From the In Conversation column of the November 2011 issue of Perspectives on History

Processing the Past: A Conversation with Francis Blouin and William Rosenberg

Robert B. Townsend, November 2011

William Rosenberg (left) and Francis X. Blouin Jr. (right). Photo by Robert Townsend.Editor's Note: While historians generally recognize their dependence on archival records, they rarely pause to reflect on the way archives shape the materials they need and how the interests of archivists and historians have diverged in recent decades. In their new book, Processing the Past: Contesting Authority in History and the Archives, Francis X. Blouin, Jr. (Bentley Historical Library) and William Rosenberg (Univ. of Michigan), explore the growing divide between historians and archivists. Last May, Robert Townsend, AHA's deputy director, sat down with the authors to discuss the issues raised by their book and the challenges that lie ahead for the history profession. An abridged version of the conversation is printed below. Readers may be interested to know that the book will also be the focus of the discussion at the session "Archivists, Historians, and the Future of Authority in the Archives," scheduled to be held at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, January 7, 2012, during the AHA's 126th annual meeting.

Robert B.Townsend: Was it part of your purpose to help historians understand how archivists are a distinct profession with its own rules and culture?

William Rosenberg: Mainly we wanted to help historians become more informed about what archives have become and the difficult new problems archivists are now facing, and also help inform archivists about the new and interesting ways many historians are now approaching their subjects, something many archivists think they can no longer be concerned about. Over the past 30 years or so, as a result of profound changes in the nature of documentation as well as in the ways historical subjects have been conceptualized, two almost totally unrelated intellectual or conceptual systems have come to underlie the ways archivists and historians process the past.

Francis X. Blouin: In order to understand this divide, you have to understand how both of these groups, which initially were essentially one group, became two distinct groups, although still in conversation with each other, and finally two groups without conversation. I think most historians would recognize that within their discipline intellectual fragmentation has been sort of an enduring challenge. It's something we talk about a fair amount. But I think the idea that the archival profession has undergone a very similar sort of fragmentation and division into increasingly narrow subsets, I think that's something that most historians would be surprised to discover.

There have been two fundamental changes in terms of documentation, its bulk—the huge increase in numbers of documents, which was a phenomenon of the Second World War—and then the changing nature of the documentation itself into electronic and digital forms. And while archivists are generally based in institutions that create archives, historians are challenging the traditional authoritative nature of those institutions and challenging institutional history. So the divide actually comes out of this interesting historical moment where the quantity and changing nature of documentation confronts a challenge to the whole notion of what is authoritative in traditional historical understanding.

RBT: Do you think the bulk issues really created the sense of division?

FXB: It did because it began informing a separate conceptual milieu for archivists. The emergence of archival theory was the struggle to find systematic guidelines or frameworks for selection of material. So you had these huge debates within the archival community and it was all struggling with this question of what to retain and what to throw away.

WR: For historians this led to an interesting development. We've conceptualized it in the book as the identity archive problem. As historians' interests changed to various issues associated with identity, gender, national identity, and the like, new "collecting" archives began to emerge—black history archives, women's history archives, Jewish history archives—in which the processes of selection to meet the needs of a particular group of archival historians were every bit as selective as those in traditional archives or national archives.

Obviously most historians understood when they went to the archives in the days of so-called traditional history that they could only see what the archives had collected. But historians largely wrote their archive-based studies as authoritative narratives, without much understanding of how processes of selectivity were structuring the ways they represented the past, and with it, conceptions of the historical present and future too. You used the material that you were presented with, and you weren't self-conscious about how your stories were being mediated by the archivists themselves. And the role of archivists in this process, as active participants, in effect, in the construction of historical knowledge, certainly affects digital archives as well as paper archives, and possibly even more so, as we discuss in the book.. So in this sense we want historians to learn how to "read" the archives—which is not an easy thing to do—before they actually use them.

RBT: Should this be a part of historical training?

FXB: Historians, I think, have been reasonably well trained in how to read documents and understand documents and deconstruct documentation. Good historians have always done that, traditional or otherwise, in the archives. The archivists certify the authenticity of the document, not the accuracy of its content. However historians have not really understood the necessity of reading the archives itself as a mediator in the accumulation.

WR: I don't think historians can be trained right now how to read a digital document because they don't know how a digital document is put together. The technical processes that create the digital document that finally makes its way, after many transformations, into the archives, are very different from the processes of authentication that created the paper document. Historians can go to traditional historical archives, where almost everything is paper or scanned, and understand reasonably well how the documentation itself should be read. If we contemplate the problem of historians 50 years from now, even those writing about more traditional subjects like the Obama administration or the history of the contemporary French presidency or the Putin administration or Chinese modernization, will have to learn how the digital archives they will need to use were created, and understanding how certain kinds of electronic materials actually found their way into their final form will be extremely important to their descriptions and interpretations. Among other things, all the various iterations of a document, and all the editing, will almost certainly be absent.

The other point I would make is that in traditional paper archives the finding aid was always an important document itself, and the best finding aids were written by people who went through the documentation carefully and talked a little bit about its acquisition, where it came from, and its relation to the institution or the person who produced it. There is no comparable finding aid for contemporary digital archives. Archivists cannot look at millions of emails or other digital documents that are now generated in such huge numbers. They can't go through the documents and describe the collection in any detail.

RBT: But once this is all one big mass of textual data subject to keyword searching, does it really matter how it is organized in terms of the structure and data?

FXB: I think the jury's out on that. I think the question is—how confident can we be that in going through a collection of thousands or millions of digital documents, technology will get us to the specific document we want and set that document in a meaningful context.

WR: What historians don't realize is that if you take a category that has not been regarded as an essential category in the way the documentation has been assembled and preserved, you're going to get so many hits in response to your inquiry that the material's going to be unmanageable. If you put in "gender" or you put in "women" or you put in a name, without the mediations that archivists have traditionally provided to historians to help sort through this material, mediations that are reflected in finding aids and how those materials are organized, it will be extremely difficult for historians to use these vast vaults of material in any efficient way. Millions and millions of electronic documents cannot be usefully mediated by archivists as traditional paper materials have been, structuring and ordering them in ways that suggested their possible historical value.

RBT: At the same time, don't you warn that the organization of the archives and their finding aids can end up locking the materials into particular categories and structures?

FXB: Archivists don't have the luxury of being able to go back every five years and reprocess material, re-describe them in the light of new knowledge or new ways of thinking about things. In the process of educating historians, there wasn't enough attention paid to the fact that all descriptive systems in archives are rigidified in some way, either by the point in time in which they are created or the nature of the technology that was used. In the 19th and 20th centuries that worked OK because those essential characteristics were enduring, both in terms of historical scholarship and in the ways archives were constructed. But now things are shifting so fast, it's very difficult for a descriptive system. So how do you respond? I would say historians themselves need to take a greater role in educating each other about the potential of archival sources and existing sources for new exploration.

WR: Historians have always counseled their students and colleagues about how to approach certain kinds of materials, which were likely to be most useful, and so forth. We're suggesting that some greater institutionalization of this process, maybe even through the AHA, would be very helpful in turning fixed and limited finding aids into interactive and more expansive ones. At the same time, if archivists again got some historical training, as they used to as a matter of course, and could familiarize themselves with the difficulties of digital archives from the point of view of historical interests, that is another way in which the problem could possibly be overcome. But the sheer task of appraising documentation in the ways it used to be done is just not physically possible any longer. You can't stack the material up and go through material, write down each document, stamp the document, put it in the inventory.

RBT: So is it an organizational problem or a training problem?

FXB: Well, I think it's too soon to tell. Archivists have been talking about the problem of digitalization now for 10, 15 years, and it has been a very interesting theoretical discussion. Now archives are receiving material that is entirely born digital. So you can go to archival conferences now, and they're talking about specific systems, specific cases, specific problems in actually processing digital material, receiving it, and making it available. But we're still just at the very beginning. There are no universal applications that can be used. It's all very much institution-by-institution.

And if we project 40 or 50 years in the future, we can see the problems spreading, and the kind of competence required to administer these new archives having to change. If the archival community infuses the importance of historical understanding and inquiry into the archival process, and historians can also wrap their minds around what the implications of digitalization are, there could be some real communication across this divide.

RBT: And what sort of discussion would it be?

FXB: First of all, historians are not the only constituency of the archives, so the archives can't really open up the official descriptive processes to informal or wiki type commentary. I think we have the technology that can incorporate that through 2.0 kind of stuff, but it has to exist in parallel. I think we have to accept the divide. I think we have to accept that archivists are going to do their thing and historians are going to do their thing, and they have to come together to the extent that it's possible with separate structured tools.

RBT: So you see it as a tool-based solution, not necessarily a conversation?

FXB: I think it has to result from conversation. Someone will have talked to someone about some part of a collection that isn't in the descriptive overlay. That conversation has to be extracted and preserved. So it is conversation that drives more conversation about structuring the way that the information can be preserved and catalogued.

WR: The divide is more than the separation of the professions. It's really a sharp divide between the ways in which archivists conceptualize documentation and its purposes, and historians conceptualize historical understanding. It's also about what historians and archivists think really matters, what is authoritative. In the end we also come down to the issue of trust. Historians have to trust that the archivist has done a good job in trying to preserve historically relevant documentation, and has properly described it in useful finding aids.

From the historian's point of view, if we think again about how 50 years from now one is going to be able to write the histories of present day political regimes or contemporary cultural or social issues or any of the many other topics that will be of interest to future historians, it's not obvious that the extraordinary amount of digitalized archival material is really going to be of great help. Of course, there are great opportunities here. But it's not at all clear what these archives are even going to be like. We're really eager to focus on this question, to think about how historical archives in the future will be constituted. What materials will they contain? Will there even be any? The question is not being asked. It's hardly a trivial issue for historians, archivists, and societies alike.

FXB: I think there's still a basic agreement that archives are important to the processes of academic history, of all history, really, and vice versa. The question is, is there enough interest to worry about these issues? I think the implication of our book is that this is an important set of issues and it's going to take an effort. Some people are going to have to sit around a table and really work at this.

RBT: Does this include some of the other stakeholders in the archives. Should it?

FXB: I don't think it's productive to get everybody around the table. I think the essential thing here is that historians realize and be comfortable with the fact that they are one of many stakeholders in the archives, and that if there are some ideas that historians can bring to the archives to make collections more useful, then there should be some mechanism to bring those ideas forward in a constructive way.

WR: I think it is important to differentiate the stakes, even as you recognize the legitimate claims of the stakeholders. The needs of genealogists are more factual or data-driven than the needs of historians, and historical understanding obviously plays a very different kind of social role.

So I would make a claim for the importance of history broadly defined. That would include, obviously, anthropologists who are interested in historical subjects, macro-sociologists, and so on. And I think it's the responsibility of archives to meet the need of societies both to understand their pasts and how their historical materials are processed into this understanding. So I'd argue that historians have a privileged place around this table in terms of what we would like to see the archives respond to and be attentive to.

FXB: We really need to be advocating for the importance of history as a way to understand society. Is there a way that historians can do this by working with archivists to address that particular professional priority? Can archivists help us do that?

Francis Blouin and William Rosenberg are both members of the Department of History at the University of Michigan. Blouin also directs the university's Bentley Library. Rosenberg was vice president of the AHA's Research Division. Robert Townsend is the AHA's deputy director.