Expanding Definitions of Archives

My ideas around archives, what they are, what they look like, what they include (and don’t include) have been shaped by the readings and experiences of the semester. Coming into this class, my limited view of archives were things (objects, books, papers) that were organized in boxes, stored in libraries, accessed by researchers, and sometimes digitized for the public. Although I have used archives before and have even been involved in organizing archives, I am a dilettante when it comes to actual archival work. I was never exposed to the various forms of archives or thought about how their organization could structure knowledge. 

One of the early readings “What Do you Mean by Archive? Genres of Usage for Digital Preservers” introduced theoretical archival concepts by Foucault, Derrida and Kittler and Wolfgang Ernst – that the archive has a role in society, it is an idea, it is the entirety of history. This expansion of the definition stayed with me. When I visit a museum, I now look at exhibitions as archives. The curator’s job of assembling works, placing them in specific positions on the walls, providing historical context in the object descriptions, is a type of archival work. Exhibition catalogs, art books, and other types of non-fiction books can therefore also be considered archives – they gather objects, provide information and knowledge in the form of essays and writing. This translates online, as well, as shown in the Colored Conventions project, which separates the records from the exhibitions. Certainly, the records themselves are important, but for someone like myself who was unaware of these political meetings, the exhibits provide knowledge, understanding, context, and meaning. 

But, it is not only the act of archiving or what is archived that is important, it is also how it is accomplished. I am reminded of readings such as “Archival Encounters: Rethinking access and care in digital colonial archives” and other projects we reviewed such as the Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection and the Barnard Zine collection whose creators shared their processes of care in dealing with sensitive materials. They showed that empathy and not necessarily objectivity is crucial to assembling and maintaining archives; that there is bravery in confronting past injustices; that archives provide questions and not answers.

Lastly, throughout the semester, I’ve been taking note of various descriptive words about archives that have interested me. I list them here with no explanation and will let the words speak for themselves: recognize, redress, reorient, produce, reproduce, acknowledge (not obscure), question (not define), quantify, qualify, interrogate, recover, discover, disassemble, reassemble, deconstruct, reconstruct, reconfigure,  articulate, enrich, remix, decentralize, provoke, rethink, reform, speculate, interpret, complicate, challenge, restructure.