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. Archivists 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 In turn, notions of identity are confirmed and justified as historical documents validate their authority.

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