A History of Archival Practice, Paul Delsalle & Margaret Procter

Reviewer: Wouter van Dijk

A History of Archival Practice, Paul Delsalle, translated and revised by Margaret Procter

Routledge (Abingdon, New York 2018)
ISBN 9781409455240

Hardcover, with images in black and white, literature lists, notes and index
245 pages
£ 80,00 / € 92,50

As an archivist, occupied by daily worries about digital preservation, service surveys and website modifications, you do not daily think of the thousands of years of history of your profession. However, according to Paul Delsalle, author of this Une histoire de l’archivistique (1998), originally published in French, archivists can certainly benefit from this long history. In his preface, he states that it may be useful for members of a professional group under pressure to have a common frame of reference in relation to their past in order to gain a clearer picture of the future. He even speaks of an identity crisis in the archival profession, that has arisen due to the continuing fragmentation in the information sector. This is most clearly expressed in the dichotomy between archivists and record managers, which has become sharper in recent decades. By showing archivists the historical foundations of their profession and the origin of professional methods and techniques, Delsalle wants to increase the identity and self-awareness of the profession.

In 1998, Delsalle spoke about the unexplored terrain of historical research into archiving practices. The last two decades that has changed a lot. A relatively large number of studies have been carried out, but a chronological overview of the archiving is missing in English, Procter writes in her preface to this edition. The most important reason for the translation was to let interested people in the English language area become acquainted with the history of the field and to initiate more research in this area, an objective that Delsalle himself already expressed at the time of writing. The most important difference in content with the original French edition is the bibliography and the references, whereby Procter tried to replace French works with English-language publications where possible. Some examples have also been adapted or expanded.

The history of archiving
The book is specifically intended as a history of archiving practice, so the description and management of archives, not as a history of thinking about archiving or the motives that would underlie the archiving action. En passant they are mentioned in the book, but they are explicitly not the main issue. The structure of the book is mainly chronological, in fifteen chapters you go through the world history of archiving. It starts with cave drawings from 40,000 years ago to end with the partnerships of numerous countries in the International Council of Archives (ICA). In between, Delsalle and Procter provide a wealth of information about past archiving techniques and methods. A number of chapters have a topographical design and focus on archiving in Africa, Asia and South America. Topics include the clay tablets from Mesopotamia, archiving methods in Central America by Mayans and Aztecs, and the development of the profession of archivist. Due to the very short entries that are devoted to each country or topic, the scope of the book is enormous. It describes practices from all over the world and also covers, for example, the development of legislation, professional organizations, preservation methods and housing worldwide, although most of the space remains reserved for European developments. The multitude of subjects entails the inevitable disadvantage that the treatment of each subject remains on the surface. The book is therefore ideally suited, and intended, as an overview work on the development of the archival system. If a topic is of interest to you, you can delve further into the references and the extensive literature specification that is added to each chapter. These two elements form the great added value of this book, which everyone who deals with archives should have read.

Wouter van Dijk