The title of this talk indicates two things. Firstly, that I am the last speaker today; I actually asked to be last because of the second issue: After 36 years of working with archives, as an archivist, archives bureaucrat, university teacher and researcher, I wanted to offer you some reflections on my experiences as an archives professional and some thoughts about the future of archives and archivists. Your future that is, not mine, as I am retired and I have no intention of ending up as the seventh father in the house.


When I joined the Bergen City Archives 36 years ago, I did not want to be an archivist. I had just received my master degree in history and I wanted to be a historian. My job at the City Archives – arranging and describing public records from the 1930s (i.e. removing clips and staples and replacing them with folded paper and putting them in boxes and listing the files) – was not very intellectually stimulating; in fact, it was very, very dull. So when the City Archivist asked me to try and find records documenting the pension rights of a retired teacher, I grabbed the opportunity to do something different from moving paper.

The person in question claimed that she had had two more years of service than the Pension Fund accepted, and she needed to have these years documented to get a full pension. She had been employed by a municipality that had been merged with the City of Bergen in 1972. The records from this municipality were still in their original place, dusty and somewhat chaotic. There were several linear meters of documents to look through, and I remember thinking that it could take me some days to get through this stuff…, so what if I didn’t find anything? What if she remembered wrongly and the Pension Fund were right? How much time could I afford to spend looking for documents that maybe didn’t exist?  But then, if she was right, shouldn’t she have a fair chance get what was rightfully hers? Had I the right to refuse her justice? She needed hard facts to prove her case. And public records are usually considered to be hard facts, while our individual memories are not.

This was my first encounter with the call of justice in an archival context, and in an almost classical setting: on the one hand a person trusting her memory and demanding what she thinks is her rights; on the other hand her antagonist, relying on his records and claiming that she is wrong – and in comes the archivist, acting as the neutral instrument of society, trying to solve the case by finding the evidence in the original and authentic records.

Of course, this classical setting is based on a certain social and ideological conditions that are products of a certain society, namely the 20th century Western World: the notion of the neutral archivist, the notion of archival evidence, and the notion of authenticity and so on. In this world, the written record is considered to be more reliable than peoples’ memories; public records are considered to have stronger evidential value than personal records. The notion of the archival document as a “carrier of truth” is deeply rooted in European culture.

But this notion was to be troubled by the case of teacher’s pension. I actually found evidence that she had worked as a teacher in those two missing years back in the 1960s, but not in the “proper” records – her personnel file was missing. I had almost given up when I noticed some ring binders with bookkeeping stuff, and there I found receipts documenting that she had been paid her salaries those two years. But these receipts shouldn’t have been there. They should have been destroyed after ten years, but they had not, because the creating body had been dissolved some years earlier and the records had been left to themselves.

This experience undoubtedly changed my understanding of archives. They were not only historical sources, but could be of great value documenting people’s rights. And they were not to be completely trusted, they had flaws, records could be lost, destroyed, through what Derrida calls the “economy of accumulation”: “the social and political power of the archive, which consists in selecting the traces in memory, in marginalizing, censoring, destroying, such and such traces through precisely a selection…”.

Such selections, marginalizations, censorings, and destructions occur throughout the whole archiving process, the creators’ decisions what to archive, the registration and classifying done by records managers, the archivists’ work with acquisition, appraisal, processing and description, the use and re-use of archival documents, and so forth. Archives are not innocent by-products of administration.


Between 1987 and 2003 I worked at the Inter-municipal archives in the county of Hordaland, an institution that provided 33 municipalities with recordkeeping services covering the whole archival continuum. Norwegian municipalities are responsible for primary education, social and health services, local infrastructure etc., and we kept archives documenting municipal actions in these sectors. During the 1990s, we – and all other municipal archives – received an increasing number of requests from people looking for documentation of their own individual pasts; they could be former children’s home inmates, social service clients, or people who had insufficient education, and they wanted to use the documentation as means to achieve justice and reparation. These request for documentation of individual rights represented a major change in public use of archives, especially in the municipal sector. The main reason for this was the development of the Norwegian welfare state from the early 1950s, which granted the population the rights to a growing number of societal services. What we were experiencing then, was that the first generation of individuals who had the rights to these services, but for some reason did not get them, were seeking compensation for this and came to the archives for documentation.

When we started handling these inquiries we discovered that the requested documentation in many cases was poor or missing. Some records were deliberately destroyed, some had been lost and some had not been created in the first place. During the 1990s we had several requests for records documenting primary education of individuals from the Romani minority. In Western Norway, the Romani were nomadic during the summer half-year, traveling by boat along the coast. When a family came to a local community, they would stay there for some time, selling their handicraft or working at farms. Their children would attend the local school (there was actually a boy in my class in May or June one years, when I was 11 or 12). But even though I have been searching through a great number of school records, I have never found any traces of the Romani school children in the school diaries that the teachers were keeping. In these diaries the school teacher was supposed to keep a daily register of the pupils in each class, if they were present or absent, their individual marks etc. But I have never found Romani children recorded in school diaries.

There may be several reasons for these absences. I have not made a systematic study of these cases, but I imagine that a combination of two factors was essential: The Romani boat people were outsiders, they were discriminated against and the Norwegian majority regarded them as dishonest, thievish and immoral. Such common prejudice, combined with the fact that the children probably did not go to the same school more than a month or two, could have led the teachers to not register these children. Whatever the reasons, their absence in the school records represent one of the silences of the archive.

At a conference some years ago, a colleague came up to me and said: “Gudmund, I ‘m so tired of hearing you saying that marginalized groups are absent in the archives. That’s not true, the archives are full of them, criminals, prisoners, poor relief clients, and so on. What’s missing in the archives is the common law-abiding citizen”. And he was, of course, right. To a certain degree.

On 19 February 1931 the poor relief commission in the municipality of Bruvik carried out a domicile examination of Einar Andersen of Oslo, after supporting him with five kroner for a train ticket. Andersen told them that he was born in 1887 in Moss (a town south of Oslo), that he was a Norwegian citizen, unmarried and that he was a trained paperhanger. After finishing his four years apprenticeship in 1916, he had worked as a paperhanger for some years in Oslo, Drammen and Horten. He added that he in 1929 had been serving a jail sentence of 75 days for vandalism in Oslo. The poor relief commission then sent their report from this examination to the Oslo poor relief administration, claiming reimbursement of 2/3 of the 5 kroner that they had paid to Einar Andersen. The reply recognized that Andersen was a resident of Oslo, but added that “the person in question is a vagabond”.  I do not know on which grounds the Oslo poor relief commission made this statement. Nevertheless, their statement became the conclusion of his case; Einar Anderson was not a paperhanger; he was but a vagabond.

In cases like this, the construction of belonging to a group was essential: Municipal domicile records may record the clients’ previous occupation, but there are certain categories that do not label work or employment: In records from Bergen I have found the category S/S-girl (probably suggesting that the women in question, who often were unmarried mothers, were suspected of having sexual relationships with sailors). Another common category is “traveller”, “tramp” or “vagabond”, which in some cases may stand for individuals belonging to the Romani minority, in other cases unemployed migrant workers looking for work. Such categories were constructions of outsiders, reflecting the dominant objective of the social politics in Norway at the time, namely get rid of the “vagabond problem”. So in such cases the categorizations were acts of marginalization; the individuals were placed in categories created to serve the needs of government social politics in the pre-WW2 era. So yes, marginalized groups may be present in the archives, but never as individuals telling their own stories.


Verne Harris has told us that archives are the domain of ghosts: «For we who are living, the ghosts of those not yet born and those already dead call us. They haunt us». This relates on the one hand to individuals that we may encounter in the archives, ghosts like Einar Andersen, who haunts me, with a call for justice. “I was more than a vagabond,” he says, and compels me to search for other traces in the archives, traces that may tell other stories of his life. I haven’t been able to do this so far, but what I can do, is to explain the context in which the poor commission categorized him as a vagabond, and demonstrate why and how this categorization was biased. And if there are no more traces to be found, I must explain why such archival silences occurred, why records were lost, destroyed and maybe not created in the first place.

But, then, are archival silences a phenomenon of the past? Or do we still create such silences? In the autumn of 2015, the first year of what has become known as the European refugee crisis, more than 1, 2 million refugees applied for asylum in European countries. In Finnmark County in northern Norway, at the border post Storskog some 5.300 refugees arrived on bicycles. Russian legislation does not allow border crossing on foot, so they came on bicycles, through the barren and desolate landscape between the Russian town Nikkel and Storskog, and the images of cycling refugees on their way towards a possible new life, have stuck in memory, as a symbol of the events this peculiar autumn. After the border had been crossed, the bicycles were left behind. And because of Norwegian traffic regulations, which states that bicycles must have brakes on both wheels, most of the Russian bicycles had to be destroyed. More than 3.500 were sent for recycling. My issue in telling this story is to ask – as I have done before: To what extent, and how, did the Finnmark police, as a public body, and the recycling company, as a private business, document the collection, the handover, and the disposal of the bicycles? Will the public records documenting these actions be preserved? I presume that records documenting the disposal of lost and found bicycles are generally not considered to have permanent archival value, but this case is rather extraordinary – are there  procedures that can ensure that the records will be preserved, or will there occur another archival silence?

On a larger scale, we may say that the archival haunting relates to the broad societal mission of archives and archivists: to preserve and make available archives that may give society some sort of continuity. And, to quote Brien Brothman, “archival institutions are nothing if they do not primarily embody a community’s temporal inclusiveness. Archives serve as agents of openness to the dead and unborn generations, the past and the future, always struggling to achieve symmetry of concern for past and future individuals”.

But not necessarily so. Archives also embody discontinuity; they are houses of memory, but at the same time houses of forgetting. The societal roles that archives may play, depend on institutional strategies, priorities and professional practices (and of course on government funding). Terry Cook and Joan Schwartz have argued that archival institutions “are not passive storehouses of old stuff, but active sites where social power is negotiated, contested, confirmed”. The “stuff” that is kept in the archives obviously reflects power relations of the past, as they were created by government institutions in their exercise of power, but they are also influenced by the power relations of today, as far as public archival institutions in most countries in practice hold a monopoly on societal documentation. Archival institutions are generally established and funded by the state, or by regional or municipal authorities, and they employ the great majority of the world’s archivists, whose main task is to appraise, describe, preserve and make available the archives created by the same authorities. So the archives that are kept in public archival institutions represent a selective societal memory, partly because of their provenance (they are overwhelmingly from public bodies, private archives are few in comparison), and partly because of their bias (they reflect their creators’ view of society and their exercise of power, privileging and marginalization).

In Norway, the issue of collecting more private archives has been discussed during the last decades, and there obviously is an aspiration among archivists to do this. Since 2003, there has been made available project funding for collecting personal, organizational and business archives, but there is still a very, very long way to go. As long as the collection of private archives depends on project funding, it will not be an integral part of the work of archival institutions, a task for especially interested colleagues, more or less isolated from the other institutional responsibilities.

One reason for this is probably that the societal nature of archive creation has not been given much attention by archivists; the main focus has been on the individual archive, the fonds, and the relationship between the creator and the archive, the internal relationships between the records within an archive, and how these should be preserved, described, and made available for use. Research by theorists like Verne Harris, Terry Cook and others on the relationships between society, memory and archives, has not made much impact on the institutional priorities and practices.

On the contrary, it seems to me that the challenges concerning electronic recordkeeping have strengthened the institutional focus on the public records; new resources have been assigned to developing strategies for managing and preserving electronic records in and from the public sector. I do not doubt that this has been necessary; I merely note that we are not very much closer to the goal of creating a democratic, comprehensive archival record of society, than we were 20 years ago.

The key mission of archival institutions is to provide sources for history. In the current hurly-burly of digital recordkeeping standards and digitisation, it is important to remember that the public records that are created by such standards will represent a selective societal memory that has to be supplemented by other records, created by organisations and individuals that do not use standardised recordkeeping systems, but use whatever apps that are available. One of the good news that has come from the United States during the last few years, is the Documenting the Now-project, which aims at developing tools and community practices that support the ethical collection, use, and preservation of social media content. Are archival institutions ready to use such tools to collect other evidence than what will be found in public records?


In a society where ignorance has become a political virtue, and austerity is the order of the day, it may be difficult to imagine such a democratic, comprehensive archival record of society, in which records from all types of societal actors are preserved, in all form, formats and media, so it may   communicate different societal actors’ versions of events, activities, etc. Is this but a dream from an old and stubborn retired archivist, unwilling to come to terms with reality? Well, you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

Brien Brothman has pointed out that “[c]ontemporary society—sometimes even including its archives—has been prone to marginalize the archival relation, the gift that archives can offer”. This archival relation, the archival bond between the dead, the living and the unborn generations, must be the ultimate purpose of archival institutions. It is archives that make it make it possible for us to connect to our ancestors, and the archives that we are creating may make it possible for our descendants to connect to us.

So my call to archivists and other memory workers is this: Do not marginalize the archival relation. If there is one thing that I have learned from working with archives, it is this: Archives are about people. There may be standards and systems, regulations and procedures, but in the end all archive-making is about people. So I will end by quoting what Howard Zinn said at the American Archivists conference in 1970:

“I have only two proposals for archivists:

One, that they engage in a campaign to open all government documents to the public. If there are rare exceptions, let the burden of proof be on those who claim them, not as now on the citizen who wants information.

And two, that they take the trouble to compile a whole new world of documentary material, about the lives, desires, needs, of ordinary people”.



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