Gudmund Valderhaug


Records play important roles in regulating societal relations. Records document property rights, the rights and obligations of individuals, make it possible to keep government accountable, and to access knowledge about the past. But these functions depend on societal confidence; society must be able to trust that records are what they appear to be; that they are not manipulated, but authentic and reliable and have value as documentation. The emergence of archivistics, or archival science, as a separate discipline can be understood as an expression of societal needs to control the information in records and archives. Likewise, we may understand the theoretical and methodological development of archival science since the 19th century against the background of changes in the societal functions and uses of archives, as well as the technological conditions for archiving and communication. However, such societal needs, functions and uses will never correspond to society at large; they will be influenced by the existing power relations and represent the interests of the economic, political and intellectual elites. Consequently, archival science is not a neutral or exact science.

Archival thinkers have generally dealt with written records, created by the state or other organs of government, and neglected other kinds of archives, such as oral archives, photographs, but also private records made by individuals, organisations and businesses. One reason for this is that the key archival thinkers of the 20th century – almost without exception – have been employed by national or public archival institutions, and this has obviously influenced their professional interests and priorities.

In this talk I will give a rough outline of the development of the archival discipline, and then say a few words about the development of the archival profession, before I conclude by presenting my ideas of what an archival academic education should include. In passing, I will also present the archives and records management program at the Oslo University College. The title of my presentation – between practice and theory – may be understood as a somewhat rather excessive characterization of the Norwegian archival community. There are relatively few colleagues that engage in theoretical issues, even though we are a few more today than a few years ago. A growing number of archivists are working with methodological issues, such as developing methods for digital recordkeeping and preservation, or for dissemination and outreach. Still, most archivists are mainly engaged in practical work. And it has been like this for a very long time.

Archival Science

It may be symptomatic that the book that for more than 100 years has been regarded as “a bible of archivists” – Muller, Feith and Fruins Handleiding voor het order en beschrijven van archieven – is indeed what the title suggests: a manual for the arrangement and description of archives. It is primarily a methodological and practical handbook, without any developed theoretical underpinning. And the authors’ errand was indeed not to engage in theoretical speculation about the general characteristics of archives and records, but to formulate a set of rules that could contribute to the establishment of a common standard for arrangement and description in the Dutch archival institutions (Muller et al 2003:9). Still, the authors built their methodological and practical framework on a certain understanding of what an archive is; to them, and their contemporaries, an archive was an «an organic whole, a living organism, which grows, takes shape, and undergoes changes in accordance with fixed rules. (—) These rules cannot be fixed by the archivist in advance; he can only study the organism and ascertain the rules under which it was formed” (ibid:19). This understanding was fundamental for the formulation of the manual’s two basic methodological concepts: the principle of provenance and the principle of original order.

Fifty years after the publication of the Dutch manual, Hilary Jenkinson expressed the same view when he stated that the archives «came together, and reached their final arrangement, by a natural process: are a growth; almost, you might say, as much an organism as a tree or an animal. They have consequently a structure, an articulation and a natural relationship between parts, which are essential to their significance (—) Archive quality only survives unimpaired so long as this natural form and relationship is maintained” (Jenkinson 2003:238-39). But, in contrast to Muller, Feith and Fruin, Jenkinson developed a theoretical basis for his understanding of archives. He defined archives as «the Documents accumulated by a natural process in the course of the Conduct of Affairs of any kind, Public or Private, at any date; and preserved thereafter for Reference, in their own Custody, by the persons responsible for the Affairs in question or their successors” (ibid:237).  When an archive is preserved in this way, through the unbroken custody of the records creator and subsequent depot institution, it is an organic whole, containing, in Jenkinson’s terms, impartial and authentic evidence.

Classical archival science did not provide much room for theoretical speculation. If the archive was created by a «natural process”, it followed (naturally!) that the archivist’s job was to arrange and describe it in accordance with this «natural» structure. Furthermore, the Dutch manual provided answers to most methodological and practical issues related to arrangement and description of paper-based archives. Eric Ketelaar (2000:234-35) suggests that the high quality of the manual has been an important reason for the low interest in archival theory among archivists: » This is the paradox of professional quality. Their early professionalism constrained Dutch archivists to ask “what” and “how,” instead of “why.” It led them to focus on the procedures, methods, and technologies of archival work and to put matter over mind.”

Classical archival methodology focused on preserving – or recreating – the original physical structures of archives. As a result of this, key concepts were often understood as physical, and not conceptual: provenance was understood as the concrete origin of an archive, in a physical office, while records were considered as physical objects. The functional and contextual factors that had been significant in creating these physical structures and objects were often ignored, and the analysis of the archive as an expression of the creator’s social position and activities was neglected. This led to a situation where archival science in practice was reduced to normative procedures, methods and techniques for arranging and describing archives as physical objects.

However, since the 1980s, the archival community, both nationally and internationally, has witnessed a remarkable professional development; I will suggest that archival science in the course of the last thirty years has evolved from an auxiliary science of history to become an independent scientific discipline. There are certainly several reasons for this; but I will restrict myself to indicate three important factors.

Firstly, archives and records have become increasingly more important in society. With the emergence of the “information society”, people are creating more records now than ever before in history, through our use of mobile phones, credit cards, and computers and the internet. And this new technology has opened up a new arena for making archives and records available for multiple users and uses. Another important factor has been the introduction of freedom of information legislation in numerous countries during the last half of the 20th century, which has made access to records instrumental in controlling public bureaucracy and politicians. And – partly because of this new right to access records – there has been a major change in the public use of archives in Norway and in other countries. Back in the 70s and 80s the «typical users» were academics (researchers or graduate students working on their master degree), family historians or people looking for documentation of property rights. Today, a substantial part of the public requests – especially in municipal archives – comes from individuals and groups looking for documentation of previous public neglect, persecution or discrimination, to achieve justice and reparation (for example the war children, children’s home inmates, etc). On the one hand, this development has altered societal use of records, bringing new users to the archival institutions and highlighting records as sources for justice, accountability and transparency; not only historical knowledge. On the other hand however, it has made archivists increasingly aware that archives are selective memories, not as complete and trustworthy as we may have thought: many of the records asked for by these new users did not exist or were insufficient. They had been lost, destroyed or maybe never created, due to previous recordkeeping regimes (Valderhaug 2001, 2003, 2005).

Secondly, classical archival science was challenged by the emergence of digital technology. The classical concepts – or the physical understanding of these concepts – were insufficient in describing the electronic manifestations of records and recordkeeping systems; they had to be replaced or re-interpreted by more abstract concepts. One striking example of this is the traditional notion of records as unique.

“Is a record unique because there is only one written document? This in contrast with books, newspapers and journals?” asks Eric Ketelaar in an article from 1997, and answers: “The uniqueness of a record is not caused by the unique character of the document or the information it contains. What makes archives intrinsically unique is their nature as the sediment of a specific and unique activity or transaction” (Ketelaar 1997)..

Another example of this development can be found in the Norwegian Archives Act’s definition of a document, which was changed from a «medium that stores information» in the original version from 1992, to a «logical demarcated amount of information stored on a medium” in 2002.

Thirdly, the notion of the archive as a «natural, organic whole» was challenged from another position: Foucault, Derrida and others had demonstrated that archives are constructed, created by human beings who transmitted their values and attitudes to the records. Thus, .archiving is not a «natural» process; it is a societal process influenced by political and economic power, by bureaucratic, legal, cultural and technological preconditions, and by the record creator’s social position, intentions and purposes. The archive is «the law of what can be said» according to Foucault (1992:129), or in Kaisa Maliniemis words (2005:4): «The archiving process is not an objective action, it serves somebody’s interests.»

These three factors (and several others) have profoundly influenced archival thinking, and led to the emergence of new and differing professional discourses and tendencies. (This is also the case in other disciplines: It is possible that the existence of competing theoretical and methodological tendencies is one of the characteristics of a scientific discipline).

One of these tendencies has been to focus on the archive as a system, with the goal of identifying functional and technical requirements for the creation and preservation of electronic records as authentic documentation over time. Another tendency has been concerned with the archive as a societal phenomenon, trying to gain insight into why and how different societies create and use archives; how the power relation in societies affects the creation and uses of archives; and how archives function as a basis for identity and cultural understanding. We might – with some risk of simplification – state that these are the two main tendencies within the international archival community today; however, I must stress that these tendencies are not mutually exclusive; they share a common base of concepts, ideas and insights that more or less constitutes a new archival discourse. One of these common insights is that the record creation process is an integral part of archival science, and an important area for theoretical and methodological research and development.

In addition, the Archive – with a capital A – has been discussed by a number of other academic disciplines during the last decade, especially after Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever was published in English. A great number of good and exciting articles have been published on the Archive as inscription, as a symbol and expression of power, as a domain of contesting and conflicting memories, marginalization and forgetting. But, as Terry Cook said in his speech at the Philosophy of the Archive conference in Edinburgh in April 2008, only to a small degree has this discussion has been about the real people that work in the real institutions and with real archives, and their professional attitudes, thinking, theories, methods and procedures that continually creates and recreates the character of the archives that is preserved and made available in these institutions. And, still following Cook, in this theorising on Archives the archivist has been absent not only as an object, but also as a subject. .The most important player has been missing in this context: the one that defines, selects and constructs the archives that are preserved; she who is representing and re-presenting the surviving archival traces for researchers and other users.

To sum up: This new professional diversity may be understood as a consequence of several factors: The computer revolution, “post-modern” influences, changes in the societal functions of records and archives and, of course, others factors not mentioned in this rather short overview.

The archival professions

The societal and professional development of the last thirty years has moved the archives professionals in archival institutions and administrations into new, more prominent societal positions. One very visible result of this is the increasing interest in ethical issues in the archival community. Twenty years ago, this was actually a non-issue. In the early 1980s, Hilary Jenkinson’s ethical imperative of the era of classical archival science still stood fast:

“His Creed, The Sanctity of Evidence; his Task, the Conservation of every scrap of Evidence attaching to the Documents committed to his charge; his Aim, to provide, without prejudice or afterthought, for all who wish to know the Means of Knowledge” (Jenkinson 2003:258).

The archivist’s foremost duty was to preserve and make available the archive as «impartial documentation» of the activities of records creator, acting as a neutral, impartial intermediate between the records and the users. This ethical imperative is not sufficient for archives professionals in the 21st century. In Norway today, both archivists and records managers play important societal roles related to the new and extended societal functions of archives. In the public sector, records are created not only to be an administrative resource for the records creators; they are also created to serve as sources of transparency, accountability and democratic control of government, to document and secure the rights of individuals, and to be sources of verifiable knowledge of the past. In our country these purposes are actually embedded in the Archives Act, the Administration Act and the Freedom of Information Act. Public records should be made for the benefit of both the records creators and society at large. This «big archive», the sum of existing and available archives, should be an important societal resource for the citizens. Jacques Derrida has characterized this social significance of archives with these words: «Effective democratisation can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and the access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation» (Derrida 1995:4).

This new societal orientation has reduced the distance between record managers and archivists. Furthermore, the recent development of archival science as a discipline concerned with the complete archiving process, the creation, appraisal, preservation and dissemination of records, has made the competence requirements for archives professionals in archival institutions and administrations more similar. The challenges that the professions face, as a result of new social roles and the technological development, indicate that today we need archivists and records managers with new competencies.

Working with archives should be a scientific discipline, based on theory and methodology, and not a craft ruled by law, regulations and rules issued by the National Archivist. It is not sufficient to have archivists that can use a set methodology to arrange and describe an archive, or records managers that can do their daily routines of registering and classifying records. We need records managers with a good understanding of the principles and practices of electronic recordkeeping systems, and the short- and long-term societal functions of records and archives. On the other hand, an archivist with no knowledge of why and how records are created, is unlikely to be able to do the job properly.

Records managers and archivists may be regarded as two separate professions, but they both need theoretical, methodological and technical knowledge that makes them able to analyze and solve professional problems. Such knowledge requirements are common for both professions to a certain degree: this might be knowledge of the archive as a system and as a societal phenomenon, as evidence and social memory, and knowledge of the principles for creation and preservation of records, of access and transparency, and professional ethics. Of course, both professions need specific knowledge connected to their specialised work, but the scientific base for their work is common to both. It is this understanding that is the starting point for archival education at Oslo University College (HiO).

Archival Education

Archival education is relatively new in our country. The traditional approach, both in administration and depot institutions, has been a practice-based training, where one has learned procedures and techniques with guidance from a more experienced colleague. One might even have been encouraged to read some professional literature. This normative learning method is not sufficient for archival professionals today.

When we revised the curriculum for the archival education at HiO for a few years ago, our goal was to create a program that qualified professionals for work in both administrations and institutions, based on the scientific quality of the archival discipline. We therefore developed a basic program that aimed to provide the students with a broad understanding of archival science, dealing with the archive as both a social phenomenon and as a system. One important feature of the HiO program, is that it does not start with archival theory and recordkeeping systems. Instead, the first module focuses on the societal functions of records and archives, to provide students with an understanding of why and how records are created as evidence of actions and transactions by records creators; how records are used as the means for transparency and democratic control; for documentation of individual rights; and as sources of knowledge and historical understanding. The core of the module is the legislation that regulates case handling, records creation and archival preservation in the public sector.

Archival theory and methodology is introduced in the second module. This covers the development archival theory, and the theoretical and methodological principles that are the basis for the creation and preservation of analogue and electronic records. This implies knowledge of ISO 15489 and NOARK, but also of ISAD(G), and ASTA. The core of this module is the NOARK standard. The third module combines appraisal and records management planning. This might seem to be a somewhat unusual combination, but functional analysis is a good approach for both appraisal and records management planning. The core of this module is the Australian DIRKS model, which may be used to identify documentation requirements in both a short- or long-term perspective. The students’ understanding is then tested through a project assignment in which they are required to write a dissertation which analyzes the documentation needs of an organisation and proposes either an appraisal schedule or elements of a records management plan. The fourth module focuses on the relationships between records management services, or archival institutions and the public. Our main objective is to develop a critical understanding of the archival professions’ roles as intermediaries between the user, the archive and the employer, in both digital and analogue environments and the ethical challenges this position might imply.

Our basic program covers 60 ECTS credits and is conducted on a part-time basis over two years. After finishing this basic program, students might undertake further studies. We offer three more advanced 15-credit modules on digital records creation, preservation and digital depot. These modules are thus focused on electronic records with a more technical approach than the basic program.  Students will learn the theoretical, methodological and practical knowledge necessary to qualify them to operate electronic recordkeeping systems, carry out data extraction and maintain electronic archives over time. Still, there are some challenges that I think we have not dealt with satisfactorily; electronic recordkeeping can easily become too much a technical matter, and this is problematic when we know how effective these systems can be as tools for registration and control of society’s citizens. So, in my opinion, we have some work to do before the theoretical and ethical aspects of electronic recordkeeping are dealt with properly.

Next year we will be able to offer our students a Bachelor program in archives and records management, and in coming years (hopefully rather soon) a Master’s degree will be in place.   My personal ambition is to develop an experience-based master, tailor-made for archives professionals working in administrations and institutions (and who have bachelor or master’s degrees in other subjects). I know that there are several hundred colleagues around who are qualified to begin an experience-based Master degree.

The current status of the archives and records management education at HiO is that we have 2.7 teachers and annually about 35 new students enrolled each year. This is a good starting point for the work ahead. Our main goal is to educate good, critical professionals, but it is also necessary to educate researchers and promote research that can strengthen archival science as an academic discipline. For this purpose, Karen Anderson has been appointed as a Professor 2 to help with developing a PhD program.


Archival science has undergone extensive development over the last thirty years. It has established itself as an independent scientific discipline. Archival professional are increasingly becoming societal actors, positioned between the administrations, the records, the citizens demanding documentation, and the greater society. For me this raises one fundamental question: to whom should archivists and records managers be held responsible? Our employers, who pay our salaries and have us at their disposal eight hours a day?  Or should our foremost obligation be to the archive, to ensure the authenticity and integrity of the documentation? To what extent are we accountable to the users of the archives and to those who are registered in the archives? And how does all this connect to our duties to society at large? Finally – in contrast to these «external» relationships – is it at all possible to listen to our own conscience? The archival profession, archival education and archival science as a scientific discipline can never be separated from the society in which the records are created, preserved and used.


Derrida, J (1996): Archive FeverDerrida, J (1996): Archive Fever. A Freudian Impression. A Freudian Impression. The University of Chicago Press, paperback edition 1998. The University of Chicago Press, paperback edition 1998.

Foucault, M (1992): The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. Foucault, M (1992): The Archeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. Pantheon, New York. Pantheon, New York.

Horsman, P, Ketelaar, E og Thomassen, T (2003): New Respect for the Old Order. Horsman, P, Ketelaar, and Thomassen E, T (2003): New Respect for the Old Order. The Context of the Dutch Manual. The Context of the Dutch Manual. I: The Amercian Archivist vol 66, Chicago. In: The American Archivist vol 66, Chicago.

Jenkinson, H (2003): Selected Writings. Jenkinson, H (2003): Selected Writings. Society of American Archivists, Chicago. Society of American Archivists, Chicago.

Ketelaar, E (2000): Archival Research saving the Profession. Ketelaar, E (2000): Archival Research saving the Profession. The American Archivist vol 63, Chicago. The American Archivist vol 63, Chicago.

Ketelaar, E (1997): Can We Trust Information? Ketelaar, E (1997): Can We Trust Information? I: The International Information & Library Review, Vol. 29, No. In: The International Information & Library Review, Vol 29, No. 3-4, 1997. 3-4, 1997.

Maliniemi, K (2005): Rapport fra forprosjekt: Nasjonale minoriteter i offentlige arkiver. Kartlegging av kilder relatert til kvener i Nordreisa og Porsanger. Landslaget for lokal- og privatarkiv, Oslo.

Muller, F, Feith, JA og Fruin, R (2003): Manual for the Arrangement and Description of Archives. Muller, F, Feith, and Fruin JA, R (2003): Manual for the Arrangement and Description of Archives. Nyutgåve, Society of American Archivists, Chicago Society of American Archivists, Chicago

Valderhaug, G (2001): Eit hamskifte i arkiva. Kommunal arkivdanning 1950-2000. In: Bråstad, K, Johannessen, K and Sirevåg, T (ed): Fra Clio til Kringsjå. Festskrift til riksarkivar John Herstad. Oslo

Valderhaug, G (2003): Recordkeeping in Local Government in Norway. In: Archival Science, vol. 2, no 3, Dordrecht.

Valderhaug, G (2005): Memory, Archives and Justice. Accessed on the internet at https://depotdrengen.wordpress.com/memory-archives-and-justice-article/

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