The Silence of the Archive

May 2017 | 224pp

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The Silence of the Archive

David Thomas, Simon Fowler and Valerie Johnson

Foreword by Anne J Gilliland, University of California

Evaluating archives in a post-truth society.

In recent years big data initiatives, not to mention Hollywood, the video game industry and countless other popular media, have reinforced and even glamorized the public image of the archive as the ultimate repository of facts and the hope of future generations for uncovering ‘what actually happened’. The reality is, however, that for all sorts of reasons the record may not have been preserved or survived in the archive. In fact, the record may never have even existed – its creation being as imagined as is its contents. And even if it does exist, it may be silent on the salient facts, or it may obfuscate, mislead or flat out lie.

The Silence of the Archive  is written by three expert and knowledgeable archivists and draws attention to the many limitations of archives and the inevitability of their having parameters.

Silences or gaps in archives range from details of individuals’ lives to records of state oppression or of intelligence operations. The book brings together ideas from a wide range of fields, including contemporary history, family history research and Shakespearian studies. It describes why these silences exist, what the impact of them is, how researchers have responded to them, and what the silence of the archive means for researchers in the digital age.  It will help provide a framework and context to their activities and enable them to better evaluate archives in a post-truth society.

This book includes discussion of:

  • enforced silences
  • expectations and when silence means silence
  • digital preservation, authenticity and the future
  • dealing with the silence
  • possible solutions; challenging silence and acceptance
  • the meaning of the silences: are things getting better or worse?
  • user satisfaction and audience development.

This book will make compelling reading for professional archivists,  records managers and records creators, postgraduate and undergraduate students of history, archives, librarianship and information studies, as well as academics and other users of archives.



Introduction to the Series –Geoffrey Yeo

About the authors

Foreword–Anne J. Gilliland

Introduction–David Thomas

1. Enforced silences–Simon Fowler

  • Introduction
  • The power of the written
  • Silence in informality
  • Conflict and oppression as a cause of silence
  • Selection as a cause of the silence
  • The wrong kind of silence
  • The silence of the secret
  • The silence of destruction
  • Conclusion

2. Inappropriate expectations–Simon Fowler

  • Introduction
  • ‘Writing lived lives’: the skewing of the archive record
  • When silence means silence: what records cannot tell us
  • Silence in other ways: cultural differences
  • The catalogue – hiding silences in plain view
  • Conclusion

3. The digital–David Thomas

  • Introduction
  • Digital preservation
  • New dangers
  • E-mails
  • Digitized records
  • More information equals less knowledge
  • Authenticity
  • Capturing the archive
  • An existential threat to archives?
  • The future
  • Conclusion

4. Dealing with the silence–Valerie Johnson

  • Introduction
  • False silences
  • False voices
  • Forcing open the doors: letting hidden voices speak
  • Filling the silence: allowing silent voices to speak
  • Acknowledging the silence as silence
  • Filling the silence: finding alternative voices
  • Reading voices back into history
  • Looking forward: listening to all the voices
  • Avoiding ‘white noise’: the need for some silence
  • Creating and welcoming the silence
  • Conclusion

5. Imagining archives–David Thomas

  • Introduction
  • Imagining archives
  • The slave trade
  • Imagined re-creations
  • Forging archives
  • Imagining Shakespeare
  • Further into the hall of mirrors
  • Complete fictions
  • What does forgery tell us about archives?
  • Conclusion

6. Solutions to the silence–Valerie Johnson

  • Introduction
  • Is legislation the answer?
  • Challenging silence in the archives: the archivists
  • Users as creators: taking back the power
  • Accepting inevitable silence
  • Changing voices in a new digital world
  • Conclusion

7. Are things getting better or worse?– David Thomas

'As traditional understandings of archival wholeness and impartiality continue to be challenged, the archive is moving from a ‘neutral’ space to one of active and incomplete curation. Embedded in power structures, bureaucracies, and other information mediators, the voice of the archive speaks only of certain stories. But if the voice of an archive is shaped by deliberate action, what about its silences? What structures and processes create these silences, and how can we as archivists address them? These are the questions asked by David Thomas, Simon Fowler and Valerie Johnson in “The Silence of the Archive”, a critical addition to the “Principles and Practice in Records Management and Archives” series. The three authors bring with them a wealth of knowledge from public, corporate, academic, and community sectors, using their experiences to explore different facets of that which is missing as a positive, rather than negative, space.'
- Nina Whittaker, Archifacts


'The authors...current or former archivists at the UK National Archives, have packed the slim volume with a wealth of information and debate, supported by a survey of the existing literature and using examples from around the world. The Silence of the Archive will be of interest to any user of archives and of considerable practical use to those involved in their management.'
- Mandy Banton, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, Family and Community History

'Records managers, archivists, historians and other users of archives should read this timely and important book.'
- Peter Webster, LSE Review of Books

'Archival silences cannot be avoided. Records may not have been created, or they may have been manipulated or destroyed. In the present digital, or “post-paper,” world, staggering amounts of data are being created, and much of it is lost.Thomas, Simon Fowler, and Valerie Johnson, all former or current employees of the National Archives, delineate the silences and the reasons behind them. They also offer methods for breaking the silence or sometimes simply accepting it. Filled with thought-provoking and pertinent anecdotes (many of which are related to Great Britain), this is an interesting book for those who create, manage, and use archives.'
- Jim Frutchey, Booklist Online

'In examining the concept of silence, the UK-based authors of this volume focus on historical, cultural, and political contexts having critical implications for archives. They address enforced silence, misinformed popular expectations, dealing with the silences or gaps in the digital record, and possible solutions and prospects for archives in the current environment, styled by some as a post-truth era. While corporate and government structures continue to shape the archival record for political purposes, gaps in staff training and record-retention policies also contribute to these silences, as have misinformed popular perceptions of archives and inappropriate expectations of researchers. Technology presents an additional challenge to archival integrity because of the need to preserve content such as ephemeral social media or email communications, the sheer abundance of digital records, the anonymity of record creators, and pervasive concerns about sensitivity and privacy—all factors that further exacerbate the practical and intellectual problems of archiving. Dealing with silence often involves interpreting and fictionalizing what is described as "absent heritage," which implies working with deliberate and inadvertent forgeries and fabrications. That Soviet-era maps omitted churches, for example, offers an analogy to archival finding aids with missing or omitted information; in both situations, critical gaps in knowledge are a serious consequence. This work is highly recommended for various specialists in archival operations, including manuscript curators, records managers, digital archivists, and government-document specialists, as well as practicing and future historians. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-level undergraduate students through professionals/practitioners.'
- A. Sabharwal, University of Toledo, CHOICE

'The three authors are experienced archivists and are highly qualified to write about this topic...Readers will step away with a heightened awareness that silences exist in archives and will hopefully be challenged to question and interrogate the silences in their own archives.'
- Greta Kuriger Suiter, MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections, New England Archivists Newsletter

'This book is an essential read for any archivist, special collections librarian, museum curator, student, or anyone working/studying in an archive, special collection, museum, or organization that curates and maintains an archive. It is important to have a base understanding of why silences occur and their impacts in order to move forward in a thoughtful and deliberate way that will hopefully lead to significantly decreasing silences in archival collections.'
- Katie Nash, College Archivist, Williams College Williamstown, Technical Services Quarterly​

'The Silence of the Archive is a well-written and interesting analysis of important archival issues. Information professionals in other areas will be familiar with the idea that not all information or research is published and easily available. The book is especially useful for archivists or historians.'
- Gwen M. Gregory, resource acquisition and management librarian at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Information Today

'The three authors are experienced archivists and are highly qualified to write about this topic...Readers will step away with a heightened awareness that silences exist in archives and will hopefully be challenged to question and interrogate the silences in their own archives.'
- Greta Kuriger Suiter, MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections, NEA Newsletter

David Thomas is a Visiting Professor at the University of Northumbria. Previously, he worked at the National Archives where he was Director of Technology and was responsible for digital preservation and for providing access to digital material. 

Simon Fowler is an Associate Teaching Fellow at the University of Dundee where he teaches a course on military archives. Previously he worked at The National Archives for nearly thirty years.

Dr Valerie Johnson is Interim Director of Research and Collections at The National Archives. She has worked as an archivist and a historian in the academic, corporate and public sectors.


Anne J Gilliland is Professor, Department of Information Studies, Director, Center for Information as Evidence, University of California, USA.

The series editor: Geoffrey Yeo is honorary researcher in archives and records management at University College London (UCL), London.

1. Enforced silences–Simon Fowler

In Chapter 1, Simon Fowler describes how there may be significant failings at all stages of the process of selecting, acquiring and preserving records, which may lead to archival silences. The powerful may prevent records from being created, preserved or accessed or officials may be unwilling or unable to create archives. He discusses how records are at particular risk during periods of war or oppression and describes cases where archivists have failed to select appropriate material and how and where records may be deliberately destroyed. He also describes how the introduction of Freedom of Information legislation in the UK has had an impact, albeit limited, on access to archives.

2. Inappropriate expectations–Simon Fowler

In Chapter 2, Simon Fowler explains that users may sometimes have unreasonable expectations about what records have been created and what survive, thus creating an impression that the situation is worse than it is in reality. This is compounded by a significant variance in social organization and hence record-keeping traditions between England and Wales and other European countries. Here we have a secular tradition of providing social care going back to the early 17th century and we use the common law. In many other countries, care of the sick or impoverished was the responsibility of the religious for much longer than in England and Wales. Equally, the use of civil law has resulted in a huge difference in the way records are created and kept in continental Europe. Finally, British concerns for privacy have resulted in a less comprehensive record relating to individuals than in some European countries.

3. The digital–David Thomas

In Chapter 3, David Thomas describes how the move to the use of the digital in creating records has led to potential difficulties for future users of archives. Recently, there has been a huge growth in the scale of digital records which makes normal archival processing, especially selection and review for sensitivity, difficult. The procedures for managing records have not kept pace with changes in technology and there are specific problems with some of the newer types of record – e-mails, the internet and digitized material. Thomas considers the need for a new and more radical approach to the digital if it is not to pose an existential threat to archives.

4. Dealing with the silence–Valerie Johnson

In Chapter 4, Valerie Johnson goes on to consider what the possibilities are for dealing with these silences: the implications of the current outbreak of leaks of confidential information, reconstructing lost or damaged records, the possibilities of ‘absent heritage’, working around the silences, reading against the silences and including a broader range of voices in the archive. In addition, she looks at the need to acknowledge and value silences.

5. Imagining archives–David Thomas

In Chapter 5, David Thomas describes how users have dealt with silences – because the documentary evidence they wished to see cannot be found, they have used a number of approaches, including imagining what was missing or, in the absence of evidence, producing fictionalized accounts of events. While these are legitimate responses, some researchers have gone much further and based claims on the idea that something must have happened. Because there is a 17th-century pub in Southwark, The George, on the site of an earlier building which was probably known to Shakespeare, he must have visited it, mustn’t he? From there it is a simple step to forge manuscripts. Little is known of Shakespeare’s personal life and acting career, so why not fill in the blanks with a few spurious records?

6. Solutions to the silenceValerie Johnson

In Chapter 6, Valerie Johnson considers possible solutions – the role of various actors in the documentary and archival process, the joint responsibility for change, and possible paths ahead.

7. Are things getting better or worse?–David Thomas

Finally, in Chapter 7, David Thomas explores two questions: first, are the silences in archives likely to get better or worse? Second, what impact do these silences have on user-perceptions of archives? How do historians, our main academic customers, see archives?