Genre Theory, Archival Science, and Evolution of Records Genres in the United States

Jane Zhang


Genre theory introduced in the 1980s has seen expansion of its definitions and analysis models in the past few decades. This study was inspired by the power of genre theory to define flexible units of inquiry, cultivate new perspective of analysis, and embrace diverse methods of application. Previous studies in Foscarini and MacNeil reveal that our understanding of records (created in the course of business process) and archival description (generated as a result of archival processing) can benefit through the lens of genre theory. This study follows their examples to explore genre theory and its application in archival science. The research conducts first-hand observation and analysis on sample organizational records from archival collections in a variety of archives in the United States. The proposed presentation reports the preliminary findings from this on-going research and discusses evolution and characteristics of records genres witnessed in American archival collections and their impacts on the development of archival theory and practice. The report intends to be narrative and focuses on records and their stories in the history of records and recordkeeping in the United States.

Major records genres to be discussed in this research presentation include book-form records, paper file records, special media records, data-centric records, and electronic and digital records. The preliminary research findings reveal that these major records genres evolved in different historical periods, overlapped over time, and eventually found their permanent homes concurrently in modern archival repositories. The multiplicity and complexity of records genres pose substantial challenges for archival researchers and practitioners to seek theoretical and practical solutions for their proper care and use. This study was designed to investigate the natural accretion processes of these challenges and raise awareness of them by keeping track of records genres and telling their making and archiving stories.


Jane Zhang is an assistant professor at the Department of Library and Information Science, Catholic University of America (CUA). She holds a PhD in Library and Information Studies with archives concentration from Simmons College, Boston, and a joint Master of Archival Studies (MAS) and Library and Information Studies (MLIS) from the University of British Columbia, Canada. Before joining the faculty at the Catholic University, she worked at the Harvard University Archives and the University of Calgary Archives. At CUA, she teaches courses in Archives Management, Electronic Records and Digital Archives, Digital Curation, Metadata, and Organization of Information. Her research areas cover records and recordkeeping, digital archival representation, and archival education and scholarship. Her research papers appeared in key archival journals and other LIS journals such as Archivaria, American Archivist, Archives and Manuscripts, Journal of Archival Organization, Records Management Journal, Information and Culture, Knowledge Organization, and Journal of Education for Library and Information Science.