The Limits Of The Archive

February 5, 2010

It was with not a great amount of trepidation that I attended the first in the series of Discussing the Archive panels at NYU last night. It wasn’t the usual trepidation associated with having to venture out of my UV-protected, temperature & humidity controlled house, but rather a slight concern after noting that a majority of panelists participating in the series come from the research side (professors of History, English, etc.) and not the archiving side of things.

At the time I wasn’t clear on why this situation was an issue with me. Maybe it had to do with the fact that my archiving program was housed in a humanities based department. When our paths crossed with supra-departmental students and professors in shared classes it was apparent that we, as budding archivists, had a different mindset about materials, facilities, and operations of archives than did those budding researchers. Not different bad, just culturally different.

Attending the panel last night clarified the foundations of that difference I think. As I listened to the panelists discuss the idea of The Archive and their interactions with Archives I heard what seemed like a severe disconnect with the materiality, the day-to-day of archives. There was discussion of power and control; of going to these cthonic, isolated, fragile locations full of crumbling materials, uncomfortable furniture and curt staff; of these inhuman institutions that define and defend what is considered culturally significant knowledge and can act as oppressors to unapproved subcultures.

This is why I distinguish between Archive and archive, because it felt like they spoke of it in the capital A sense, as a social concept, as an entity that was hooked into the cultural power structure and did its work silently, frustratingly, and without accepting outside input. Did I really choose such a monstrous profession? This did not sound like the archives and the archivists I know.

But before you start to think I’m sounding too offended — well, okay, maybe I did feel offended at first — I should say that hearing these reactions made me examine the relationship between researcher and archivist, and made me think that maybe this conflict arises out of having such similar desires that are pointed in slightly different directions. The panelists were urgent about the need for a record of the everyday, of the “voiceless”. I feel archives are concerned with preserving this kind of material, but, also, in my work I am greatly concerned with the everyday of the archive and archivist: workflows, communication, resource allocation, funding, advocacy, access, preservation. Researchers don’t see these mundane or toilsome actions that go into establishing and maintaining an archive. They see the public interface where there are large gaps between request and retrieval, strict safety rules, and, especially in the case of audiovisual materials, sometimes an inability to access. And all of this takes place in the midst of their own everyday concerns and worries about doing their own work. Ultimately the overall concerns are the same — to preserve, share knowledge, and make materials useful — but the professional practices associated with these goals differ.

I’m not sure this is anything that can be changed. In matters of great passion, such conversions are not common. Researchers will always want to use materials, and archivists will always want to protect them, but maybe some détente can be achieved, perhaps along the lines of an idea put forth in a recent post I did on communication transparency and also the general concern I have about better promoting the important work archivists do. It seems that frustrations can easily arise out of inability to access materials, and then those frustrations can easily be transferred to thoughts that the archive is being uncooperative or perhaps even incompetent. Lack of access can more often be tied to lack of funds to preserve, create access copies, or fully catalog materials. Researchers can be an agent in the preservation of materials because it is their demand that can help prompt funding, and maybe their improved knowledge about the everyday workings of the institution and their participatory role in it will make them an even more vocal supporter, enabling us to better support their work in turn.

— Joshua Ranger