Thursday, March 10, 2005

Paper: Archivists as Postmodern Shapers of Cultural Memory: Documenting the Social and Political Movements of the 1960s


As Western thought and culture shifted from modern to postmodern in the second half of the twentieth century, postmodernism began to affect professional fields and academic disciplines alike. Although it was largely ignored and did not seem to interconnect with archival practice or the role of archivists as it did with so many other fields of intellectual study, postmodernism has begun to influence the study and practice of archives in recent years. Unlike the awkward connection of postmodernism and archives, cultural memory and archives are inescapably linked – principally in the way that archivists shape cultural memory through documentation.

In examining the role of archivists as postmodern shapers of cultural memory, this essay will attempt to explain three specific relationships: the relationship between archives and postmodernism, the relationship between archives, postmodernism, and the political movements of the 1960s, and finally the relationship between archives and cultural memory. To understand the role of archivists as postmodern shapers of cultural memory, one first needs to understand postmodern thought and how it relates to archives.

Postmodernism Explained

As it is often pointed out, there is no real textbook definition or consensus of opinion about postmodernism. It can take on different meanings in different fields, and is most always explained in a broad, expansive way. Canadian Archivist Terry Cook explains the first scholarly history of postmodernism and its broad affects:

In the avalanche of articles and books that have made use of the term since the late 1950s, postmodernism has been applied at different levels of conceptual abstraction to a wide range of objects and phenomenon in what we used to call reality. Postmodernism, then, is several things at once.[i]
Archivist Mark A. Greene suggests that “postmodernism calls into question enlightenment values such as rationality, truth, and progress, arguing that these merely serve to secure the monolithic structure of modern society by concealing or excluding any forces that might challenge its cultural dominance.”[ii]

In his research of postmodernism and archival science, Cook argues that “the postmodernist distrusts and rebels against the modern.”[iii] Enlightenment ideals of universal truth, objective knowledge, and scientific rationalism are dismissed as chimeras to the postmodernist, while he instead takes an attitude of doubt, distrust, and examination.[iv] Cook also explains that the postmodernist tone is one of ironical doubt, that postmodernists take things that are without question and assumed natural in society, and insist that they are unnatural, or cultural, or constructed, and in need of deeper research and analysis.[v]

Despite its popularity, postmodernism is not without many critics, who often target it in a political vain. Some of those critics argue that postmodernism is merely a left-wing political ideology created to focus on issues such as race, class, and gender, while others claim that postmodern historians are “theory-mongers.”[vi] Despite its critics and controversy, the impact of postmodernism, particularly in higher education, is undisputable. The disciplines affected by postmodernism are almost too numerous to count, as Cook explains:

A recent analysis has chapters on the impact of postmodernism on philosophy, and cultural theory, politics, feminism, lifestyles, science and technology, architecture, art, cinema, television, literature and music, and, from other studies, one could add its impact on history, geography, cartography, photography, literature,anthropology, sociology, organizational theory, linguistics, museums, and libraries.[vii]
Postmodernism’s effects on such a broad range of disciplines leave it open to varied criticisms. Its multi-level, varied meanings invite critic’s ridicule, but it does exist and is considered valid by some and invalid by others depending on their stance and interpretation of its definition.

Another feature of postmodernism is its ability to possess both positive and negative aspects. For example, some negative aspects include the distrust of key advocates of the sate—politicians, journalists, and media—that was generated by massive propaganda of World Wars, the Nazi machine, the Cold War, and Viet Nam.[viii] Positively, postmodernism through availability of information, on a global scale, causes “growing awareness of other voices, other stories, other narratives, other realities, than those that traditionally have filled school readers, history books, museums, public monuments, popular media, and archives.”[ix] The positive and negative aspects of postmodernism can reform archives traditionally and unconventionally for future survival.

Although the lack of a tangible definition or explanation of postmodernism might create a problem for some, and a source of criticism for others, the effects of postmodernism can now be felt strongly in the practice of archivists documenting and shaping cultural memory. In fact, Cook argues that “postmodernism is addressing almost everything an archivist thinks and touches, and, as a result, should command the attention of all archivists.”[x] In attempting to understand what postmodernism is, it also brings up the uncomfortable, and perhaps, unnatural relationship it has with archives. Indeed, postmodern thought seems to run exactly contrary to what archival science seems to be.

Archives and Postmodernism

In examining the role of archivists as postmodern shapers of cultural memory, the relationship of postmodernism and its relevance to archives is a starting point. The uncomfortable, and perhaps, unnatural relationship postmodernism has with archives is expressed in Cook’s query, “If postmodernists claim that history is a series of fictions imposed by those in power to augment their political and social position, how can this ever appeal to archivists, a large portion of whose work and clientele is focused on the past and its evidentiary record of acts and facts?”[xi] Cook’s question seems to be a valid one and in need of an answer if the relationship between archives and postmodernism is to be understood.

Postmodernism affects archives in two major ways. The first concerns how postmodernists are keenly aware of archives, and the second concerns how archivists are keenly aware of postmodernism. Because postmodernism relies on its speculation and examination of historical texts, as Cook argues, “postmodernism is thus concerned about the creation and nature of records and their designation, survival, and preservation as archives.”[xii] As postmodernism has grown to influence almost every possible discipline, it has become clear that we are living in a postmodern era of theoretical discussion. Archives, by its very nature, require that its practitioners be attuned to the political, economic, social, and cultural milieu of its society.[xiii] Cook explains further that “the ideas held at any given time about archives are surely but a reflection of wider currents in intellectual history.”[xiv]

Four more specific correlations can be offered that connect archives and postmodernism. The first correlation involves archives as records and institutions which reflect characteristics of time and place.[xv] The second correlation involves the influence of postmodernist thought on new archivists and academic researchers graduating from humanities, social sciences, and archival studies programs.[xvi] The third correlation is the challenge of postmodernist thought as presented to archivists.[xvii] Finally, the fourth correlation, as Cook explains, is that “postmodernist writers themselves are now beginning to address archives directly in their writings, as institution, as activity, as records, as recording media, as collective memory, as social phenomenon.”[xviii]

These correlations between postmodernism and archives demonstrate a new opening that has been created to challenge and provoke archivists instead of keeping them isolated within their traditional roles.[xix] Postmodernism can influence the study and practice of archives by tearing down ideas, beliefs, and philosophies instead of building them up and supporting them. Cook argues that postmodernism liberates the archivist:

It is a mindset that, within formal institutions like archives or university departments, must always be open-ended, porous, experimental, nonprogrammable, vigilant, self-questioning, self-revising, exposed to their other, inventive of the other.[xx]
Cook also suggests that, despite the paradoxes, postmodernism and archival science do not need to be opposites. In fact, he suggests that archivists may have unknowingly been the first postmodernists because postmodernism’s concern with “semiotically constructed contexts” of records reflects the long-held archival concern for contextuality and reading through and behind the text.[xxi] As compared to the postmodernist point of view, the archival perspective focuses on “the context, documentary heritage and structure, information systems, and exposes these realities.”[xxii]

Cook makes a valid point when he explains the significant link between archives and postmodernism by suggesting it’s importance can be weighed simply by taking note that Jacques Derrida, arguably the world’s most famous living philosopher, devoted an entire 1996 book to the archival profession—Archive Fever.[xxiii] Postmodernism can be used in three specific areas of archival practice: appraisal, description, and archival accountability. Postmodernism affects appraisal in archivists asking themselves who and what they are excluding from collections, and then correcting the situation.[xxiv] Postmodernism affects description in archivists asking what is presented and suppressed in finding aids, and then acting to correct that situation.[xxv] The third example of postmodern archival practice consists of archivists placing negative entries in fonds, showing researchers what the archives did not acquire alongside what it did acquire.[xxvi]

Archives, Postmodernism, and the Political Movements of the 1960s

Another explanation of the role of archivists as postmodern shapers of cultural memory is through the relationship between archives, postmodernism, and the political movements of the 1960s. Author and history professor, Robert L. Zangrando explains three significant developments that influenced the political movements of the 1960: The civil rights movement sharpened national awareness of racial issues, three overlapping generations of scholars, who devoted their time and energies to the field, and a fresh inclination among archivists and librarians to identify, salvage, and catalog civil rights manuscript.[xxvii] As Cook has previously stated, the growing awareness of other non-traditional ideas have given rise to new voices. Many of these new and varied voices can be identified through the political movements of different factions of the 1960s. Some of these voices first challenging the mainstream white, Anglo-Saxon, male voice were ethnic and multicultural and anti-war advocates of the 1960s, feminist women of the early 1970s, then by ecologists, gays and lesbians, First Nations, and increasingly Third World thinkers.[xxviii] Cook explains the postmodern cultural phenomena that resulted from the challenging voices:

As a result, society has become more aware of what postmodernists called ‘the Other’—those beyond itself, those whose race, class, gender, or sexual orientation may be different from its own, those who in a globalized community it can no longer ignore when constructing its own identities and composing its own narratives.[xxix]
Through the enlightening experience of the 1960s, historian and educator Bret Eynon tries to convey the passion of the civil rights movement as the great moral and historical struggle of our times. He explains the 1960s activists and makes sense of their chaotic world. The role of the archivist as a postmodern shaper of cultural memory is very important in documenting the social and political movements of the 1960s. This documentation and shaping of cultural memory can be enhanced greatly with the use of oral history, as Eynon argues:

As a documentation of memory that provides clues to subjectivity and consciousness, oral testimony could help illuminate movement political culture, the experience of taking action, and the related evolution of individual and collective consciousness. It could reveal the roots of activism in preexisting networks and traditions, the links between various movements of the 1960s, and the relationship between local and national developments.[xxx]
Perhaps more research needs to be done to examine how postmodernism affects the use of oral history, but there is no doubt that oral history is an invaluable tool at the archivist’s disposal. Despite this, the use of such oral history in documenting the social and political movements of the 1960s is moving along slowly. This also, despite the fact that many of the participants of this period still have vivid memories, most of the organizational records of this period are of erratic quality, and oral testimony is being used effectively in other fields of study.[xxxi]

The dilemma of postmodernism and its effects on the archivist should be specifically examined through the use of oral testimony. Eynon explains that “civil rights scholarship has revealed the value of oral testimony in helping scholars explore movement culture, examine individual and collective consciousness, and illuminate a movement’s deepest cultural roots.”[xxxii] While the postmodernist’s role is seemingly to question the unquestionable and, in some ways, give a voice to those without one, and the archivist’s role is to document that voice, the use of oral testimony creates a great medium for both. Surely, from all we know of postmodern thinkers, she would put more stock in an oral testimony from a participant than in a paper documentation source. Indeed, Eynon argues that “examining oral memoirs together with individual and organizational documentary records, scholars are giving voice to the tumultuous diversity that gave movements of the sixties their vitality.”[xxxiii]

Another movement to emerge from the 1960s was the women’s movement, which also has influenced archivists as postmodern shapers of cultural memory. Eynon discusses the political culture of the women’s movement using Laura Kaplan’s The Story of Jane. This was the untold story of an underground feminist group that coordinated the provision of safe, though illegal, abortions for women during the late 1960s.[xxxiv] This example illustrates information that was documented but had never been researched. Eynon says that through The Story of Jane, the use of oral history is captured by her journalistic style and dramatic re-creations, scenes, and dialogues.[xxxv] Eynon explains again how oral memoirs help document the movements of the 1960s:
Oral memoirs may yet help us consider how the civil rights experience shaped the
political culture of other contemporary movements, helping to build their energy, to drive their development, and to make the sixties one of the most striking periods of hope and failure in the long history of American democratic radicalism.[i]

The political movements of the 1960s, as described by Zangrando, ultimately advocate the availability of civil rights collections. He suggests that “civil rights specialists are fortunate. If they continue to conscientiously uncover, review, and analyze the documents that define and inform the civil rights story, then students in general, the Afro-American community in particular, and the public at large will benefit.”[i] Finally, Professor Kenneth E. Foote comments that “few monuments mark the course of American racial and ethnic intolerance. But even with respect to the activities of dominant groups, powerful forces may intervene to influence the record of the past, regardless of whether it is represented in an archival collection.”[ii]

Archives and Cultural Memory

Finally, through the examination of postmodernism, the relationship between archives and cultural memory can be expressed. Archivist Tom Nesmith explains the impact of the postmodern view as archivists aligning postmodern perspective to archival work and memory.[iii] Foote employs the use of an archives as collective memory metaphor to describe the social and cultural role of archives, arguing also that the interrelationship of archives and memory is supported by “theories that would view collections of documents and material artifacts as means of extending the temporal and spatial range of communication.”[iv] Nesmith explains the importance of archives and memory as “archives are the most precious; they are the gift of one generation of another and the extent of our care of them marks the extent of our civilization.”[v] He also explains the importance of the archivist to memory by declaring that “archives shape records by being one of the primary ways societies ‘defer’ such namings, meanings, and meaning-making processes to other times.”[vi]

Archivists can be linked to cultural memory through the transcendence of collective memories.[vii] Foote argues that assessing archival information differs from society to society, “in one society, oral and ritual traditions may predominate, while in another society they may be allied with archival records, written documentation, and even elements of material culture such as monuments and memorials.”[viii] Memory clarifies the cultural role of archives as hard to isolate from institutions and traditions, therefore, archives should be viewed in a broad context to understand pressures and growth that shape the archival record. Furthermore, Foote explains, “if archives can play a part in extending the range of communication, they can just as readily be implicated in any attempt to thwart communication by diminishing its temporal and spatial range.”[ix]

Foote emphasizes the relationship between archives and cultural memory as selective retention and has accepted the necessity of restricting access to certain records in order to balance national security, personal privacy, and competitive business considerations of public availability.[x] Foote says “the point here is not to realign values, but to help understand the conflicts inherent in any society’s attempts to remember and deal with its past.”[xi] Foote explains:

Archives are to be related to other means of memory conservation, and why some
events are so well documented and stir so much interest while others leave such a small mark on the historical record to the point where archives become a memory of last resort.[i]

Finally, Foote surmises through the relationship between archives and cultural memory “research can yield insight into the relationship of societies to their archives so that the concept of memory is not overlooked—or forgotten—in archival theory.”[i]

The postmodern perspective of archivists shaping cultural memory is introduced
When discussion turns to bureaucracies, governments, or corporations seeking to control, distort, or stop the flow of information. Foote uses the anecdote of the Ministry of Truth’s Newspeak, Oldspeak, and Goodthink in George Orwell’s 1984 to illuminate this.[ii] While professional archivists might not condone the effacement of records, archives are affected by pressures, secrets, lies, and distortions of information from outside sources.[iii] In terms of extending cultural memory, Foote argues that “perhaps archivists are more successful in resisting pressures, but effacement does occur with respect to representations of the past maintained by other institutions and by society at large.”[iv] Archivists are ultimately responsible for collecting and documenting and can be faulted by preserving the records of dominant social groups at the expense of the marginalized groups.[v] This is a problem that the postmodern archivist and shaper of cultural memory would surely not let stand.


Although confusing and often criticized, or dismissed altogether, postmodernism has begun to affect not only the entire range of academic disciplines, but also our society in general. Postmodernism can indeed take on different meanings and mean multiple things at one, but at its core is the concept of scrutiny and examination. As the two concepts seem to be contrary to one another, the relationship between archives and postmodernism is clearly a confounding one, but one that needs to be recognized and taken seriously. The social and political movements of the 1960s, by their very nature, were postmodern in tone, so the relationship that exists between archives and those movements is in how they are documented. The final relationship is between archives and cultural memory, and one might say that archivists are stewards of cultural memory, with the ability to not only document, but also shape cultural memory. As archivists become postmodernists, it is only logical that postmodernists will become shapers of cultural memory.


[i] Terry Cook, “Fashionable Nonsense or Professional Rebirth: Postmodernism and the Practice of Archives.” Archivaria, 51 (2001): 3.

[ii] Mark A. Greene, “The Power of Meaning: The Archival Mission in the Postmodern Age.” American Archivist, 65 (Spring-Summer 2002): 53.

3 Terry Cook, “Archival Science and Postmodernism: New Formulations for Old Concepts.” Archival Science, 1 (2000): 5.

[iv] Ibid

[v] Ibid

[vi] Cook, “Fashionable Nonsense.” 1-2

[vii] Ibid, 3.

[viii] Ibid p. 4

[ix] Ibid p. 5

[x] Ibid, 1.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Cook, “Archival Science and Postmodernism.” 4

[xiii] Ibid

[xiv] Ibid

[xv] Cook, “Fashionable Nonsense.” 3.

[xvi] Ibid

[xvii] Ibid p. 4

[xviii] Ibid

[xix] Ibid p. 4

[xx] Ibid p. 4

[xxi] Cook, “Archival Science and Postmodernism.” 9

[xxii] Cook, “Fashionable Nonsense.” 6

[xxiii] Ibid, 4

[xxiv] Ibid, 8

[xxv] Ibid, 9

[xxvi] Ibid, 10

[xxvii] Robert L. Zangrando, “Manuscript Sources for Twentieth Century Civil Rights Research.” The Journal of American History, 74 (June, 1987): 243

[xxviii] Cook, “Fashionable Nonsense.” 5

[xxix] Ibid

[xxx] Bret Eynon, “Cast up on the Shore: Oral History and New Scholarship on the Movements of the 1960s.” The Journal of American History, 83 (Sept., 1996): 560-561.

[xxxi] Ibid

[xxxii] Ibid, 570

[xxxiii] Ibid, 565

[xxxiv] Ibid, 567

[xxxv] Ibid, 567

[xxxvi] Ibid, 570

[xxxvii] Zangrando, “Manuscript Sources,” 250-251

[xxxviii] Kenneth E. Foote, “To Remember and Forget: Archives, Memory, and Culture,” American Archivist. 53 (1990): 391

[xxxix] Tom Nesmith, Seeing Archives: Postmodernism and the Changing Intellectual Place of Archives.” American Archivist 65 (2002): 24.

[xl] Foote, “To Remember and Forget,” 378-392.

[xli] Nesmith, “Seeing Archives.” 33

[xlii] Ibid, 37

[xliii] Foote, “To Remember and Forget.” 379

[xliv] Ibid, 380

[xlv] Ibid, 384

[xlvi] Ibid,392

[xlvii] Ibid

[xlviii] Ibid

[xlix] Ibid

[l] Ibid, 384

[li] Ibid,

[lii] Ibid

[liii] Ibid, 391

Works Cited

Cook, Terry. “Archival Science and Postmodernism: New Formulations for Old
Concepts.” Archival Science, 1 (2000): 3-24.

Cook, Terry. “Fashionable Nonsense or Professional Rebirth: Postmodernism and the
Practice of Archives.” Archivaria, 51 (Spring, 2001): 1-17.

Eynon, Bret. “Cast Upon the Shore: Oral History and New Scholarship on the
Movements of the 1960s.” The Journal of American History, 83 (Sept., 1996): 560-570.

Foote, Kenneth E. “To Remember and Forget: Archives, Memory, and Culture.”
American Archivist, 53 (Summer, 1990): 378-392.

Greene, Mark A. “The Power of Meaning: The Archival Mission in the Postmodern
Age.” American Archivist, 65 (Spring-Summer 2002): 42-55.

Nesmith, Tom. “Seeing Archives: Postmodernism and the Changing Intellectual Place of
Archives.” American Archivist 65 (Spring/Summer, 2002): 24-41.

Zangrando, Robert L. “Manuscript Sources for Twentieth Century Civil Rights
Research.” The Journal of American History, 74 (June, 1987): 243-251.