Public history

Archives on hold? Some comments on the first #ForumZLu

Archives on hold? Some comments on the first #ForumZLu
The history of archives and archiving practices needs to be seen as closely related to trends and fashions in historical research, its methodological underpinnings and its definitions of culture.

In the nineteenth century, “culture was linked to the construction of nation states and concepts of social order” (Bennett 1995). “Culture” was thus assigned a unifying, value-defining and secular-religious function within a national and hierarchical framework of reference. From the late nineteenth century onwards, however, the cultural sciences began to broaden this narrow definition. In this wider perspective, “culture” referred to the traditions and ways of life of different social strata, to social groups and their mentalities, to the link between culture and society, to the symbolic coding of everyday things, to consumption, taste and lifestyles, and to popular culture, mass media and their conditions of production. In keeping with this approach, the new cultural history, which gained international traction at the end of the twentieth century, was inspired and influenced by the history of mentalities (histoire des mentalités) and the history of everyday life (Alltagsgeschichte).

Die Rede von den Quellen ist in einer Fachsprache wie der philologisch-historischen kaum noch als Metapher wahrgenommen. Wird sie durch einen unerwarteten Akt des zögernden Gebrauchs wieder hörbar “beim Wort genommen”, so zerbricht eine Selbstverständlichkeit in der Lebenswelt aller, die sich der Fachsprache bedienen. Etwas historisch Entschlafenes wird ins Leben zurückgerufen.

Hans Blumenberg. Quellen, Ströme, Eisberge (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2012), 18.

Primarily associated with the French Annales School (founded in 1929), the history of mentalities is seen as a deliberate counterpoint to purely political and event history. The history of mentalities led to a major shift in historical interest, lowering the threshold of what was considered to be “proper” history. It was a shift from the centre to the margins, from political to social history and, within the latter, to society’s peripheries and marginal groups.

Analysing sources for the history of mentalities held some surprises, since previously ignored sources such as tax or demographic records or letters (especially family correspondence) as well as biographical, literary and visual sources from a variety of different backgrounds and origins were elevated in status and now seen as meaningful historical documents. A major role was played by the quantitative-serial analysis of sources. Serial historiography was capable of breaking down the traditional ordering of events by time period in terms of political history.

In dialogue with the Annales School and inspired by ethnological and cultural anthropological research (for example by Edward P. Thompson and Carlo Ginzburg), the term Alltagsgeschichte (history of everyday life) emerged in the West German context in the late 1970s. A peculiarity of the history of everyday life is its success outside academia, with “history workshops” enjoying broad popular appeal. While the history of everyday life draws on sources that are as varied and diverse as those used in the history of mentalities, the former puts greater emphasis on material remains such as clothing, religious artefacts and instruments and tools of daily use. Another methodological and thematic characteristic of the history of everyday life is the introduction of “oral history”. Since data can thus be collected even where there are few or no written or audiovisual sources, this paves the way for a vast expansion of historical research, especially on social groups who leave behind only indirect traces or no traces in the archives at all.

The British cultural studies approach deserves equal attention in this context. “Culture” here refers to everyday practices and ways of life permeating all societal spheres. The development and establishment of cultural studies is above all associated with names such as Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart. Considered to be the founder of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS, 1964-2002) in Birmingham, Hoggart, in his work, was primarily concerned with distinguishing between popular culture, in the sense of an authentic working-class culture, and manipulative mass culture, the term already implying the critical view he took of the latter. This rather one-sided perspective was expanded on by the interpretation of pop culture as a protest form, which was inspired by George Melly in 1970 and productively and successfully continued by analyses of subcultures undertaken at the CCCS.

The interest of recent cultural history in the history of mentalities and in ethnographical issues also results from an interdisciplinary alliance with anthropological research, which for some time has dealt with questions of kinship relations, religiosity, rites of passage, spatiality and temporality, corporeality and sexuality, feelings and media representations. This is also the source of inspiration for cultural history’s growing interest not only in oral and material sources but also in photography, film, music, technological and ecological history and the history of the senses. While both the British cultural studies school and approaches within the Annales School stimulated analysis of material culture, the growing importance of visual analysis in historical research was above all initiated by studies in the field of visual anthropology.

In sum, historiographical shifts led to an extension of geographical scopes and a focus on ecologies beyond national borders; they resulted in the analysis of longer time periods, in research agendas that introduced serial analysis and in the subsequent combination of the global with the local and the inclusion of a huge variety of different sources and artefacts that for most researchers existed on the same plane and were analysed as intertwined. As such, traditional hierarchies of materials and methods of interpretation were questioned and replaced step by step.

Against this background, the emergence and handling of big data in digital history should not be considered as a categorical shift but rather as a development that already started some time ago as a result of shifts in historiography and recording technologies. These shifts challenged archival routines. Archives had to find new approaches to their daily work: they had to change their established frame of reference with its focus on the nation state and political history, and they had to think of alternative ways of collecting and categorising archival materials.

Recently, both researchers and the broader public have been calling for archives to change their identity once again and to become aware of their new role in society. Archives are being asked to showcase their holdings and collections in digitised form, to document and improve transparency on their methods of collection and selection and on the “archaeology” of documents. Different communities, including migrants, are now joining historians in wanting to write and share their histories; they are calling for archives to offer access and to become inclusive and participatory public spaces and places.

Es ist bezeichnend für die Funktion der Metapher, daß sie von der fachsprachlichen Fixierung eines Ausdrucks in dem Augenblick auf seinen imaginären Horizont hinüberschwenkt, wo eine Disziplin den Umkreis ihrer langfristigen definierten Gegenständlichkeit sprengt, um neuerdings festzulegen, womit sie es zu tun hat und mit welchen Mitteln sie sich dessen versichern will.

Hans Blumenberg. Quellen, Ströme, Eisberge (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2012), 16.

Most discussants of the first ForumZ on archiving did not focus on the public role and responsibility of archives. Instead emphasis was placed on seemingly “internal” problems that in their view arise from a lack of resources and expertise in view of the digital age (e.g., accessed 15 February 2017).

It seems as if private archives are much more flexible and inclusive and more willing to reach out for external expertise and public voices. On the contrary, national archives are somewhat resistant to change and are therefore under growing pressure to assume a non-hierarchical attitude and to adapt their working methods to the digital age. In addition, most national archives are facing political, financial and legal restrictions that are creating obstacles to innovative and collaborative approaches to archival work. It became obvious that public access to sources is still on hold as archives and archivists are in need of a proper infrastructure; they therefore feel overburdened and unsure of their mission and public role in the digital age. These insecurities are the root cause of the current situation in Luxembourg and often create tensions between archives and the public and between archives and the research community. To improve the situation, a more collaborative spirit and a greater degree of trust between archives and researchers are needed. By sharing knowledge and expertise, both can be achieved (see Vincent Artuso, “Pas de bons historiens sans bons archivistes,” Tageblatt, 102,42 (2017); 6, Vincent Artuso, “Keng gutt Geschicht ouni gutt Archiven”,, accessed 21 February 2017; Luc Caregari, “Archives: Le passé numérique du future”, Woxx, 16 Febuary 2017). The public role of archives as spaces and places for different communities and different voices is closely related to this. Political stakeholders need to acknowledge the important role of archives in creating a sense of belonging in multicultural and multilingual societies. Only well-supported cultural institutions with well-trained staff can achieve this goal and accept their public role in times of social, cultural and technological transformation. Archives and archivists should be offered sufficient resources and training to deal with the nature of their work in the digital age. Well-trained archivists would feel more confident when experimenting with new ways of archiving; they would be willing to offer access and collaboration and allow for different readings and debates on issues of the past that still affect the present.