Import of the Archive: U.S. Colonial Rule of the Philippines and the Making of American Archival History

By Cheryl Beredo. Sacramento, CA: Litwin Books, LLC, 2013. 157 pp. $25.00 (paperback). ISBN 978-1-936117-72-7. (Series in Archives, Archivists, and Society, No. 5)

“Through more than two centuries the American people have been busily laying the foundations and erecting the imperial structure,” proclaimed the socialist economist Scott Nearing in 1921. With invisible complicity, the American public was “unconscious of the work that they were doing, as the dock laborer is ordinarily unconscious of his part in the mechanism of industry” (63). For Cheryl Beredo, Director of the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives at Cornell University, Nearing’s sentiments (which she quotes) neatly encapsulates her line of argument in Import of the Archive: U.S. Colonial Rule of the Philippines and the Making of American Archival History. Winking at the title and argument of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, Beredo’s book accents the agency of archivists and colonial administrators in the Bureau of Archives in constructing and sustaining “tutelary” United States dominion over the Philippines following the Spanish-American War (1898). Import of the Archive offers deeply suggestive, richly documented, and frequently compelling arguments about how the bureaucratic and seemingly banausic labor of archival stewardship was instrumental in serving as “the foundation for more spectacular colonial projects” (9).

Covering the period from 1898 through 1916 (when the Jones Act was promulgated, which began the devolution of sovereignty to the Filipinos with a guarantee of eventual independence), Beredo’s narrative tracks records created for the colonial archive by the United States, as well as archived materials ceded by the Spanish. Import of the Archive’s aim is “to subvert the notion that archives simply reflect or document [a] society” by arguing for the role archives play “in the making of that society” (5). Bookended by somewhat more conceptually pitched chapters (introduction and conclusion), the book focuses on three broad topics: “Archives and War,” “Archives and Anti-Imperialism,” and “Archives and Land.” In place of high level surveys, Beredo concentrates on episodes and examples to telegraph how the Bureau of Archives annealed American imperial authority. For her, colonial records do not just chronicle U.S. colonial policy and procedure, but also acted to “transform records of remarkable events—imperial conquest and colonial governance—into matters of routine business” (13). Beredo traces this transformation by examining how “official records function to obscure,” as well as “the organizational structure that enable[s] such elision[s]” (13).

Codified in Clause VIII of the Treaty of Paris (1899), the defeated Spanish government was enjoined to transfer all archival material to the new American administrators. Beredo opens her first chapter, “Archives and War,” with U.S. officials reporting on the diminished state of Spanish documents. As a prize of conquest and index of Spanish colonial power, the archives, according to American observers, were incomplete and suffering from improper care in the tropical environment. Such assessments, consonant with what President William McKinley called a mission of “benevolent assimilation,” emphasized how “Spanish ineptitude [will be] replaced by American ingenuity for Filipino benefit” (24). The same posture was reflected in the synthetic reporting generated from the translations of records in the short-lived Philippine Republic’s archives. While knowledge gleaned from these documents armed colonial administrators with valuable information, they also reflected Filipino capacity for self-governance, which could imperil U.S. dominion over the archipelago.

“Archives and Anti-Imperialism” proves Import of the Archive’s least convincing chapter, if only because it doesn’t seem to fit exactly within the argumentative space Beredo marks out in her introduction (that is, “this book focuses on the records created by the colonial government for the colonial government” (5)). Despite the absence of clear signposting, the chapter ably examines the frustrated efforts of American anti-imperialists, such as Jacob Gould Schurman and H. Parker Willis, to obtain colonial government documents from the Bureau of Archives, and the consequent emergence of activist sourced archives. By remaining inaccessible and operationally opaque, Beredo illustrates how the “government archive was the motor that drove the generation of a non-governmental archive” (61). Even though the focus is on American anti-imperialists, one wonders if there were also Filipino counter-archives—a discussion of which might give greater voice to the relatively muted presence of the colonized in the text.

The seemingly invisible power of colonial archives is most manifest in Beredo’s analysis of the disposition of land. Working with the Bureau of Public Lands, the now renamed Bureau of Archives, Patents, and Trademarks proved a powerful economic instrument for consolidating colonial authority. Effectively effacing Spanish property lines, American colonial records remapped the Philippines through oversight in homesteading campaigns, civil engineering projects, and the sale and possession of land. Collectively, these government agencies “were central in the efforts to develop the island’s colonial economy” (87).

Maybe because the book is a redaction of the author’s dissertation, the reach of the arguments outlined in the introduction and reprised in the conclusion can exceed their grasp, or, at the very least, appear to hint at topics covered with greater detail somewhere outside this book’s narrative (especially mentions of surveillance, census taking, and population control in the introduction, which suggest to the reader a more robust examination of the connections between archives and biopolitics). And while the argument is clearly expressed, deftly contextualized, and thoroughly grounded in an impressive marshaling of primary source material, Import of the Archive nevertheless can seem under-theorized. There seems an absence of direct engagement with already existing literature on archives and empires (in the work of James Hevia, Kathryn Burns, Thomas Richards, among others), or archivists who interrogate their practice from a subaltern position (such as Michelle Caswell, Tom Nesmith), or with historically coeval developments in archival theory (1898 was also the year the influential “Dutch Manual” was published). Tracking the possible contemporary influence of and connections between archival theory and empire building would bolster Beredo’s argument, but it is also specious to knock Import of the Archive for not pursuing one of the manifold directions an exploration of this topic could yield. Indeed, whatever shortcomings in the text exist, they don’t blunt the suggestive force of Beredo’s argument, challenge her evidence, or remove the exigent need for historicizing archivists’ role in past imperial projects (or for considering their current potential complicity in others). Import of the Archive, ultimately both necessarily and largely successfully, reminds us that, like Nearing’s dock worker, “archives can never be conducted outside ideology” (102).


Bobby L. Smiley

Michigan State University Libraries