Sharing the Archive

Tara McPherson's picture

In the context of an online post about the stakes, possibilities, and limits of digital sharing, it seems appropriate to share the work of a few colleagues who have influenced how I have come to think about one critical site of humanities inquiry, the archive.  My interests in the archive are both theoretical and practical.  The theorization of the archive – from Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault to Diana Taylor and Stephen Best – has been a rich, transdiciplinary locus of inquiry for decades.  And the practical aspects of the archive – from access to the thrill of the hunt – are well known to many humanities scholars, as Kyle Barnett detailed in this forum on Tuesday.  But I am particularly interested in the transformations of the archive now being wrought through digitization, particularly as archives increasingly become not archives at all but databases.  If, following Derrida, we believe that the process of “archivization” produces the very conditions for history and memory, scholars who use archival materials must be actively involved in these processes of digitization.  We should be shaping what gets digitized, how it gets digitized, how it gets accessed or shared, and the very tools and algorithms that will underpin these processes.  But that’s a big charge.  Today I want to focus on one small aspect of the archive: our very concept of what an archive does. 

Historically, the archive was officially meant to collect, preserve and protect.  Selection of, access to and the use of archival materials was rigorously regulated.  The archive cultivated an ethos of the rare and the original.  Careful order was imposed.  The digitization of archives has upset this careful hierarchy.  Digital archival materials might be circulated and shared more freely.  Amateur and expert might build archives together.  We might begin to imagine the archive itself as a site of creation, change and emergence.  In the past, humanities scholars have raided archives in order to capture their treasures for our books and articles.  This relationship has often been uni-directional and vampiric, giving little back to the archive.  In an era of connected data, our interpretations might live within the archive, curating pathways of analysis through its datasets or reframing the archive via new interfaces and multiple points of view.   Many organizations are now taking up these questions, including the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture with which I work.  My own thinking about the purpose of the archive in the digital era owes many debts of gratitude (some reflected in the links above), but here I briefly highlight three people whose projects have deeply influenced my thinking and my research.

Rick Prelinger was a fellow in our labs at USC in the summer of 2005.  At that point, our team was well aware of his pioneering efforts to collect and preserve ephemeral film as well as his involvement with the Internet Archive.  With his wife, Megan, he also opened the very radical Prelinger Library.  From Rick, I learned to flip my thinking about archives, seeing them not as “quiet places” but as places “justified by use.”

Steve Anderson is my long-time friend and collaborator at USC.  He is also the founder of Critical Commons, a bottom-up digital archive that challenges academics to share, annotate and remake media while also taking a crucial stand on fair use.  From Steve I learned (among many other things) that we don’t need permission to do the work that needs to be done.

Kim Christen also spent time in the Vectors’ labs as a fellow before going on to lead Mukurtu, an archival platform that allows indigenous communities to manage their own cultural heritage materials, resisting the colonial underpinnings that often underwrote the archival impulse.  From Kim I learned that, while sharing is a good thing, ethical and contextual sharing is even better.

I share their projects with you in the spirit of generosity and rigor with which they have shared with me.  I encourage you to get to know their work if you don’t already and to adapt their lessons about sharing, the future archive and scholarship for your own purposes.


Matthew Beale's picture

Archiving the digital

Thank you for the multitude of links that you included with your post, Tara. It is interesting to see the varied ways in which scholars are approaching the issues of archiving in the digital era.

One question in particular arose as I was reading your piece that I wonder if you might comment on: in your opinion, as someone who works in archiving, how has working within the digital altered the process by which decisions are made about what to include in the archives? Certainly, each archive has its own ethos that it seeks to establish through its content (in addition to any descriptions or graphics), but how does the format of the digital restructure the choices that must be made for the selection of content?

Kristopher Purzycki's picture

This months posts have been

This months posts have been some of the most invigorating. It's rare anymore that the mention of "archive" conjures up the image of the wizened scholar huddled over stacks of dusty tomes in some crumbling tower library. 

I was wondering if there's a sense of urgency on the part of archivists of digital texts? The misguided, yet popular, sense that electronic resources and compositions are permanent and will forever be readily retrievable has always concerned me. Has there been any interest in crowd-sourcing these efforts (in the vein of GalaxyZoo's galactic classification project)? 

I second Matt's appreciation for the resources, Tara - many thanks!