acknowledge it?  Can we compare archives to batteries (to add yet another metaphor to the collection)—they have latent power in them, but unless you hook them up with something (or someone) that needs that power and has the right “connectors,” what good is the battery (or the archives)? If society stops making gizmos that need a particular type of battery, what good is the power in it? If you have a society that doesn’t care about uncovering the truth, what good is the power of archives that help to reveal that truth?

But, that could just be my cynical nature showing through. I don’t want this discussion to veer off into the current state of American society, but I do think the question of whether the power of archives is more potential or kinetic (to go back to my high school physics) is an interesting one.



1. Eric Ketelaar - January 13, 2010

As I already indicated in my comment on the Introduction: I agree with Kate that Chapter 3 is disappointing in that it treats Orwell and Kundera’s writing (which is worthwile reading) but does not contains much about the actual role of archivists in resisting power. Out of 59 pages only 9 and a half are about real life, the rest is about literature. And to understand Orwell and Kundera, doe we really need 2 pages (pp. 140-142) on Orwell’s life, 2 and a half pages (pp. 159-162) on “politics and literature”?

Now about the contents. On p. 137 Randall quotes Battles who declared that libraries have always been battlegrounds for contesting ideoloigies and spaces of power. Randall then writes “The same is true for museums and archives, indeed for any institutions responsible for the cultural heritage of societies”. I would argue that there is a big difference here bbetween archives and other “memory institutions”, if only because archives contain information about people, because archives have always been used for control and surveillance, unlike museums and libraries. This difference is not dealt with explicitly in the book.

2. Eric Ketelaar - January 13, 2010

At the very end of Chapter 3 Randall makes 2 observations which I believe should have been treated more extensively:
1. p. 188: The cause of human rights and social justice – but this may come in later chapters?
2. p. 188: records have been used to rehabilitate people. I have discussed this double-edged power of records (restraining and empowering, oppressing and liberating) with a number of illustrative cases in my chapter “Recordkeeping and Societal Power”, in: Sue McKemmish, Michael Piggott, Barbara Reed & Frank Upward (eds.), Archives: Recordkeeping in Society (Wagga-Wagga, Charles Sturt University 2005) pp. 277-298.

Rand - January 14, 2010

Eric, The concerns about human rights and justice receive much more extensive treatment in chapters 5 and 6. The discussion of Orwell and Kundera is intended to set the context (albeit in the world of fiction 🙂 ) for this later discussion.

I will gladly add my own enthusiastic endorsement for your essay on “Recordkeeping and Societal Power,” which also treats many of these issues. As online readers will already know, your essays have influenced my thinking in many respects — including, most visibly perhaps, your essay on archives as both temple and prisons. I added to that the metaqphor of the restaurant, partly in response to the demands of the story which opens the Introducion (and before that, my SAA presidential address in 2005). Many thanks for giving me such interesting ideas to think about!!

Eric Ketelaar - January 14, 2010

Rand – I like the restaurant metaphor!

3. terryx - January 13, 2010

Haters! Hahaha. I had a different take. I bought the book in Austin and read the intro and chapters 1 and 2 on the plane back to Portland. “Interesting and useful,” I thought. But more in a reference sort of way. Chapter 3 rocked. The fact that it is not about “real life” makes it more useful to me. We can all extend the concepts to our own examples. There are a ton of themes that interested me:

p140: *accurate* information. The inclusion of information in an archives gives it accrued status. We act as if the information is true because of where it came from.

p142: the need for archives to be open and accessible during living memory. Allows the records accuracy to be “fact-checked.”

p. 155: diversity of sources. Taken to logical conclusion, leads to 9 billion “archives of one.” As far as power goes, this increases personal power and reduces corporate power. Where does the institutional archives fall here?

p. 165: remembering v. forgetting. “A nation [person?] that loses remembrance of the past loses itself.” Really? Is forgetting ever good? If it is the archivist has the power to both remember and to forget. (also great Kundera quote: “the stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything.”) Also re “No Grandfather Clause” — would the total loss of records lead to chaos?

p. 167: the battle of nostalgia v truth, memory v writing, stories v records? The role of the archivist?

What about complete documentation and the eye of god? What is the difference between saving everything and a Stasi state? Does having everything equate to knowing everything? Kundera: “Reality cannot be reconstructed. Even the most voluminous archives cannot help.”

p. 174: Beautiful quote: “archives sadder than cemeteries because no one visits them, even on All Soul’s Day.”

I think part of the issue with this book as a whole (and this was alluded to in the Intro discussion) is that there are all sorts of “powers” discussed. Kate’s introduction of the First Law of Thermodynamics into the discussion starts to parse out some of these powers, but the end discussion for this book may be a taxonomy of power.

Kate T. - January 13, 2010

Haters?! Pshaw, Terry! Look, in my opinion some people are going to respond to this type of approach (like you and maybe a lot of others) and some aren’t (like Eric and me). It’s a bit of a gamble, and it isn’t going to appeal to everyone. That’s ok. There’s a whole lot of book left to go, and I’m sure there will be enough real world examples in it to satisfy all of us. (And, certainly this chapter was interesting, don’t get me wrong, it’s just not necessarily my cup of tea.)

terryx - January 13, 2010

Just playing. Nothing but love here for you and Eric.

Kirsten Wright - January 13, 2010

Terry, your comment about diversity of sources: “Taken to logical conclusion, leads to 9 billion “archives of one.” As far as power goes, this increases personal power and reduces corporate power.”

You might be interested in reading Sue McKemmish’s “Evidence of Me…”, originally published in Archives and Manuscripts in 1996, which discusses issues around personal recordkeeping and personal archives.It is available on the Monash University Records Continuum website:


terryx - January 14, 2010

Thanks, Kirsten. This was a good read. I am (as other comments on here indicate) very interested in the relationship between remembering and forgetting and memory (both individual and community). I blogged about my grandparents purposeful destruction of their WWII letters (http://terryx.wordpress.com/2008/11/18/so-what-do-you-mean-by-corporate-memory/). And even more so the relationship of memory and archives to forgiveness and restoration of relationship — does forgetting play a role?

Alison - January 13, 2010

I’m glad that you keyed into the aspect of nostalgia vs. truth, Terry, as this is a point that is particularly (to me) intriguing – and is caught up in that very fine line between verified and verifiable records and personal memory…

While memory and true recorded history often are the same, often-times there’s a disconnect between the two.

As Jimerson notes on page 168, ” Nostalgia provides the strongest link binding us to a life eaten away by forgetting… Yet nostalgia is a poor substitute for truth. Accurate history depends on evidence, on a clear understanding of meaning and purpose… Archival evidence provides one available tool not only for preserving heritage, but also for redressing wrongs and holding oppressive rulers to account before the gaze of public opinion.”

I’m particularly intrigued by just what point memory seeps into the mushy mist of nostalgia and becomes unsteady ground for those seeking true historical record to tread.

terryx - January 15, 2010

And even more so, what is the nature of this archival “truth”. We posit that archives provide some sort of anchor, but as Noah notes below, that anchor is based on the *selection* of archives to preserve by some, perhaps biased (I’m shocked!) archivist. So before we start dismissing nostalgia, we need to take a more honest look at ourselves. Stories are making a comeback. Many archivists, especially of the postmodern bent, describe archives as stories. The longstanding tension between writing and memory may not have been settled yet.

Alison Stankrauff - January 18, 2010

Good point, Terry…
The trick may be for archivists to be able to tell stories from the archives and keep it all honest and real – and not craft nostalgia – or bend to it…

4. Elena Danielson - January 13, 2010

I was interested in the section of Chapter III on the illusion of neutrality, p. 133-140. The political context of what we collect exerts a strong pull. If an archivist accepts a passive role, then that neutrality is complicity in the existing power structure for better or worse. When I worked as an acquisitions specialist, I always tried to balance the archives and seek different collections with opposing views. As a reference archivist, I always wanted to know how different researchers interpreted the same materials. Despite Jenkinson, neutrality does not have to be a passive, humble, selfless, subservient attitude.

Rand - January 14, 2010

Elena, Thanks for commenting on this. I think this is an important (to me at least) section of the chapter. It also foreshadows a longer discussion in chapter 6, with the heading “Objectivity is Not Neutrality.” In that section I accept the argument of Thomas Haskell thatprofessionals can maintain standards of objectivity without feigning or forcing themselves to act neutrally. It is a distinction that not everyone finds easy to accept. (But I suppose that should be saved for later discussion.) With that explanation, I would suggest that what you refer to as neutrality in your last sentence might be more akin to what I mean by objectivity. Let’s see when everyone gets to the later chapters …

5. Noah Lenstra - January 13, 2010

I would argue with Eric Ketelaar’s point that museums and libraries have not been sites of surveillance. There is a fairly large literature on how ethnographic museums have often obtrusively collected material on vulnerable populations so as to control them (consider Louis Agassiz’s collection of craniums to bolster his racist theories in the 19th century), and there is also a growing literature on surveillance within libraries, such as that written by Alistair Black on the history of British libraries.

Eric Ketelaar - January 14, 2010

Noah I accept your point about museums being instruments of control and surveillance. With libraries, however, it’s difrferent. Of course, within libraries people are controlled, but the library or the books generally do not have the same surveillance power as archives and records have. On the other hand, the regime may use censorship and a Patriot act to limit people’s right to read and to use a library.

terryx - January 14, 2010

Local library board use “community standards” to build “representative collections.” Government agencies track library use (or try to through a variety of faux wars [“war on pornography”, “war on terror”, “war on lolcats” . . .]). Even the rules about what kids of material can be checked out or what must be viewed in the library. Libraries are just more subtle in their control.

6. Joshua Zimmerman - January 13, 2010

I think the section on Orwell could have stood well on its own. His body of work could have brought out the same points as the section on Kundera. Achivists have been using the “who controls the past…” line for some time. It’s nice to see Orwell’s work explored in more depth by an archivist. Orwell’s novels are accessible and popular, yet powerfully simple in their imagery and characters.

Like Terry, I’m not too bothered by the lack of real world examples, but I’ll be looking for them in the subsequent chapters.

Sadly, I haven’t ready any Kundera so this section was interesting, but it felt a bit like overkill to me. I’ll definitely pick up some of his books. Kate, I don’t think a broad discussion of other uses of archives and records in literature would have been effective or necessary. I think it would have clouded the overall point of this chapter.

It’s a very fine line that Jimerson must walk between revealing power structures/advocating for the profession and overexaggerating the power of archives. I think he’s doing a good job at it.

I think Jimerson is effective in writing for people who have stock in the battery industry, but may not understand the product’s full potential (good or bad). Sorry…I just had to.

Good point Noah, I also see a strong correlation between archives and museums. There are elements of control in both.

7. Kirsten Wright - January 13, 2010

Thanks everyone for their comments so far – it’s been great reading them all.

Like some of the others, I was disappointed in the lack of real world examples about the power of archives. If this book is to appeal to non-archivists and introduce them to ideas about archives and power (as some of the posts commenting on the Introduction suggested), then I think it is even more important to use actual examples from archives. In relying almost exclusively on Orwell and Kundera I feel that Jimmerson has potentially “diluted” his point for those less familiar with archives. The discussion about power is still theoretical, in some ways.

Second, while in the Introduction Jimmerson refers to different types of archives, the discussion about power in Ch 3 seems to be mainly about the type of power that official government archives wield – and certainly the examples from Orwell and Kundera are mainly about resistance to ‘official’ archives. I don’t think this is necessarily an issue – but I wish it had been made more explicit.

8. Lincoln Cushing - January 14, 2010

I’m still finding that this book, despite throwing out interesting and provocative ideas, doesn’t focus the issues very well for me. There are so many kinds of archives – academic, corporate, private, governmental, advocacy – that statements like “Archivists therefore become responsible to all citizens in a democratic society” (p. 187) and suggestions that “archivists open their decision-making to public scrutiny” (p. 186) just don’t make sense. Archives are like any other human organization. They need approval from those in power – major donors, corporate presidents, department directors – to stay alive. “Mission creep” follows the money, and the kinds of community-based repositories mentioned on page 188 have a very hard time surviving. I’m looking forward to a broader and more concrete discussion among participants as we complete the book.

Rand - January 14, 2010

Lincoln, Thanks for your thoughtful comments. The concerns you raise here are addressed in chapter 6, which we will get to eventually. Although most of the time we (archivists) feel constrained by institutional demands and loyalties, part of my argument is that any archivist who is bold enough to consider the broader public good (societal interests) should be given the latitude to do so. As with any effort to push against restraints (such as the power of our employers), we should expect some potential negative consequences. This is what — on perhaps a more significant level — activists such as Thoreau, Gandhi, and M. L. King Jr. considered to be civil disobedience. A risky proposition at best, and one that I think only a small number of archivists would ever have cause or reason to undertake. Let alone the nerve to carry out. So let’s come back to this discussion later, after you all have had a chance to critique more of the book. As I stated in the Preface (What? Nobody read the Preface? It wasn’t “assigned”??), I don’t expect everyone to agree with me on many of these issues. I just hope we can think about them, and each of us reach our own conclusions and opinions. Thanks for discussing this!

9. Rand - January 14, 2010

It may be worth stating that chapter 3 began as a conference paper focused on Orwell’s writings (and it will be an essay in a forthcoming festschrift honoring Helen Samuels). Helen Samuels inroduced archivists to Orwell’s passages about controlling the past by controlling both written records and personal memory. Since I had taken an entire course on Orwell when I was a college freshman, I eventually took out my yellowed paperbacks and found that there were a LOT of useful references to things archival not only in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but in other books and especially his essays.

This chapter initially focused mainly on Orwell’s ideas about memory, which are explored (with some real world non-fiction examples!!) in chapter 4. All the memory stuff became too large for one chapter, so I decided to focus here on the political implications of Orwell’s writings and what they might suggest for archivists.

I also found several references to Kundera’s quote “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Once more I found that the book from which this quote was taken had much more to offer. In the revision process I received advice that a short bit about Kundera would seem outweighed by a much longer section on Orwell, so I read six more Kundera books and found that they also conveyed interesting perspectives.

Those of you impatient with fictional accounts will find the “real sttuff” in later chapters. I hope it will be enough to make up for your initial disappointment. 🙂

10. Ruth Cody - January 14, 2010

While the literary material was provocative in theory, I did not think it was particularly useful to the arguments in the book but instead more of an indulgent sidetrack. The lack of real world situations in the beginning did not concern me because I had already glanced through the index and knew that was to come.

Kate questioned whether archives have power if people choose heritage or myth over history. This could be a problem if everyone had the same heritage and myths. But because many myths and memories actually compete with each other, the archive retains its power as a source of reliable evidentiary material that can be used to negotiate between different memories and history. In Mystic Chords of Memory, Michael Kammen points out that some of the first archival effrots in the United States developed because groups were defending their heritage against others, especially in the aftermath of the Civil War.

Since I was one of the ones who complained about metaphors in the first post, I hesitate to make use of one myself. However, I think one of the major points of this book is that people and power go hand in hand. You know the phrase, guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Well, I guess the archive would be the gun (only with less negative connotations.) It can be used by a variety of people for a variety of purposes. There are two things that are important. 1.That it is functioning properly 2. That the people using it are doing so responsibly. This is where the archivist comes in, and where my metaphor ends before it gets out of hand.
I am happy to see that this blog is so stimulating so far.

Alison Stankrauff - January 14, 2010

Absolutely terrific point about the problem/issue of there being multiple myths and memories, Ruth. Indeed, I think this goes a long way to bolster the power of archives in the face of nostalgia…

And I agree – I’m finding this discussion on the blog quite stimulating and useful.

Noah Lenstra - January 14, 2010


I think you are right on about this. I think the “archival impulse” as such, as often driving by heritage concerns as opposed to historical ones. I have worked with some non-profit agencies and the the concern to start archives is usually much less about maintaining a stable historical record then it is about bolstering the group’s identity and sharing its heritage with others.

Perhaps more needs to be written and researched about the paradox that we construct “historical” narratives out of archives constructed/founded out of “heritage” concerns, to use David Lowenthal’s dichotomy.

I know there is some literature about this – I can’t remember the citation – maybe someone can help me out – but there was a History professor from Harvard who back in the 1980s extolled his students of antebellum and colonial U.S. history to interrogate the fact that the records they relied to construct their histories were collected by elite antiquarians in the early historical society movement.

11. LaurenG. - January 14, 2010

As far as connecting with those outside of the field, and opening the thinking and discussion around archives and power, Ch. 3 certainly does both of these things. As much as we don’t consider fiction “real,” many of us simply do get cultural information from fiction. Perhaps acculturation is a better word–information about how archives function and are viewed in society, as well as information about history, and how it applies to the world according to the author.
Just my 2 cents; I’m enjoying the book and the conversation.

12. Jacqueline Haun - January 17, 2010

The section on Orwell really resonated for me. Despite the fact that Orwell wrote fiction, for me the scenarios and bureaucratic thought processes he was describing were so rooted in reality as to have the “literary” aspect be a moot point. I have had first-hand experiences with some of the issues he brings up, albeit in a smaller scale. For example, early on in my current position, I was puzzled by the existance of an empty folder marked “Vietnam” in our war records collection. Clearly something had once been there, or the folder wouldn’t exist, but there was not so much as a scrap of paper in it. A few years later, an alumnus admitted in a public forum that he when he was doing research in our institutional archives (before my time) he had come across an anti-war protest announcement as the only documentation of the Vietnam war on our campus and had taken it upon himself to throw away that item. He apparently felt no qualms about editing the record, which made me think about Orwell’s observation that those who do such things seem to think that their version of history is the one that God recognizes, so they are within their rights. I’ve also had to do some recycling bin diving myself in order to document anti-administration “subversive literature” that would not otherwise be directed my way through the normal channels. I’m not working in a totalitarian state per se, but the threats to the historical record that sometimes arise when propaganda competes with truth are still a part of my daily job.

I could not identify so much with the section on Kundera, although I appreciate the broader discussion of memory.

Jacqueline Haun, Archivist at The Lawrenceville School

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