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.

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