Presentation at the Section for archives of parliaments and political parties – International council on archives
Conference in Oslo 23 – 25 October 2014

(Draft manuscript)

There is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory.
Effective democratization can always be measured by this criterion:
the participation in and the access to the archive, its constitution and its interpretation.
(Jacques Derrida: Archive Fever, 1994)

We live in a political world
The one we can see and can feel
But there’s no one to check, it’s all a stacked deck
We all know for sure that it’s real
(Bob Dylan: Political world, Oh Mercy,1989)

According to French historian Jacques Le Goff (1992:58-60), the appearance of writing led to profound changes in societal memory. Hitherto, the functioning of societies had been dependent on oral traditions or collective memories, for transferring historical knowledge and setting norms for social life. Writing produced of two new forms of memory. On the one hand, commemorative monuments, public monuments with inscriptions, erected by kings or emperors to celebrate and remember certain events, made a deep impact on collective memory. In the Greco-Roman world, Le Goff notes, such “’stone archives’ added to the function of archives proper the character of an insistent publicity”. On the other hand, the invention of substrates specially designed for writing: such as papyrus, parchment and paper, which replaced clay tablets and the like: These new media for writing, transferred communication and memory “from the auditory to the visual domain”, and created new forms of information storage, and documents that made it possible to register, memorize, and communicate across space and time, and if I may say so: to create new forms of archives because the new media could hold large amounts of information in relatively small spaces.

Le Goff’s two forms of memory, I would suggest, may also be seen as a basic historical dichotomy in societal memory-formation. While society’s rulers erected commemorative monuments as public manifestations, with the intention to strengthen their own power by creating and propagating certain “master narratives” about the present or the past, their “archives proper” were private and inaccessible for the public for exactly the same reason: to uphold and secure power. According to Michel Duchein (1983:2), “… the preservation of archives has always been linked to the exercise of power, since the possession of memory is essential to governing and administering. Accessibility to archives was therefore a privilege, not a right”. Archival collections originated as instruments of power, and “confirmed and certified rights to land, labor, rents, and produce”. (Lowenthal 2005:194).

The abolishment of autocracy in the European countries from the 18th century and onwards, led to what may be characterized as a nationalization of archives – what had been the property of regents became a national property. Stefan Berger (2013:3) notes that “national archives as institutionalized repositories of all the records that make up the national past is invariably linked to the modern nation-state on the one hand and the rise of a professional and independent discipline of history on the other”. However, access to the national archives in most European countries was not yet a right in the 19th century. According to Berger, access had to be “granted by state authorities [who] … were most keen that archival revelations should not lead to scandal or unwanted truth to emerge from the depth of the archive” (ibid:7). And the writing of national histories, “the grand stories that came to structure many people’s understanding of the nation’s historical development were not constructed out of prolonged engagement with national archives, but were told in a particular historical–political situation and out of particular sets of ideological–normative commitments of the national historians…” (ibid: 17). So, I am tempted to say that the national histories that were written in the 19th century, in many ways substituted the medieval monuments – and indeed were monuments in their own right, communicating the master narratives of the new national states to uphold and secure these states as independent entities –, while the archives were still inaccessible for the public.

Of course, this account of this historical dichotomy between the functions of public memory-making artefacts and the inaccessible archives is a rather simplified version of the history of archives, and probably a rather European version as well. Still, it will hopefully serve my errand here today, which is to explore some aspects of archives as instruments of power and democracy.


In 1814, Norway had no national archives. This was set up in three years later, allegedly after an incident when a group of drunken soldiers ran out of money, and decided to steal documents from the vaults of Akershus Castle (where the state’s archives were stored), and sell these to paper merchants to get hold of more money for drink. The National Archives was initially set up as a sub-function of the Ministry of Finances, to “be the Government’s archives, and first and foremost serve the requirements for information in the course of business. Research and other interests were not considered at this time” (Herstad 2008:20).
The change came in 1846, when the National Archives became a more independent institution under the Ministry of Church Affairs, which – according to Herstad – signified that research interests were emerging as an important raison de’être. The archives should no longer be an administrative and legal resource for the state administration alone, but also serve historical research, and this change represented an emergent opening of the archives for the public. Still, mainly researchers were given access and then only to archival records of the past, but not necessarily to current records in the Ministries.

It is interesting then, to note that the sessions of the Storting were open to the public, and that the records of the proceedings from 1814 and onwards were printed and – in principle – available for everyone. This was not the case for the records of the state administration. Indeed, a law proposal on freedom of information was discussed in the Storting as early as 1845, but was rejected on the grounds that “the state administration requires, as every other human activity, a certain degree of peace and independence, if it should function in a proper manner”. The Freedom of Information Act was eventually passed by the Storting 125 years later, in 1970, giving everybody – literally everybody, not only Norwegian citizens – “the right of access to documents held by public authorities and public undertakings”. (There are exceptions, of course, mainly records containing information formation about national security, and personal information).

Today, the principle of freedom of information is generally justified with the regard to democracy and the rule of law. Public access to information about current proceedings and decisions in public bodies is regarded as crucial grounds for a democracy which also includes the common citizen. In Norway, the introduction of freedom of information has contributed to a significant democratization of public archives. This democratization has occurred because of, and has been an essential part of, the political struggle for a broader and more inclusive democracy. Today, literally all municipal, regional and state administrations are publishing daily registers of incoming and sent mail on the Internet, and any member of the public can ask to see any of the documents listed.

This may look very much like a model of transparency, a fulfilment of Derrida’s criterion on access, but that doesn’t mean that everything always is done according to the rules. Records are documenting the domain of politics, and the practicing of politics, even in a democratic state like Norway, sometimes becomes nasty and secretive, and is producing exactly – in Bob Dylan’s words – a stacked deck, records that are inaccessible, or incomplete and biased.


In his seminal article “Against the grain: Psychologies and politics of secrecy” (2009), Verne Harris of the Nelson Mandela Foundation quotes British sociologist Richard Hoggart, saying that “A well-running democracy will constantly quarrel with itself, publicly, about the right things and in the right way.” According to Harris, this notion of quarrelling “in the right way” implies “a web of contracts, expressed in constitutions, laws, codes and agreements” that should regulate democratic contestation, making it “vital to the continued and open-ended making and remaking of democracy” (Harris 2009).

The relationship between freedom of information and secrecy is one of the things that should be regulated by such “contracts”. If we look back, to the age of autocracy, or to the (European) democracies of the 19th and early 20th century, secrecy had the upper hand. In his 1983 RAMP study on access to archives, Michel Duchein (1983:4-5) asserts that before WW2

«Nowhere, with the sole exception of Sweden, was the right of access to archives explicity linked to the exercise of democratic rights. In other words, laws and regulations were formulated exclusively to facilitate historical and scholarly research using documents from the past, but never to provide the public with information on recent or current governmental or administrative procedures.»

Post-WW2 development slowly altered this situation, and freedom of information acts were eventually passed in a growing number of countries. Today, transparency has become the order of the day for governments on all continents. According to Michael Cook (2011:102), the introduction of freedom of information has led to “profound changes in recordkeeping practice”. Obviously, if current records should be accessible for the public, there must be good recordkeeping systems to make sure that records can identified when asked for, and well qualified records managers to operate these systems. In my opinion, the development of standards like ISO 15489 and the rise of the new records management profession as well, are closely connected with the emergence of open government.
On the other hand, freedom of information has created some significant problems. Michael Cook quotes Tony Blair, who in his memoir made this “extraordinary pronouncement”:

«Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it» (Cook 2011:100).

As Tony Blair apparently found out, freedom of information is problematic, because the interests of government and the public are not always concurrent. The public – generally represented by the press – always wants to know what is going on, but government, at all levels, may want “a certain degree of peace and independence” when working with a certain issue. So sometimes, to get around transparency, records that should have been created are not being created. More commonly, records are not registered in the recordkeeping system and thus made inaccessible for the public. In the last six years, two Norwegian ministers have been forced to resign because they were involved in cases when records had not been registered and then made some rather disastrous efforts to cover this up.
When such things happen, contract is being broken. As citizens in a democratic society, we accept government’s right to keep certain thing secret, as long as we can trust that they do not misuse this right. If they misuse it, contract is being broken, and our confidence in government and politicians will decline, and then, if misuse becomes frequent, democracy itself may be threatened.

This contract, the rules that regulates access to current and archival records, has been and still is an object of political conflict, between those who want more openness and those who want less openness. And this is even more the case when it comes to the practicing of such rules. Archivists are sometimes involved in such conflicts, e.g. when they have to decide if they shall give an individual access to certain document or not. In such cases, Verne Harris warns us that it is “not sufficient to apply contract in [an] extremely legalistic mode. This, I would insist, is to confuse law with justice. There are different ways of applying contract. There are different ways of interpreting it. If we are concerned about ‘getting it right’ then we must refuse to stop at contract. We must reach for justice” (Harris 2009).

There are many areas in which an archival justice may play a part; one example is the Norwegian War Children’s struggle for reparation. The “War Children” had been born between 1941 and -46 by Norwegian mothers and with German fathers. In 1987, when new legislation gave adopted children the right to know who their biological parents were, individual War Children approached the archives where the adoption files were kept and became aware of the Lebensborn archive. This archive, which had been created by the Nazi Lebensborn organisation, contained information about some 8.000 children and their parents.

During the late 1980s and the 1990s more than 1 500 individual war children approached the National Archives alone to find information about their biological family. Such things also occurred in other countries that had been under German occupation, but Norway was in one respect special: the major public issue concerning the war children was not to be the individuals’ search for their family roots, but their struggle for justice, for restitution for the discrimination and harassment that they had experienced as a result of the state’s politics during the first years after WW2. I have discussed possible reasons for this in my article Memory, justice and the public record, published in Archival Science (Valderhaug 2011), and I do not have time to repeat this today, so let me just state two points: The war children’s organised struggle for justice and its success, which caused the Norwegian Prime Minister to publicly ask forgiveness for society’s mistreatment in his New Year Speech in 2000, was largely dependent on two factors: Firstly, the existence of one central archive in which records concerning each war child had been accumulated (and not dispersed in local birth registers), and secondly, that these records were opened and made accessible for those concerned.

There have been many comparable cases in all parts of the world during the last 20-30 years – too many to mention here – and even though these have differed greatly in scale and matter, I believe there is one important lesson to learn from them: Without the records, or without access to the records, justice might have failed.


In their introduction to the first of Archival Science’s two thematic issues on archives, records, and power from 2002, Terry Cook and Joan Swartz argue that archival institutions “are not passive storehouses of old stuff, but active sites where social power is negotiated, contested, confirmed” (Cook & Swartz 2002:1). The “stuff” that is kept in these archives obviously reflects power relations of the past, as it was created by government institutions in their exercise of power, but it is also influenced by the power relations of today, as far as public archival institutions in many 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 task is it to preserve and make available the archives created by the institutions’ sponsors. Cook and Swartz’ main errand was to make archivists aware of their own power, make them question how they use this power, and to encourage them to select and make available a more diverse and democratic public record. Their justification for this was that

«[m]emory, like history, is rooted in archives. Without archives, memory falters, knowledge of accomplishments fades, pride in a shared past dissipates. Archives counter these losses. Archives contain the evidence of what went before. This is particularly germane in the modern world. With the disappearance of traditional village life and the extended family, memory based on personal, shared story-telling is no longer possible; the archive remains as one foundation of historical understanding. Archives validate our experiences, our perceptions, our narratives, our stories» (ibid:8).

These are powerful words, and I take it that all archivists will agree. Archives should be a basis for human knowledge about the past, as current records should be an important resource for knowledge about the present. And – as access to archives and records has become a democratic right in most countries, and the ICT revolution has given us effective tools to communicate and share information – we can observe that the public use of archives has increased greatly, but almost exclusively for genealogical research. The Norwegian site Digitalarkivet, which is run by the National Archives and gives access to censuses, and birth-, marriage- and death-registers, had around 5000 visitors each day last year.

Another growing area has been local and community history; thanks to the development of social media there are thousands of groups collecting and sharing local, mostly private, records – especially photographs – on Facebook or Flickr, creating archives that I am tempted to compare with the “shared story-telling” of the “traditional village life and the extended family”. Such archives may contribute to local identity and local historical knowledge, but their impact outside their community is rather small.

The increased use of archival records for justice, for genealogical research and local and community history are all results of an extended access to society’s archives. The dichotomy between the public commemorative monuments and the closed archives no longer exists.

The statue of King Christian Fredrik outside the Storting building was unveiled on 17 May this year and may be regarded as a national commemorative monument. Christian Fredrik was elected King in the spring of 1814 and was forced to abdicate in the autumn, due to Norway’s union with Sweden. His role in Norway’s struggle for independence has been – and is – contested; he has been characterised as everything between a hero and a coward. So, when the plan of a commemorative 1814 monument, being a statue of Christian Fredrik, was made public, there was a passionate public debate. Needless to say, freedom of information and public access to current records was an important prerequisite for this debate. So the existence of this monument does not necessarily contribute to any “master narrative” about the events in 1814. Such a master narrative did indeed exist, but it has been challenged and nuanced by professional and amateur historians, drawing knowledge from evidence in open and accessible archives.

Berger, S (2013): The role of national archives in constructing national master narratives in Europe . Archival Science, vol 13, issue 1
Cook, M (2011): Freedom of Information. Influence upon professional practice in recordkeeping. Acervo, Rio de Janeiro, v. 24, no 1, Suplemento
Cook, T og Scwartz, J (2002): Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory. Archival Science vol 2, issue 1
Duchein, M (1983): Obstacles to Access, Use and Transfer of Information from Archives: A RAMP Study. Unesco, Paris
Harris, V (2009): Against the gran: psychologies and politics of secrecy. Archival Science , vol. 9, issue 3-4
Herstad, J (2008): “Archivaren, – Gud bevar’en”. Henrik Wergeland som riksarkivar. Riksarkivarens skriftserie 29. Messel forlag, Oslo
Le Goff, J (1992): History and Memory, Columbia University Press, New York/Oxford
Valderhaug, G (2011): Memory, justice and the public record. Archival Science, vol 11 issue 1-2

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