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Arch Sci (2012) 12:485–500 DOI 10.

1007/s10502-012-9175-4 ORIGINAL PAPER

What finding aids do: archival description as rhetorical genre in traditional and web-based environments
Heather MacNeil

Published online: 9 May 2012


Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Abstract Research and scholarship in the fields of rhetoric and composition have been instrumental in developing a framework for treating non-literary texts (e.g., scientific articles, memoranda, instructional handbooks) as part of social processes. Rhetorical genre theorists have developed methodologies and modes of analysis for studying both texts and their contexts, that is, their content and structure, the processes involved in their production, transmission, and interpretation, and the temporal, institutional, and rhetorical contexts in which these processes take place. Approaching archival description as a rhetorical genre creates opportunities for examining the social actions that finding aids participate in and accomplish and the ways in which these descriptive texts work to construct a community of writers and readers. It also creates opportunities for examining the impact of the World Wide Web on the communicative aims of archival finding aids. This article reports on the first stage of a research project exploring archival description through the lens of rhetorical genre theory with a specific focus on the finding aids that archivists create as part of the process of making historical records available for use. Its aim is threefold: to explain the rationale for the research, to identify and elaborate the elements of a conceptual framework for studying archival description as rhetorical genre, and to sketch the parameters of such a study and the questions to be addressed within those parameters. Keywords Archival description Á Finding aids Á Rhetorical genre theory

H. MacNeil (&) Faculty of Information, University of Toronto, 140 St. George St., Toronto, ON, Canada e-mail:


. Coe et al. The overarching aim of this research project is to identify and analyze the social actions archival finding aids accomplish and to assess whether and to what extent the generic identity of finding aids is changing as they move out of archives’ reading rooms and onto institutional websites. communication studies. in the traditional taxonomies of types of oratory and of types of literary works. sociology. This rhetorical turn has changed the way genre theorists … think about genre (Devitt 1996. and refined based on empirical study (Bazerman and Paradis 1991. if not before. and interpretation. and accounting among others—representing useful examples of how rhetorical genre theory has been applied. This article reports on the first stage of a research project exploring archival description through the lens of rhetorical genre theory with a specific focus on the finding aids that archivists create as part of the process of making historical records available for use. Rhetorical genre theory has also been applied by researchers working in the fields of knowledge organization and 123 . as a text-type that does something rather than is something. medicine. and to sketch the parameters of such a study and the questions to be addressed within those parameters. Bazerman et al. argument from persuasion from exposition from narration from description. Bawarshi and Reiff 2010). and instructional handbooks) within both local and generalized contexts. Spilka 1993. and linguistics. Bazerman and Prior 2004. Rhetorical genre theorists are specifically concerned with developing frameworks for understanding non-literary texts (e. pp. Rationale for a study of archival description as rhetorical genre There is a substantial body of research focused on writing and genre in various workplace and professional contexts—science. 2002. tragedy from comedy and tragicomedy.486 Arch Sci (2012) 12:485–500 The study of genres has been around since Aristotle. that is. Contemporary genre theorists have developed methodologies and modes of analysis for studying both texts and their contexts. What is new about this renewed turn toward genre is the study of genres as action rather than form. These empirical studies have been conducted by researchers in a range of disciplinary fields. Yates and Orlikowski 2002. institutional. also for the purposes of this article the terms ‘‘finding aid’’ and ‘‘archival description’’ are used interchangeably. Orlikowski and Yates 1994. The concept of genre traditionally has been employed as a means of classifying texts based on regularities in form and content (Duff 2000).g. the processes involved in their production. 2009. their content and structure. law. including rhetoric and composition. tested. For the purposes of this article (and as a starting point for this research) the term ‘‘finding aid’’ is defined as any tool that aims to provide users with intellectual and/or physical access to the holdings of archival institutions. These provisional definitions may change as the research project progresses. transmission. and the temporal. to identify and elaborate the elements of a conceptual framework for studying archival description as rhetorical genre. scientific articles. The aim of the present article is threefold: to explain the rationale for the research. and rhetorical contexts in which these processes take place. Freedman and Medway 1994b. Rhetoricians and literary scholars have differentiated ceremonial from legislative discourse. 605–606). accountants’ reports.

Roth 2001. Miller and Shepherd 2009. The generic character of archival finding aids—their dependency on particular historical media settings. Flinn 2007. An in-depth exploration of the generic character of archival description is proposed here as a potentially powerful way to locate and frame the commonalities and connections between and among these disparate yet related archival discussions. and explicating the rhetorical dimensions of a bibliographic record (Andersen 2002). It could be argued. b. The idea that archival finding aids carry out social actions is intimated in literature advocating the development of more participatory models of description that promote social inclusion and cultural pluralism (Archival Education and Research Institute (AERI) 2011. more broadly. and their rhetorical dimension—is recognized. examining the ways in which classificatory. Approaching archival description as a rhetorical genre creates opportunities for examining the social actions that finding aids participate in and/or accomplish and the ways in which these descriptive texts work to construct a community of writers and readers.e. Krause and Yakel 2007.Arch Sci (2012) 12:485–500 487 information retrieval (Andersen 2008). confirming the cohesion and authenticity of 123 . Duff and Harris 2002.. Smith 2008. and editorial texts are being reconfigured in the ‘‘hypertextualized scholarly archive’’ (Dalgaard 2001). Theimer 2011a. the experiences of users in navigating online finding aids (Feeney 1999. Daniels and Yakel 2010). Podolsky-Nordland 2004. One strain of research concerns itself explicitly with the transition of genres from one medium to another (i. Opp 2008) as well as in the literature critiquing traditional models of description and the archival theory that underpins them (Brothman 1991. Sexton et al. MacNeil 2005. for reinventing the nature and purpose of description. Bastian 2006. 2009). Prom 2004. Head 2007. indexical. Huvila 2008). b) and for supporting indigeneous communities in their efforts to reclaim their identities and memories (Payne 2006. 2004. in recent archival literature examining the socially constructed and mediated nature of archival description (Ketelaar 2001. 2011). their socio-cultural roles and functions. Recurring themes in this literature are the need for archival institutions to shift from traditional record-centric to user-centric models of delivery (Hallam-Smith 2003. Nesmith 2005. that archival finding aids are vehicles for carrying out a range of explicit and implicit social actions. Conway 2010. McKemmish et al. Douglas and MacNeil 2009). 2008. Schwartz 2002. Conway and Punzalan 2011) as well as the potential of social media tools for engaging users in archival descriptions (Light and Hyry 2002. Scheir 2005. Rhetorical approaches have been adopted for ¨m the purposes of analyzing scholarly editions as bibliographic tools (Dahlstro 2004). Giltrow and Stein 2009). 2011. and in the literature encouraging greater accountability and transparency in descriptive practices (Light and Hyry 2002. MacNeil 2005. from print to digital) and the impact of that transition on the producers and consumers of those transformed genres (Kwasnick and Crowston 2005. Christen 2011. Yakel 2003. the strengths and weaknesses of digital images of archival documents as means of augmenting and enhancing access to archival holdings (Lynch 2002. Hill 2004. 2011a. There is also a growing body of archival literature focusing specifically on the opportunities new and emerging technologies present for improving access to information about archival holdings and. for example. Millar 2002. among them: making archival holdings visible and accessible. Shilton and Srinivasan 2007). implicitly.

mounted locally or available worldwide via the Internet. validating the authority of archivists and archival institutions to preserve cultural resources and make them available for use. Approaching archival description as a rhetorical genre also creates opportunities for examining the impact of the World Wide Web on the communicative aims of archival finding aids. lists.’’ Viewing archival description through the lens of rhetorical genre theory is an opportunity to tease out and test that argument. there are fond hopes that these genres will be socially transformative. In it. as well as physical. Systematic examination of the processes involved in the production and transmission of finding aids through the lens of rhetorical genre theory could provide a solid foundation on which to identify and assess the forms of social transformation that web-based finding aids promote and constrain in principle and practice. The emergence of web-based finding aids opens up archival holdings to vast numbers of ‘‘invisible’’ users. and meta-genre—provide a starting point for considering archival description as rhetorical genre. background knowledge. A number of these concepts—the term genre itself. changed. as well as more flexibility and expressiveness (Kwasnick and Crowston 2005. Traditionally. explaining the relationships between and among the inventories. 79). and been incorporated into different social endeavours. and indexes typically found in the reading rooms of archival institutions. The development of computer network technology has led to the adaptation of traditional finding aids to electronic formats. as well as genre system. I will introduce each of these concepts and suggest their relevance to a study of archival description as rhetorical genre. while older ones have blended. Rhetorical definitions of genre Carolyn Miller’s article. Conceptual framework Genre theorists affiliated with the rhetorical turn in genre studies have developed a number of conceptual tools for analyzing the broad socio-historical contexts in which genres are enacted as well as the far-reaching effects of genre in directing human activity.’’ ‘‘identity. and indeed the public at large. Some researchers working in the area of digital document genres observe that: As documents have migrated to the web. and archival institutions face increasing pressure to reinvent themselves as virtual. p.’’ and ‘‘cultural heritage. In this section of the article. and enshrining particular perspectives on the notions of ‘‘community.488 Arch Sci (2012) 12:485–500 a body of records. spaces. … Many researchers. she defined genre as ‘‘typified 123 . enabling better communication. ‘‘Genre as Social Action’’ (1994a) has been a formative influence on the rhetorical turn in genre studies. New document genres have emerged. assume that there are significant and fundamental differences in how these adapted and new genres will now function and be used. … their identity as genres has also evolved. the archivist has served as a mediator between finding aids and users. discourse community. As with many new technologies.

the set of typified rhetorical actions already constructed by participants in a society’’) (2004. culture. inventories. then a particular text’s reflection of genre reflects that genre’s situation. 24). p. and templates [that] influence how situation is constructed and how it is seen as recurring in genres’’). Embedded in Devitt’s definition of genre is an explicit recognition that writing takes place within three distinct yet overlapping contexts: a situational context (‘‘the people. What recurs in a ‘‘recurrent situation. objective. ‘‘is not a material situation (a real. 31). 29). Thus the act of constructing the genre—of classifying a text as similar to other texts—is also the act of constructing the situation’’ (2004. 30–31).Arch Sci (2012) 12:485–500 489 rhetorical actions based in recurrent situations’’ (1994a. beliefs. factual event) but our construal of a type’’ (p. and purposes involved in every action’’). and these strategies have evolved into recognizable text types (e. While the definition has been reworked over the years by Miller herself and other rhetorical theorists of genre. A situation is a ‘‘social construct’’ or ‘‘semiotic structure’’ that develops ‘‘through the recognition of relevant similarities. Miller’s original definition of genre has been complicated and reconfigured by the composition scholar Devitt (2004) who argues that describing a genre merely as a response to a situation oversimplifies the reciprocal and dynamic relationship between situation and genre (2004. calendars. therefore. that genre be seen not as a response to recurring situation but as a nexus between an individual’s actions and a socially defined context. ‘‘a theoretically sound definition of genre must be centered not on the substance or the form of discourse but on the action it is used to accomplish’’ (1994a.’’ therefore. Genre is a reciprocal dynamic within which individual’s actions construct and are constructed by recurring context of situation. 28). 21). and a generic context (‘‘the already existing textual classifications and forms already established and being established within a given culture.g. 23). a cultural context (the ‘‘material contexts and learned behaviors. the basic building blocks of that definition remain unchanged. 24). the 123 . that is. 214). At the core of the rhetorical situation sits motive or ‘‘exigence. Genres simultaneously shape and are shaped by these recurring contexts of situation. catalogs. indexes) and conventions for their preparation (institutional policies and procedures. 29).’’ which Miller defines as ‘‘… a set of particular social patterns and expectations that provides a socially objectified motive’’ for addressing recurrent situations (pp. p. Over time. 31). p. and other genres (2004. p. values. She proposes. The action itself ‘‘must involve situation and motive’’ (p. and context of genres (2004.’’ which then ‘‘become constituted as a type’’ (p. As she observes: ‘‘If genre responds to recurring situation. p. p. 25. professional standards and guidelines).. 27. The genre ‘‘archival description’’ surfaced in the nineteenth century in response to the opening of archival institutions to the public and the consequent social need to make the holdings of these institutions available for use by the public. To study archival description as a rhetorical genre in Devitt’s terms entails an examination of how the genre has shaped and been shaped by a recurring situational context. languages. According to Miller. context of culture. pp. archivists and archival institutions developed strategies to address this need.

a recurring cultural context. and a recurring generic context. catalogs. This characterization of archival description as a genre system requires some qualification because it could be taken to imply that all finding aids are created for a single purpose—to provide access to archival holdings—and are directed to a specific audience—researchers seeking access to archival holdings. Situating archival description primarily in relation to 123 . Storage numbers connote incompletely processed collections. 56). the multiple synchronic relationships that exist between and among genres. p. 12). For better or worse. If we take into account the wide range of resources and tools that could fit under the heading ‘‘finding aid’’ and the diversity of data elements contained within them. they have also been collection management tools for archivists. it is clear that finding aids serve multiple purposes and audiences and may participate in any number of genre systems. the common purpose of which is to make archival holdings accessible to users. Within this broad purpose. the socio-historical role of archivists and archival institutions.490 Arch Sci (2012) 12:485–500 reciprocal communicative actions of archivists providing information to users about archival holdings through finding aids of various kinds and of users seeking to locate relevant archival documents through these finding aids.’’ which is ‘‘a genre set identifiable by those who use it that has clearly linked genres with a common purpose’’ (2004. archival finding aids: are more than access tools. which are designed primarily to provide researchers with a means of identifying and physically locating archival holdings. as well as the diachronic relationships that link contemporary genres to their antecedents. that is. As Yakel (2003) points out. that is. Her notion of ‘‘genre sets’’ is a complementary concept that pinpoints the specific ways in which these relationships manifest themselves. Such purpose is quite distinct from that served by other descriptive genres such as indexes and file lists. Genre system Devitt’s notion of generic context is an attempt to capture the intertextuality of genres. however. Call numbers reflect an attempt to incorporate the materials in a larger library classification scheme (pp. One type of genre set Devitt identifies is a ‘‘genre system. we can identify separate but related activities such as providing intellectual access to archival holdings and facilitating physical access to them. The descriptive genres that. It is possible to characterize archival description as a genre system. that is. The concept of genre system captures one of the ways in which a communicative action breaks down into specific text types and how those texts interact and accomplish specific activities within a broader function. and calendars whose primary purpose is to provide researchers with the intellectual means of understanding and interpreting bodies of records. … Accession numbers record the yearly growth of an entire archives or manuscript collection. the specific purposes of these finding aid genres may be subsumed under the broad purpose of making records accessible to users. historically. the antecedent finding aids that have influenced the form and content of contemporary ones. have served the former purpose include inventories. 4–5. Nevertheless.

and more explicit recognition of the existence of conflict as well as consensus within these groups. however. traces the idea of discourse communities back to Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Olsen (1993). to a more intense focus on the ways in which genres reflect and reinforce the ideology of the group whose purposes they serve (Coe et al. 541) and for ‘‘emphasiz[ing] too heavily the role of discourse in constructing groups and not enough the role of groups in constructing discourse’’ (Devitt 2004. Miller 1994b. Analyzing archival description in relation to that purpose does not obviate consideration of other possible purposes that have informed the construction of finding aids. hegemonic. the concept of discourse community directs attention to the interaction between a given social group and the genres used by that group to 123 . As Coe et al. Devitt 2004. discourse communities are based on the existence of shared languages and conventions that structure the production and interpretation of texts. for example. Freadman 1994). their embeddedness in disciplinary. Over the past 20 years or so. His conceptualization of discourse community derives from the linguistic notion of a speech community. and abstract’’ (Devitt et al.Arch Sci (2012) 12:485–500 491 one of those purposes. p. ‘‘For all their commonalities. Other genre theorists locate discourse communities within a social constructionist perspective. 39). reflects the chosen focus of this particular study. Winsor 2000). That recognition has led. similarly. Genres will inscribe not only common perspectives. Porter 1992). Bawarshi 2000. which is the finding aids that archivists create as part of the process of making historical records available for use. that is. p. 2003. Berkenkotter and Huckin 1995. 9). John Swales (1990) defines discourse communities as ‘‘sociorhetorical networks that form in order to work towards sets of common goals’’ (p. that is. p. The concept of ‘‘discourse communities’’ has been invoked by a number of genre theorists as a means of specifying and localizing the social nature of genres. These criticisms have resulted in reconfigurations of the concept itself (Swales 1998. methods. the concept of discourse community has come under attack for being ‘‘too utopian. … communities are typically hierarchical and heterogenous. values. 6). attitudes. 182: See also Bazerman 1988). an increased attention to the diverse ways social groups come together and use discourse (Devitt 2004. p. 2002. According to this view. Killingsworth and Gilbertson 1992. stable. and other kinds of groups. p. individuals become members of discourse communities when they learn and use the community’s languages and conventions. in turn. being ‘‘[embedded] in groups and hence social structures’’ (Devitt 2004. observe. Texts belong to discourse communities when they comply with shared standards and expectations. 36). and subject positions. Discourse communities As both Miller’s and Devitt’s definitions make clear. but also the divisions and distinctions that exist in and constitute social situations’’ (2002. ‘‘in which he argued that science and scientific knowledge develop through a series of revolutionary changes in what a community accepts as knowledge’’ (1993. genres are inherently and necessarily social. professional. At its most basic level. making archival holdings accessible to secondary users. since these other purposes may help to explain complexities and apparent incoherencies within the genre system.

archival description operates within a transactional domain. Related to background knowledge is the concept of ‘‘meta-genres. in part. 8). Guidelines and standards as well as academic discourse could all be considered forms of meta-genre. which refers to ‘‘propositions unstated by a text but necessary for its interpretation’’ (1994. It would be premature to speculate about the specific dynamics of such groups. p. 156). it is possible. could be said to participate in the construction of a discourse community comprising archivists and users of archives. As a genre system. both archivists and users must acquire background knowledge of finding aid conventions and archival descriptive practices. p. 60)—is made manifest through genre. p. meta-genre is an effective conceptual tool for analyzing how ‘‘writers 123 . ‘‘writers assume on behalf of readers some knowledge of the world that readers can consult in order to interpret discourse’’ (1994.492 Arch Sci (2012) 12:485–500 communicate its aims and promote its values. national. to identify some of the means by which discourse communities ‘‘rhetorically structure and maintain their interests’’ (Bazerman and Paradis 1991. Background knowledge operates on two levels: at one level. demonstrated precedents or sequestered expectations—atmospheres surrounding genres’’ (Giltrow 2002. 155). p. Discourse communities revolving around archival description and comprising archivists and/or users may be instantiated and constructed at the institutional level (in workplace and academic settings). theoretically. p. genres position people’s perspectives of the world and often demand the ´ 2002. p. Nevertheless. 7) and suggest how they might apply to a generic study of archival description by looking at the related concepts of background knowledge and meta-genre. the genre may constitute a transactional domain in which expertise is converted to everyday knowledge (Bazerman and Paradis 1991. p. since finding aids are directed. As part of the process of inducting outsiders into social groups. and power relationships’’ (Devitt 2004. through the assumption and use of background knowledge. In order to become members of that discourse community. Archival finding aids both shape and are shaped by professional perspectives of reality and.’’ which Giltrow has developed to apprehend the ‘‘atmospheres of wordings and activities. adoption or development of new subject positions and identities (Pare In cases where readers of generic texts are not members of the discipline or profession within which the genre originates. at the professional level (within local. or as ad hoc responses to particular events or situations. at least. finding aids assume some knowledge on the part of readers and induct readers into particular perspectives. 66). to users rather than to other archivists. According to Giltrow (1994). epistemology. however. ‘‘users share knowledge of the genre’s conventions’’ and at another level. For Giltrow. regional. 195). which function both to enable and constrain writers and readers and implicate them in institutional systems. Background knowledge and meta-genre The concepts of background knowledge and meta-genre capture some of the ways in which a group’s ideology—its ‘‘values. in so doing. genres work to construct communities of writers and readers. even as a transactional domain genre. and international professional associations).

and social roles (of writers and readers). They also draw attention to issues of power and authority by investigating the forms of communication and knowledge that genres encourage and inhibit (Coe et al. fall within the parameters of this research project. 2). their use and interpretation by users (reading practices). genre system. pp. and institutional framework in which they have been prepared (social roles). institutional guidelines for arranging and describing archival holdings. are not their primary focus. Researchers must know the schemas and codes and understand the underlying systems of privileging. and the socio-historical. procedures. and meta-genre are helpful tools for analyzing the situational. As Yakel (2003) observes. however. In ´ and Smart’s four dimensions will provide a preliminary this final section. the procedures associated with their production and transmission (composing processes).Arch Sci (2012) 12:485–500 493 learn to compose in a particular genre’’ and ‘‘a critical instrument for investigating the sociopolitics of sites of writing and reading’’ (2002. and activities that underpin those representations. reading practices. generic. designed in order to provide access to collections through finding aids. The concepts thus provide a promising starting point for an examination of archival description as rhetorical genre. discourse community. and selecting that comprise both arrangement and description’’ (2003. Reading practices and social roles. relate to the use. 123 . on the other hand. p. the ideological aspects of genre. p. and wider effects of these representations. The next step is to situate these concepts within a structure. Textual features and composing processes relate to the representation of archival holdings through finding aids of various kinds and the policies. The concepts of genre. Thus. Pare structure within which to sketch out the parameters of a study of archival description as rhetorical genre and identify some of the questions to be addressed within those parameters. pp. 196. 6–7). disciplinary. Such aspects do. 2002. while not ignored.1 1 ´ and Smart focus on workplace settings and their dimensional analysis emphasizes the ways in Pare which genres regularize and conventionalize writing and reading practices in order to reduce idiosyncrasy in reading practices (1994. Pare definition of genre based on distinctive regularities across four dimensions: textual features. can also create barriers to use. 199). classifying. Studying these meta-genres can provide insights into how they enable and constrain the archivists who use them to prepare archival descriptions and the readers who then use those descriptions to access archival holdings. Structuring a study of archival description as rhetorical genre In an effort to identify the observable constituent elements of a genre within the ´ and Smart (1994) have proposed a framework of rhetorical genre studies. composing processes. Description standards such as ISAD(G) and EAD. and cultural contexts that have shaped and been shaped by archival description over time and across institutions. 153). ‘‘[t]he very act of archival representation. as well as the archival theory underpinning arrangement and description are all examples of archival metagenres. Archival finding aids may be defined on the basis of similar regularities: their structure and content (textual features). background knowledge. interpretation.

and they all assume and use background knowledge and meta-genres (arrangement principles. description conventions and standards) to some degree. In considering composing processes. such features would include the organization and structure of a finding aid. either implicitly or explicitly. and describing archival holdings. Absences of forms may be as revealing as presences. Although some preliminary work has been done in this area in relation to particular finding aids and description standards (Yakel 2003. a more comprehensive analysis of the effect of these ‘‘notable absences’’ across a range of finding aid text types and over time has yet to be undertaken. 147). what is the nature and shape of intertextuality in a hyperlinked environment? Increasingly. MacNeil 2009). a rhetorical genre study also needs to consider how and in what ways. 34). Put another way. As she explains. gathering and analyzing information.494 Arch Sci (2012) 12:485–500 Textual features ´ and Smart. 2). it is important to look at what background knowledge arrangement and description practices assume and use: What do the conventions and standards 123 . composing processes codified. textual features are ‘‘repeated patterns in the structure. arranging. can be as significant as what receives response’’ (p. writing and rewriting. p. For Pare include. for example. and style of texts’’ (1994. what is silenced. the interactions between and among the various finding aids are changing. among other things. 150). composing processes are where those regularities are ´ and Smart. In the context of archival description. What role do these images play in a web-based genre system of archival description? What social actions do they accomplish within that genre system? Composing processes If textual features are the ‘‘surface traces of underlying regularities’’ (Freedman and Medway 1994a. p. just as what is not taken up. and the technological production of generic texts (1994. These activities conform roughly to the ones typically associated with accessioning. Examining the textual features of finding aids also entails an exploration of the genre system in which they participate: What are the various text types that operate within the genre system of archival description? When did they emerge and how have they evolved over time? How do they interact with one another and what particular roles do they play in fulfilling the overarching function of making archival holdings available to users? What ancestral genres still inform their contemporary instantiations? What is the relationship between. ‘‘generic form/substance includes choices that are not made as well as ones that are visible. The silences in finding aids—what Devitt (2009) calls ‘‘notable absences’’ of generic form—also may be considered an aspect of textual features. p. and its explicit and implicit modes of argument. web-based finding aids are being linked to digital images of the holdings themselves. a nineteenth-century inventory and its contemporary counterpart? As finding aids move out of reading rooms and onto institutional websites. For Pare rhetorical moves. its use of terminology. its descriptive and visual elements. therefore.

they are relying increasingly on creator metadata of various kinds to supplement and even replace archival description. 8). ‘‘How closely is the generic identity of finding aids linked to the professional identity of archivists?’’ Put another way. among other things. how the reader constructs knowledge from the text and how the reader uses the resulting ´ and Smart 1994.Arch Sci (2012) 12:485–500 495 foreground? What do they ignore? Many of the legacy finding aids that are being converted for use on institutional websites were designed in an earlier time period and for an imagined community of so-called ‘‘expert’’ users. 2011. Such practices include the way a reader approaches a text. the processes involved in identifying and locating relevant records can seem like a hidden objects game where the hidden 123 . p. Conway and Punzalan 2011). Second. the trend toward archival institutions licensing digital images of their holdings to commercial publishers such as Ancestry has resulted in the provision of access to at least some of those holdings being shared between archival institutions and third parties. the structure and terminology of finding aids often bewilder users because they do not possess the background knowledge or ‘‘archival intelligence’’ necessary to navigate them successfully (Yakel 2004. does the fragmentation and decentralization of authority over archival description imply the fragmentation and decentralization of archival professional identity? Reading practices Reading practices encompass the ‘‘operational force’’ of finding aid texts and the sites of reading (Bazerman and Paradis 1991.e. users). First. How do (or might) these developments affect the generic identity of institutional finding aids? If we turn our attention to archivists. Reading practices foreground the effect of background knowledge and meta-genres on the readers of finding aids (i. To what extent are these finding aids being redesigned and refashioned to address an exponentially broader audience possessing very different levels of expertise? Composing processes traditionally have been the prerogative (more or less) of archivists and archival institutions. analyzing how users make meaning from finding aids (Duff et al. p. In the context of archival description.. as was suggested earlier. archival description constitutes a transactional domain where the specialized knowledge of the archivist is translated into the everyday language of users how successful has that translation been? As many archival user studies can attest.. The traditional site of reading practices—the archives’ reading room—has always been a fairly complex genre system in which the interaction between and among finding aids is often opaque. as archival institutions acquire more and more born-digital records. Composing processes draw attention to the assumption and use of background knowledge and meta-genres on the part of the writers of finding aids (i. 152). how the reader negotiates her way through the text. knowledge (Pare analyzing reading practices means. That exclusive authority has fragmented and diminished over the last number of years for a range of reasons: two are worth mentioning in the present context. From a users’ point of view. increasingly. If.e. augment online finding aids (Conway 2010. Yakel and Torres 2003). Yakel and Torres 2007). archivists). and how they make sense of the digitized images of records that. a related question is.

or about the physical location of the records. or about record creators. the institutional website is more akin to a shopping mall with the online catalog functioning as the anchor store. 340). To understand the historical and contemporary roles played by archivists and users as ‘‘writers’’ and ‘‘readers’’ of finding aids requires that we probe the ‘‘identities and subject positions’’(p. According to Anis Bawarshi. Frequently. Social roles Social roles focus on the roles of writers and readers within organizations and in the creation and use of texts. Yakel 2011a. Increasingly. The ‘‘virtual’’ reading room of the institutional website is designed to obviate or at least reduce the need for archival mediation. culture and genre that shape and are shaped by these roles? The rise of participatory culture in the wake of Web 2. is pushing archival institutions in the direction of promoting greater user engagement and peer production of finding aids (Theimer 2011a. b. but it may be as complicated in its own way as the physical reading room because users must learn how to navigate the architecture of that site to find what they are looking for. when users click on a particular link in the course of an online search. the archivist has to play a mediating role between the user and the descriptive system. 355) archivists and users assume and reproduce through the genre of archival description. The question is. In this respect. where do these user contributions sit in relation to the so-called ‘‘authoritative’’ descriptive record? How much or how little moderation is necessary or desirable from the point of view of the archival institution and from the point of view of users? Moderation protocols for managing user-contributed content are an emerging meta-genre and like other meta-genres such protocols have the potential to both enable and constrain users because they dictate the forms of social participation and social organization allowable within the descriptive genre system. Moderation is but one dimension of a much larger issue concerning the kinds of discourse communities that are beginning to take shape in the so-called ‘‘Archives 123 . do they know they have left Harrods and are now in The Dollar Store? Perhaps it is no more confusing than the traditional reading room. What are the recurring contexts of situation. but a multiplicity of places with linkages to other websites and other online catalogs. that shift. b). enacting these roles enables writers and readers. each of which carries its own baggage of background knowledge and meta-genres. in turn. p.0 is encouraging users to shift from being passive consumers of archival descriptions to becoming active contributors to those descriptions. but it is a different kind of confusing and potentially creates new forms of rhetorical disjunction for online users.496 Arch Sci (2012) 12:485–500 object may be information about the structure and content of the records. These different kinds of information are embedded in a range of different finding aids and if user studies are any indication the relationships between and among these finding aids and the information they contain do not readily reveal themselves to users. ‘‘to function within particular situations at the same time they help shape the ways [writers and readers] come to know these situations’’ (Bawarshi 2000. institutional websites are not just one place. As archival institutions make provision for users to tag and annotate online descriptions.

New York Bazerman C.Arch Sci (2012) 12:485–500 497 2. 606). Paradis J (eds) (1991) Textual dynamics of the professions: historical and contemporary studies of writing in professional communities. University of Wisconsin Press. research. I would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers of the draft version of this article who offered many helpful suggestions for improvement. Routledge. Parlor Press. Huckin T (1995) Genre knowledge in disciplinary communication: cognition/culture/ power. to paraphrase Devitt (1996. Northvale 123 . The next stage of the research project will build on this foundation by exploring the past. What role do communities of writers and readers play in constructing the emergent genre system of online archival description and what role does the emergent genre system play in constructing these communities? How are conflict and consensus negotiated within multiple. do those changes signal. The aim of the article has been to make the case for a generic study of archival description. and overlapping groups? As the boundary separating the writers and readers of finding aids begins to blur. p. Arch Sci 6(3–4):267–284 Bawarshi A (2000) The genre function. to identify and elaborate the elements of a conceptual framework for such a study. funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). space and creation. L. Bonini A. Figueiredo D (eds) (2009) Genre in a changing world. Pluralizing the Archival Curriculum Group (PACG) (2011) Educating for the Archival Multiverse. theory. and to sketch out its parameters and the questions to be addressed within those parameters. Acknowledgments This article is based on research undertaken as part of a project entitled Archival Description as Rhetorical Genre in Traditional and Web-based Environments. present. Madison Bazerman C.0’’ world (Theimer 2011a). I wish to thank my student research assistant Rebecca Russell whose exhaustive review of the literature on genre theory in general and rhetorical genre theory in particular contributed substantially to the development of the SSHRC research proposal. Parlor Press. Reiff JA (2010) Genre: an introduction to history. West Lafayette Berkenkotter C. Cataloging Classif Q 33(3–4):39–65 Andersen J (2008) The concept of genre in information studies. and pedagogy. Prior P (eds) (2004) What writing does and how it does it: an introduction to analyzing texts and textual practices. West Lafayette Bazerman C (1988) Shaping written knowledge: the genre and activity of the experimental article in science. Am Arch 73:69–101 Bastian JA (2006) Reading colonial records through an archival lens: the provenance of place. and possible future of archival description as rhetorical genre within specific institutional settings. This article has focused on the first stage of a research project investigating archival description as a rhetorical genre in traditional and web-based environments. is the generic identity of finding aids changing in fundamental ways? If so. Coll Engl 62(3):335–360 Bawarshi A. in turn. a ‘‘technological adjustment or paradigm shift’’ (Taylor 1987–1988) with respect to the cultural role of archivists and archival institutions? Conceptualizing archival description as rhetorical genre provides a starting point for analyzing the social actions performed by finding aids—what they do rather than what they are. Madison Bazerman C. References Andersen J (2002) Materiality of works: the bibliographic record as text. Erlbaum. Annu Rev Inf Sci Technol 42:339–367 Archival Education and Research Institute (AERI). disparate. University of Wisconsin Press.

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Erlbaum. Am Arch 66:51–78 Yakel E. Am Arch 70:93–113 Yates J.500 Arch Sci (2012) 12:485–500 Spilka R (ed) (1993) Writing in the workplace: new research perspectives. pp 75–101 Yakel E (2011b) Who represents the past? Archives. and archival representation. Her research and publications focus on the theory and methods of arrangement and description and the trustworthiness of records. Writ Commun 17:155–184 Yakel E (2003) Archival representation. Torres DA (2003) AI: archival intelligence and user expertise. and the social web. Cambridge Swales J (1998) Other floors. J Bus Commun 39:13–35 Author Biography Heather MacNeil is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto where she teaches courses in archival concepts and issues. records. Orlikowski W (2002) Genre systems: structuring interaction through communicative norms. Society of American Archivists. In: Cook T (ed) Controlling the past: documenting society and institutions.0? Am Arch 74:58–68 Theimer K (ed) (2011b) A different kind of web: new connections between archives and our users. she is exploring archival description as a rhetorical genre in traditional and web-based environments. the history of recordkeeping. pp 257–278 Yakel E. Chicago Winsor D (2000) Ordering work: blue-collar literacy and the political nature of genre. In her current research. Mahwah Taylor HA (1987–1988) Transformation in the archives: technological adjustment or paradigm shift? Archivaria 25:12–28 Theimer K (2011a) What is the meaning of Archives 2. Society of American Archivists. In: Theimer K (ed) A different kind of web: new connections between archives and our users. Southern Illinois University Press. 123 . Cambridge University Press. L. Dr. Society of American Archivists. along with Terry Eastwood. Arch Sci 3:1–25 Yakel E (2004) Encoded archival description: are finding aids boundary spanners or barriers for users? J Arch Organ 2(1–2):63–77 Yakel E (2011a) Balancing archival authority with encouraging authentic voices to engage with records. Torres DA (2007) Genealogists as a ‘‘Community of Records’’. of Currents of Archival Thinking (2010). other voices: a textography of a small university building. Carbondale Swales J (1990) Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. MacNeil is the author of Without Consent (1992) and Trusting Records (2000) and co-editor. Chicago. Chicago.