The silence of the archive. A review

[A review that appeared first in the LSE Review of Books.]

David Thomas, Simon Fowler and Valerie Johnson.
The Silence of the Archive.
Facet, 2017.

In the past two to three decades, the archival profession has been caught between two currents of cultural and technological change: simultaneous, largely unrelated, both apparently inexorable. Largely confined to the academy, but resonating beyond it, has been a radical scepticism about the stability of meaning in language resulting from the postmodern turn in historical thinking. Coupled with this epistemological scepticism has been a hermeneutic of suspicion of the power relations that are embedded in the creation, description and accessing of archival records. This has been bound up with the emergence of a wider politics of identity, and the assertion of the experience of marginalised groups as being equally worthy of documentation and study as those more ‘official’ voices that have traditionally dominated archives.

At much the same time, the transition from paper to digital in records management and archiving has presented the profession with challenges of exceptional scale and complexity, as laid out by David Thomas, former Director of Technology at the National Archives of the UK, in Chapter Three of this fascinating book. This transformation has fundamentally changed the ways in which live records are created and managed by organisations, with the significant added risk of mis-description as frontline staff are pressed into becoming their own archivists, and also of discontinuity in working IT systems such that data is lost or rendered uninterpretable. As these records pass to the archive, new and intractable challenges of scale come into play as archivists must select content for archiving and appraise it, presenting the difficulty of finding effective ways of describing these records and designing access systems that meet the needs of users.

For most working historians, much of the ferment of the discussion that these changes have prompted amongst archivists and theorists has been largely obscure; most of the literature that the authors (all three of them present or former TNA staff) synthesise here is to be found in the journals of the archival profession, into which historians rarely look. For those scholars whose only contact with archives is in the search room, this book will likely come as something of a revelation of just how far-ranging and radical some of that thought has been in the last ten years, and should be widely read for that reason alone. One might expect it also to find its way onto reading lists for introductory courses in the methods of archival research. It is therefore a matter for regret that the book, even in paperback form, is priced at a level that makes it unlikely that it will find its way into many private collections.

As a whole, the book has two major themes, one of which is acknowledged by both the title and the back cover, and another, equally if not more important, which is everywhere implied but rarely stated (to which this review returns below). Firstly, the theme of the title: the silence of the archive. The authors, along with Anne J. Gilliland in the foreword, identify an image that has formed in the public imaginary of the archive as a comprehensive repository of all known facts about the past. Scholars will differ on how potent and pervasive that image is, but the authors set out to show firstly that archives are neither comprehensive in this sense nor purely objective, even supposing such a state were possible.

Chapter One, by Simon Fowler, deals with ‘enforced silences’, whereby organisations conceal, amend or destroy records before they reach the archive, or where (as an unintended consequence of freedom of information legislation) records are never created as business is transacted informally. All manner of decisions are then made as the archivist selects which records should be preserved, appraises those records that are selected and removes material in the process, and then catalogues records in ways that bring certain aspects of a record to the fore while effectively silencing other voices. In addition, neither the transient quality of everyday life nor the lives of the majority of the population often come under the gaze of the state and so leave few traces (Chapter Six by Valerie Johnson is instructive on the ways in which marginalised communities may be intentionally brought into view and their stories documented as a result.)

Professional historians are of course accustomed to engaging critically with the ways in which their archival sources come into being, but they will benefit nonetheless from this wide-ranging survey of the particular issues. In several places, however, a strangely critical note is struck: a suppressed frustration with the users of archives and their apparent inability to understand the issues. In Chapter Two, ‘Inappropriate Expectations’, Fowler quotes the historian Nicholas Rodger on the distaste of staff of the Public Record Office when asked to provide subject indexes: to do so ‘would imply that the Office had a duty to provide something the public wanted, instead of the public having a duty to shift for itself and leave the archivists in peace’ (54).

While this whole book is a testament to how far those kinds of attitudes have been eclipsed, glimpses occasionally show through. Archivists, we are told on page 45, are familiar with being ‘bombarded’ with questions which cannot be answered, by users who ‘struggle to understand’ the issues (60). Johnson writes (after Lisa Jardine) of the ‘longing of historians and researchers to find that golden key which will unlock the secret they are investigating’, which in some cases leads to false assumptions about evidence that does not in fact exist and (at the extreme) to the sorts of conspiracy theorising, fictionalisation and fabrication that Thomas explores in Chapter Five. Whilst some researchers can and do cross this line, the experience of this reviewer, at least, is that such cases are rare, and are perhaps overstressed here. Most historians are able to control their longing. That said, archive users, for their part, have no doubt been guilty of failing to appreciate the role of the archivist as something more than a mere fetcher and carrier of files as Johnson notes (146): there is work to do perhaps on both sides of the relationship.

To a certain extent, the book is let down by its title and chapter headings, since the focus on what is not possible obscures a more hopeful and arguably more important thread which appears explicitly only on page 141. Johnson asks where the responsibility for the documentation of society lies, and answers: ‘it has been the implicit argument of this book that we are all responsible, whether as creators of records or professional curators of those papers, or as users, researchers, historians and informed citizens.’ At this point, this reviewer must declare an interest, as one working to facilitate precisely this better working between archives and the users of their digital services.

Nonetheless, The Silence of the Archive is throughout a call for a new relationship between archivists, the ‘archival subjects’ (those whose lives are documented) and those who use the archived record. Johnson writes of the process whereby those archival subjects are engaged in the process of creating the archive of their existence, thus becoming co-creators with the archivist (149-53). Thomas points out the acute need in a digital archive for close engagement with end users, both in the selection of material and in the design of the interfaces that make those records first discoverable and then usable (70-72). It is a shame, then, that this call for change – necessary and urgent – is somewhat muted here; indeed, in general, the authors have a tendency to quote and expound the work of others rather than elaborate an argument, and could have been bolder. However, it is a case that should be widely heard. Records managers, archivists, historians and other users of archives should read this timely and important book.

Advertisements

New article: On digital contemporary history

A little article of mine has just appeared in the Danish historical journal Temp, based on a lecture given in Copenhagen to the Danish Assocation for Research in Contemporary History in January 2016.

It suggests that there has been a relative lack of digitally enabled historical research on the recent past, when compared to earlier periods of history. It explores why this might be the case, focussing in particular on both the obstacles and some missing drivers to mass digitisation of primary sources for the 20th century. It suggests that the situation is likely to change, and relatively soon, as a result of the increasing availability of sources that were born digital, and of Web archives in particular. The article ends with some reflections on several shifts in method and approach, which that changed situation is likely to entail.

By the kind permission of the editor, I make it available here.

Title:  Digital contemporary history: sources, tools, methods, issues
Details: Temp: Tidsskrift for historie, 14 (2017), 30-38.
Download the PDF

Forthcoming web archive conferences

2017 offers not one but two international conferences for scholars interested in the way we use the archived web. I’m particularly pleased to promote them here as I am a member of the programme committee for both of them.

There are calls for papers open now for both.

Curation and research use of the past Web
(The Web Archiving Conference of the International Internet Preservation Consortium)
Lisbon, 29-30 March 2017
Call for Papers now open

Researchers, practitioners and the archived Web
(2nd conference of ReSAW, the Europe-wide Research Infrastructure for the Study of Archived Web Materials)
London, 14-15 June 2017
Call for Papers now open

Doing (very) contemporary history with the archived Web: Oxford, June 9th

Details of a lecture I shall give next week:

Title: Doing (very) contemporary history with the archived Web: Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, and the sharia law controversy of 2008

Date: Thursday, 9th June, 1pm
Venue: Weston Library Lecture Theatre, University of Oxford
Booking details: booking is advisable but not essential. It’s free.

Abstract: The decade following the turn of the millennium may have seen an epochal shift in the nature of the discussion of religion in public life in the UK. The 9/11 attacks in the USA, and the terrorist bombings in London in 2005 prompted an outpouring of anxiety concerning the place of Islam in British society. The period also saw the coming to prominence of the ‘New Atheism’ associated with figures such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. The uniquely privileged position of Christianity, and the Church of England in particular, was also under greater scrutiny than had been the case for decades.

Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA 2.0, by Brian (of Toronto)

Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA 2.0, by Brian (of Toronto)

This paper examines a crucial episode of public controversy closely connected to each of these trends: a lecture given in 2008 by Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, on the accommodation of Islamic sharia law into British law. Using archived web content from the UK Web Archive, held by the British Library, it examines the controversy as it played out on the UK web. It argues that the episode prompted a step-change in both the levels of attention paid to the archbishop’s web domain, and a broadening of the types of organisation which took notice of him. At the same time, it also suggests that the historic media habit of privileging the public statements of the archbishop over those of any other British faith leader was extended onto the web.

The paper uses techniques of both close and distant reading: on the one hand, aggregate link analysis of the whole .uk web domain, and on the other hand, micro analysis of individual domains and pages. In doing so, it demonstrates some of the various ways in which contemporary historians will very soon need to use the archived web to address older questions in a new way, in a new context of super-abundant data.

Welcoming the new Journal of Open Humanities Data

After some months in the making, I am delighted to be able to draw attention to the new Journal of Open Humanities Data. I’m particularly pleased to be a member of the editorial board.

Fully peer-reviewed, JOHD carries “publications describing humanities data or techniques with high potential for reuse.”

The journal accepts two kinds of papers:

“1. Metapapers, that describe humanities research objects with high reuse potential. This might include quantitative and qualitative data, software, algorithms, maps, simulations, ontologies etc. These are short (1000 word) highly structured narratives and must conform to the Metapaper template.

“2. Full length research papers that describe different methods used to create, process, evaluate, or curate humanities research objects. These are intended to be longer narratives (3,000 – 5,000 words) which give authors the ability to describe a research object and its creation in greater detail than a traditional publication.

For more detail, see the JOHD at Ubiquity Press.

Understanding the web of faith: forthcoming book chapter

I’m very pleased to say that an essay of mine has been accepted for a forthcoming volume: The Web as History: the first two decades. It is edited by Niels Brügger and Ralph Schroeder, and will appear Open Access with UCL Press in 2016.

Here’s my abstract:

‘Much of the discourse that historians of contemporary religion until recently tracked in correspondence, periodical publication and print ephemera has migrated online. But the task of understanding religious discourse in the UK web space has hardly begun. The task is hard to undertake at the highest level since there are no second-level domains that serve as useful units of analysis — there is no faith.uk to match nhs.uk or ac.uk.

‘This chapter represents a first step towards understanding the evolution of the UK religious web space, by means of two interrelated case studies, which between them point to the agenda and content of a larger research project. Both studies utilise the JISC UK Web Domain Dataset for the period 1996-2008, as held by the British Library.

‘Firstly, it will examine the web archive footprint left by the public controversy in 2008 over the comments made by Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, on the matter of sharia law. Using both the link graph and a direct qualitative analysis of archived content, it will explore both the shape and the content of the controversy and show the degree to which religious debate had not only migrated from print to the web, but in doing so had engaged different actors and lost others, and changed in its tone.

‘Secondly, it will consider the growing tension in religious discourse between faith groups and organisations with a secularist agenda. Again, using the link graph and some qualitative analysis, it will explore the patterns in which linkages grew and shifted between the web estates of key but opposed organisations in relation to issues including faith schools and creationism, the reform of the law on blasphemy, and the place of the bishops in the House of Lords.