For centuries, the archivist was seen as guardian and keeper: someone who created custodial spaces for the capture and preservation of archives and who then let the public into those spaces to access the treasures in the vault. This class of archivist adopted conceptual and methodological frames that perceived of archival service primarily in terms of custodianship and protection.
In the 20th century, many archivists reimagined their role, embracing a “post-custodial” approach: a perspective driven in large part by technological changes that were transforming the ways in which societies created, managed, and used information. In this increasingly cloud-based digital world, archival practice moved away from physical defence toward virtual control. But even as archival administration became less and less custodial, the underlying premise remained the same: contemporary archival service was still defined as a responsibility to capture, preserve, and make available a body of records on behalf of some creating agency or community for the benefit of some user group(s), whether within or outside of that community. These archivists framed themselves as stewards and gatekeepers.
In the increasingly “post-truth” world we face in 2017, evidence, be it legal, documentary, or scientific, is being progressively devalued. Authentic facts are being supplanted, with impunity, by alternative interpretations and relative truths. In this politically fraught environment, the very idea that archives have an objective, enduring value – and that institutions in society have a responsibility to ensure their archives are protected and made available as evidence – is under grave threat.
What is the archival landscape of the future, if societies lose respect for the documentary sources that archivists believe offer independent and impartial proof? What will be the role of the archivist in this far-from-brave new world? Custodian? Steward? Activist? Guerrilla fighter? Perhaps it is time for archivists to challenge not only the questionable validity of custodialism but also the perceived legitimacy of post-custodialism. In the jagged landscape of the future, perhaps the archivist will be a chameleon, embracing change in order to achieve a still-eternal goal: to protect society’s documentary evidence against all threats – as witness, testimony, and proof.
Laura Millar has been an information, records, and archives consultant and independent scholar for over 30 years. She has taught for many years in the fields of information, records and archives management, as well in editing and publishing, and she is the author of dozens of publications and presentations on topics related to records, archives, editing, publishing, and education. Laura has consulted with governments, universities, colleges, non-profit organizations, and other agencies in Canada and internationally: from Ghana to the Yukon Territory, Bermuda to Prince Edward Island, Sri Lanka to Alaska, and Hong Kong to Trinidad. Laura is the author of The Story Behind the Book: Preserving Authors’ and Publishers’ Archives, published by Simon Fraser University in 2009, and Archives: Principles and Practices, published by Facet Publishing in 2010. For the first edition of Archives: Principles and Practices, Laura received the Society of American Archivists’ Waldo Leland Gifford Award; a second edition of the book was released in June this year. Laura has also received the Association of Canadian Archivists’ W. Kaye Lamb prize twice, for articles published Archivaria in 2003 and again in 2015, and she was made a Fellow of the ACA in 2016. When they are not travelling the world, Laura and her husband dig happily in their garden in the community of Roberts Creek, on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast.