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Chapter 1 January 18, 2010

Posted by Kate T. in Chapter 1.

Chapter One covers material that may be familiar to some of us from graduate school, but which we probably haven’t given much thought since (and which some of us, I won’t name names, may have shall we say “skimmed” at the time). Jimerson’s stated goal for this chapter is to give us a better grounding in an earlier “information revolution” to “help us understand our own times more clearly.” To do so he provides a selective history of the development of:

  • literacy, documents, and records,
  • record-keeping systems,
  • archival repositories, and
  • the role of the archivist.

Entwined with Jimerson’s discussion is the influence different forms of government have on recordkeeping and archives. How do you think the analysis of the history of archives and the influence of government on them contributes to the goals relating to “archives power” that Jimerson presented in the Introduction?



1. Elena Danielson - January 18, 2010

Rand has provided a great service with this accessible historical summary. It highlights the common factor of records documenting rights and privileges over thousands of years and in many diverse cultures. I particularly like the part on the role of forged charters (p. 47) to document ownership ex post facto. And documenting a prefered version of events. Forgery is a continuing theme in archives history, and something I was not alert to until I confronted it myself. Or rather it confronted me. The commonalities in archival functions transcend formats, cultures, and technologies to a rather astonishing extent.

2. Lincoln Cushing - January 19, 2010

I certainly learned some archival history here. A few takeaway items to share with the group, though. First, I loved the deja-vu about the ephemerality of media becoming evident when clay tablets lost ground to papyrus (p. 31). Second, although it’s obvious that the destruction of records can be a political act (pages 60, 68) one sweet power archivists and librarians have is the ability to make it _appear_ that records are destroyed through deliberate misfiling and miscataloging. I understand that this was one way that librarians were able to preserve some stored “subversive” documents during the Third Reich. Of course, there were also librarians all too happy to help the Nazis, but our community dwells under a large tent. The last item brings us back to the issue of the status (or lack thereof) of archivists; on page 73 it is stated that the role (at least at some levels) achieved some recognition. I would submit, however, that even in that setting there were robed and bearded Archivists with the nod of the Director, and there were Ye Olde Archival Assistants, humbly working in the background with less status and influence. But we’ll get to that in more detail later.

3. Eric Ketelaar - January 19, 2010

I too like the historical overview in Chapter 1. I would have liked it evenb more if there would have been more on China (only some sentences on pages 65 and 68).
However, may I submit for discussion a question about the purpose of archival history as the one presented here? As Richard Brown wrote (Death of a Renaissance Record-Keeper: The Murder of Tomasso da Tortona in Ferrara, 1385, Archivaria 44, p. 24) “have archivists been inventing archival tradition by retroactively identifying and confirming certain conceptions of modernpublic archivy in the record-keeping and records destruction practices of the Renaissance and earlier, notably in complete isolation from the enormous advances wrought in the evolution of historical perspective and historical writing among other significant contemporary developments…”,
Brown wrote this in his criticism of Luciana Duranti, but he could have made the same argument against Posner. And I am afraid that Jimerson (occasionally) falls in the same trap, e.g. by treating Mesopotamian scribes “as ancestors of modern archivists”(p. 41) and in some anachronisms (page 32) and in looking for “patterns throughout human history” (p. 54) and “similarities” (“Similar concerns have plagued archives ever since, p. 33).
So what do we as archivists want to show (or to prove) with archival history?


Susan - January 25, 2010

I agree that it felt like Jimerson was stretching the connection at times. His attention jumped from “records” to “facilities” to “people responsbile for records” and back again. (these are my simple terms). There are several stories interwoven here. I wonder if he’ll have suggestions just for archivists about how to wield their power. What about suggestions for today’s record makers?

4. Elena Danielson - January 19, 2010

Good points, Eric. There are both commonalities and differences when you look back over the history of records in different cultures. And there is a huge temptation to read our own current issues back into the experience of earlier ages, sort of using history as a Rorschach test. But I still believe there is significant continuity, – in the need for documenting agreements and contracts for example, that go back to the Mesopotaian scribes, whose traditions lasted longer than our Euro-American customs have been around. And the fixing of memories of great leaders, usually by those leaders themselves. And often the memories of leaders and agreements are “fixed” in a way that supports the power structures. That is as old as clay tablets, and will probably persist into the digital future.

5. Eric Ketelaar - January 20, 2010

“The history of records holds the promise of providing a better understanding of human experience and human needs.”

“Records are objects made by human action and by the interaction of people with others and with themselves. This social reality should motivate wide exploration of the reasons and rules, customs and uses that brought records initially into our world.”

Quoites from the fine introduction by Craig, Eppard, and Macneil to the ICHORA papers, published in Archivaria 60

“Most people at the conference agreed that the history of records was intrinsically interesting, worth pursuing for its own sake, and a legitimate area for research and theoretical exploration apart from its ties to the history of organizations, of business and archival practices, and of technologies. Being engaged with the history of records leads naturally into the realm of theoretical speculation and, by analogy, is especially pertinent to understanding the historical situatedness of current examples and practices. Changes are not novel to records making or keeping, and a better understanding of the many types of revolution in information in the past is relevant to the archivist in understanding contemporary matters.”

6. Alison - January 20, 2010

I appreciated (as others have mentioned above) the historical perspective of this chapter… One set of connections that I particularly appreciated was the comparison between the Carolingian Era and the later Middle Ages, through to the French Revolution, and the shifting relationship that archives had with citizens and with systems of power.
I concur with Elena on the point on continuity as well…

7. Joshua Zimmerman - January 20, 2010

I’m a little behind in the reading. I really liked his early examples of Tell ‘Umar (29), the Metroon (37) and the Tabularum (40). I was surprised to learn (esp. in the example of Tell ‘Umarthat) they were open to regular citizens. I guess a good question would be: who is considered a citizen worthy of access in these societies (landowners, a certain class, all citizens)? This public aspect to early “archives” is something that isn’t talked about much. I wonder if early evidence reveals how prevalent use by citizens really was. I’m skeptical of just how much ordinary citizens could use these resources in the ancient world. I’ll have to order Posner to find out.

I don’t think Jimerson is claiming direct lineage as much as he is trying to show how records have been created, authenticated, forged, kept, and destroyed in the past and the external pressures and power exerted on them. Jimerson has applied “Proto” to many of the instances where he makes connections between past and present.

Rand - January 21, 2010

Josh, I think that access to ancient archives was severely limited by today’s standards. For one thing only a very tiny portion of the population could read or write. For another most ancient societies (even the Greeks) were highly stratified by today’s Western standards and I suspect that very few citizens could access any but their own self-created records.

Thanks for pointing out my use of “proto-” to suggest that some of the ancient parallels to modern archives must be regarded as very approximate parallels — often more in the general purpose for which records were created or used than in any sense of similar types of methods or systems for recordkeeping. I fully agree with Eric’s points about anachronisms and reading backward to find parallels to modern archival practice (something for which Posner has indeed been criticized). I had hope that I avoided doing so, but apparently Eric has discovered errors in some of my statements and usages. Sorry. I tried to avoid this.

8. Jim Gerencser - January 21, 2010

I have always enjoyed the history of the archival profession (which is quite short) and the history of recordkeeping (much longer). One of the challenges, though, that is pointed out in Eric’s, Joshua’s, and Rand’s comments is being able to determine the “intentionality” of practices that resemble today’s archives. While many societies and cultures created and stored documents of various types that record transactions, it is not always clear that the documents were intended to be kept permanently. It often seems to me that records were being created and kept as current business, and that their long-term survival was more by accident than by design. It’s that aspect of intentionality that sets archives apart, but it is also that intention that is often very difficult to demonstrate or prove beyond question.

9. Noah Lenstra - January 22, 2010

I had a quick question I would love to hear some feedback on, based on this chapter and the comments it elicited:

What is the relationship between the “history of records” and the “history of archives?” As has been pointed out “archives” as intentional creations is really quite modern – I like Eric Ketelaar’s discussion of this in his, “Muniments and Monuments: The Dawn of Archives as Cultural Patrimony” Archival Science 7, no. 4 (2007): 343-357 – suggesting that the longer “history of records” has only a tenuous relationship to the “history of archives” as we now know them.

I wonder if we can draw a parallel to the relationship between the “history of the book” and the “history of libraries” – for example see http://www.americanantiquarian.org/hob.htm. Books, like records, do not always exist in formal repositories, and their history is not tied to a history of libraries – would it be fair to say that since records do not (or rarely) exist in archives that a history of records and record-keeping would have a similar relationship to the history of archives – having some shared concerns but still quite separate intellectual inquiries?

10. Michael - January 22, 2010

I’ve been following this discussion (and lurking) with interest. Noah Lenstra raises some interesting questions. What is the relationship between the history of records and archives and the history of books and libraries? None of these terms—records or books (both, if they are distinct functionally, appeared in the forms of tablets, scrolls, and codices), or libraries or archives (which emerged to support the communications circuit or cycle)—was rigidly defined in antiquity. And none is stable in the digital age. We might have had some nice distinctions in place after the printing press became ubiquitous (see page 64 of this “book”), but now I wonder about the sustainability (intellectually as well as institutionally) of these distinctions. For an early discussion of digital convergence, see W. Boyd Rayward, “Electronic Information and the Functional Integration of Libraries, Museums, and Archives,” in History and Electronic Artefacts, ed. Edward Higgs (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998) 207-226, available from: http://hdl.handle.net/2142/9474.

11. Antonina Lewis - January 22, 2010

I always enjoy an Alice quote! And, aside from making me smile, the reference to the White King’s memoranda book (pp 26-27) was useful in terms of foreshadowing themes central to Chapter 3, providing some context which – for me – was largely missing when reading Chap3 directly after the Introduction. But, I do think that chapter 3 relies too heavily (if not overtly) on chapter 1 in order to contextualise records as mechanisms of power within a historical as well as theoretical framework. Alongside novels and the experiences of their authors, I’d have liked to find some real-world examples of records, archives, and archivists acting as accomplices to political subversion, submission or dissent.

Anyway, grumbling aside, and back to chapter 1 – my real motivation was to post a continuation of the quote from Through The Looking Glass … Jimerson’s selection illustrates the function records serve as an aid to memory; Carroll’s text then immediately goes on to problematise the desire to invest records with powers of “higher” truth. Complementing the discussions in Chapter 1 (and 3) regarding inscription, authenticity, access to and alteration of records (and associated implications for the exercise and mediation of power), production of the White King’s “official” record demonstrates how easily manipulable records – not least the records of the powerful – can be:

“Alice looked on with great interest as the King took an enormous memorandum book out of his pocket, and began writing. A sudden thought struck her, and she took hold of the end of the pencil, which came some way over his shoulder, and began writing for him.
The poor king looked puzzled and unhappy, and struggled with the pencil for some time without saying anything; but Alice was too strong for him, and, at last, he panted out, ‘My dear! I really must get a thinner pencil. I can’t manage this one bit; it writes all manner of things that I don’t intend-‘ “

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