Book Reviews

David Thomas, Simon Fowler, and Valerie Johnson. The Silence of the Archive. London: Facet Publishing. 2017. 187p. $80.00 (ISBN 978-1783301553).

In Silence of the Archive, Thomas, Fowler, and Johnson present the case that archives do not, and cannot, provide a complete historical record by looking at gaps, or “silences,” relative to the contents of archives. There are limits to what archives can provide, something that a researcher or casual user may not know. This book helps shed light on the silences, enforced and otherwise, that occur within archives.

Book cover for The Silence of the Archive

Fowler opens chapter 1 with a statement that needs to be considered: archives are not neutral spaces. He suggests several reasons for the silence of archives, such as records may not exist yet, or never will, due to conflict or oppression by a regime or others in power. Materials deemed more historically valuable prevent the selection of “less important” materials; or deliberately ignoring the material dealing with the mundane goings-on of everyday people. There may be destruction or loss of materials, and more. In chapter 2, he discusses user experiences and the silence of the archives via the inclusion or exclusion of certain materials within a collection and limitations of what records communicate to the user. He also considers silence in terms of the catalog records extensively, the ethics of cataloging, and how the catalog “fails to meet user needs because of the inherent biases in the way in which it was compiled” (54). Fowler also advocates creating a more user-centric or user-friendly archives.

Thomas, in chapter 3, presents three paradoxes concerning digitization and the silence of the archives: the increased destruction of records due to initiatives that are meant to create transparency; the mass creation of records that may yield less knowledge and information; and the fact that more records may mean smaller collections (66). His investigation regarding the first paradox includes new challenges with digital records such as digital continuity, the volume of digital materials, security, the destruction of archival materials, the neglect (purposeful or otherwise) of documentation, and accurate record-keeping. The second paradox addresses the concern of digitized records being deprived of context and massive amounts of records, and researchers not being able to find the information they need. He also mentions solutions such as predictive coding that are helping searchers “calculate the likely relevance of documents” (87). Authenticity and the challenges in capturing digital records are also important to the second paradox. The third paradox refers to the increase of digital records and how this changes the position of archives. He asks if the move to digital and researchers using services such as Ancestry.com puts the archives in a position of disuse. He supports his point using the falling number of visitor statistics to the physical archives. Thomas calls for archivists to “readjust their view of their collections if they are not to become curators of a silent archive” (95), which is a call for survival of the archives as a viable resource for users as well.

In chapter 4, Johnson addresses silences where assumptions are made, such as when a piece of a puzzle a researcher needs does not exist and when truth is silenced by artificial voices. Johnson also discusses potential solutions to the problem of these specific silences: by giving a voice to the voiceless in multiple capacities and “ensuring in the future that more voices are considered in the telling” (113).

Thomas discusses in chapter 5 how users have dealt with the silence of the archives. A positive outcome for such silence is the lending of a voice to works of fiction. Where information is lacking, it has created an outlet for fiction and poetry writers to imagine events for their craft. However, such silence also has allowed for the forging of records. Thomas discusses the forging of documents concerning Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, and provides an extensive and interesting account of falsified and forged documents concerning the life and works of Shakespeare, as well as other fake documents. The falsification of records can also be malicious and harmful in nature, such as the documentation concerning the Hillsborough tragedy in 1989 (132–34).

In chapter 6, Johnson addresses the decision to legislate concerning creation and release of records, archivists’ role in maintaining voices in the face of the silent archives, involving the community in developing “societal memory with their own voice” (151), and accepting the silence that cannot be avoided. Johnson also discusses challenges with digital community archives. In the last chapter, Thomas discusses the move to digital and concerns about users’ ability to access archival records, as well as the notion that catalogs themselves are silencers.

The authors focus on the various silences of the archives and the reasons for their existence. This is an engaging and interesting book and would make a great textbook for a course in archival theory or a book for the interested curator, archivist, or others who work or collaborate with archives. It may be a useful read for historians as well. Each chapter provides references and notes, where applicable.

David Thomas is a Visiting Professor at the University of Northumbria, where he is involved in research into access to contemporary records. He is the former Director of Technology at the National Archives and was responsible for digital preservation and access. Simon Fowler is Associate Teaching Fellow at the University of Dundee and teaches a course on military archives. He also has nearly 30 years of experience working for The National Archives. Valerie Johnson is Interim Director of Research and Collections at The National Archives and was awarded the Alexander R. Myers Memorial Prize for Archive Administration. She has also worked as an archivist and a historian in the academic, corporate, and public sectors.—Lizzy Walker, Wichita State University

Copyright Lizzy Walker

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Article Views (Last 12 Months)

No data available

Contact ACRL for article usage statistics from 2010-April 2017.

Article Views (By Year/Month)

January: 0
February: 8
March: 114
April: 15
May: 24
June: 9
July: 11
August: 10
September: 24
October: 13
November: 20
December: 8