Understanding archives from the inside: what books about archives should historians read?

Alix_Choice.JPGHistorians tend to look at archives from the outside in. We don’t pause to consider the institution itself, or the complex, skilled work involved before any document appears in a reading room. We are getting more attuned to the ways in which power structures condition collections and the silences and distortions that call for us to ‘read against the grain’ [1]. But the symbiotic relationship between historians and archivists often doesn’t function as such, impeded by misperceptions and unfamiliarity. Cook has the historian as tourist, capturing the ‘appealing views’ but not talking to the locals (‘thus failing to understand the country’s real character and animating soul’) , and the archivist as tour guide offering the routine, popular stops, but less willing to take visitors off the beaten track (‘where the real country may be experienced’) [2].

I’m trying to read as much as I can about archival theory and practice as part of a co-designed project with Judy Faraday, who heads the John Lewis Partnership Heritage Centre. It’s partly about advocacy: making the case for the value of business archives to the business, not just for the occasional anniversary celebration or marketing campaign, but as an indispensible, irreplaceable source of insight and intelligence. The idea is that historians can be part of the solution, collaborating with archivists on projects that use the collections to help address current business issues.

But to do so, historians can’t just be tourists. They need a working understanding of the archive as institution and how the archives have been created, managed and used. In a sense, the project is about re-contextualising business records within the business – and both the historian and the archivist are essential partners to this enterprise.

The reading I’m doing is an attempt to learn the language, to help me become more aware of what I don’t know or understand about professional archival practice and the particular challenges faced by business archives. I came across this helpful discussion about what books about archives should historians read, which prompted today’s post. But I’d be interested to hear from both sides of the partnership on what reading they’d recommend to the other to help make the relationship more fulfilling and productive. What are the invaluable maps and guidebooks to your professional domain?


[1] S. Decker: ‘The silence of the archives: business history, post-colonialism and archival ethnography

[2] T. Cook: ‘The Archive(s) Is a Foreign Country: Historians, Archivists, and the Changing Archival Landscape

Image: MA Placement students Deborah Wiltshire and Kyle Cameron-Symes looking at the records of Essex County Hospital for a project in collaboration with Colchester Hospital University NHS Foundation Trust.


Why would anyone not want to be a [insert your job]?

Eiffel Tower construction from 1889 World’s Fair

‘I can’t believe that anyone would not want to be an engineer.  It’s baffling to me’ said Naomi Climer, the new President of the Institution of Engineering and Technology on The Life Scientific.  As the head of a guild (her term) she’s in advocacy mode, and rightly so.  Many of us share that sentiment.  We often have strong beliefs about the merits of our own profession (‘I feel the same about physics’ Jim Al-Khalili added) and its value and importance to life, the universe and everything. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s baffling for anyone else to want to do and be something different.

Does being a ‘serious’ engineer, historian or economist mean acquiring a kind of tunnel vision that only sees one’s own field and methods of enquiry?  I’m not suggesting for a moment that Climer was actually suggesting that engineering was the only profession worth pursuing, but it’s interesting that she reached for that turn of phrase to express commitment to and enthusiasm for her discipline.  It makes me think of Jacobs’ notion of ‘explanatory imperialism’ that it’s all too easy to fall into*.  It blinds us to the ways in which different forms of knowledge can combine to answer the complex questions of life, the universe and everything more productively, creatively, insightfully etc.

That’s why it’s important that historians do more than raise the ‘History Matters’ banner.  History does matter, and in all kinds of ways that are underexplored and underappreciated.  But my sense is that the ‘case for history’ will be most cogently and convincingly made by showing how historical modes of thought and ways of working interlock with those from other disciplines in the making of meaning.  We should be looking for complementarity not competition.  Collective puzzling can happen alongside individual scholarship.

History doesn’t matter more than literature or sociology or chemistry – it matters with, alongside and in conversation with them (and always has – history is always ‘history of…’, its eclecticism and reach are sources of strength).  I’d like to think we can all get beyond bafflement and develop boundary-crossing communities of enquiry that really appreciate the distinctive contributions of their members.  Engineers welcome.

* J. Jacobs, ‘Theory, practice, and specialization: The case for the humanities’ in Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, vol. 11, no, 3, pp. 206-223.