A perfect gift – passing on archives

I attended the Society of Archivists’ conference last week where there was an interesting keynote by Brien Brothman of the Rhode Island State Archives. Brien started by acknowledging that in today’s society we think in business terms and archives often become more like products. We need to seek to maximise our financial opportunities and justify what we do economically. The question of how much archives should be funded, their value compared to other commodities and services, is a difficult one, but Brien wanted to leave that to one side and think about a situation where we exclude the economic and business model. He wanted to think about archives as beyond value, and explore the notion of an archive as a gift.

Brien looked at the concept of temporality in relation to archives. He referred to the Irish poet Louis McNeice as someone concerned with questions of time (I didn’t have time to get the quotes from his poems down though!). Brien’s argument was that temporality is intertwined with acts of giving and receiving – the past and the future. Whilst we assign a single date to a document, the reality is that the temporal identity of that document is more complex. It has an identity over time. Archives in a sense are located in the past and the future, and archivists are in a position to make a gift of archives to the future. Maybe this is the perfect gift, beyond economics?

Gift giving may be seen as an exchange, a transaction, but a one-way gift expects no return. Yet is there always an element of future obligation? Jacques Derrida, the philosopher, felt that gifts give or buy us time – we receive a return on them after a delay. He argued that a pure gift is impossible as it would only be possible if the gift giver could forget that they had been in the act of giving.

Archivists in a way form alliances with the dead and the not yet living, and so maybe archivists can make the perfect gift because there can be no expectation of return, of being rewarded. The question is, does the recipient have to be alive for the gift to truly be a gift?

Brien made the point that expenditure on things that we don’t truly need may be what fuels progress. Things that are beyond the expectation of return and utility. Archivists add value to the archives that they look after, so Brien concluded that they are like gift wrappers.

If there is no such thing as the perfect gift then maybe the archive does represent a belief in principles, the importance of community, of sacrifice and giving where you are not certain of the return.

I am not certain where this talk left me. I liked the notion of the gift, but it is maybe rather more fanciful than faithful to reality. Still, it is good to think about the importance of the role of an archivist from a more philosophical perspective like this – beyond the day to day realities of funding.