Can we rely on archives to tell the truth?

Archives by Kip Soep

In this post-truth world, surely we can still rely on archives to tell the truth, can’t we? Not so, says David Thomas, co-author of a new book from Facet, as he considers why archives are not always the repositories of truth we had once believed.

2017 is surely the year of the post-truth world where false news has been widely propagated on the internet and where the President of the United States has criticised the established media for dishonesty. But in this world, we can still rely on archives to tell the truth, can’t we? Archival documents are still something to be relied on, are they not?

In The Silence of the Archive, co-authored by Simon Fowler, Valerie Johnson and myself, we explore the question of whether archives are all that they seem. Are there silences, omissions and falsehoods which undermine their truth claims? Are their holdings, as some of us were taught, the unselfconscious products of administrative processes, or are they the products of power relations? Is there a democratic deficit in archives?

Lost in Leningrad

In order to find our way through this maze, we need a map – and archives have huge numbers of maps. But maps are not always what they seem. When the economist E. F. Schumacher visited Leningrad, he lost his way and consulted a map, but this did not help because Schumacher could see several large churches from where he was standing, but there was no trace of them on his map. Eventually, an interpreter explained to him that churches were not shown on maps. Schumacher went on to say that it then occurred to him that all through school and university he had been given maps of life and knowledge on which there was hardly a trace of many of the things he most cared about. Following this incident, he said that he ceased to suspect the sanity of his perceptions and began to suspect the soundness of the maps.

Power and knowledge

In 1988, the map historian J. B. Harley undertook a critical examination of early modern maps. He based his interpretation on the theoretical viewpoint that things which were absent from maps were as much a proper field for enquiry as things which were present and that silences should be regarded as positive statements and not merely as passive gaps. He also took some insights from sociology, particularly from Michel Foucault. He drew on the idea of power-knowledge: that there is a close link between power and knowledge; that power creates knowledge and that maps could be seen as tools of state measurement, enquiry, examination and coercion. He argued that the need for state secrecy, as well as purely technical, cartographic factors, led to silences on maps. In addition, he used Foucault’s idea of the episteme – that each society has its regime of truth, which impacted on cartography.

More recently, a similar analysis has begun to be applied to archives as a whole. Drawing on the works of Foucault and Jacques Derrida, archival theorists have ­begun to enquire into silences in the archive, seeing archives as places of power. This book is an attempt to peer into the ­archival silences – to determine whether they are the result of technology or of power, or whether they exist because of society’s view of truth. We will be asking Schumacher’s implied question – should we begin to suspect the soundness of the archive?

Anthropology and the move to digital

Our interest in the issue of silences in archives was sparked by the growing literature in this field, both historical and archival and, in particular, the work of the anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot, whose writings covered a range of human activities from the Haitian revolution to American sports. But our own experience of archival research has also led us up enough blind alleys to realise that archives are not always the repositories of truth we had once believed. For example, people we knew to have been in the UK in 1901 could not be found in the census; many records of the First World War had disappeared. What was going on?

A growing awareness of the problems of the move to the digital was also part of the motivation behind this book. While a few writers, such as Michael Moss, have been discussing this issue for much of the century, most people writing from an archival or library point of view have focused on the issues of digital preservation. Historians have tended to look at the technical and scholarly possibilities for new forms of research which the digital affords, while both groups seem less concerned about the creation of and access to electronic archives.  

Causes of silences

The book covers several different aspects of the silences. In the first chapter, Simon Fowler looks at causes of the silences. He describes how colonial governments have used archives to enforce their power and suppress the voices of their subjects. French archives contain much about the revolution in Haiti, but very few texts setting out the views of the revolutionaries. Other reasons for silences include a deliberate refusal to record information, the effects of war and an obsessive concern with secrecy.

Missing people

Simon goes on to describe the experience of users of archives and the frustrations caused by the silences in chapter two. Some users have an over-optimistic and unrealistic view of what archives might contain. Sadly, records before the First World War focus on the very wealthy (who bought land and paid taxes) and the very poor (who were sent to the workhouse). Most people, and particularly women, homosexuals and people from other cultures do not feature greatly in the archives.  

Digital paradox

In chapter three, I explore the move to the use of the digital in creating records, which has led to three paradoxes. The first is that in the digital world, laws designed to create greater openness have led to increased destruction of records. The second is that more records might mean less information and less knowledge. The third is that more records might mean that archives end up with smaller collections. I argue that the digital poses an existential threat to archives.

Dealing with and preventing silences

Valerie Johnson looks at possible ways of dealing with silences in chapter four – the use of Freedom of Information requests and approaches to reconstructing lost archives, including finding alternative voices, reading voices back into the past, and ensuring in the future that more voices are considered in the telling. But as she emphasises, it is important to acknowledge and value the silences and to understand their meanings.

In chapter five, I discuss ways of dealing with silences – imagining missing archives, fictionalisation and forgery. I explore the methods and motives of people who have imagined history or forged archives, from the relatively benign (the man who wrote a book about Shakespeare’s favourite pub) to the malicious. Many forgers acted out of a desperate need to fill in the silences in the archive.

In chapter six, Valerie Johnson considers ways of preventing future silences – how archivists can act proactively to re-examine professional practices, particularly in terms of appraisal, access and cataloguing. In addition, there is a need to work with the subjects of the records to ensure appropriate information capture. The move to the digital has ensured that previously unheard voices can now be heard and that more diverse material will survive.

Finally, I look at whether the silences will reduce or increase in the digital age and consider how historians view archives – do they see them as repositories of truth or as sites of power which are, at best only an approximation to the truth?

Book information

The Silence of the Archive by David Thomas, Simon Fowler and Valerie Johnson is published by Facet Publishing and is out now.  It provides a ground breaking discussion of a major but little considered issue, it looks at why archives, sometimes seen as the repositories of truth, often fail to satisfy users because they do not contain information which they expect to find.
ISBN: 978 1 7833 0155 3. £59.95, £47.96 to CILIP members.

‘Our new book explores the question of whether archives are all that they seem.’

Update Magazine

This article was originally published in CILIP Update Magazine, May 2017.

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Image source: Archives by Kip Soep from Flickr used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic original cropped and resized.