What is an archive?

What is an archive? 

In the wake of Foucault’s celebrated (and sometimes vilified) work on archeological considerations of discourses that circulate, organise and constrain in framing thinking, much of debate about archives has settled on ‘the archive’ in a rather totalising way. No end, no beginning, it’s almost everything about something, and always seems to concern things people don’t approve of rather than those they do, archive-as-law.

I have been up to my ears over the last six weeks or so reading Digital Humanities scholarship. Through this it has become apparent that ‘the archive’ is being pressed into related service here, to stand for the meta-collections or meta-repositories, the simulacra of collected items not formerly belonging together, to be found in digital form in e-editions, like the letters and publications of Charles Darwin, or Jane Austen, and in a more modest way the letters of Olive Schreiner.

Much of these discussions are interesting, although some is at the waste of space end of things, but with notable exceptions it doesn’t help with understanding the places called archives and the activities that go on them. And nor does seeing ‘the archive’ as a bit like the desolation of Smaug in the Lord of the Ring novels, all-powerful evil condensed except when countered by Intrepid Researchers telling their archive tales like so many startled hobbits!

My own take on this? I plod on, visiting rather mundane places, staffed by largely helpful people, reading things ranging from boring to fascinating. In a very baseline way I call the places I go to archives and the stuff I work on documents in collections. My tales are of the hard graft involved, and it isn’t the nitty-gritty of this that’s important or very interesting (my nearest and dearest flinches whenever I start talking about it), but what the mind working with the remaining traces (Derrida’s term) or tracks (that of Marc Bloch) to make some sense of them in the light of guiding frameworks of ideas (aka that terrible phrase ‘research questions’). But yes, I am aware, very aware, of the complications and critiques and other ways of thinking about ‘the archive’, although these don’t help very much, indeed to be frank don’t have much relevance, when it comes to what Carolyn Steedman in one of her articles refers to as the archive researcher’s daily dogged performance of positivism.

Last updated: 24 June 2015


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