Archives as Argument by Other Means

As a historian I love archives, and I greatly respect and value the work of archivists. Of course, this is neither remarkable nor very interesting. However, as an intellectual historian who has written institutional history, and who now works in an academically adjacent, administrative position at UMIH, I am struck by the way intellectual history and the institutional histories of libraries and archives have never really merged. Intellectual history tends to concern itself more with the transmission and transformation of ideas through texts, than it does with how books circulated or networks of readers engaged with the ideas they contain. Similarly, historians of libraries and archives have tended to advance traditional institutional histories that recount their development, shifting political orientations, and institutional self-presentation.

Some developments in books history and the histories of reading habits and of intellectual networks like the “Republic of Letters” have begun to bring these sub-fields together. But there is still much to do, and, as Rob Koehler has observed, the interaction between intellectual and institutional library history could be profitably intensified.  I tend to agree, albeit as an admitted amateur in the history of libraries and archives. Still, I find myself increasingly following Peter N. Miller in noting that there is no intellectual history of academic administration of entities like libraries and archives. There seems to be “no awareness that administrators might intend their actions as arguments by other means.”

I do not imagine many currently working at the U of M will have much difficulty recognizing that administrators might well intend their actions as arguments by other means. Obviously academic administrators can and do shape fields of scholarship through appointments they make, the funds they allocate, the programs they prioritize, and by “just plain keeping a thumb on the scale.” Naturally such influence can manifest in some brutal and heavy-handed ways. However, at the risk of offending some friends and colleagues by the timing of what I am about to say, this is not always the case. Here, I think, the archives at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) is a good example, and not only of administration as argument by other means, but also as an effort to create valuable possibilities for others’ research, together with entire fields of enquiry.

By fusing intellectual and institutional-administrative history it becomes possible to see how archives like that at the NCTR help researchers cross one of the fundamental splits in professional history: that between “pure” academic history, and “applied” history and learning.[1] But even more basically than this, and to return to the point on which I began, it is another reason, (as though one was needed), to recognize and appreciate the crucial work archives and archivists do. We have got to love and cherish them. What is more, we should not allow their capacities for preserving the past to blind us to their dynamic future potential.

Paul Jenkins, University of Manitoba Institute for the Humanities

[1] James M. Banner Jr., Being a Historian: An Introduction to the Professional World of History (Cambridge University Press, 2012).


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