Three Questions: Luciana Duranti

Luciana Duranti has been since 1987 a professor of archival theory, diplomatics, and the management of digital records in the master’s and doctoral archival programs of the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies of the University of British Columbia (UBC). She is also Faculty Associate Member of the UBC College for Interdisciplinary Studies, Media and Graphics Interdisciplinary Centre, and Affiliate Full Professor at the University of Washington, Seattle. Duranti is Director of the Centre for the International Study of Contemporary Records and Archives (CISCRA— and of InterPARES, the largest and longest living publicly funded research project on the long-term preservation of authentic electronic records (1998-2018), the Digital Records Forensics Project, and the Records in the Clouds Project. She is co-Director of the Law of Evidence in the Digital Environment Project. She has published more than 150 referred articles/book chapters and 5 books.Luciana Duranti

Duranti is a fellow of both the SAA and the Association of Canadian Archivist (ACA). She has been an SAA Council Member (1992-95) and the only person to serve as President of both the SAA (1998-9) and the ACA (2016-18).

Duranti has been honoured with the British Columbia Faculty Associations’ Academic of the Year Award (1999), and her research has been recognized in 2006 with the Emmett Leahy Award for her contributions to records management; the British Columbia Innovation Council Award—annually presented to “an individual who has opened new frontiers to scientific research;” and the Killam Research Prize; and in 2007 with the Jacob Biely Research Prize—the University of British Columbia’s “premier research award.”  In 2012 she was awarded the Inaugural ARMA International “Award for Academic Excellence in teaching, research, and contribution to the global citizenry,” and in 2014 she became one of the very few humanists worldwide ever inducted as a member of the Academy of Galileo Galilei in Padua. But the award she cherishes the most is the one that introduced her to the SAA and the North American archival profession, which she received in 1985: the Oliver Wendell Holmes Award!

What interested you in becoming an archivist?

My answer is from a piece I wrote on a blog called “How I started,” published by the UK and England Archives and Records Association Section for New Professionals, because I cannot find better words to explain how it happened. My statement on the blog is much longer and illustrated with pictures, so, if you would like to read it all, the posting is here:

“When I was a teenager I wanted to study math and I knew I would never want to be a teacher, because in my family everybody was a professor and all our meal conversations were about students: not much fun! What happened to that plan?

I grew up in Italy and, at the time of starting university, it became clear to me that, if I took math, I would end up being a high school teacher, because in those times girls were not expected to take jobs in business and industry or scientific research, while humanistic subjects offered more opportunities. I studied classics and history and I became passionate about the latter, so I asked my thesis supervisor whether she thought I should continue with historical studies to become a professional researcher. She responded that I was “far too brilliant to be an historian” and I should rather become an archivist. I knew little about archives, which I mostly experienced as a user in the process of writing my thesis, but I was fascinated by the Tabularium, the archives of ancient Rome (, and its function in the context of the Roman democratic republic, so I followed my professor’s advice.

Thus, I studied archival science and competed for the position of state archivist. In 1978 I became state archivist at the State Archives of Rome, and started working in one the most beautiful architectural structure of the baroque times, Borromini’s Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza.”

Who has influenced you in your career?

Definitely my archival studies professors: Leopoldo Sandri, Arnaldo D’Addario and Elio Lodolini for Archival Science, Alessandro Pratesi for Diplomatics, and Giulio Battelli and Armando Petrucci for Palaeography. My mind set was shaped by these scholars, who were giants in all of Europe—not only Italy, and whose writings still guide much of classic archival education in Latin countries and beyond (a Japanese colleague recently told me that he studied the same texts). They introduced me to the international archival literature from Europe, North and South America, and Australia… though I read it mostly in translation.

When I moved to Canada in 1987 I endeavoured to read everything I could put my hands on in order to understand North American archives, starting with Schellenberg of course. But it was Terry Eastwood who led me to the old texts, such as Jones, Berner, Holmes, Brooks, and it was my ongoing discussion with him about these authors and their ideas that spurred the development of my own ideas.

Terry was also responsible for my focus on diplomatics. He asked me to teach a course on contemporary diplomatics and, to win my skepticism, took me to visit W.K. Lamb, retired Dominion Archivist and Librarian, who spent an afternoon explaining the value of diplomatics in shaping the archival mind-set. As soon as I figured out that diplomatics was records management theory, I made the connection with what Kent Haworth and Reuben Ware had been telling me since I first arrived in Canada about functional classification, office of primary responsibility, and all those concepts that flowed into the British Columbia and Nova Scotia classification systems. Kent and Reuben had a delayed influence on my thinking, but a strong one nonetheless.

However, I have to recognize that the strongest influence on my career through the years has been that of my students. Every original thought I have had has come from an effort to answer their questions, to respond to their challenges, to address their concerns, to understand their points, and to explain myself. Some of my students have stated that I use the Socratic method of teaching, others that I haggle, quibble, or contend with them. What I do is learn from them while teaching them to develop and defend their own ideas. They have different backgrounds and perspectives and often different cultures. They ask questions that sometimes do not make sense to me and, on the one hand, I want to find out why they appear to come from left field and how they were formed in their mind, and on the other, I want to enable a clearer formulation of those thoughts. This exercise may either teach me new things or teach me how to better explain and illustrate by examples what I am trying to convey: either way, in the process, my students will have influenced me, my thinking, often my writings, certainly my professional choices.

What is your advice for new archivists?

 Stay open to all possibilities. When you are confused, go back to basics, look for the root of each concept or method, read the classics again. Remember that your knowledge is based on a scientific discipline that is international, but is applied in a specific and changing context: try always to reconcile the two. If you can’t, try again, read more, ask your colleagues.

Remember you are part of a tightly-nit scholarly profession. Participate actively in it by volunteering for your local and national associations, contributing to conferences, and writing for scholarly journals. Get involved in graduate archival education, as an adjunct, a guest speaker, a member of an advisory board, an internship supervisor, etc. and keep a strong tie with your alma mater. All these activities, in addition to keeping up with the literature, will also qualify you as a research collaborator: collaborating in research will keep you on the leading edge of your discipline and your profession.

As a practitioner, contribute to archival national and international listservs, and read carefully what your colleagues have to say and, sometimes, to ask: their questions are as important as other commentaries, or notifications. This of course means that you need to have a very fast delete finger and you will develop it as soon you will be able identify at a glance what is relevant to you and what is not.

When everyone agrees on an idea, or an issue becomes very popular, it is time for you to move on and try a different idea or identify another issue. Keep moving, be the one who asks new questions—no matter how outrageous, opens new doors, identifies new possibilities, creates new relationships with other professions and disciplines, and brings them to bear on the body of knowledge that we all share.

Finally, dream the impossible for archives and for your profession: it may not come true or it may not happen during your lifetime but, if or when it will, it will be because you imagined it!

“Three Questions” is an ongoing series of interviews with women who are leaders in the profession. The interviews, limited to three questions, will highlight women in the field who have made an impact, whether through their role in management, mentoring, research, or other leadership capacity. This series of interviews responds to WAR member’s interest in promoting women in leadership roles, as identified in WAR’s survey of its membership in August 2013. WAR welcomes suggestions for future interviewees – please contact us with your ideas.


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