The Four Paradigms of Archival History and the Challenges of the Future

The Four Paradigms of Archival History and the Challenges of the Future

Ivan Szekely (Central European University, Hungary)
Copyright: © 2015 |Pages: 37
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8553-6.ch001
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In the multi-millennial history of archives four successive paradigms can be distinguished. In the archival systems that can be designated respectively as entitlement-attestation, national, public, and global ones, their primary or new objectives, key institutions, specialists and target audience as well as applied information technologies and characteristic problems show significant differences. Alongside enduring elements of continuity new key features, functions and impacts appear, which together fundamentally change the actual role and ideology of archives. With an information-centered approach, this study attempts to include the most important characteristics of these respective archival paradigms in one coherent system, with a brief overview of the challenges the archives of the future may face.
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Archives, besides libraries and museums, represent one of the three prominent types of institution dedicated to the preservation of the past. Obviously, other important techniques and genres of ensuring the survival of the past also exist, but what these three types of organizations have in common is that they have evolved into institutions (and in the era of their modern development, typically into public institutions), creating in the process their characteristic functions, branches of science, professions and even specific languages.1 In most parts of the civilized world, these three institutions have happily coexisted side by side, each taking its place in the public conscience and carrying out its specific tasks in the accumulation of information, knowledge and scholarship: in general, in the preservation of important segments of our cultural heritage.

According to the superficial distinction of the lay (and, precisely for this reason, valuable) public, museums collect objects, libraries hold books, and archives store documents. Nevertheless, this distinction fails to work in a variety of cases. The fragments of Mesopotamian clay tablets or the Rosette Stone are held in museums, rather than in archives or libraries; and several libraries have extensive collections of manuscripts. On the same token, archives often complement their holdings with publications or even physical objects, while some of the museums hold hand-written letters or manorial inventories. To top it all, documents also have valuable physical features (material, texture, technique and aesthetic value of their production), just as objects have documentary value (their manufacture and use are proof that certain events did take place and certain practices did exist), irrespective of the type of institution that stores them. As for the more recent developments, the new information and communication technologies (most notably digitization and Internet access) go way beyond the already existing phenomena of convergence and tend to confuse the picture even further by concealing from the Internet user the institutions and functions behind the objects to be digitized.

Still, today’s lay public usually have some notion of when and why to visit a library, an archive or a museum. While touring some cultural attractions, they might even discover that the previous owners also had no problem separating the three functions: in Forchenstein (Fraknó) Castle2 under the Esterházys, for example, the three functions coexisted side by side (and two of them can still be studied in the original milieu and context, thanks to the good fortunes of history): the museum, which combined the functions of a treasury, an art collection and a natural science museum, served to demonstrate the family’s wealth, discerning taste and network of connections, while also presenting interesting and exotic pieces of information; the library was meant to accumulate knowledge handed down through history in printed form (its later removal from its original setting and its transportation to the family’s subsequent place of residence was decided only for reasons of convenience); and its archives served the purpose of keeping track, as well as providing evidence, of the changes in the proprietary rights and economic circumstances of the estate.

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