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Principles and Practice in Records Management and Archives

The Silence of the Archive




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

2. Inappropriate expectations–Simon Fowler

3. The digital–David Thomas

4. Dealing with the silence–Valerie Johnson

5. Imagining archives–David Thomas

6. Solutions to the silence–Valerie Johnson

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


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

Records managers, archivists, historians and other users of archives should read this timely and important book.

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.

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.

CHOICE (University of Toledo)

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.

New England Archivists Newsletter (MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections)

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.

Technical Services Quarterly (College Archivist, Williams College Williamstown)

'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

NEA Newsletter

'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. Overall, however, 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

Family and Community History

'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


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