The University Record, November 5, 2001

Blouin looks at role of archives in constructing the past

By Vicky Bistolaridis
News and Information Services

Who are we and where do we come from? How do we come to know the past? These questions are frequently asked, and according to Francis Blouin, the answer can be found in museums and archives. “Our knowledge of the past can be verified by the existence of documentation. Documents are the raw materials in which the truth of the past can be determined,” says Blouin, professor of history and of information, and director of the Bentley Historical Library.

Blouin says he believes that there is always more to a story than what appears. “The layers of meaning for a story—practical, symbolic and cultural—are embedded in record-making.”

When many migrated to the United States, the value of the archives began to be questioned. According to Blouin, archival documentation was especially contested in Third World countries where histories have been occupied primarily by traditions of Europe and America. “Members of these societies who migrated to the United States or Western Europe search for an identity that is far removed from what historians call the ‘dominant national narrative,’” says Blouin. When a country or location includes many distinct memories from different perspectives, how can a past be determined?

Archives, however, provide us with way to “navigate a sense of historical memory.” According to Blouin, archives are used “not necessarily to find the story, but to find their story.” He is working on a project to analyze the current intellectual role of the archivist in constructing a national past and narrative through archives. “Understanding the nature of the archive, understanding the different uses of history and the constructs of the past is essential in the work of the archivist and this forms a challenge to all those who hold a responsibility in administering historical records,” he says.

However, many scholars and disciplines now are questioning the authority of archives. The University of Michigan Detroit Observatory’s Fall 2001 Lecture Series featured Blouin’s lecture, “History and Memory: Problems in the Pursuit of the Past.” The lecture highlighted archives and museums, primarily the Vatican’s archives.

For more information concerning archives, send e-mail to Francis Blouin, fblouin@umich.edu.