Processing the Past: Contesting Authority in History and Archives

By Francis X. Blouin Jr. and William G. Rosenberg. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. x, 257 pp. $74.00 (cloth). ISBN 9780199740543.

Archivist Francis Blouin (director of the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library) and historian William Rosenberg (professor emeritus of history at the same university) conceived the idea for this book as an outgrowth of their awareness that archivists and historians are subject to different assumptions and approaches when they process and analyze records. Blouin was dismayed by how little Rosenberg knew about what archivists do; Rosenberg, in turn, was surprised by the archivist’s incomplete grasp of trends in historical understanding. “What the two of us discovered,” the authors recalled, “was that the scholar’s encounter with the archives—so fundamental to the formation of historical understanding—has rarely been examined in any informed way” (3). Processing the Past attempts to repair this breakdown in cross-disciplinary communications by elaborating on themes that first emerged in personal conversations and were developed more fully in a jointly-taught colloquium.

Blouin and Rosenberg refer to the divergence between the archival and historical professions as an “archival divide” (7). The book explores various changes in training, outlook, and practice and laments the widening gap between historians and archivists. It focuses on “contested and changing notions of authoritative history as the governing premise of archival administration, and on the new divergence in the ways historians and archivists now process the past.” It asks how historical documentation in the future can be “accessible and usable” and how transformations in archival technologies might affect “how we understand…historical evidence” (7).

Part I recounts the historical relationships between archivists, archival collections, and the researchers who rely on them, concentrating on the nature of authority in historical research and writing and analyzing the emergence of the “archival divide.” Part II looks at new paths to historical understanding, how these approaches affect relationships between archivists and historians, and what the implications are for archival practices. Major themes include the turn by historians away from archival authority; the importance of social memories to new historical perspectives; and the characteristics of virtual archival collections, including problems of fragmentation that interfere with the apprehension of context.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries archivists and historians in America and Europe shared many assumptions and methodologies. The trust placed in historical investigation and writing was predicated on the presumed authority of the archival collections upon which researchers relied. In the late twentieth century historians began asking questions that the documentation in traditional archival collections was ill equipped to answer. Around the same time, archivists were overwhelmed by unmanageable influxes of new material and the need to cope with emerging, rapidly changing technologies and resources in electronic formats. “On the one hand, digitization offered extraordinary new possibilities in the ways archives could be described and understood. On the other…documentary creation was [no longer limited to] paper records readily amenable to authentication.” Digital documents, “whose stability, authenticity, and origin were subject to question” reshaped archival practices in ways that eluded the attention of most scholars (9).

Historians, the authors explain, have been accustomed to “process the vestiges of the past into some new form of understanding” without consciously considering that “the ‘vestiges’ themselves—letters, memos, reports, all sorts of documents—have already been processed by archivists…on the basis of a variety of professional and conceptual assumptions” (3). Knowing how archival practices developed “is fundamental to ascribing historical meaning to archival holdings…. To write good history, scholars must bridge the archival divide…reading their archives as well as their documents” (210).

The book considers ways in which intellectual access to archival content is (and may continue to be) difficult. A recurrent theme revolves around the question of how scholarly communications might or should evolve to address these difficulties. How should research institutions in a rapidly changing environment “intersect with scholars” who rely on their resources? (4) The authors suggest that the “archival divide” could be ameliorated if researchers and archivists joined forces to produce “interactive finding aids based on specific historical interests.” Such collaboration would, of course, require much closer engagement between the users and keepers of archives (214).

Archivists, for example, could use the infrastructures of digital archives to post information about how their methodologies might have affected how documents were prepared or grouped. Scholars who use digital collections could suggest keywords or other search terms they found useful, taking responsibility for a larger role in the provision of intellectual access. Archivists and curators, in turn, need to “reengage with the scholarly interests of their users…to understand the full capacities of their vast holdings and continue their traditional roles as research counselors and guides” (214-215).

Chapters relating to archives history and theory are packed with useful introductory information as well as more erudite ruminations and provide an excellent foundation in archival issues for librarians, historians, and students of archival methods. Chapters relating to historical theory and practice will interest archivists and librarians as well as historians in training (and others who engage in archival research). The authors include a wealth of interesting detail, although some sections seem too long and somewhat repetitive. Many of the points made could have been expressed more economically. The book is not an easy read, but careful readers will find their perseverance well repaid. Processing the Past will stimulate constructive and fertile cross-disciplinary discussions for many years to come.

Jeffrey Mifflin, Massachusetts General Hospital Archives