Library and Archives Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Institutional links

ARCHIVED - Old Messengers, New Media: The Legacy of Innis and McLuhan

Archived Content

This archived Web page remains online for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. This page will not be altered or updated. Web pages that are archived on the Internet are not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards. As per the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada, you can request alternate formats of this page on the Contact Us page.

Essays: Archives as Medium

Terry Cook: Archives as Media of Communication

By Terry Cook, Professor, Archival Studies, University of Manitoba

In the face of the rootlessness of the wired global community, in which the speed of life makes yesterday recede quickly into the distant past, French historian Pierre Nora has asserted that "modern memory is, above all, archival. It relies entirely on the materiality of the trace, the immediacy of the recording, the visibility of the image." 1 The archival document is the means and symbol of collective memory. Through archives, people experience continuity with the past and find their identity. These recorded traces allow the past to communicate with us, as we create similar traces to link forward to the future. Such a conception of the archive has strong resonances with the pioneering work on communications and media done by Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis.

Innis demonstrated that controlling recording media and communication technologies empowered the great empires of the past by giving them monopolies of knowledge. Archives were very much part of those monopolies; monarchs, churches, and other elites discerned that whoever controlled the archives also controlled the past and would thus be able to legitimize their power in the present. The societal process of archiving involved a stark exercise of power over who and what was remembered and venerated, and, equally, who or what was marginalized and forgotten.

All media have a built-in bias of communication, Innis observed; this bias notably reflects the possibilities and limitations of recording technologies of their time. This thought leads to McLuhan's famous aphorism that the "medium is the message." Archives have long demonstrated their own biases in terms of which media they choose to communicate the nation's history. There has been an overwhelming focus on textual records, with audiovisual documents being treated as a kind of embellishment to the main story of history, a story that was traditionally based on, and related through, words. Beginning in 1872, the Public Archives of Canada (now Library and Archives Canada) collected non-textual media, but it was usually only incidental, arriving as part of larger accessions of private manuscripts or government records.

That changed dramatically when Hugh A. Taylor joined the institution in 1971 to direct its archival programs. Deeply animated by McLuhan's ideas, Taylor had found The Gutenberg Galaxy to be "absolutely compelling," and soon "devoured a number of McLuhan's other works in quick succession." As Taylor said in one essay at the time, everything about archives changed "in the wake of McLuhan." 2 Accepting McLuhan's ideas on the importance of audiovisual media, Taylor transformed the concepts, strategies, and collections of the Archives.

Taylor counselled archivists to attain a wider visual literacy to complement their traditional analytical expertise with textual documents. He felt that archivists should always be less concerned with "the surface" of their records, since visiting historians and researchers were interested in subject content. Archivists should thus focus instead on the contextual "light of relatedness" of the various media themselves; this approach illuminated a different kind of knowledge for viewers and readers. Taylor argued for a re-engagement of "all of our senses," not only the logical, linear, logocentric emphasis of Western thinking, bureaucracies and archives. 3

Traditionally, archivists have seen records "simply as the neutral 'carriers' of messages or pieces of information, despite the fact that the nature of each medium does shape administrative systems. The interplay between the medium and the receiver," Taylor asserted, closely following McLuhan, "creates a communication environment over and above the content of the message and thereby becomes a message itself." Taylor believed the character and impact of various recording media, and their patterns of communication and reception, were as much a part of the context of records as the more traditional identification of archives with the person or office that created them. Archivists must, therefore, research these deeper contexts and convey them to researchers if the archival traces are to be well understood as part of societal memory.

Taylor's view lends legitimacy to audiovisual material as actual records, instead of mere embellishment, as authentic evidence of human activity no less important for historical interpretation than textual manuscripts or government files. Audiovisual records are, for Taylor, archives pure and simple, not "special media"; they are not the second-class citizens they had been in most archives for far too long, and for most researchers too, especially historians. By way of example, Taylor asserted that the map "was the first pictorial record (as opposed to pictorial illustration) ... an archival document of the first importance. For the new study of the environment we turn to printed maps, the successive issues of which record the palimpsest of destruction." Taylor believed "that the artist can make as valid a statement about the buildings or people he sees as anyone setting down the description in words and that this statement will in many cases enhance a purely photographic record." Similarly, Taylor counselled that "we are only beginning to accept photographs as record. Up to now they have been used almost entirely as illustration." So too, he added, are film, television, videotape, and sound recordings all archives, all "waiting to be read ... the ultimate in historical record." 4

Here, as usual, Taylor was well ahead of his time. Most researchers did not learn to "read" records in this way, for their evidence, their contextual interrelationships, and their constructed nature, until the postmodern "turn" of the 1990s. But for archivists of audiovisual records of the 1970s, Taylor was a breath of fresh air, whose influential writings engendered a sense of legitimacy for archivists working with these media. The structural changes at the Public Archives that flowed from his beliefs gave media archivists scope for their knowledge to flourish, and led to a vast increase in the number of audiovisual records now held safely in the Archives and available for researchers.

Archivists need, Taylor concluded, to "work to ensure that those who draw sustenance and insight from archives feed on a balanced diet of media and are aware of the effects." Media of recording and communication are not "passive wrappings, but active processes," which rendered the context of records as important as their content. 5

McLuhan would have been pleased; Innis would have understood.


1. Pierre Nora, "Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire," Representations 26 (Spring 1989), p. 7, as cited in John R. Gillis, ed., in Introduction, Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 15.

2. Terry Cook and Gordon Dodds, ed., Imagining Archives: Essays and Reflections by Hugh A. Taylor (Lanham, N.J. and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, 2003), p. 72, for Taylor's reaction. More generally, see his "The Media of Record: Archives in the Wake of McLuhan," Georgia Archives, no. 6 (Spring 1978), also in Cook and Dodds, Imagining Archives, p. 63-74.

3. Cook and Dodds, Imagining Archives, p. 64-66, 72.

4. Hugh A. Taylor, "Canadian Archives: Patterns from a Federal Perspective," Archivaria, no. 2 (Summer 1976), p. 13-14.

5. Cook and Dodds, Imagining Archives, p. 72.

Previous | Next