Archival practices. Production and transformation of archival material in the Swiss Federal Archives (20./21. Century)

Ph.D. Dissertation project Flurin Rageth

I am interested in archival practices and in the formation and transformation of written archival material. Designed as a case study my PhD project draws on the Swiss Federal Archives in Bern. The research object of my dissertation are practices associated with written documents, records and files situated within the context of an institutional archive.

The primary function of archives is not to produce material but to gather and store already existing material. However, collecting, selecting, storing and maintaining written material and therewith transforming it into specific archival material can be conceived as a form of producing previously non-existing material. It is through specific archival practices, that archival material comes into existence.

Directed at the formation of archival objects, my research interest can be translated into the following basal questions: Which practices (as to select, to appraise, to destroy, to register, to order, to digitize, to save, to evaluate) can be identified in the context of the Swiss Federal Archives in Bern? Which actors are involved in the process of archiving and what do they do with written archival records? In what respect written records are symbolically or even physically beeing transformed through their decontextualisation and their making of archival material? And which role do practices play in this material arrangement of archival objects?

The main task of the Swiss Federal Archives (SFA) is storing records once produced in any offices of the federal administration of Switzerland. In the process of transferring records from their primary context of production  and application into the archival repository, records are also disposed of their original purpose and given the status of archival material. However, the SFA does not store the total number of the records produced by the state administration but just the ones meeting the criterion of archival value. Material devoid of archival value is being destroyed. With regard to the circulation and transfer of records between different contexts, places and actors, archivists speak of the life cycle of records. The life cycle of a document encompasses its production in an office, its archiving and thereby its dislocation to a repository as well as its potential mobilisation by later users of the archive. Currently, there are around 60'000 meters of analogue records and 16 terrabyte digitized records stored in the SFA.

Nowadays, archival record keeping is considered as a crucial component of ‘good governance’ strategy: By storing and rationally managing official records, the SFA aims at making state practices transparent and therefore maintaining the constitutional legality of the Swiss nation-state. Since historians shifted their focus on primary sources in the course of the 19th century, archives also became epistemological hot spots and privileged sites of historical research. On the grounds of their research interest, historians select documents from the archives and in doing so, transform material kept in the archive into research material, the so-called ‘sources’. Thus, activities conducted in the archive consist equally of epistemic practices. Changing perspectives from the site of producers to the site of the users of an archive widens the spectrum of my research: Directing the focus to the scientific users of the archive allows to discuss the material conditions of historical knowledge. How can best be illustrated that an archive with its material, materiality and involved practices informs our knowledge about the past? How does an archive and its material context confront the historians with circumstances and embedded situatedness? In which moments and situations does the archive play a crucial role as a powerful infrastructure of historical knowledge?

In order to understand the current archival practices observable in the SFA it is important not to reduce them to merely contemporary practices but to take into account their historicity. My Ph.D. project therefore also investigates into the history of archival practices and examines archival practices in the time span from the very present to the beginning of the 20th century.