This essay considers the role of archives and archivists against a backdrop of the contemporary
debate on identity, illustrated by research on the establishment and early years of the
oldest extant ethnic historical society in the United States-the American Jewish Historical
Society-and the construction of American/Jewish identities. Recent intellectual debate has
examined questions of national, ethnic, gender, class, and community identities, of individual
and group identity, and of the formation of identity. A spectrum of positions has emerged
from this debate. On one end, identity is viewed as "real," intrinsic to individuals and communities
or even biologically based. On the other, identity is conceived of as social fiction,
constructed culturally for political and historical reasons. On the whole, serious scholars
have rejected the former view. Archivist5 should be cognizant of this fact because they are
major players in the business of identity politics, whether they are conscious of it or not.
Archivists appraise, collect, and preserve the props with which notions of identity are built.
In turn, notions of identity are confirmed andjustified as historical documents validate their
We are what we collect, we collect what we are: Archives and the construction of identity. The American Archivist, Spring /Summer 2000. Society of American Archivists.
We are what we collect, we collect what we are: Archives and the construction of identity.
Society of American Archivists.
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