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Book Reviews

Engaging with Records and Archives: Histories and Theories. Fiorella Foscarini, Heather MacNeil, Bonnie Mak, and Gillian Oliver, eds. London: Facet Publishing, 2016. Paper, $85.00 (ISBN 978-1-78330-158-4).

Book cover for Engaging with Records and Archives: Histories and Theories

For participants, the ferment and excitement of an intellectual conference can almost seem palpable. The presentation of papers on a field’s varied facets can be stimulating—enough to prompt a professional’s rededication to his or her discipline. For those left back at work, however, there is only the consolation of the conference’s published proceedings. For that to be successful, it takes good papers, insightful editors, and very deft editing. In Records and Archives: Histories and Theories, a selection of papers from the Seventh International Conference on the History of Records and Archives (held in Amsterdam July 29–31, 2015), they all come together almost seamlessly.

The contributors span the globe, and the editors, all in the field of information studies, do too. Associate Professor Fiorella Foscarini and Professor Heather MacNeil are at the University of Toronto, Bonnie Mak is associate professor at the University of Illinois, and Gilliam Oliver is an associate professor at Australia’s Monash University. A glance at their biographies (and those of their contributors) shows a mastery of, and interest in, numerous related—and unrelated—fields. No doubt it is this wide perspective and an even wider knowledge base, along with an ability to write clearly and concisely, that makes the collection a success. It is a welcome, and almost necessary, addition to the shelves of academic institutions and to those of practicing archivists, especially those wanting to keep up with the developments and issues of their field.

Divided into two parts—“Rethinking Histories” and “Theories and Engaging Records and Archives”—and consisting of five essays in the first part and six in the second, the book has an arc. More general and theoretical essays start the book. It begins with a discussion of the difference between archives and “the archive”—and a call to expand one for the other; then there is a thought-provoking look at the use of specific natural history metaphors in the evolution of archival and other sciences; a comparison of data modeling (complete with flow charts) of archives compared to libraries comes next; an investigation of archival silence that, among other things, casts doubts on the wonders and supposedly democratic practice of digitization follows, and a glance at women’s contributions to the field (specifically in 20th-century England) rounds out the first part. The essays in Part II are more finely focused and range all over the globe and across time—from an examination of the changes over centuries in archival practice in the area near Genoa, Italy, to the community archives movement in present-day Poland. Along the way, there is a look at the lack of transparency, and in fact the secrecy, censorship, and shifting access to records within the 19th-century Dutch East Indies, as well as in colonial and present-day Malawi. While all essays are rooted in time and place and give specific examples of past systems, the analysis and careful reportage of the changes, abuses, excuses, and victories of archives render these very local stories a universal appeal. Such is the case with the essay on the conflict and coexistence of archives documenting the indigenous peoples of western Canada; it not only tackles the issue of archival ethics, but it even questions the central principles that define our discipline. The final chapter, a focus on the role of artists in the archives, leaves readers with a provocative, open-ended, new perspective on archives and their promotion, possibly raising archival science to an art, something that, in fact, these essays, taken together, achieve. As a unit, they open up what may seem prosaic views to different perspectives and show how “archival truth,” like beauty, might vary from the eye of the viewer, archivist, historian, or user.

While this is certainly not a basic introduction to the field, it elevates it and may excite many a practicing or learning archivist as to the power of archives. And whether it was the intention of the editors or not, power is a theme that seems to run through this collection—specifically revealed in how archives can be, and have been, centers of power and control. There is a lot to learn here, and a lot of learning, too. Translations of foreign phrases are nearly almost always given (a few Latin phrases excepted); there is a refreshing lack of jargon in most essays; the index and bibliographies and notes of each chapter are helpful. It’s not often that such an intellectual book is also eminently approachable. The editors and contributors should be well pleased with their efforts; no doubt readers will be, too.—Harlan Greene, College of Charleston

Copyright Harlan Greene


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