Fashionable Nonsense or Professional Rebirth: Postmodernism and the Practice of Archives

  • Terry Cook


Postmodern ideas have been dismissed as fashionable nonsense demonstrating academia's arrogant incomprehensibility and equally acclaimed as liberating concepts freeing many disciplines from worn-out traditional constraints. This article explores the relevance of postmodern thinking for archival practice. Postmodern thinkers have discussed for several decades topics close to archivists' concerns, and more recently begun to address directly "the archive" itself as record, institution, and function. This essay looks at the weaknesses and strengths of postmodern analysis, assays some definitions of postmodernism in an archival context, and suggests how postmodern insights might change archivists' daily practice as they work (and live) inescapably in conditions of postmodernity. The principal focus of such changes centres around much greater transparency and accountability by archivists for the archival function itself and much greater awareness of the diversity, ambiguity, and multiple identities of records creators, information systems, and archives users. 

Les idées post-modernes ont été rejetées comme des absurdités à la mode démontrant l'arrogance incompréhensible des universitaires, mais aussi acclamées comme des concepts libérateurs permettant d'affranchir plusieurs disciplines de contraintes traditionnelles usées. Cet article explore la pertinence de la pensée post-moderne pour la pratique archivistique. Les penseurs post-modernes ont discuté depuis plusieurs décades de sujets proches des préoccupations archivistiques et, plus récemment, ont commencé à aborder directement le concept des "archives" en tant que documents, institutions et fonctions. L'auteur examine dans ce texte les faiblesses et les forces de l'analyse postmoderne, expérimente quelques définitions du post-modernisme dans le contexte archivistique et propose des façons dont les idées post-modernes pourraient changer la pratique quotidienne des archivistes qui travaillent (et vivent) inévitablement dans les conditions de la post-modernité. Les changements proposés se concentrent autour d'une plus grande transparence et responsabilisation des archivistes dans le cadre de leurs fonctions archivistiques ainsi que d'une plus grande sensibilisation de la diversité, l'ambiguté et aux identités multiples des créateurs de documents, des systèmes d'information et des utilisateurs. 

Author Biography

Terry Cook
Terry Cook is Visiting Professor (since 1998) in the graduate-level archival studies programme at the University of Manitoba, where he teaches appraisal, electronic records, and archival history; he is also a freelance archival consultant, editor, and writer (with Clio Consulting). He has taught at the School of Information, University of Michigan, and co-presented the first-ever advanced institutes for the Association of Canadian Archivists. Before 1998, he was a senior manager at the National Archives of Canada where he contributed to the appraisal and electronic records programmes for government records. He has published on every continent on a wide range of archival subjects; has conducted numerous workshops and seminars on appraisal, electronic records, and archival ethics across Canada and internationally; has engaged in extensive lecturing tours, especially of Australia and South Africa several times; and has served as General Editor of Archivaria as well as editor of two scholarly series/journals of the Canadian Historical Association. His most recent publication activity has been editing the forthcoming Electronic Records Practice: Lessons from the National Archives of Canada and co-editing Imagining Archives: Essays by Hugh A. Taylor, With New Reflections, as well as working on books on the postmodern archive and the history of the National Archives of Canada.
How to Cite
Cook, Terry. 2001. “Fashionable Nonsense or Professional Rebirth: Postmodernism and the Practice of Archives”. Archivaria 51 (May), 14-35.

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