Kelsey McCarthy- Archivaria Review
25 September 2013
Journal Review- Archivaria
For my journal review, I selected Archivaria, the academic journal of the Association of Canadian Archivists. One of the first things that struck me as I began to read was that the abstracts of the articles were always first presented in French, and then in English. While all but one article was written fully in English, I thought that the presence of both languages is a good indicator of the necessity of speaking both French and English if someone is thinking of pursuing an archival career in Canada. The issues I read dealt primarily with the effects of technology on how archivists are able to maintain records and make them accessible to the public with emphases on digital records in databases, the adapting application of key archival concepts, and the changing importance of original order and context.
A constant struggle within the community of Canadian archivists is finding a balance between adhering to the principle of authenticity when handling digital records and transferring them to databases. The core beliefs of archival practice have come into question as a result of digitization’s fluidization of context and origin. Bonnie Mak describes the significance of authenticity as something that “in its general sense functions as a means of assigning import to sources; consequently, questions about authenticity force the prevailing system of judgment to be put under scrutiny” (Mak, 8). Because it is much more difficult to validate that a record is authentic, archivists face the struggle of being able to prioritize which records are appropriate for preservation in archives. While digital records allow for more access by a larger variety of users through their virtue of being remotely accessible, archivists are facing greater struggles in developing databases that can maintain records as well as make them available for the public. The issue of the immense costs of data processing and storage aside, the development of databases that are both user friendly and archivist approved further complicates how archivists approach digital records. Some archivists are in favor of a strictly controlled, hierarchical database design based upon traditional archival principles while others, in reaction to more user reactive search engines like Google, argue for “technologies that make it easy to organize materials into multiple collections that reflect users’ individual interests” (Yeo, 58). More flexible online databases, for some archivists, mean giving up control and bringing into question “that the archivist’s role is to identify this single correct arrangement and present it in the finding aid” (Yeo, 59). Technology has provided an undeniable change in the way archivists understand their own profession and its future.
Another major theme that seems to be a point of contention within the ACA is the exploration of the meanings of key archival words and concepts. Geoffrey Yeo, a very frequent contributor to Archivaria, differentiates between collections and fonds by arguing that collections are a physical division of fonds, which he believes to be a conceptual pool from which a group of records derives. While fonds are an organic result of the accumulations of life, collections are a contrived distinction created by archivists (Yeo, 73). While Yeo seems to think of fonds as an origin for collections, Heather MacNeill, an oft quoted archivist from previous issues of Archivaria, has developed the concept of “archivalterity” which she defines as “‘the acts of continuous and discontinuous change that transform the meaning and authenticity of a fonds as it is transmitted over time and space’” (Harris, 207). These ideas call into question whether fonds are a fixed, if difficult to fully realize, source, or if they are something that can be changed by the actions of the archivists. The idea of fixed definitions of terms also speaks to the continuum theory of record keeping, where archivists begin their involvement with records early on. Carolyn Harris discusses the effect modern record acquisition has on how archivists have taken a more active role by interacting with record creators in order to help establish authenticity, develop context, and ensure proper transfer of documents into the archivist’s custody. She argues that “in adopting this broadened conception of the life cycle of a fonds, we do not lose the traditional significance of the principle of original order, rather, we resituate it within a flexible, postmodern framework that allows us to better connect” (Harris, 208).
Even the sacrament of original order, one of the most important archival concepts, has developed away from the more simplistic notion of being the order that an archivist receives fonds in. Jane Zhang, based upon a two year study concerning original order as electronic records are transferred into digital archives argues that “Records and associated metadata generated in a metadata-centric record keeping environment are very likely to have multiple representations of original order because more complex relationships of electronic records are maintained in the system” (Zhang, 185). Digital records, which are by their nature easily duplicated and altered, bring into question just how archivists can decide what exact original order should be, which later affects how records are arranged. Original order also serves as an important tool for establishing the context surrounding records and furthering the ability of users to understand records. Anna Shumalik writes that “only by viewing records as ‘evidence’ of wider systems and processes that archivists can accomplish and perform their most meaningful archival functions” (Shumalik, 113). Robin Darwall-Smith illustrates the disastrous results of revising original order to assign a different context through her discussion of the largely unsuccessful attempts of several archivists at Oxford University in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries due to their removal of records from their original contexts. But, fixed context is not a proper solution either. She writes that “the importance of records lies not in their evidential value but in their contextual significance; in recognizing this, every user of a collection of records finds his or her own significance in the records” (Darwall-Smith, 111).Modern archivists have to find the delicate balance between providing the context of records in order to aid user’s understanding, but also allow for new contextual relationships to be built between records.
Advancement in technology has forced archivists to rethink many of the terms and concepts that have formed major traditional archival practices. Although there were many issues that covered more diverse subjects, such as different studies of repositories and their efficiencies, map cataloging, and an analysis on an archival based art exhibit, the redefinition of terms and concepts seemed to be a major consideration that the authors felt needed addressing. Members of the ACA, in recent publications, have grappled with how digital records have transformed the idea of databases, the conceptualization of fonds and collections, and the way digitization has changed the way archivists consider original order and context.
- Bonnie Mak, “On the Uses of Authenticity,” Archivaria 74 (2012): 8.
- Geoffrey Yeo, “Bringing Thing Together: Aggregate Records in a Digital Age,” Archivaria 74 (2012): 58.
- Yeo, “Bringing Things Together,” 59.
- Geoffrey Yeo, “The Conceptual Fonds and the Physical Collection,” Archivaria 73 (2012) 73.
- Carolyn Harris, “Paper Memories, Presented Selves: Original Order and the Arrangement of the Donald G. Simpson Fonds at York University,” Archivaria 74 (2012) 207.
- Carolyn Harris, “Paper Memories,” 208.
- Jane Zhang, “Original Order in Digital Archives,” Archivaria 74 (2012) 185.
- Anna Shumilak, “Recordkeeping in Canada’s Department of External Affairs,” Archivaria 75 (2013) 113.
- Robin Darwall-Smith, “‘Bad and Dangerous Work’: Lessons from Nineteenth- and Early-Twentieth Century Oxford Archives,” Archivaria 74 (2012) 111.