The development of archival science and its European dimension

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Anna Christina, dear colleagues,
The theme of this seminar is the development of an archival science, and I am very pleased and honored having been invited here, on this very special occasion, to discuss with you this development and particularly its European dimension. Our scientific discipline is in the process of becoming an autonomous science indeed. While transforming a craft into a real profession, the archival community is developing what was merely an auxiliary science of history into a genuine and independent science.

Undoubtedly there is a specific European dimension to this. The roots of archival science are European roots and even in the last few decades, in which archival theory and methodology more or less seem to have Americanized, the European tradition continues to play an important role in its development.
My paper will focus on the roots rather than on the present fruits of archival science. Not only because of their European character, but also because they have been the object of my own research over the last year. I will, however, not only deal with the origins of what I like to call the classic paradigm of archival science, but also with its final destiny: its actual replacement by a new paradigm. And finally, I will briefly try to identify a European dimension in current research.


Let me first explain to you what I mean by archival science and in what terms I want to analyze it in the next thirty minutes. I am using the word science here not in the strict sense of physical science, but as an equivalent to the broader term science in French or Wissenschaft in German: as the general term for a scientific discipline. And I won’t analyze archival science here in terms of its application. Archivists are used to define their scientific activities as the occupation with the handling of archival material or something like that. This kind of vague and pragmatic definitions I will try to avoid. The clerks and secretaries of the ancien régime were likewise dealing with archival material as their successors who are working in an electronic environment. And strictly speaking, such definitions do not actually refer to scientific activities, but to a craft. I want to analyze archival science in terms of what I consider to be its fundamental components. And in my view those components are:

  •   its object, its fundamental entities and their interactions,
  •   its objective and
  •   its methods and techniques.

Classic archival science

How does archival science look like if we characterize it in terms of object, objective and methodology?
Classic archival science (i.e. archival science as it was codified by the 1898 Manual of Muller, Feith and Fruin) identifies as its object the whole of records created or received by an administration or an officer; and it identifies the physical item as the fundamental identity.  The interactions between the fundamental entities are considered to be organic by nature.
The objectives are: physical and intellectual control of the documents, partly in preparation of their publication.
‘The methodology consists of the application of the principle of provenance and the principle of the original order.
Finally, the technique can be characterized as the formal description of physical documents and their arrangement not according to their form, but according to a natural classification, a classification that mirrors the organization of the records creator.
This is, in my view, how classic archival science looks like if we characterize it in terms of object, objectives and methodology. It is a description of the classic paradigm of archival science.1

The paradigm and the paradigm shift

Dear colleagues: what is a paradigm? The concept of the paradigm has been introduced by Thomas Kuhn in his classic work on the structure of scientific revolutions, published in 1962.  According to Kuhn, a paradigm is a universally recognized scientific achievement that for a time models problems and solutions to a community of practitioners. Applied to a science as such, a paradigm provides the explanatory model of a scientific discipline in the specific stage of its development and defines its fundamentals.
For Kuhn’s central thesis is, that the development of science is not simply a linear process of knowledge accumulation but a process in which normal science and scientific revolutions alternate. It is a process, then, in which different stages can be distinguished: a pre-paradigm stage, the stage of a scientific revolution, the stage of normal science, the stage of a new scientific revolution etc.
Conceptualizing classic archival science as a paradigm means: acknowledging its relative validity. The paradigm of classic archival science is not an eternal paradigm, it is the paradigm that models the problems and solutions of archival science only in its classic stage of development.
In the pre-paradigm stage of a science a community of practitioners comes into existence. The members of this community apply theoretical concepts of existing scientific disciplines to a new field of knowledge. They cannot yet integrate these concepts into a generally recognized theory. Then a scientific achievement brings about a scientific revolution. Part of the scattered concepts are transformed into a new theory and in most cases presented in a textbook. When this theory gains general recognition, we enter the stage of what Kuhn calls the stage of normal science.2 Normal science is based on an agreement by the members of the community of practitioners to take a specific paradigm as the starting point of their research and to defend this paradigm against those who dare to attack it. When normal science cannot give satisfying answers to new questions a new scientific revolution is likely to occur.

Scientific revolutions in the archival field

The classic paradigm of archival science was normal science for almost a century.
It gained general recognition after a scientific revolution – a paradigm shift – at the end of the 19th century. It is losing general recognition now, hundred years later, as the consequence of a new paradigm shift. It will be followed by a new period of normal science.

The pre-paradigm stage of archival science

Let us first focus on the origins of the classic paradigm. My recent research on the development of archival theory and practice in the Netherlands indicates that the Dutch Manual of 1898 is to be considered as its codification. Or, to phrase it in Kuhn’s terms: the publication of the Manual marked the end of a scientific revolution, a revolution that integrated different 19th centuries’ concepts and techniques in the field of archival arrangement and description, borrowed from diplomatics and administrative practice.
The whole of those 19th century concepts and techniques cannot be considered a real paradigm. Every aspect of it was ambiguous, a mix of two different approaches, the diplomatic and the administrative approach. General agreement on the application could not be accomplished. Therefore I would like to identify this period as the pre-paradigm stage of archival science.

What were the fundamental components of the archival discipline in its pre-paradigm stage? Lets look at its object, its objectives and its methodology. From the diplomatic point of view its object was the single diploma. From the administrative point of view it was the fonds. But, at least in the Netherlands, this fonds was seen as the whole of the non current records of the community, that is the city, the province, the state etc., and not as the non-current records of the different bodies administering this community. The fundamental entity was, from the diplomatic point of view, the single diploma or registration, but from the administrative point of view it was the individual item.

What was the objective of the archival discipline in its pre-paradigm stage? Looked upon it from the diplomatic tradition the objective was the critical publication of the documents in order to enable historical research. Looked upon it form the administrative tradition it was the identification and the easy consultation of the documents.

Finally, archival methods and techniques mirrored a mix of two approaches too. The diplomatic approach asked for an all-embracing search for all diploma’s ever issued and their exhaustive description and – if possible – their critical publication in chronological order. The administrative approach asked for the description of all series and items of the fonds, seen as the whole of the non-current records of the community, arranged according to the principle of the respect des fonds and the Provenienz-prinzip (the principle of provenance), applied to the whole of non-current records of such a community.

The scientific revolution

Having characterized the pre-paradigm archival concepts as well as the concepts of the classical paradigm of archival science, we now can compare the two and see how revolutionary the paradigm shift has been. All fundamental elements of a science – object, objectives and methods – apparently went through a process of re-conceptualization.
The fonds and its components became the only object of archival science and that represented a major shift, particularly because it went along with the redefinition of the concept of the fonds itself. The fonds was no longer defined as the whole of the archives of a community, but as the archives created by each single body that took part in the administration of a community, a re-definition which is revolutionary in its consequences, as I will demonstrate.
The item replaced the single diploma or document as the basic component of the fonds. This shift was fundamental too, closely connected as it was with the introduction of the principle of the original order, which originally exclusively referred to the item level and to the level of the series of items of the same form of material.
Publication of the archival documents ceased to be the first objective. It was access and efficient consultation of the documents which had gained priority. The bond between item and fonds was allowed to become the interpretative framework of historical analysis.
The old methods of arrangement primarily according to form of material and secondarily chronologically or according to an artificial classification, were replaced by an integrated system of arrangement in which the specialia are arranged according to a natural classification, i.e. a classification derived from the structure of the material itself.
The authors of the Manual did not explicitly redefine the concepts of respect des fonds and the principle of provenance. But they did it implicitly by redefining the concept of the fonds itself.  If you define the non current records of the community as your object, respect des fonds prevents you from mixing up the non-current records of two communities, let’s say: a city and a province. It allows you, however, to mix up the non-current records of the different administrations of one community according to the different aspects of community life documented by those records. It even stimulates you to split up the non-current records of one administrative body if those records document more than one community. Applied to the community-concept, the principle of provenance is a local principle, linking archives, record groups and series to the city, or the region, or the country where the community which is documented dwells.
Applied to the non-current records of an administration, however, the principle of provenance demands the linking of a fonds not to its geographical but to its administrative context. It links the fonds not to the place where the community dwells, but to the archives with which they are organically related: the archives of its predecessors and successors for instance. It refers to the records creating body or its successor, irrespective of whether its seat is situated within the habitat of the community or elsewhere.
The practical consequences of the interpretation of the principle of provenance in terms of administrative provenance cannot be discussed here, but it will be clear that those consequences were tremendous: the interpretation of the principle decided the question what archives were to be kept by what archival repository (or city, or province, or even country!).

The revolutionary character of the paradigm shift in archival science

Having analyzed the revolutionary way in which the classic paradigm of archival science set aside older pre-paradigm concepts and methods, it is time for us now to look at the paradigm shift of our own decade, which in its turn is setting aside the classic paradigm.
This paradigm shift has the same characteristics as the paradigm shift that brought about classic archival science, the same characteristics, actually, as any scientific revolution has. As Kuhn taught us, normal science tends to oppress fundamental novelties, till anomalies cannot be prevented anymore from subverting the existing tradition. New concepts are integrated in a new paradigm and, finally, a shift of professional commitments occurs. In our case, the astonishing developments in information and communication technology gave birth to new ideas, which at a certain point couldn’t be integrated anymore in the existing archival tradition.
In the early eighties it became clear that the computer would affect the archival world tremendously, but still most archivists considered the computer merely as a technical device. In the early eighties the Canadian Hugh Taylor was the first to recognize that the changes in the archival world generated by new information technology were not merely technical by character. The question posed in the title of his article “Transformation in the Archives: Technological Adjustment or paradigm Shift?”3 was of course a rhetorical one.
Did Taylor read fairytales? In that case he might have read a fairytale written by Janosch before writing his article, the fairytale about electric Little Red Ridinghood. Electric Little Red Ridinghood, or let us in today’s context call her machine-readable Little Red Ridinghood, is sent by her mother to her machine-readable grandmother in order to bring her a basket of batteries. In the forest she meets the machine-readable wolf and … well, I wont give the whole show away, but in the end, machine readable Little Red Ridinghood and machine readable grandmother jump out of the stomach of machine readable wolf and they lived long and happily for the rest of their machine readable lives.

Dear colleagues and friends, men are inclined to describe a new world in terms of the old one, that is what Janosh and his machine-readable Little Red Ridinghood try to tell us. It is the same lesson Hugh Taylor wanted to teach us: the new paradigm of archival science is not the old archival paradigm with the word machine-readable stuck to it. The new archival paradigm is a new explanatory model for the scientific field in a new stage of its development, a model which defines the fundamentals of archival science and which can only do so on the basis of the classic notions having been reinvented and reconceived.
We can conceptualize a paradigm as a language, with an own vocabulary, semantics and syntax.  New paradigms introduce new concepts (context, recordness, recordkeeping system, records continuum) or re-conceptualize old ones (record for instance, or provenance). These changes are so fundamental, that two subsequent paradigms cannot communicate properly: they behave like two different linguistic systems indeed. It is impossible today to make a systematic and all-embracing dictionary of archival terminology and it is likewise impossible to arrange recent literature on archival science according to a – for instance – the classification used by Duchein in his 20 years old bibliography.

Characterizing the new paradigm of archival science

It is very difficult, then, to describe the fundamentals of the new paradigm of archival science in terms of object, objective and methodology. We are, as David Gracy puts it, like Christopher Columbus, in the middle of the exploration stage, in the middle of a scientific revolution, and we can’t prevent ourselves fully from describing the new paradigm in terms of the old one and calling native Americans Indians and run the risk of being geographically, politically or scientifically incorrect.

But, dear colleagues, we must be prepared to run that risk.

The object of the new paradigm of archival science is what I call: process-bound information, that is: information generated by business-processes and structured by these processes in order to enable contextual retrieval with the context of these processes as starting-point. It is what Carol Couture called “fixed organic information”, here in Stockholm 2 ½ years ago. It is a twofold object, because it refers to archival information and to its generating context, the records creating processes.
The fundamental entity is twofold too: it is the individual logical document in its relation with the generating business transaction.
The objective is more than accessibility. It is what I would call archival quality, which stands for the transparency, the strength and the enduring stability of the bond between the information and the generating business processes.
The methodology consists of the establishment, the maintenance and the analysis of links between records and records creators in order to establish, maintain and analyze the authenticity, reliability and trustworthiness of records.
The characteristic techniques are the application of modeling techniques and descriptive standards.
Brought about by the digital revolution, this new paradigm of archival science is not digital by character itself. The second scientific revolution in archival science is more than a shift from paper to electronic records, it is a shift from the classic or modern into what is called the post-custodial or, as Terry Cook suggested, the post-modern paradigm of archival science.4  For the first time in its development, archival science is becoming a real science. In its pre-paradigm stage it was not a real science at all, in its classic stage it was not more than an auxiliary science of history, but now, in its post-modern stage it is gaining the status of a real science, as autonomous as the other information sciences and as autonomous as history.

The integration of the old paradigm in the new one

Shall the victory of the post-modern paradigm of archival science be the defeat of classic archival science? Shall it oust our classic European tradition from the center of the archival universe to the refuse dump of archival history? Shall our second scientific revolution split the archival community in an old and a new world?
I don’t think there is much reason for pessimism. A new paradigm brings a new orientation and an extension of the domain and it encapsulates the old paradigm. The old paradigm is not completely set aside, but it is integrated it in the newly defined domain. Let me try to explain this to you.
If we look at the object of archival science, we notice that the post-modern paradigm primarily looks at documents in their logical and dynamic dimensions. But of course this broad view allows a focus on physical documents and static objects. Within the domain of the post-modern paradigm of archival science the methods and techniques of the classical paradigm are still valid in its traditional field of application.
If we look at the objective of archival science, we notice that the drive for establishing and maintaining the links between the information and the processes that generated the information can also be used for optimizing accessibility.
If we look at archival methodology we notice, that the principle of provenance and the principle of the original order have been re-conceptualized in terms of quality management, but that they still can be used to reconstruct a fonds in its original order.

The European dimension in archival research

Dear colleagues, the new paradigm of archival science is not European or American by character. It is a global paradigm, and global will be archival research.
It is not long ago, that archival science existed in relative isolation. Research hardly crossed the boundaries of a country’s own archival tradition. Small scale scope, together with the pragmatic orientation of the craftsman archivist did not foster the development of internationally oriented research programs.
When the classic paradigm began shifting, archival research tended to adopt a specific American character. It was on the continent where electronic recordkeeping had been invented, where the practical and theoretical implication of electronic records were first explored and addressed, partly by the re-conceptualization of the classic principles and concepts of the European archival tradition.
But soon ICT also revolutionized archival theory and research in Australia and Europe. Nowadays, the topics of applied research in the field of electronic records are exactly the same here as in North America, as is clearly demonstrated by the proceedings of the 1996 DLM forum on electronic records.5 Publications of ICA-committees further indicate that archival research is indeed developing into an internationally conducted activity. In doing research, European and American researchers are responding to the same societal demands, are driven by the same concerns, and are sharing the same interests.
This does not mean, that in archival science the European dimension has completely disappeared. The archives of Europe are unique in terms of age and variety, produced as they are by a great variety of records creators and within the context of many different cultures. Generations of European archivists have accumulated an impressive corpus of knowledge about those archives, about the historical and cultural context of archiving and recordkeeping and about finding aids and records retrieval. With the archival methods and concepts of the electronic era they have started a process of redesigning the traditional finding aids systems and re-analyzing the context of the records creating process of our time as well as of earlier ages. I only mention my own school’s research program as an example. The major scope of this program, as it was presented by Eric Ketelaar last year, is the cultural context of the record creating process, that is: the way in which the archiving process, the recordkeeping function and the recordkeeping processes are influenced by culture: administrative culture, corporate culture, family culture, national culture and social and historical circumstances.6 In this approach private persons and families are as interesting as formal organizations, on which most North American and Australian research seems to be focussed.

Dear colleagues, I now come to my conclusion. The first scientific revolution in archival science was a European revolution and the first period of normal science was mainly European too. The second scientific revolution in archival science was American by origin, but the second period of normal science will have a global character. Meeting the challenges of the post-modern paradigm of archival science will soon be a shared undertaking of practicians, researchers and teachers from all countries of the world.

(Stockholm, 1999.)

  1. “Van evenement naar structuur: ordenen en beschrijven in de eeuw vóór de Handleiding”, in: P.J. Horsman, F.C.J. Ketelaar en T.H.P.M. Thomassen, Tekst en context van de Handleiding voor het ordenen en beschrijven van archieven van 1898, (Hilversum, 1998), pp. XXI-XCVIII. []
  2. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago, 1962, 3rd ed. Chicago, 1996. []
  3. Hugh Taylor, “Transformation in the Archives: Technological Adjustment or paradigm Shift?”, in: Archivaria, no 25, Winter 1987-1988, pp. 12-28. See also: Terry Cook, “From Information to Knowledge: An Intellectual Paradigm for Archives”, in: Archivaria, no 19, Winter 1984-85, pp. 28-49. []
  4. Terry Cook, “Electronic Records, Paper Minds: The revolution in information management and archives in the post-custodial and post-modernist era”, in: Archives and Manuscripts, Vol. 22, No 2, 1995, pp. 300-328.
    (5) Proceedings of the DLM-Forum on electronic records, Brussels, 18-20 September 1996, INSAR, European Archives News, supplement II (1997). []
  5. Proceedings of the DLM-Forum on electronic records, Brussels, 18-20 September 1996, INSAR, European Archives News, supplement II (1997). []
  6. F.C.J. Ketelaar, Archivalisering en archivering. Rede uitgesproken bij de aanvaarding van het ambt van hoogleraar in de archiefwetenschap aan de Universiteit van Amsterdam op vrijdag 23 oktober 1998, Alphen aan den Rijn, 1998. In this context, Ketelaar earlier referred to comparative archival science: Eric Ketelaar, “The Difference Best Postponed? Cultures and Comparative Archival Science”, in: Archivaria 44 (1997), pp. 142-147. []