Teaching about international archives in the United States

By Joel A. Blanco-Rivera, from Puerto Rico, doctoral student in Archival Studies at the University of Pittsburg, School of Information Sciences, USA. E-mail: joel.blanco@gmail.com

This summer, as part of the Archival Studies program at the University of Pittsburgh, I will be teaching the course “An International Perspective on Archives.” This will be the first time such course will be taught.  Even thought a variety of courses from academic programs in the US include topics that offer an international perspective (with special attention to archival developments in Australia and Canada), a course that focuses completely in global archival theory and practice has been basically non-existent (my search of academic programs in the US did not find a course about international archives). For this reason, I will like to share in this blog my experience developing this course.

This course will introduce students with a diverse number of archival issues analyzed from an international perspective. The development of archival theory and practice, along with the foundation of professional organizations and the development of archival standards has put into perspective the importance contributions from different countries. In addition, recent developments more closely related with issues of access, accountability, and memory offer a great opportunity to understand and appreciate the international contributions to archival studies.

I divided the course into three main sections. First, I will discuss archival history in the 20th century. This will include a discussion about archival thinkers from different countries that have provided significant contributions to archival theory and practice. Second, I will address the topic of international professional organizations, archival standards, and archival education. And finally, the course will analyze how global discourses about postmodernism, post-colonialism, memory and transitional justice challenge traditional ideas about the archive.

A key to the success of this course will be to offer students an opportunity to learn about events and developments from different countries. That’s why students, in addition to the course readings (and reading blogs like this one), will look at a diverse number of case studies. The strategy to accomplish this will be twofold. First, students will discuss in class news, events or any other development related to archives internationally. And second, the class will have guest lectures by archivists with experiences from abroad. Most of these lectures will be accomplished using videoconference. Therefore, I will like to extend the invitation to colleagues that might be interested in being a guest for the class (it does not need to be necessary a video conference, we can plan a podcast or other form of delivery like blogs). Those interested can contact me through the email address above.

It is my intention to share my reflections while teaching this class, so I will be writing more about this in the upcoming months. I am also very interested to hear experiences from archival education programs in other countries. This is part of my strong belief that collaboration in the archival community, including sharing and discussing ideas with colleagues from all parts of the world, is essential to strengthen our profession.

4 responses to “Teaching about international archives in the United States

  1. Dear Joel,

    Your class sounds incredibly interesting; it’s a class I would have loved to take during my masters program! I agree completely that an international perspective is often lacking in archival education (and maybe archival practice as well?) in the US. I look forward to hearing more as it develops. Would it be possible to share a syllabus, links to readings, or videos from your lectures with us on the blog?

    I’m in the process of completing a “bi-cultural” archival education; having studied at the University of Michigan School of Information, I’m now pursuing a diploma at the Institut National du Patrimoine in Paris. On a daily basis I find myself trying to make sense of the “big picture” of archives.

    One observation I might make, drawing on my experience as a student of archives in the US and France, is the extent to which the institutional framework and legislation of a particular country shapes who the archivist is in that context. While some core issues can be considered universal to the field (descriptive and exchange standards, preservation issues, not to mention access, accountability and integrity) the position of the archivist in relation to government and policy makers can vary quite a bit from country to country and does, I think, shape the archivists’ concerns.

    In France, the archival landscape is defined by a network of public (governmental) archives on the city, departmental, and national levels. These institutions are all more or less under the intellectual control of the Direction des Archives de France, a centralized body under the authority of the Minister of Culture and Communication, which has legal power to issue directives and standards for archival practice. The archivist is above all a civil servant, and archival practice is highly normalized, especially within the departmental archives. Those archives that do not fall under the intellectual control of the DAF (archives in the private sector, the archives of other ministries such as Defense and Foreign Affairs), however, risk being left outside the archival “network.” A national professional association exists (the Association des Archivistes Francais) to bridge the gap between the public and private sectors, but it is the DAF that is responsible for defining archival policy and practice.

    In the United States the situation is quite different; the NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) system is of course the largest archival institution, but NARA is quite a young institution and has no control (intellectual or otherwise) over records and archives produced outside the federal context. There is a disconnect, then, between the federal level and the state or local level in addition to the disconnect between governmental and non-governmental. The non-governmental actors are many and quite powerful as well. Universities in particular (both public and private) play a central role in innovation and development of archival practice. An archivist might thus look quite different depending on the context in which she works (civil servant, professor, curator, technician, etc) and once outside the governmental context, it remains up to the good will of the archivist to implement professional standards and best practices.

    In addition to looking at the institutional framework, then, I would encourage you and your students to look at the legal framework regarding archives and records in the countries you study. I would be interested in knowing which countries provide legal definitions for records and archives, if these definitions apply to documents created outside the governmental context, and what sort of consensus exists regarding access to sensitive materials.

    I am very eager to hear more about how your class comes together, and wish you all the best.

    Anne Bast

  2. Joel Blanco

    Dear Anne,

    Thanks for your interesting response (and happy to meet a student from Michigan, where I did my masters). Your recommendation about looking at legislation is very good. I do not cover it directly from the topics I’ll be discussing, but one of the students’ assignment is to look at cases from other countries, and one of the areas I’m encouraging them to look is at legislation about archives. I’ll make sure this is covered.

    Thanks also for sharing your interesting experience. Would you be interested in writing a short essay (it could be the length of a blog post) that I can share in the class? It would be great for the students to learn experiences from archivists, and I’m sure they will be very interested in yours.

    I’ll be happy to share documents about my class. I’m doing the final edits of the syllabus and let you know when is available.

    Best – Joel

  3. Dear Joel;
    WOW!!! I wish I could take your class! I am currently at Wayne State university in Detroit, Michigan. I am finishing my Masters in History with two certificates, one in World History and the other in Archival Administration. I just finished a short paper tilted Whiter World History, about preservation and archival issues of Asian countries versus Western countries. I found the research compelling but also short in English language sources. I am constantly looking for an internationalist prospective on archives.
    As a History major I find that I get frustrated dealing with current Archival classes who only address North America archives and archival theory especially dealing with technology. Technology is an ever growing necessity in our world yet the internet is English centric and only 44% of Americans have access to it.

    In the essay by Jeff Sahadeo in Archive Stories, Facts, Fictions, and The Writing of History, writes about how the current “president” of Uzbekistan is attempting to destroy the historic record by preventing anyone to accessing records that conflict with his version and his historic role. Putting politics aside there is an international crises over funding of archives. It is a sad state of affairs when the best funded archive in the world is Corbis which is owned by Bill Gates! Or how the archival record is being eaten away by weather and lack of archival training in tropical/warm climates.

    🙂 I have been struggling to understand archives as a question of World History and not just that of an American. Thank you for letting me rant!

    I would love the opportunity to see your syllabus and your reading list.

    * Sahadeo, Jeff, Burton, Antoinette E.D.. Archive Stories, Facts, Fictions, and The Writing of History. ( Durham, North Carolina.: Duke University Press, 2005),

  4. Kiersten F. Latham

    This is great. Please do share your thoughts and experiences on the class. Looking forward to more posts.

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