Archives and Archivists in 20th Centry England

I’ve just finished reading Elizabeth Shepherd’s “Archives and Archivists in 20th Centry England” (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009).  It’s a good read, and deserves to be read widely by recordkeepers to understand “how and why the modern archives and records management profession developed in England.”  Much of the current internal discourse within the profession eg. on listservs, at events, and between associations, is founded on debate and discussion about the how.  Shepherd makes a strong case for considering the why – from the historical context.  Well, we all like context and administrative history – don’t we?

Shepherd discusses the development of the profession during the last century, up to 2003  (the completion date of her doctoral thesis? as well as the date of the merger between the Public Record Office and the Historical Manuscripts Commission to form The National Archives, a year also seeing serious discussions of new national legislation and much of the work of the Archives Task Force).  The book includes a narrative history of some of the national archival institutions and associations – HMC, PRO, BRA, CPBA, SoA – as well as many of the local and specialist insitutions, necessarily brief.  Also to be found is a roll-call of the individuals who through effort and sheer force of will established them and moulded them to their own dedicated and often eccentric views.  Shepherd considers how and why archival associations (in the broadest senses) developed in England, and their legacy, including the evolution of university education programmes.

The narrative follows four key themes which Shepherd summarises as “political engagement and the enactment of archives and records legislation; the emergence of a complex and distinct work group; an exclusive professional organisation; and archives and records management
education.”  Chronologically these themes are framed by three periods: the mid 19th cent. to 1945-1950, 1947ish – c.1980, and c.1980 to 2003.  The volume also opens with a very brief summary of the development of archives and the profession in continental Europe, the USA, Canada and Australia.

Shepherd reflects on the enormity of the changes of the last 150ish years, and of the many significant achievements of the pioneers/big fish in our small pond, whilst acknowledging the constraints of resources which are our perennial complaint.  However she is also not uncritical of some of the failures of leadership and imagination of individuals that have shaped the landscape we are navigating today.

Drawing on Shepherd, a plausible case could be made that many of our current debates are a contemporary manifestation of some longstanding tensions resulting from the development of archives and archivists in England eg.

  • what is the primary role of “archive services” (perhaps even more broadly, recordkeeping): legal/accountability, administrative, historical/cultural? or all three?
  • the comparatively low profile of recordkeeping and by extension, recordkeepers, and its effect on our ability to influence and to attract resources.
  • what will we do about electronic records/digital preservation/web 2.0?  is records management as we know it fit for purpose?  are the current organisations adequate and sustainable?
  • what should archival education cover, and should it try to be pragmatic and practice-based, or have a wider intellectual and professional context.
  • is recordkeeping indeed a profession? if not, what are the implications for education, the role of professional bodies, CPD, registration, accreditation of courses etc?
  • will the current work to merge the SoA, NCA and ACALG following the “sector review” start to move recordkeepers away from our historic tendency to set up new specialist organisations rather than resolve tensions within existing bodies?

We live in interesting – but as this volume shows, not unprecedented – times.

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One thought on “Archives and Archivists in 20th Centry England

  1. Pingback: Recordkeeping professionals in 2010 « M Sarah Wickham

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