Ask an Archivist: The Questions We Ask Ourselves

This year October 5th is “Ask An Archivist” Day!  For us, Ask an Archivist Day usually means fielding questions from the public about what life in an archive is like.

However, this week a group of student archivists working at the University of Maryland’s Special Collections and University Archives are taking this time to start a conversation about the nature of archives more broadly. This “Ask An Archivist” Day, they are asking: “Can I break the archive?”


In the 2009 article published in Archival Science, Jeannette Bastian concludes that, “a cultural expression has no end; it is always becoming something else.” In one sense, this is intuitive: there is “culture” all around us and it is constantly evolving. This ceaseless evolution is exactly what can make  the dinner table at Thanksgiving so uncomfortable. After all, having so many generations in one place is bound to cause friction. But, it’s not just “culture” that’s evolving. It is all the things that culture entails. The objects, documents, and evidence of culture–typically the stuff of archives–is itself bound to the constant flux of relationships and activities that frame and contextualize their existence. We tend to think of archives as evidence of a distant past that are static. Safe in their archival boxes, nothing can harm or change the objects that have been chosen to represent the past.

However, we also know that even in their boxes and even our shelves, archival materials are not static. They are always changing, and not only physically but intellectually too. The image below is a digital surrogate from the Library of Congress which shows Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei’s 1995 piece “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn.”


From the Library of Congress Flickr stream. 

In the 1990s, Ai Weiwei’s piece was received by some as controversial. In the surrogate, we can clearly see the artist “breaking” an object of immense historical and cultural value. Yet, as critic Chin-Chin Yap writes in “Devastating History,” though when “Ai created Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn and Coca-Cola Urn in the mid-1990s, both works were criticized as vandalism of cultural antiques worth thousands of dollars…Ironically, both of these contemporary works have now acquired international exposure, critical acclaim and market values far exceeding those of the original vessels.” Ai Weiwei’s piece asks an important and inspiring question for all archivists (and really anyone working with historical and cultural heritage objects): how do we determine the value and the life of an object?

The heart of Ai Weiwei’s piece challenges the idea that an object of archival or cultural value should remain somehow stable or intact. While working in an archive, we certainly appreciate that notion (and we certainly don’t want artists coming to our archives breaking our objects!), we can also appreciate the dramatic gestures at the center of this piece. When Weiwei smashes the urn, does the urn become something else? Or is the shattered urn the same object only having accrued another layer of history? After all, in the smashed vase, there is evidence not only of China’s artistic history, but also future generations of Chinese artists resisting that very culture. And if Ai Weiwei’s smashed urn accrues meaning as it is changed and augmented over time in the course of its relations with users, what does that mean for the rest of the objects in our archives?

Does a user that reinterprets our records alter them fundamentally? Of course we want persistent representations for each user that enters our archive, but is this reasonable? Does every scratch on a record, every fingerprint or every tear on the paper become evidence of the cultural life of the record? And if it does, then can you ever really break an archive or an archival object– or do you just alter it and add to its meaning?

These are the questions that keep us up at night, but we want to know what you think! Let us know in the comments, or share your stories with us. We’d love to hear about records you know or can think of that have changed over their lifetime. (One of our staff already called the Liberty Bell!)

Rosalind Seidel, Sydney Vaile, and Caitlin Rizzo collaborated on this post as part of an “Introduction to Archives” class for the University of Maryland’s iSchool. This post is highly indebted to readings and discussions hosted by Dr. Ricky Punzalan.

Rosalind Seidel works at UMD’s Special Collections and University Archives in Access and Outreach Services. She is working toward a MLIS with a focus in Archives and Digital Curation.

Sydney Vaile is a Graduate Assistant for Metadata Services at McKeldin Library. Sydney also works as a student assistant in processing at Special Collections and University Archives. She is pursuing a MLIS with a concentration in Archives and Digital Curation.

Caitlin Rizzo is a Graduate Assistant for Access and Outreach Services at UMD’s Special Collections and University Archives. She attends the University of Maryland’s iSchool where she specializes in Archives and Digital Curation.


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