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Identity and archives: return and expansion of the social value of archives

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Abstract

There are two main challenges in realizing the value of archives in issues relating to identity. One is the unique impact of archives on citizens’ identity in the process of social development and changes. The other is the professional identity of archivists in the changing landscape of archives. Collective memory is the link connecting archives and identity. The value of archives in identity is realized through the role archives play in building, reconstructing and strengthening collective memory. To ensure that archives can provide legitimate and adequate foundation in citizens’ identity, a sound archival system needs to be established to cover a broad spectrum of society, to maintain the evidential and knowledge value of archives, to ensure the rights of citizens in using archives and to give enough policy support to marginalized groups. As a case study, this paper analyzes the identity crisis faced by the massive “migrant workers” formed in modern China’s social transformation and the possibility of archives in providing support for resolving confusion about identity and improving social integration. Social transformation and technological advances have also led to new demands on archivists’ professional identity, and the need for archivists to be more integrated into society, to expand their functions and roles and to acquire new understanding of values and sense of belonging during this process.
ORIGINAL PAPER
Identity and archives: return and expansion
of the social value of archives
Huiling Feng
1
Published online: 17 November 2016
©Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016
Abstract There are two main challenges in realizing the value of archives in issues
relating to identity. One is the unique impact of archives on citizens’ identity in the
process of social development and changes. The other is the professional identity of
archivists in the changing landscape of archives. Collective memory is the link
connecting archives and identity. The value of archives in identity is realized
through the role archives play in building, reconstructing and strengthening col-
lective memory. To ensure that archives can provide legitimate and adequate
foundation in citizens’ identity, a sound archival system needs to be established to
cover a broad spectrum of society, to maintain the evidential and knowledge value
of archives, to ensure the rights of citizens in using archives and to give enough
policy support to marginalized groups. As a case study, this paper analyzes the
identity crisis faced by the massive “migrant workers” formed in modern China’s
social transformation and the possibility of archives in providing support for
resolving confusion about identity and improving social integration. Social trans-
formation and technological advances have also led to new demands on archivists’
professional identity, and the need for archivists to be more integrated into society,
to expand their functions and roles and to acquire new understanding of values and
sense of belonging during this process.
Keywords Identity · Collective memory · Value of archives
In China archives (dang an) refer to any records that have been filed (registered) for temporary long-term
or permanent preservation because of their evidential or reference value.
&Huiling Feng
fhl@ruc.edu.cn
1
School of Information Resource Management, Renmin University of China, Beijing, China
123
Arch Sci (2017) 17:97–112
DOI 10.1007/s10502-016-9271-y
Content courtesy of Springer Nature, terms of use apply. Rights reserved.
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Introduction What are archives? Archives, libraries and museums are all in the ‘memory business’, ensuring ‘time future contained in time past’ (Ketelaar, 2004). But what distinguishes archives from all other memory institutions is that the individual, organizational and collective memories they preserve are not defined primarily in terms of a cultural heritage: they have been created as ‘process-bound information’, that is, ‘information generated by coherent work processes and structured and recorded by these work processes in such a way that it can be retrieved from the context of those work processes’ (Thomassen, 2001, 374). Notwithstanding the importance of this definition for archival theory and methodology, in practice (as I will argue in section 4.7) it is often more important to ask: how does this particular individual or group perceive and understand an archive? Throughout this chapter the term ‘archives’ (or archive) is used to denote two concepts. As in the first sentence of this chapter archives is an organization that collects (and the building that houses) archives. Archives (or records) also means ‘information created, received, and maintained as evidence and/or as an asset by an organization or person, in pursuance of legal obligations or in the transaction of business or for its purposes, regardless of medium, form or format’ (ISO 30300, 2011, 3.1.7). Archivists are ‘all those concerned with the control, care, custody, preservation and administration of archives’ (International Council on Archives, 1996), which includes record managers. Why this chapter? Many archives call themselves the ‘Memory of the city’ or the ‘Memory of the nation’. There is even a ‘Memory of the world’ – a UNESCO programme to promote ‘the documented, collective memory of the peoples of the world – their documentary heritage’ (UNESCO, 2002). That this is a misleading analogy (Brothman, 2010; Hedstrom, 2010, 174; Jimerson, 2009, 213–14) we discover once we have developed ‘a more refined sense of what memory means in different contexts, but also a sensitivity to the differences between individual and social memory’ (Hedstrom, 2002, 31–2). This in turn, as Margaret Hedstrom argues, will help to create a greater awareness of how collective memory operates. ‘Whether conscious of it or not, archivists are major players in the business of identity politics’ (Schwartz and Cook, 2002, 16). Many archivists claim that identities are constructed and reconstructed through the experience of archival documents (Craven, 2008, 17).
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