Researching Archival Consciousness

The paper shows how studying the social context of archiving involves understanding archivalisation: the conscious and unconscious decisions by people to create documents, and eventually to preserve them. The ‘double bind’ is that, in searching the past for archival consciousness that preceded the appearance of formal archives, we mainly use these very archives. This entails a new way of reading the archive as it is or was created by different agents (creators, users, archivists, and record subjects) interacting with institutions and technologies. Record subjects (the people named in the record) did not merely leave traces in their interaction with power: they were also co-creators, providing input in and interacting with the archiving systems of institutions. Although archiving is important for the record subjects, their relatives, and society at large, the certificates, licenses, letters, and other documents people received from institutions have only rarely been preserved, mainly because the owners did not think them worth preserving. It can be argued that the decision to throw a document away is as much part of the archival consciousness as the decision to keep it.

These theoretical and methodological arguments will be illustrated by a case study  (Re)constructing Rembrandt’s archives. Nearly all the records Rembrandt created, received and kept are lost. They can be (re)constructed by inference, by assessing what civic, church and legal institutions and private people registered (or may have registered) about transactions with Rembrandt. Reconstructing Rembrandt’s archives leads to a better understanding of the interplay between private and public recordkeeping cultures, not only in the past, but also in the present.

Eric Ketelaar is Professor Emeritus at the University of Amsterdam, where from 1997 to 2009 he was Professor of Archivistics in the Department of Mediastudies. As a honorary fellow of his former department he continues his research which is concerned mainly with the social and cultural contexts of records creation and use. He was General State Archivist (National Archivist) of The Netherlands from 1989-1997. From 1992-2002 he held the part-time chair of archivistics in the Department of History of the University of Leiden. Eric Ketelaar was visiting professor at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), Gakushuin University (Tokyo), the University of Toronto and Monash University (Melbourne), where he continues to be involved as a Senior Research Fellow. He is a member of the Editorial Board of Archival Science which he co-founded in 2001.