Of Sediments and Skeletons: History and Metaphor in the Conceptual System of Archival Theory

Metaphors are central to the language of the archival discipline.  From the identification of the organic nature of archives as their most distinctive characteristic, to descriptions of record keeping as processes of accumulation and deposit of sedimentary residues, to the comparison of the archivist’s work with that of the paleontologist, there is a common metaphorical thread underlying the main ideas of archival science.  Since the discipline developed in the nineteenth century, the models that archival scholars could draw on in their endeavors to build a new discipline, the ideas that were “in the air” during that time, ended up leaving an indelible mark on the articulation of some of the main principles of the new discipline. This paper explores the historicity of this metaphorical rooting of archival theory during its modern foundational period.  It analyzes the historical intellectual context in which some of the ideas about the organic nature of archives, the growth of archives by a process of sedimentary deposition and accretion, the significance of the internal order of archives, and the need to restore that original order emerged.  The paper examines the connections between archival science and other disciplines that, although engaged in the study of areas of the natural and human world not directly related to documentary processes, had in common with the archival enterprise some elements of perspective and/or purpose.  From geology to paleontology, from architecture to comparative anatomy to linguistics, these were disciplines that, like archival science, were concerned with what we may call historico-structural reconstruction: working with the remains of past entities and events, trying to understand their previous organization and functioning, and reconstructing the original on the basis of an understanding of its remains, of the relationships between the parts and the whole, and of the combined effects of temporal change on both.

Juan Ilerbaig holds an MISt from the University of Toronto (2011) and a Ph.D. in the History of Science and Technology from the University of Minnesota (2002).  Since receiving his MISt, he has taught courses in the Archives and Records Management Concentration at the University of Toronto.  His research interests focus on the interactions between record keeping and the practice of science, particularly in the life sciences.