The Silence of the Archive

May 2017 | 224pp

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The Silence of the Archive

David Thomas, Simon Fowler and Valerie Johnson

Foreword by Anne J Gilliland, University of California

Evaluating archives in a post-truth society.

In recent years big data initiatives, not to mention Hollywood, the video game industry and countless other popular media, have reinforced and even glamorized the public image of the archive as the ultimate repository of facts and the hope of future generations for uncovering ‘what actually happened’. The reality is, however, that for all sorts of reasons the record may not have been preserved or survived in the archive. In fact, the record may never have even existed – its creation being as imagined as is its contents. And even if it does exist, it may be silent on the salient facts, or it may obfuscate, mislead or flat out lie.

The Silence of the Archive  is written by three expert and knowledgeable archivists and draws attention to the many limitations of archives and the inevitability of their having parameters.

Silences or gaps in archives range from details of individuals’ lives to records of state oppression or of intelligence operations. The book brings together ideas from a wide range of fields, including contemporary history, family history research and Shakespearian studies. It describes why these silences exist, what the impact of them is, how researchers have responded to them, and what the silence of the archive means for researchers in the digital age.  It will help provide a framework and context to their activities and enable them to better evaluate archives in a post-truth society.

This book includes discussion of:

  • enforced silences
  • expectations and when silence means silence
  • digital preservation, authenticity and the future
  • dealing with the silence
  • possible solutions; challenging silence and acceptance
  • the meaning of the silences: are things getting better or worse?
  • user satisfaction and audience development.

This book will make compelling reading for professional archivists,  records managers and records creators, postgraduate and undergraduate students of history, archives, librarianship and information studies, as well as academics and other users of archives.



Introduction to the Series –Geoffrey Yeo

About the authors

Foreword–Anne J. Gilliland

Introduction–David Thomas

1. Enforced silences–Simon Fowler


The power of the written

Silence in informality

Conflict and oppression as a cause of silence

Selection as a cause of the silence

The wrong kind of silence

The silence of the secret

The silence of destruction


2. Inappropriate expectations–Simon Fowler


‘Writing lived lives’: the skewing of the archive record

When silence means silence: what records cannot tell us

Silence in other ways: cultural differences

The catalogue – hiding silences in plain view


3. The digital–David Thomas


Digital preservation

New dangers


Digitized records

More information equals less knowledge


Capturing the archive

An existential threat to archives?

The future


4. Dealing with the silence–Valerie Johnson


False silences

False voices

Forcing open the doors: letting hidden voices speak

Filling the silence: allowing silent voices to speak

Acknowledging the silence as silence

Filling the silence: finding alternative voices

Reading voices back into history

Looking forward: listening to all the voices

Avoiding ‘white noise’: the need for some silence

Creating and welcoming the silence


5. Imagining archives–David Thomas


Imagining archives

The slave trade

Imagined re-creations

Forging archives

Imagining Shakespeare

Further into the hall of mirrors

Complete fictions

What does forgery tell us about archives?


6. Solutions to the silence–Valerie Johnson


Is legislation the answer?

Challenging silence in the archives: the archivists

Users as creators: taking back the power

Accepting inevitable silence

Changing voices in a new digital world


7. Are things getting better or worse?–David Thomas



David Thomas is a Visiting Professor at the University of Northumbria. Previously, he worked at the National Archives where he was Director of Technology and was responsible for digital preservation and for providing access to digital material. 

Simon Fowler is an Associate Teaching Fellow at the University of Dundee where he teaches a course on military archives. Previously he worked at The National Archives for nearly thirty years.

Dr Valerie Johnson is Interim Director of Research and Collections at The National Archives. She has worked as an archivist and a historian in the academic, corporate and public sectors.


Anne J Gilliland is Professor, Department of Information Studies, Director, Center for Information as Evidence, University of California, USA.

‚ÄčThe series editor: Geoffrey Yeo is honorary researcher in archives and records management at University College London (UCL), London.

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