The New Archival Canon: Round Two

Last year I asked for your thoughts about what you considered essential readings about archives–either by archivists or not. I’ve organized your suggestions a bit, and they are posted below, but I suspect we still have some gaps in the list of New Essentials. So it’s time for Round Two–what do you think needs to be included in the New Archival Canon, or to put it more modestly, what does ever archivist need to read? What has had the most influence on you? Thanks, as always, for your input.

The List

Jefferson Bailey, Disrespect des Fonds: Rethinking Arrangement and Description in Born-Digital Archives, Archive Journal Summer 2013

Laurie Baty’s “Photographs are not Wallpaper.” NEED CITATION

Francis X. Blouin, Jr. and William G. Rosenberg, Editors, Archives, Documentation, and Institutions of Social Memory: Essays from the Sawyer Seminar,” 2006

Frank Boles, “Just a Bunch of Bigots” A Case Study in the Acquisition of Controversial Material.

Antoinette Burton editor, Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History, 2006

Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor, From Human Rights to Feminist Ethics: Radical Empathy in the Archives, Archivaria, Spring 2016

Scott Cline, “’Dust Clouds of Camels Shall Cover You’: Covenant and the Archival Endeavor.” American Archivist Fall/Winter 2012

Terry Cook, “What is past is prologue: a history of archival ideas since 1898, and the future paradigm shift.” Archivaria 43 (1997): 17-63

Terry Cook and Joan M. Schwartz, “Archives, Records, and Power: From (Postmodern) Theory to (Archival) Performance.” Archival Science 2, no. 3-4 (2002):171–185.

Terry Cook, “The Concept of the Archival Fonds in the Post-Custodial Era: Theory, Problems and Solutions,” Archivaria, Spring 1993

Terry Cook, “Evidence, memory, identity, and community: four shifting archival paradigms,” Archival Science June 2013

Terry Cook, “Fashionable Nonsense or Professional Rebirth: Postmodernism and the Practice of Archives,” Archivaria Spring 2001

Bruce Dearstyne, Leading and managing archives and records programs: strategies for success, 2008

Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever, 1998


Jarrett M. Drake, Insurgent citizens: the manufacture of police records in post-Katrina New Orleans and its implications for human rights, Archival Science October 2014

Michel Duchein, “Theoretical Principles and Practical Problems of Respect des fonds in Archival Science,” Archivaria Summer 1983

Luciana Duranti, Archives as a Place, Archives & Social Studies: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Research Vol. 1, no. 0 (March 2007)

Luciana Duranti, Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science, Archivaria, Summer 1989:

Ursula Franklin’s The Real World of Technology (1992)

Elsie Freeman, “Buying Quarter Inch Holes: Public Support Through Results” Midwestern Archivist, 1985:


Timothy J. Gilfoyle, “Prostitutes in the Archives: Problems and Possibilities in Documenting the History of Sexuality,” American Archivist Summer 1994

Anne Gilliland and Sue McKemmish, “Building an Infrastructure for Archival Research,” Archival Science December 2004

Tim Gollins, Parsimonious preservation: preventing pointless processes! (The small simple steps that take digital preservation a long way forward), 2009 …

Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner, “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing,” American Archivist Fall/Winter 2005

Gerald Ham, The Archival Edge, American Archivist, Jan. 1975:

Verne Harris, Archives and Justice: A South African Perspective,2013

Peter Hirtle, Authenticity in a Digital Environment, CLIR, 2000:

Randall C. Jimerson, Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice, 2009

Randall C. Jimerson, “Archives for All: Professional Responsibility and Social Justice,” American Archivist Fall/Winter 2007

Elisabeth Kaplan, “We Are What We Collect, We Collect What We Are: Archives and the Construction of Identity,” American Archivist Spring/Summer 2000

Eric Ketelaar, “Archival Temples, Archival Prisons: Modes of Power and Protection,” Archival Science 2, 2002

Eric Ketelaar, Tacit Narratives: The Meanings of Archives, Archival Science 2001

Matthew Kirschenbaum, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (2008)

Michelle Light and Tom Hyry (2002) Colophons and Annotations: New Directions for the Finding Aid. The American Archivist: Fall/Winter, Vol. 65, No. 2, pp. 216-230.

John MacDonald, Managing Records in a Modern Office: Taming the Wild Frontier, Archivaria 29 Spring 1995:

Sue McKemmish, “Evidence of Me,” The Australian Library Journal 1996

Ernst Posner’s American State ArchivesArchives & the Public Interest: selected essays,  and Archives in the ancient world. (“None of them end up being the book you thought you were going to read.”)

Protocols for Native American Archival Materials

Lee Raine and Barry Wellman, Networked: The New Social Operating System 2014

Peter Scott (1966) The Record Group Concept: A Case for Abandonment. The American Archivist: October 1966, Vol. 29, No. 4, pp. 493-504:

Joan M. Schwartz, “Records of Simple Truth and Precision”: Photography, Archives, and the Illusion of Control, Archivaria Fall 2000

Lucy Suchman, Making Work Visible, Communications of the ACM, Sept 1995:’s+Making+Work+Visible.pdf

Ciaran B. Trace, “What is Recorded is Never Simply ‘What Happened’: Record Keeping in Modern Organizational Culture,” Archival Science 2002

Reto Tschan, A Comparison of Jenkinson and Schellenberg on Appraisal, American Archivist Fall/Winter 2002:

S. Williams Implications of Archival Labor,

Mark D. Wolfe, “Beyond ‘‘green buildings:’’ exploring the effects of Jevons’ Paradox on the sustainability of archival practices, 2011.

Elizabeth Yakel, “Archival Representation,” Archival Science 2003

Elisabeth Yakel,  “Thinking Inside and Outside the Boxes” …


Metadata is a foreign concept? Whaaaat?!? (Part Two) – A guest post by Greg Bak

[This is the second guest post by Greg Bak, Archival Studies, Department of History, University of Manitoba.]

Thanks again to Kate for agreeing to publish my presentation on her blog. In Part One of this guest post I discuss some of the Twitter reaction to my talk; in Part Two I include the slides and speaking notes from my talk.

This second part of my guest post is to set out a bit of the context for my presentation, and to provide the slides and speaking notes, which you can access here: Bak_SAA13_s701.

Update, December 18, 2013: At Greg’s request his slides are no longer accessible as he is expanding on his ideas for a lengthier discussion in a journal article. If you would like a copy of the slides, please contact him at

My presentation was the third of three in SAA 2013 session 701. The session was titled “It’s All About the Items: Digital Objects and Aggregations in Archival Description and Access.” My co-presenters, Kelcy Shepherd of Amherst College and Kat Timms of Library and Archives Canada, had just spoken to the challenges posed by item-level metadata within archival theory and practice.

I chose to build on Kelcy’s and Kat’s talks while providing a different conceptual framework. Following their talks meant that I didn’t have to get into the question of why archives must manage item-level metadata: Kelcy had just discussed this with reference to made-digital records, and Kat had done so with reference to born-digital records.

This is a point that I have addressed in an earlier article (Bak and Armstrong 2008). Digital preservation and digital management require that archives create or capture item-level metadata. My presentation is in no way intended to ignore this basic fact of digital archiving. Instead, I focused on the nature of items and aggregations within archival theory in contrast with bibliographic theory.

The presentation was to take only 20 minutes. It lacks the nuance and depth of evidence that I will include in the manuscript that I submit for peer review.  Additionally, I was not able to build upon the basic foundations laid out in this presentation to examine how reconceptualizing archival data could allow us to reimagine not just the description, discovery and access of archival records, but other archival functions as well, including appraisal, preservation and outreach.  Some of these implications are addressed in a piece I published in Archival Science in 2012, while others emerged in the panel discussion after the talk.

As I revise the presentation for publication I welcome your thoughts and comments about the ideas included here. Please feel free either to comment below this blog post or to contact me by email:


Bak G (2012) Continuous classification: capturing dynamic relationships among digital information resources. Archival Science 12.3:287-318.

Bak G, Armstrong P (2008) Points of convergence: seamless long-term access to digital publications and archival records at Library and Archives Canada. Archival Science 8.4:279-293.


Metadata is a foreign concept? Whaaaat?!? (Part One) – A guest post by Greg Bak

[This is a guest post by Greg Bak, Archival Studies, Department of History, University of Manitoba. ]

Thanks to Kate for agreeing to publish my recent SAA presentation on her blog. In Part One of this guest post I discuss some of the Twitter reaction to my talk; in Part Two I include the slides and speaking notes from my talk.

Okay, so I’m paraphrasing here, but the title of this post summarizes reactions on Twitter to my presentation at SAA 2013 session 701. In the course of my talk I suggested that “Metadata is a natural concept for librarians and a foreign concept for archives.” Here are a few tweets that followed:

 Brad Houston:
Hmm. Metadata a foreign concept to archivists? Don’t think I agree with that at all. Used all the time, even if the word isn’t #Saa13 #s701 

Kind of getting annoyed by the assumptions made in this preso. Metadata is implicit in most description we do as archivists #Saa13 #s701 

Geof Huth:
How could say this and use the word “folksonomies” in the same presentation?

 Couldn’t figure out how he came to this conclusion. I mean, finding aids (of any kind) are metadata.

Things didn’t get much better when I went on to suggest that metadata, as a concept, is foreign to social media, too:

 Krystal Thomas:
hmm, also not sure I am buying the idea that metadata is foreign to social media though something to think about #s701 #saa13

 Andrew Berger:
Metadata is foreign to social media? #saa13

 Brad Houston:
Metadata is foreign to social media?” Um, I’ve got a spreadsheet of #Saa13 tweets on Google Drive which says otherwise #s701 

Thankfully, a couple of folks picked up the nuances and saved me from myself:

 Mark Matienzo:
From the looks of Twitter my colleagues are seriously misunderstanding Greg Bak’s presentation #saa13

 Sami Norling:
Metadata is a natural concept for librarians and a foreign concept for archivists (at least at its introduction) #saa13

 Seth Shaw:
“Metadata is foreign to social media”? I don’t buy the argument though I accept the implication: it is all ‘just’ data. #s701 #saa13

Sami Norling perceptively noted the emphasis I put in my oral remarks on archivists’ initial reluctance, in the 1980s and 1990s, to embrace metadata as a concept, while Seth Shaw evaluated my statement in light of the definition of metadata that I used in my paper. Mark Matienzo urged that people not react to my (poor) choice of wording, but take into account the ideas behind the words.

Not that I was using an obscure or idiosyncratic definition of metadata: I defined it as “data about data.” My point was that when defined in this way, the very concept of metadata requires that there be primary data (for example, a digital object or an analog document) and secondary data (data that is outside of, above or apart from the primary data).

My contention is that when the term began to gain currency among archivists in the 1990’s there was an instinctive reaction against it, followed by an attempt to re-frame it into archival terms. Adrian Cunningham, writing in Archival Science in 2001, scoffed that “When most of us first encountered the term metadata, we were probably repelled by yet another debasement of the English language by a bunch of barbarian techno-boffins.”  Cunningham presses on, discussing various definitions of the term before suggesting that “metadata is simply a new term for information that has been around for a very long time, but which now looks a bit different due to the advent of computer technology.” He rounds off his brief discussion with the claim that “archivists are metadata experts – it is just that we tend not to think in those terms,” and lists some examples of what he would consider archival metadata: finding aids, index cards, file covers, file registers and so on.

In my paper I sought to return to the initial wariness of archivists for the concept and re-evaluate this reluctance. What if archival anxiety around “metadata” was triggered not by fear of “debasement of the English language”, but rather from concern for debasement of archival theory?

This is the real issue: in archival theory, the kind of data typically identified as “metadata” is an integral part of the record. It is evidence of relationships among records and records users. It is not “meta” data; it is simply data. It is data that must be acquired and managed as a necessary part of the record. It is the data that makes the difference between a bunch of discrete, solitary items and a fully interrelated set of archival records.

This, moreover, is also how such data is managed within social media applications. Data that describes the use of information resources is not “meta” data, it is simply data: data that enables the weighting of search results, creating tangible differences in rankings, visibility and usefulness.

I am presently writing my SAA presentation for peer-reviewed publication. If you would like to see how I presented these ideas at SAA, my presentation slides and speaking notes will be included in “Part Two” of this post. I welcome any and all feedback, either in this blog’s comments or by sending me an email at


Cunningham A (2001). Six degrees of separation: Australian metadata initiatives and their relationships with international standards. Archival Science 1.3:271-283.


“Archives in Context and as Context” in Journal of Digital Humanities

I was very pleased to be asked to contribute a piece to the Journal of Digital Humanities. They wanted something that would expand on the discussion on this blog about the use of the phrase “archival silences,” which was itself a follow up on the discussion about the use of the word “archives.” In the course of writing it and responding to thoughtful feedback from wise friends, I decided to drop the archival silences angle and just tackle the use of the word “archives” head on. This certainly isn’t all that could be said about archives for a digital humanities audience, but it’s a start. The most important thing is for archivists to get actively involved in the digital humanities, particularly those people working in college and university settings. I’m a big believer in the potential work in the digital humanities has for bringing archival and special collections material to life. If you want to read something to get you inspired, look no further than “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s it Doing in the Library?” by Micah Vandegrift. I wish I had written something like that. But I took a different route. I wrote “Archives in Context and as Context.” I’m sure people will have opinions about it. I look forward to hearing them.

“Well done”: When context of records matters

I’m still working on the same writing assignment that sparked the recent discussion about provenance, and was reminded of a classic example of the value of context. A quick question on Twitter helped verify some the details I had forgotten. Some people seemed familiar with it and others didn’t so I thought it might make a useful blog post.

My recollection of the events from my classes with David Wallace at the University of Michigan were confirmed by this story from the New York Times site. This goes back to the days of the Iran-Contra hearings. In these hearings email from the PROFS system (the preservation of which was the subject of a famous lawsuit) was used as evidence against John Poindexter. As described in the NYT article, of particular interest was one email that simply said “well done.” Taken in context, this message was confirmation that Poindexter knew and approved of the actions Oliver North had taken to mislead a House Intelligence Committee. Taken out of context, it could mean anything.

I asked on Twitter if this really was an issue of the importance of the archival/records context or just historical context. In other words, if you knew the people involved, the timeline of what took place, and the timestamp of the email, wouldn’t you know what it referred to? After reflection, I think that is not the case. Perhaps someone with more knowledge of the PROFS system can correct me, but I believe that in these older systems messages were not threaded as they are now. (Correct?) So without being able to prove definitively that Poindexter was responding to a message with summary of North’s actions, you could not say with certainty what the “well done” referred to. In other words, without the context of the records in the conversation there is no evidence.

I’m sure some of the people reading this know more about the case than I do, so please correct my errors and share more detail. I was also looking for a good short summary of the records issues involved here, so if anyone knows of any useful sources for more information, please share them.