The first rule of archival theory is that we do not talk about archival theory. Or at least, it seems that would be the way that John Roberts would have it because archivists “save what is historically valuable–there; that is the story.” While Roberts’s article “Much Ado About Shelving” was cleverly named, it did not meditate fully on the real work and purposed of archives or the theories developed to support those who do the work. Archivists are much more concerned with the process and education of archiving as a profession and practice than Roberts describes with his oversimplification of the work and the documents themselves. Archival theory embodies the understanding that documents hold a relationship with what actually happened as compared to thinking that the documents are the story.
I am reminded of a quote a friend of mine shared on facebook the other day, that “the love of your life is not a human being, it is a thing you share with a human being.” Maybe I have over-nerdified, but it sounds like this quote could easily apply to archival theory, too: History is not in a document, it is the relationship between the documents and what happened. This means, of course, for archives to be as close to History as possible, that they must remain as impartial as possible so that the documents within the archives reflect the full range of thought and relationships of a particular time, place, or event.
After reading “Archival Choices” by F. Gerald Ham, the need for archival theory is even more clear. If in 1974, an archivist was postulating that everything must be saved because one day it might be valuable, the need for archival theory was emerging. Save everything? How can anyone find anything in a sea of everything. How did Roberts write his article in the late 80s? It seems so behind. What is the true historiography of the development of archival theory? How did it rise, and why did it take so long for its need to become part of general consciousness?
For more see:
Rand Jimerson, “Embracing the Power of Archives,” American Archivist, Vol. 69, No. 1, Spring – Summer, 2006
Terry Eastwood, “What is Archival Theory and Why is it Important,” http://journals.sfu.ca/archivar/index.php/archivaria/article/viewFile/11991/12954
Gerald Ham, “Archival Choices: Managing the Historical Record in an Age of Abundance.” American Archivist, Volume 47, Number 1 /Winter 1984