Antoinette Burton’s perspective on the “archival divide:” remarks delivered at AHA

Following up on the last post, containing the remarks I gave at the AHA panel, “Archivists, Historians, and the Future of Authority in Archives,” I am very pleased that my fellow panelist, the historian Antoinette Burton has permitted me to publish her remarks here. While she was speaking I was struck with how much I agreed with many of her observations, and I think they will give archivists much to think about and discuss.

Antoinette is editor of Archive Stories and a professor of history at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She has also edited a forthcoming special issue of the journal Historical Reflections/Reflexions Historiques called “Writing History for a Variety of Publics” (summer 2012), and contributed the chapter “Global Archive Stories” to her volume Primer for Teaching World History: Ten Design Principles (Duke, 2012). Below, with one minor addition, are the remarks she made at AHA.

I want to begin by thanking Rob Townshend for organizing this session – and by saying what a pleasure and a privilege it is to be asked to reflect on the book in question, Processing the Past (Oxford, 2011). Coincidentally, I was a blurber for the book, which I called:

very like a total history of the modern western archive. From lust to dust to techno-rust, they detail the convergences and divergences of historical authority and archival practice, providing a sweeping and deeply researched account of the impact of political and technological change on archives past, present and future. As indispensably, the authors narrate the tectonic shifts we in the last few generations of historians and archivists have lived through without, perhaps, fully realizing the revolution under our feet – and under our fingertips as well. Both genealogy and prophecy, this book is a must read for anyone who cares about what history is and what it will be beyond our lifetimes.

As someone interested in the often dramatic impact of the encounter  — and often the collision – of historians with archivists and archives, and the impact of that encounter not just on how we write history, but on the very kind of history we write, I am particularly invested in thinking through, if not anticipating, that future tense. For as we all know, archives, like the specific documents that house them, do not simply arrive or emerge fully formed; nor are they innocent of struggles for power in either their creation or their interpretive applications. Though their own origins are often occluded, and the exclusions on which they are premised often dimly understood, all archives come into being in and as history as a result of specific political, cultural and socio-economic pressures – pressures which leave traces and which render archives themselves artifacts of history. I’ve been interested, in ways that I and a variety of contributors pursued in our collection Archive Stories in making a variety of archive stories visible, in part to unpack some of those histories and to begin to diffuse some of the aura which now more than even surrounds the notion of “real” archives, especially those with which historians have dealt.[i] We were interested in denaturalizing the presumptive boundaries of official archive space, historicizing the production of well-known and not-so-well-known archival collections, and exploring to some contemporary political consequences of archive fever. Our real object was to pose a challenge to the claims to objectivity associated with the traditional archive – claims which must be met in part by telling stories about its provenance, its histories, its effect on its users and above all, its power to shape all the narratives which are to be “found” there. What the essays in Archive Stories do, then, is offer not merely histories or genealogies of archive or “the archive” but, rather, self-conscious ethnographies of one of the chief investigative foundations of history as a discipline.

All this is by way of saying that I understand, as Rosenberg and Blouin do, that archives are the foundation of our disciplinary practice as historians. And I am completely supportive of their call, articulated most recently in their interview in Perspectives ( , for historians not simply to be trained in “digital history” — a powerful concept but one that remains, despite all the money thrown at it, a placeholder for many as yet undeveloped modes for doing history – but to be trained in the processes whereby documents or entire archives become digital. Yet as I read that interview I was reminded of the similar discomfort I felt while reading their very accomplished book. My discomfort stems from the tight circle they draw around historians and archivists when they talk about processing the past. To be sure, it’s a tense and tender circle, a fraught dance, if you will, and there is a moment in the interview when they even seem to be suggesting that inside the circle there is a stand-off. They express hope that conversation can bridge the divide between these two constituencies, but ultimately, they conclude

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.

As I re-read this sentence, I thought – are these really the only players in this conversation? Historians are researchers, to be sure, but once they leave their doctoral training they are teachers and, increasingly I think, they occupy an equally tense and tender relationship to a variety of communities, virtual and real, both in the academy and beyond it. And since historians spend the majority of their post-PhD lives practicing their craft outside the archive – even though many of us feel happiest, perhaps, when we are living and breathing it – it seems important to think about what that means for “the future of authority” around archival questions.

Take the sphere of teaching, which is where many if not all historians labor more intensively on a daily basis in the context of US higher education (unless they are very unusual indeed). At every level of the curriculum we deal with sources and by extension, which the question of archives broadly conceived. Let me say that I am aware of the divide between research and teaching; between those who think research is our true vocation and those who understand the classroom as the highest calling. Significantly, the AHA itself appears to maintain, if not police this divide, with its separate Research and Teaching divisions. Yet practicing historians must relate the evidentiary basis of what they do to students at every turn. And there are very few smart resources with which to do that – resources that do not simply reference archival sources but problematize them by asking or showing how they come to our sightline. Though I lack the time to do more than mention it here, there is a new book out by Trevor Getz and Liz Clarke, which is surely at the front end of new genre in this regard. It’s called Abina and the Important Men (Oxford, 2011) and it’s a graphic narrative of a colonial transcript from a west African archive which tells the story of a young slave woman who endeavored to contest her status in court in the 1870s. Not only does the book visualize – through a kind of cartoon story – this history, it reprints the transcript and, via a complexly conceived but utterly accessible apparatus at the back of the book, it painstakingly explains where the evidence came from, how we might re-situate it in its administrative and social-political context and above all, how students might appreciate not just Abina’s story but the many challenges of turning it in to “history” – with all the limits and possibilities of history’s authority implicit and explicit.

Though Abina is a graphic source and not technically digital, as teachers we are of course under increasing pressure to deal with digital sources – documents and images often bundled, by textbooks and by libraries – into packages whose provenance or genealogy is utterly obscured to us, let alone to those students whom we are trying to expose to our method – a fundamentally archival method. In the Perspectives interview Bill Rosenberg says:

 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.

If the AHA or some other funding source is to devote resources to rectifying this I hope it wont be directed only to “digital natives” – those born after 1980 – or to only those historians who work in research universities.[ii] The fate of the discipline rests with the variety of scholars – teachers and researchers alike – who struggle with how digital preservation and access impact their understanding of the past and their obligation as historians to explain that to a variety of constituencies, students prime among them. Because even and especially digital natives are notoriously un-savvy users of digital and social media – which they consume passively as entertainment with no thought about the conditions of production that deliver them to their hand-held devices – the stakes of these questions are arguably extremely high. History as a teaching profession, in other words, has a rare opportunity to deliver critical skills that enable students to think about questions of provenance and genealogy and production that are directly related to both archival and historical training conventionally conceived. Such skills are applied in history courses to documents and other forms of evidence and they are eminently portable in a variety of other job settings and professional fields – law, medicine, communication and any other context in which information needs to be digested and explained.

I want to take the time remaining to dilate on my call to open this conversation beyond the dyad archivist-historian further because I think there is a lot at stake. And to do so I will turn to an essay written by Deborah Kaplan, widow of Roy Rosenzweig, called “The Afterlife of an Archive,” for the Chronicle Review in October 2010.  Professor Kaplan reflects in a very personal, intimate way, on how Roy collected and preserved his own personal/professional archive – his files of research, the interview tapes he made, and how generous he was with what he collected. She calls the material “dearly evocative,” of him and his passion for what he did. But she also makes a larger point about the “vital materialism” of his archives, citing Daniel Miller’s 2008 book the Comfort of Things, which refutes the notion that our relationship to things comes at the expense of our relationship to people. Historians live their lives with archives in their heads and hearts, but our job is also to bring those same archives alive in a variety of relationships — and to make a case for the authority of archival evidence, and its limits, to an equal variety of constituents.

I’ve suggested that students at all levels are one of those constituencies, and by extension I think that archivists and historians ought to have them in their sights more than, perhaps, Blouin and Rosenberg are willing to concede. Yet surely local and regional communities, as well as communities of special interest – like LGBT communities or folks interested in the public and private histories of everything from capitalism to quilting to tenements to Barbie dolls – should be partners in these conversations as well. This may well be the collapse of everything into the archive of daily life but there’s no sense lamenting it because that horse has left the stable, and it has taken with it a lot of the “authority” that History capital H once claimed for itself. Deborah Kaplan talks about the way Roy’s Center for History and New Media pioneered Zotero, an open-source tool that enables not only scholars but also the general public to gather, organize, analyze and circulate online research. There is a demand, and a real hunger, for the kind of knowledge that this tool can offer. But equally urgent is a correlative set of tools that allow users to fully appreciate how the archives upon which they are basing their research have been sifted and set up for them – so that they can read with, against and alongside the grain and be as fully versant in the perils of archival “authority” as professional historians. As Charu Gupta has written in a recent essay in the Journal of Women’s History a propos vernacular archives in India, the debate has moved beyond the flaws of archival use.[iii] We need to be playing archives off each other and throwing keepers and users of all kinds into contact, conversation, debate and disagreement with one another if archives are to retain any credibility as capacious sites of a variety of critical histories.

To be sure it’s even rare for community archivists to attend to these questions of promiscuity, if you will, between forms and across platforms. But it can be done, as the founders of the site called The Archival Platform, out of South Africa, aspire to do.

Their raison d’etre is as follows: (

 The Archival platform is a civil society initiative committed to deepening democracy through the use of memory and archives as dynamic public resources. Established under the auspices of the University of Cape Town and the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Archival Platform aims to play a catalytic role in the way in which practitioners, theorists and the general public think about the archive and the ways in which the process of archiving is practised in South Africa.

On one hand, the Archival Platform is intended to draw attention to the political and social role of archives in deepening democracy, encouraging the exercise of active citizenship, and facilitating the work of building social cohesion in a historically fractured society.  On the other, it is intended to address the specific concerns of the sector- the practical challenges of digitisation, poor communication and coordination, uneven or inadequate funding and training opportunities.

The Archival Platform focuses on the memory, cultural practices, artefacts, places as well as the documentary record of the country’s history and the discourse around re/making the past in the present. At the heart of Archival Platform activity is a concern with the archive, the record of the past: the choices and decisions that are made about what is preserved and what it not; the systems that are used to safeguard the archive; the mechanisms through which decisions about what is accessible and what is restricted are made; the ways in which the archive is curated or brought into the public domain and; the purpose to which it is put.

In pursuit of its activities, the Archival Platform engages with academics from a range of disciplines, record keepers, government employees, cultural workers, heritage professionals and practitioners, memory activists and theorists, archive creators and users, public and private institutions as well as with organisations and communities.

[In discussion of this point at the AHA roundtable, Bill Rosenberg praised the work of the Archival Platform project but noted that its pitch and content was unique, and uniquely attributable to its origins in the convulsive recent history of post-apartheid democracy. I think that blunts the impact, and the urgency, of thinking about the Archival Project as a vibrant contemporary and future-oriented counter-model to the histories that Blouin and Rosenberg excavate in Processing the Past.]

Bill and Fran admit that historians are not the only constituency of the archives but they move from there to argue that 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.

So when they say, I think we have to accept the divide, they mean not only the divide between historians and archivists but also the divide between that pairing and the variety of other constituencies they ought to be serving. I respectfully take issue with this isolationism, intellectually and if I may say so, politically as well. I do so from a very particular locative position: as a historian in a public university where our traditional “authority” and its foundational bases are completely under siege, for reasons too complex to rehearse here, and in ways that are salutary as well as devastating. Historians and archivists are no longer the only stakeholders here, if they ever were. And if our collective concern is really the future of the profession, we cannot afford to cordon off the question of what historians do, and how they do it in relation to archivists (who also inhabit the university in huge numbers) from either the audiences we hope to hail or partner with or – more significantly — from the political economy of contemporary higher education more generally. This is a huge question and it requires the kind of agility and versatility that, frankly, neither historians nor archivists have a reputation for. But unless we address it, and the pressure it puts on our very survival, this dance between historians and archivists will be the last waltz.



[i] Antoinette Burton, ed., Archive Stories; Facts, Fictions and the Writing of History (Duke University Press, 2005).

[ii] For discussion of the digital native/immigrant paradigm see John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives (Basic Books, 2008).

[iii] Charu Gupta, Writing Sex and Sexuality: Archives of Colonial North India,” Jorunal of Women’s History 23, 4 (2011):

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