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.

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