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Essays: Archives as Medium

William Buxton: The Archival Practice of Harold Adams Innis: A Time-binding Corrective to Monopolies of Knowledge

By William J. Buxton, Professor, Department of Communication Studies, Concordia University

As is well known, Harold Innis's early writings on transportation and on the production of staples (such as fur, cod and pulp-and-paper) drew heavily on archival material. Indeed, Innis was an enthusiastic patron of the Public Archives of Canada, now LIbrary and Archives Canada. (He supplemented his archival work with what he called "dirt research," which involved direct observation of the subject matter in question.) Much like an archivist, he was also heavily involved in collecting and organizing resources such as maps and document collections, which could be used by teachers and students of Canadian economic history. Innis, moreover, took a strong professional interest in the organization and the use of archival collections; he frequently contributed to discussions in scholarly journals about matters of interest to both archivists and historical researchers. There is little doubt, then, that Innis was a very strong supporter of both archives and archival research throughout the first two decades of his academic career.

However, there is some evidence that, by the mid-1940s, Innis's perspective on the role of archives in relation to research was undergoing a shift. Some insights into his changing outlook can be found in a letter that he wrote to the editor of the Canadian Historical Review (CHR) in 1944. He was responding to a request (made to a number of prominent Canadians) that he express his views on the current state of the Review, as well as the direction that it should take over the course of the next 25 years. This survey was occasioned by the 25th anniversary of the CHR; the editors thought that it was an appropriate time to reflect on the state of the journal and to chart its course for the future. Innis, who had written frequently for the CHR, did not mince his words:

The task of the next twenty-five years will be one of maintaining and improving on the advance since the beginnings in 1896 in the face of very great problems of personnel and an intense pressure from the state. Already there are tales of trainloads of material with numerous trained historians and the interest in the mechanics of archives will increase with the size of the archives. The Canadian Historical Review must somehow try to keep the philosophical interest alive in spite of the threat of the avalanche of documentary material. It should systematically foster and cherish an interest in new points of view and interpretation. 1

From the outset, the CHR had been more than simply a place where scholarly articles were published; it was a repository for both knowledge of Canada and knowledge of relevance to Canadians. It contained not only articles, but also book reviews and reviews of articles about Canada, along with notes and commentary. Innis feared that by virtue of the state's increasing use of archives for its own ends (through expanding archival collections and mechanizing their organization and use), historians would become more like technicians. Moreover, scholarly journals (such as the CHR) would face new pressures to publish technically oriented reports, thereby curtailing philosophical discussion and closing themselves off from fresh perspectives.

In making this suggestion, Innis was likely drawing upon his own extensive experience as a reviewer of books for the CHR. Over a nine-year period (from 1934 to 1943), he wrote no less than nine review essays of some 165 books on the North. It is evident from reading these reviews that Innis viewed them as a foundation of knowledge about the North. They were not only intended to increase public awareness of the North, but to result in more enlightened public policy. Hence, judging by his own involvement with the CHR, Innis believed that it had played a useful role in helping to shape public views about Northern affairs. He was undoubtedly troubled by the possibility that the CHR would be less concerned with its role in guiding public opinion and more concerned with serving the instrumental interests of the state.

These fears also led Innis to rethink the nature and role of archival collections. To some extent, his own work for the CHR could be viewed as a proto-archive. His review essays were meant to accumulate knowledge about the North, providing a storehouse of information about what had been written on the subject matter. However, what made this body of work different from archival collections was the extent to which the factual material collected was selected, interpreted, and cross-referenced.

In effect, Innis had developed his own model of an archive as an alternative to the state-dominated form of archival collection, which he saw as a mechanized, space-binding institution processing factual data and wedded to the monopolies of knowledge forming within and through the federal government. In contrast, the Innisian archive was personal, selective and interpretive; it was established with the purpose of generating dialogue and cultivating public opinion.

It is instructive that immediately after he had completed his cycle of reviews for the CHR -- and had written his critical comments to its editors -- Innis embarked on two major initiatives that further developed his emergent archival model, namely his "Idea File" and his massive "History of Communication" manuscript. While the former could best be seen as Innis's own personal archive -- in which he developed techniques for organizing and systematizing his thoughts -- the latter was likely intended for public consumption, as a massive repository of knowledge about the history of print media, which could become a point of reference for current discussions about the course of Western civilization. In this respect, it could serve as a corrective to the monopolies of space-binding knowledge (including material found in standard archival collections) that, in Innis's view, were becoming increasingly predominant.


1. From an undated letter from Harold Innis to George W. Brown, probably written in November 1944. University of Toronto Archives, A1986-0044/055, "CHR 25th Anniversary letters, 1944," file 1 of 2.

This article was prepared with the support of a research grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

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