Why explore the life of an archive, and what might it mean to study its “life” as opposed to writing its history? The proposition of an archive having a life is, on the face of it, counter-intuitive. Once safely cloistered in the archive, we imagine that a record, an object or a collection is preserved relatively unchanged for posterity. Under those conditions does it even have an ongoing history worth investigating, let alone a life?
The efficacy of archives in affording researchers a view of a past, our awareness of the incompleteness of the glimpse offered, our gratitude for the historical accident or deliberate act that preserved the fragments on which we depend, and our understanding that particular records reflect the biases and interests of their writers, all of these recognitions concentrate our attention on the status, possibilities and limitations of records as sources. The historical disciplines have a range of sophisticated methods for mining these sources, of attending to their biases, reading them against the grain, and filling in the gaps. As historians, we acknowledge our debts to the archives, or archival configurations which house these sources, thanking fulsomely the skilled professionals who facilitate our enquiries. We rue failing institutional contexts when the conditions of preservation and care deteriorate, and where we can, we organize interventions to support archives. Much of the disciplinary practice of history depends on ideas about archives as neutral, professional storehouses, committed to holding deposited records as far as is possible unchanged over time. Indeed, this is the understanding of archives that underpins the professional practice of the archivists. Thankfully, professional archivists mostly do an outstanding job in ensuring conditions of preservation.