Saturday, February 21, 2009

Blogging the Writing of the Peer-Reviewed Paper - 3rd Post

Roberts, John W. (1990). "Archival Theory: Myth or Reality?" American Archivist, Vol. 53, 110-120.

Here we are at the meat of my objection: Roberts states,

"[A]rchival functions are a process--nothing more. To concentrate too deeply on the process as if it had academic worth or were the essential element in successful archival work trivializes the profession, and threatens to make it arcane and narcissistic [emphasis mine]."

I think that he is party right - one should not "study" incessantly the archival process any more than one should the scientific method - but archival theory does not study the process! Of course not - the scientific method is employed in the study of evolutionary theory. Scientists did not construct this architecture of theory by studying the method - both the theory and the method arose iteratively together. Roberts is making a strawman argument.

From what I have seen of archival theory, theoreticians attempt to articulate the meaning of archives. Yes, in appealing to universal unchanging "truth," to ancient Roman law, and by portraying American archivists almost as heretics, archival theory has become, in my opinion, arcane and narcissistic. Roberts is absolutely correct when he complains:

"Archival theory is largely irrelevant to archival work, promotes an undesirable stratification within the profession, and is intellectually frivolous. Archival theory does two things that are profoundly threatening to clarity of thought: it overcomplicates that which is simple, and it oversimplifieds that which is complicated. It overcomplicates by elevating to the level of philosophy* the easily mastered procedures to archival work, breaking them down into their most minute components and analyzing them far beyond a point of edification. It oversimplifies by reducing to a string of formulas, flow charts, and dicta the multi-faceted demands of learning a topic, a record group, and researcher needs, and integrating that knowledge with a knowledge of other topics, record groups, and a researcher's needs."

Yet in my opinion the reason for this is that what passes for archival theory is not really theory but philosophy. *Roberts even acknowledges this. The philosophy of science is not a scientific theory, and for this reason no real archival theory yet exists that functions as a theory.

However, I am likewise troubled by the writers in Archivaria who inveigh against "Positivism," "impartiality," and "archival science." Many don't see an archival science. Without putting the blame entirely on their appeals to post-modernism (none of the authors believe that a rock thrown at their heads is only a social construct by the dominant paradigm), I think this is nonsense. Of course, we have had to qualify scientific aims and the ideal of objectivity with the observed reality that social constructs filter our attainment of these aims and ideals - but I do not believe for a minute that there is no fact of the matter, no universals to be found in science, whether it be biology or archivism. It seems to me that the words "science," "theory," and "impartiality" (which is mistaken for objectivity) are being thrown around carelessly by archivists.

To return to Roberts, he states at the beginning of this article that Ted Koppel, in speaking to journalism students at the University of Maryland, urged them not to study journalism but to pursue another line of inquiry in order to become a journalist. "Koppel was saying that the key to success in journalism is a knowledge of substance, that journalism as an academic discipline does not deal with substance but only technique, and that the technique itself does not merit a great deal of study because journalism is a trade that can be learned on the job." Immediately I agreed with much of this but had three objections:

1. I never learned about the inverted pyramid/5ws, which I think is a useful construct or method (tune into any cable news show and listen for the who-what-when-where-why and see if you get it first off, rather than a teaser or a "question" posed by the newscaster meant to anger or frighten you into watching a long time for that information), in English Composition or any other class.

2. Just because something is labeled a "trade" does not mean that it can be learned "on the job." People may not remember trade schools and skilled trade apprenticeships anymore since we've exported most of our traditional skilled labor jobs, but no one could walk off the street and immediately get hired as a pipe-fitter or a sheet-metal worker journeyman with the promise that he (it was mostly a he) could learn these skills "on the job." (By Roberts' definition, computer programming is also a "trade.")

3. The true problem may be that certain interdisciplinary skills are not being taught in these "trades" that are not "academic." For example, all journalists should be rigorously drilled in the recognition of logical fallacies! They should also learn proper research and fact checking methods, and some statistics, so that they don't make fools of themselves and spread misinformation, which unfortunately happens more often today.

What do archivists need to learn about their profession - their theory, their science, and the intuition upon which they (as do all scientists) draw? I fear that some archivists are drawing upon "intuition" too much, when these people in their unwillingness to introduce "cold" positivist analysis into their comfortable sphere actually share a methodology that they are unnecessarily reinventing from scratch. Conversely, I also fear that would-be theoreticians are too far removed from the present ad hoc nature of archives. Terry Eastwood, whose article I will examine in the next post, is correct to take Roberts to task for saying that there "is no big picture" in archives, but Eastwood does not supply one himself. Where is the error?

I surmise that archives, despite its long existence, is still a profession that does not know itself, as "natural philosophy" did not sufficiently know itself during the era of Darwin and Mendel. Moreover, I fear that as Darwin and Mendel worked separately, seemingly in work that was mutually unconnected, so today's archivists still work separately, unaware of the transformative power of connection that a proper, scientific theory of archives would bestow. Yes, of course we need to study other disciplines - Darwin needed geology to demonstrate an old earth for there to be enough time for natural selection to work. Darwin could have used the paleontological, genetic, and biochemical knowledge that we have today - but his theory helped to drive the discoveries that his theory needed to become more complete! That's the paradox.

Roberts argues that archival theory is unlike the theory of quarks, or of plate tectonics, because they deal with indirectly observed behavior, whereas "everything about archival work, theoretically, can be known empirically." Theoretically! He says this without apparent irony. Well, if this is true, then let us know archival science empircially, then! Let us find out, empirically, what archivists really do when they're talking about what they're doing.

Archivists likewise need to document what their real practices are (as opposed to what they think they're doing) and to share this information before we can celebrate, or torpedo, a universal archival theory.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Blogging the Writing of the Peer-Reviewed Paper, 2nd Entry

I've just completed Caroline Williams' "Studying Reality: The Application of Theory in an Aspect of UK Practice," and as I finished, I thought, "Amused Muse, welcome to the social sciences!"

As I feared, my idea is not original: none other than Barbara Craig has called for a "basic empirical examination of the professional conditions of those who do [archival] appraisal." She has pursued this project in Canada, the preliminary results of which were published in 2004. (Naturally I'm going to get my paws on that.) However, while Williams laments the lack of such a study in the United Kingdom, a limited survey was done.

Archivists doing appraisal in the UK were surveyed as to whether their organization had a formal appraisal policy or guidelines, what they thought the purpose of appraisal was, and their knowledge of or exposure to appraisal theory and how that affected their practice.

Heretofore, I have not been impressed with much of archival theory - for me some of it compares to the niceties and "golden age" nostalgia of the equestrian training and sabre exercises that characterized the Russian military officers just before World War I - but nevertheless, I cannot agree with those hard-core practitioners who argue that the nature of archives is essentially ad hoc, with not enough common ground between individual institutions to merit a broad view. Williams' approach humanizes archival theory and makes it more relevant. Williams identified the "conceptual, long-term aims of some theorists" with regard to archives as:
  • to "document society"
  • to "define society's values"
  • to "provide a representative record of our time"
  • to "shape the future of our jurisdiction's documentary heritage"
  • to "serve the interests of justice"

That last point is especially interesting, as I have started reading another article about genocidal archives, such as those used in the Nuremberg Trials and in the aftermath of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. The author of this article expressly advocated that the purpose of archives be to promote the cause of justice. This and Williams' article are the first I've read to put forth justice as a purpose of archives, and a component in archival theory. This would give archives an active role in society, rather than the quaint, "dusty," passive (and "objective") role usually ascribed to them (and usually by non-archivists).

Apparently, the limited survey of UK archivists reveals that they, to avoid what they called "pre-conceived ideas" about the "uniqueness" of their particular repository, eschewed specific guidelines and detailed policies for an "intuitive" appraisal born of experience that was difficult to express, let alone write down. "Some," continued Williams, "acknowledged the difficulties that a lack of guidance could create." I hope so! Williams went on to describe what seemed to me a situation of archivists disconnected from each other, not publishing, and acting as though their archives was completely unique with no overlap or commonality with any other archives, "re-inventing the wheel." Good point!

Of course we must not approach appraisal with preconceived ideas, but we must have an approach. (This is my reply to those, usually conservative religious believers, who argue that we are all ruled by our respective "worldviews" (which they try to equate with theory, when the two are not alike) - one's worldview can be deliberately tentative and subject to an approach, or methodology, that tests and assesses this so-called "worldview.") If we can document the process of writing a novel (or a paper!) we can at the very least set down guidelines that 1) allow for best and consistent practices across staff changes, and 2) allow archivists to communicate with each other and thus test, via publication and communication at conferences, whether their preconceived ideas about so-called preconceived ideas, their worldview, if you will, of archives, is really so unique, so individual, or if there are commonalities about which we can generalize!

Williams does acknowledge the value of experience and "intuition." So do I. Human judgment must enter into appraisal. The best computer indexing program cannot write an adequate index (whereas abstracting programs have produced serviceable abstracts). But without some kind of theory, archives will turn into desert islands of - what kind of methodologies? Cookie-cutter examples of mediocrity, disconnection, and disorganization, I suspect.

However, I cannot believe that the "dynamic tension" of being "practically oriented academics" and "academically oriented practitioners" is a "difficult balancing act." Rather, as Craig says, we do not know enough about how theory and practice inform one another. This is, I suspect, because the archives professionals do not yet thoroughly know their professional practices in various forms of archives around the world. In my view (and this touches upon my hypothesis), archival theory must be understandable, approachable, applicable, and useful to any and all archivists. To mangle that famous quote by Theodosius Dobzhansky, Nothing in archives should make sense except in the light of archival theory.

Archival theory is at present too distant from, and too idealized for, the practice of appraisal. My hypothesis, that we need a comprehensive empirical study of what archivists are actually doing (and not only what they say or what they think they are doing), and what actually happens when archivists leave it all to "intuition," before we can formulate a relevant archival theory, seems to be echoed in both Williams and in Craig. In my paper I hope to support my position with evidence drawn from actual case studies in order to set out a program for such a comprehensive survey.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Blogging the Writing of the Peer Reviewed Paper

Draft. (Why can't I view the draft?)

Where am I in this process? Really, even though I have a proto-hypothesis, I am still in the process of reading for information and refining my question.

If all goes well with the thesis that I'm developing, I won't have a test (it would involve a lot of surveying), but a plan of action for a test.

At this point, I need to find out more about what is known about the actual implementation of archival theory by its advocates in Europe, and about the actual employment of the methodologies by those who counter that archival theory is too abstract and that Americans, at least, need to focus on methods and practices because we are a less centralized and more diverse culture.

I have gathered around 30 articles/blog posts/book reviews relating to archival theory, appraisal, deaccession, case studies from multicultural perspectives, archival practices in various nations and/or cultures, archival integrity or deceptive practices or statistical anomalies, political pressure on archivists, and interdisciplinary views of archives. At this point, I don't see a need to revise my primitive thesis.

What the hell is she talking about?