Vagrant Facts: The Use of Archives as Cultural Heritage and Knowledge Production

Keywords: archival user study, cultural heritage, knowledge production, media theory


Traditionally, archives constitute the authority of facts. This view has been challenged by recognising archives, not as sites of knowledge retrieval but knowledge production, and by questioning archivists and archival practice as neutral, objective, and impartial. This contradiction also applies when considering the relationship between archives and cultural heritage. The traditional view that would regard public documents as cultural heritage contrasts the relationship that includes a more progressive definition of cultural heritage as traces and expressions from the past that are attributed value and are being used today, since nothing is cultural heritage in itself. Hence, it could be assumed that studying aspects that affect the use of archives could provide a wider understanding of the knowledge production that permeates the relationship between archives and cultural heritage. This paper reports a user study, with a participatory design, where 13 heritage master’s students performed a task that involved reflecting on their own research processes when using archives regarding vagrancy in late nineteenth-century Gothenburg. In the user study, aiming at gaining a wider understanding of the cognitive processes and epistemological aspects involved in using archives, the observations made by the students in their ethnographic and reflexive research process were analysed. From the analysis of the students’ reports, certain tendencies emerged that could be wider understood by their connections with previous research, for example within media theory.

Author Biography

Karl-Magnus Johansson, The Swedish National Archives
Archivist, The Regional State Archives in Gothenburg