What books about archives should historians read?

In thinking about book groups yesterday, I thought it would be interesting to have historians read books from our discipline to help them learn about archives. So I’ll pose here the question I posted on Twitter, what one book do you think would give historians (and other scholars) the best understanding of what archives are and how they function? And what archivists really do, too, I suppose. Here are some suggestions from Twitter:

I also think that Archives Power might be a good choice.  And although I had issues with some of its conclusions, Fran Blouin and William Rosenberg’s Processing the Past does do a good job of providing an overview of the field. I suppose the answer is that there is no one book, so perhaps putting together a reading list might be a more effective approach. Thoughts on the suggestions so far? More to add?

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24 thoughts on “What books about archives should historians read?”

  1. Nice growing list, so far.

    We were just having a similar conversation at LC about the lack of sources on archival theory/practice that are being used in the discourse of historians and other allied contemporary disciplines.

    You could add:

    Jimerson, Randall C., ed. American Archival Studies: Readings in Theory and Practice Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2000.

    Eastwood, Terry. The Archival Fonds: From Theory to Practice. 1992.

    Berner, Richard C. Archival Theory and Practice in the United States: A Historical Analysis. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1983.

    Steedman, Carolyn. Dust: The Archive and Cultural History. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002.

    Ketelaar, Eric. The Archival Image: Collected Essays. Hilversum Verloren, 1997.

    Also, Terry Abraham keeps a growing bibliography on Archival Theory/Practice:


    I’m sure there are other great bibliographies out there. I have a long bibliography available at the end of my Master’s thesis on archival arrangement and description:


    Thanks for opening the conversation!

    — Bert

  2. Nathan–Why a book on copyright?

    Bert–You’re putting the rest of us to shame! Thanks for those excellent additions and the other information. But, just out of curiosity, out of all those listed so far, which two would you recommend first?

  3. Well, I think Jimerson’s reader is a good general starting place for introducing someone to the realms/issues of archives (perhaps, 12 years out, it’s time to develop an updated version of this reader):

    Jimerson, Randall C., ed. American Archival Studies: Readings in Theory and Practice Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2000.

    And Processing the Past (Blouin and Rosenberg) is a great contemporary overview.

    Those are my two current picks.

    Also, for a really creative analysis of documentation/selection/interpretation, I love Steedman’s Dust:

    Steedman, Carolyn. Dust: The Archive and Cultural History. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002.

    I could read it over and over again.

    — Bert

  4. Richard J. Cox, No Innocent Deposits: Forming Archives by Rethinking Appraisal

    Antoinette Burton (ed.), Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History

    Decker, S. (2012). The silence of the archive: post-colonialism and the practice of historical reconstruction from archival evidence. http://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/37280/

    Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski (eds.), > Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World
    (This last book is not really about archives, but about museums, but I think it serves as a good source for examples of how new “kinds” of historical content (e.g., user-generated) alter the practice of public history.)

    Thanks for the conversation!

  5. Your question: “What books about archives would you must like historians to read?”

    My choice:
    Terry Eastwood & Heather MacNeil (Eds) “Currents of Archival Thinking”.
    That is the book in use in the introductory course on Archival Science (in Amsterdam). 2009

    Jennie Hill (ed.), “The Future of Archives and Recordkeeping: A Reader”. 2011

    Richard J. Cox & David A. Wallace, Editors “Archives and the Public Good”, 2002 .

    Barbara Craig (ed.), “The Archival imagination: essays in honour of Hugh A. Taylor”, 1992.

    Not my choice:
    Jimerson’s “Archives Power” was fiercely debated with our Archival Science masterstudents, two years in a row. Although appreciated and inspiring, experienced as moralizing. Good read for archivists; I would rather not recommend this book for historians.


  6. From the list provided it is interesting that second edition of Keeping Archives, published in 1993, is the one that is still referred to (it is the edition I used when studying and is still very useful). But it has been since revised and updated to include additional chapters, particularly in relation to digital recordkeeping.

    Jackie Bettington, Kim Eberhard, Rowena Loo & Clive Smith (eds.) (2008). Keeping Archives 3rd ed. Australian Society of Archivists: Canberra, ACT.

  7. Like @Nathan, I want historians to get a clearer idea of what legal issues archives face as the keepers of other people’s papers. I recommend Menzi’s SAA book to archivists all the time [http://saa.archivists.org/store/navigating-legal-issues-in-archives/966/] but I’m not sure it’s the best choice for non-archivists. Why? Because legal issues affect our ability to provide access to our collections — both in person as well as via digitization — and access is high on historians’ list of things they want from us.

  8. Having come to archives from a history background, I found it useful to get a historical overview of archival theory to get a sense of how the profession has evolved over time. One such book I read while in graduate school is John Ridener’s From Polders to Postmodernism: A Concise History of Archival Theory

  9. In terms of journal articles, anything from Archivaria is generally worth reading (although as a Canadian, I’m biased!). A seminal piece from Archivaria is Terry Cook’s article, “What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift,” Archivaria 43 (Spring 1997)

  10. One other resource to recommend. David Gracy gave me permission to post a link to a bibliography of selected readings that we used in his course at UT Austin on Archives, Records and Preservation in the Modern World. It is broken down into several categories and countries and includes both journal articles, chapters, and books. I have found it to be of great use and thought it should be shared as part of this discussion.


  11. I like David Levy’s Scrolling Forward – he ‘gets’ documents but isn’t an archivist and it’s really readable. Also Onora O’Neill A Question of Trust – about trust and accountability – very relevant for recordkeeping – based on the Reith lectures she did for BBC – context may be a bit UK though.

  12. I second E’s recommendation of Cook’s “What is Past is Prologue”. It is freely available here: http://journals.sfu.ca/archivar/index.php/archivaria/article/view/12175/13184

    Also, I would recommend his article “The Archive(s) Is a Foreign Country: Historians,
    Archivists, and the Changing Archival Landscape.” Historians were the intended audience for this article, so it is perfectly suited for this purpose. It was originally published in The Canadian Historical Review 90, no. 3 (September 2009): 497–534, reprinted in American Archivist 74, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2011): 600–32. (subscription currently required: http://archivists.metapress.com/content/xm04573740262424/?p=335b9921052942279d61d7ed6c699712&pi=9)

    Along a similar vein, although written with an archival audience in mind, I also suggest Tom Nesmith’s “What’s History Got to Do With It? Reconsidering the Place of Historical Knowledge in Archival Work,” Archivaria 57 (Spring 2004): 1–27 avail: http://journals.sfu.ca/archivar/index.php/archivaria/article/view/12450/13552

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