Documentation Strategies: A Decade (or More) Later

A paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists, Washington, D.C., August 31, 1995.

Terry Abraham

August 21, 1995

Five years ago, for a joint meeting of the Northwest Archivists and the British Columbia Archivists, I was invited to offer some comments on "Documentation Strategy," then (and still) much discussed. Since I knew little about documentation strategy at the time, I started doing some reading. And the more I read, the more I was bothered. And before I found what it was that was bothering me, I had completed an intellectual history of the concept. This was later published as "Collection policy or documentation strategy: Theory and practice," [The American Archivist, 54:1 (Winter 1991) 44-52].

In this talk I suggested that while documentation strategy had its theoretical benefits, it was better as an ideal than it was as a practical guide. In fact, it seemed to me to offer the practicing archivist little guidance beyond the themes of collection development that had earlier been expressed.

In my reading, I found that the basic concept of "documentary strategies" was first expressed by Andrea Hinding in 1982, although this was not immediately recognized by the later proponents. Hinding's presentation and subsequent article built upon the work of Jerry Ham and others in arguing for a more activist role for archivists. From that prehistory and early beginnings, we moved through what might be called the modern development of documentation strategy as expressed by Helen Samuels, Richard Cox, Larry Hackman, and others. These authors argued for a grand vision for the archivist, that one should look up from and beyond the document box to the broader world of documentation.

As I noted, it was not this grand vision that I found troubling; it was, as they say of the Devil, in the details. If you will remember the definition presented at the beginning of the session, "Documentation Strategy" requires an analysis of the documentary universe, the establishment of a plan, and the development of sufficient resources to effect the plan. For me the conceptual problem this engendered involved the awkward fact that I already was burdened with too many things to do.

I work in a small shop with responsibility for rare books, historical photographs, archives and manuscripts. In 1990, the year of my presentation and perhaps an unusual year, my biggest problem was figuring out where we were going to store the 1500 cubic feet of Senatorial papers we had just received; a gift that would increase our holdings by about a third. In addition, I was managing a NHPRC project to catalog in MarcAMC all of the archival and manuscript records in the state, and was gearing up to spend another $34,000 of federal money on a mining records processing project. Plus I was selecting books, answering reference questions, writing letters, attending committee meetings (including one planning the remodeling of the entire library), and keeping the computers running. Meanwhile, the proponents of documentation strategy seemed to be telling me that I somehow wasn't doing enough to be a real archivist.

At the end of December 1990 we had over 6000 linear feet of records; but only 59% had been processed. (At the end of June of this year we had trimmed that back to 5575 linear feet through discards of nonessential records which offset new acquisitions. As a consequence, we are now up to 65% processed. It is progress, but slow progress.) But I was supposed to ignore this backlog, a good portion of it inherited when I took the job, and set up a broad-based state-wide committee to research and write a documentation plan. A committee, I might add, that would attempt to dictate what my institution would collect in a particular area. Lacking the resources to hire even a student photo curator to organize a 36 foot photograph backlog, I was supposed to divert money and time into asking for help in determining what records I should collect. Lacking money and time to travel on donor development trips (it is about ten hours on the road to the other end of the state) I was supposed to help identify potential donors for some other archives.

I thought then, and think today, that I already had more plans than I could carry out. In particular, I was not finding the time for "(1) choosing and defining the topic to be documented, (2) selecting the advisors and establishing the site for the strategy, (3) structuring the inquiry and examining the form and substance of the available documentation, [nor] (4) selecting and placing the documentation' as mandated by the documentation strategists. [Samuels, "Who controls the past." AA, 49:2(Spring 1986)116.] While I might have thought that participating in a state-wide archival cataloging project meant that I was "examining...the available documentation" [p.120] I would have been wrong. "Documentation not start with surveys of available material. They begin with detailed investigations of the topic to be documented and the information required." [p. 120]

At least that was the idea; in practice, of course, I didn't, I couldn't start there. I was, as the bumper-sticker says, too busy fighting off the alligators to worry about draining the swamp (which is about as politically incorrect as a bumper sticker can get these days, what with endangered species and fragile wetlands).

Accordingly, my review of documentation strategy suggested that it had more value as a theoretical construct than as a practical guide (or strategy) for the day to day work of the archival repository. While it is important to keep one eye on the universe of documentation; it is also important to remember that we all work under resource limitations. A strategy is an action plan, while a theory is a way of explaining things. What documentation theory explains is that small things are parts of big things, and we need to pay attention to the larger whole as well as the smaller part.

I believe we are now at the stage best described as the post-modern period (in the chronological, not the lit-critical sense) of documentation strategies. We can begin to separate the underlying concepts from the strategic planning; we can better evaluate the goals and objectives in comparison to the costs.

If we focus merely on the strategy we find, with Angelika Menne-Haritz that "the underlying premises of all [content-oriented approaches to appraisal questions] is that archives aim at shaping as true as possible an image of society. But," she adds, "the raw material that we must work with does not conform to those ambitions." ["Appraisal or documentation: can we appraise archives by selecting content?" American Archivist, 57:3(Summer 1994)541] It is also the case that the archivists' job is to bring order out of chaos, a subject I treated in my "Entropy and archival disorder." [Provenance, 2:1 (Spring 1984) 94-99.] Thus archives are a representation of society. There is not, and can not be a one-to-one relationship between the larger society and its documentation. The map is no longer useful when it is the same size as the surface it maps.

Terry Eastwood notes, as well, that "archives are never a complete record of actions, only those for which memorial is needed. This alone should destroy notions of archives capacity 'to document society' or in any way provide a full record of the past." [Terry Eastwood, "What is archival theory and why is it important?" Archivaria, 37(Spring 1994)130]

Hans Booms once advocated something similar to documentation strategy. In 1991, at the Association of Canadian Archivists meeting at Banff, he recanted. He noted that his attempts in the 1970s to create what he called a "documentation plan" were not only never implemented in Western Europe but were completely rejected by his colleagues. In addition, key points of his plan, he recognizes now, were unworkable. His example was the advisory review board, which based on his over twenty years of unhappy experience working with historical advisory boards and commissions, he was inclined to withdraw. And, he added, where such a plan had been adopted, as in East Germany "not a single file had been appraised using the 'profile of a documentation framework.'" [Hans Booms, "Uberlieferungsbildung: Keeping archives as a social and political activity." Archivaria. 33(Winter 1991-92)28-29.]

Others offer a more "methodological opposition to 'documentation strategy.'" Richard Brown of the National Archives of Canada has proposed "a research agenda to facilitate the appraisal of constituent documentation based on strains of archival-historical value in relation and reference to provenance" within the context of a "pre-defined, clearly delineated information universe or jurisdiction." [Brown, Richard. "Records acquisition strategy and its theoretical foundation: the case for a concept of archival hermeneutics." Archivaria, 33(Winter 1991-1992)36.] This is a far cry from the all-inclusiveness proposed by some. We could almost say that the difference between a documentation strategy and such a records acquisition strategy is that the first attempts, like the Dewey Decimal system, to bring order to the entire universe and the second, like the Library of Congress classification, to organize a known entity. The fractal nature of documentation, with its links to other documents, to other processes, and to other activities, resists the easy drawing of boundaries.

Luciana Duranti, tongue firmly in cheek, described the ultimate effect of a successful documentation strategy program: "Considering that all archival bodies are interrelated, at the point that Russian archivists can even talk of the 'unitary archival fonds of the state,' we can view our societal archives as one large archives, and the entire archival profession as its archivist." [Luciana Duranti. "The concept of appraisal and archival theory." American Archivist, 57:2(Spring 1994)343.] Imagining this "unitary archival fonds" will give some archivists the courage to continue in the face of the manifold obstacles archivists now encounter; it will give others nightmares of entire range of new obstacles and disappointments.

As I pointed out, documentation strategies, as a tool for active archival involvement in documentation issues and archival accessioning, do not work in the real world. The universe is too vast, the would-be cooperators each have their own agenda, the eyes of the funding agencies eventually glaze over. A documentation strategy, as proposed, can not be done by one institution in isolation, it can not be done without additional resources, and it cannot be done in a world of archival poverty. Nevertheless, we still have those proclaiming documentation strategies as a great leap forward on both practical and conceptual grounds.

The theoretical construct of documentation strategy has a powerful intellectual pull and requires more careful consideration. Even experienced, hard-headed archivists have touted its benefits. We are all optimists of a sort, or we would not place as much emphasis as we do on the importance of documentary materials to our culture and to our perception of our society. Documentation strategy is a great idea (or complex of ideas) and well worth the reams of paper and resources spent upon it. Its virtues are the same as those elucidated by Richard Cox back in 1989: "as an analytical construct [enabling] us to look at the broader issues of identification and selection of historical records." [Cox, "Documentation Strategy case study." American Archivist, 52(Spring 1989)200; supplemented by his more thorough analysis in "The Documentation Strategy and Archival Appraisal Principles: A Different Perspective." Archivaria, 38(Fall 1994)11-36.] But this theoretical component must be divorced from the (im)practical.

This stance differs from that of Terry Cook who suggests that the strategy may be a worthwhile mechanism for locating overlooked fonds, but it falls down as theory. He argues that "it is not thus far a successful theoretical integration of functionalism and structuralism into a model of societal dynamics." [Terry Cook, "Documentation Strategy." Archivaria, 34(Summer 1992)186, 188.] Since I have trouble seeing how documentation strategy works in the real life world of many archivists; I am easily convinced that as theory, documentation strategy has major flaws.

In most cases, real life documentation strategies barely involve archivists at all. Joan Warnow-Blewett's account of the American Institute of Physics program and Ellen Garrison's stories of upstate New York are both illustrative. The AIP program, for example, started and operated without any archival input for over a decade. The New York project began with more of an archival component but has never been fully staffed with the nine regional archivists.

As another example, a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on a wonderful documentation project. Entitled "Behind the Veil: African American Life in the Jim Crow South" this Duke University project has many of the features of a documentation strategy. Relying solely in the Chronicle's account we see that the project resulted from a conference at Duke five years ago where "scholars began to recognize that a generation of African Americans who had lived most of their lives under segregation would [soon] pass away...." The principal investigator of this primarily oral history project is a professor of history at Duke and the coordinating is being provided by their Center for Documentary Studies; an instructive choice of naming. Teams of graduate students from a number of colleges and universities are doing the interviewing. Funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ford and other foundations.

But what of the archival involvement? The interviews and photographs, the article says, will be placed in Duke's Special Collections with copies in other institutions such as Norfolk State University. The latter's archivist is quoted as saying, and this is a real-world touch, "We are willing recipients of the fruits of their labor." [Chronicle of Higher Education. (August 18, 1995)A6-A7]

This important and timely project will, of course, provide a great deal of documentary materials to the archives involved. It may even open up some collecting avenues. But it is not an archival project. In fact, it appears to proceed on the basis that there are no documentary records from this period or that they are inadequate for the study of this peculiar phenomenon. It is likely that this latter point was strongly stressed in the grant application.

When I say that this is not an archival project, I mean that archival principles and concerns are not central to the project. The fact that it will produce or identify documentary material is a side-effect. The project's goals include books, exhibits, college courses, and a documentary film, not archival materials. Viewed in this light, we begin to see Terry Eastwood means when he says, "the view of the archivists as engineers of the documentary record of the past [a fundamental assumption of documentation strategy, eliminates any] possible claim for a separate discipline or profession of archivists. So the views of [such proponents] are anti-archival. They undermine alike a proper conception of archives and the development of the profession." [Terry Eastwood, "Nailing a little jelly to the wall." Archivaria, 35(Spring 1993) 251, n.16.]

When evaluating the validity of the theory behind the documentation strategy concept, it is best to stick more closely to archival issues. I believe that this analysis is going to have to contend with what has been called "the adequacy of archival documentation." [Larry Hackman and Joan Warnow-Blewett. "The documentation strategy process: A model and a case study." American Archivist, 50:1(Winter 1987)45.] I will leave to others the effort to propose an effective theory that both establishes archival principles and offers a meaningful action plan for archivists and archival repositories.

So what then remains of the documentation strategy for the individual archivist? As I stated in 1990, archivists will be well served by "an analysis of institutional holdings, a carefully written collection development plan, an appraisal policy, [and] knowledge of -- if not full cooperation with -- other repositories in the region." [Abraham, p. 52] Yes, these activities were well-known, but the emphasis and discussion on documentation strategy has reinforced their importance.

And what remains for the profession is to incorporate the documentation universe into its arsenal of conceptual tools; to create a theory we can use in planning, budgeting, appraisal, processing, and reference. Since archival theory so often derives from practice, we can hurry this process along by honing documentation strategies toward that archival edge that will make the our jobs easier.

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