What are Archives? Cultural & Theoretical Perspectives: A Reader, edited by Louise Craven

I am currently reading What are Archives? Cultural & Theoretical Perspectives: A Reader, edited by Louise Craven and with contributions from Michael Moss and Andrew Prescott, amongst others. The text focuses on the archive and the archivist, and their mutual roles in a digital world. Craven’s own chapter, the nattily titled From the Archivist’s Cardigan to the Very Dead Sheep: What are Archives? What are Archivists? What do They Do? focuses on “five specific areas which have experienced transformation or significant development in the past ten or so years.”

During my viva voce it became apparent that my focus on the archive as a form of internment was problematic, and probably offensive to archivists who consider their role to be one of guardianship, not prison wardenship. I saw the archive as a form of house arrest (Sian Echard’s term) because it suited my argument about the lack of access to culture and the provision of the digital as a substitute to the original. I didn’t take into account the very positive role of the archive, and of “record-keeping…as an indicator of the development of civilisation.” [Craven, p.12]: my focus was on the Derridean notion of the hierarchical structure of the archive, and how that hierarchy is used to police access: “its authority, its titles, and its genealogy, the right that it commands, the legality or the legitimacy that depends on it” [Derrida, Archive Fever: a Freudian Impression, p.10].

Craven’s chapter presents the record office as a place of custodianship, in which “theories of knowledge and ownership of knowledge have irrevocably shifted” [Craven, p.8] and archive collections have to be reconsidered within this new paradigm. She discusses how an archival document actually has many meanings, dependent upon the use that document is put to by the user. A letter, for example, “was at once the most intimate and most treacherous of all archival documents because it is open to so many interpretations” [Eagleton, 1982, pp.54-55].

That must be problematic when attempting to seek out an audience for a digitised artefact. By digitising you are fixing something into a single role, when most archival material can have many different purposes and meanings. By thereafter putting it on a website that is meant to attract genealogists, for example, you are focusing on one of its potential interpretations at the cost of all the others. The document becomes fixed, and its many potential permutations are discarded.

Currently there is little empirical evidence as to the impact of archival images available on the Internet, but the figures alone are staggering: since digitised images of documents were first made available in 2004, there have been 66 million downloads from online sources of TNA documents…The experience online is quite different. The relationship between an individual and the digitised image here seems to be more like that experienced by a person watching a film…”giving a sense of enclosure”…[Craven, pp.18-19]

We know that the digitised artefact often does not present the original as it exists in the “real world”. The light is different: things are changed in order to present the best possible image to the viewer. The danger is that the viewer fails to realise that the download they have will be quite different to the original. Furthermore, as Craven notes, the procedures employed within the physical archive often impede the use of digital resources – online catalogues, for example, “have been identified as barriers to the constructive use of digital resources” [Craven, p.21].

Another interesting element of this chapter is when Craven discusses the outward signs of importance that a manuscript has, which are removed by the digitisation process:

Paper records have a set of ‘signs’ which we absorb automatically: just as typefaces tell us things about the meaning of the words they convey, the outward form of paper records tells us about the significance and authority of the content within. A book bound in red leather says “I’m important!”, the way documents are folded in a bundle, the format of a pipe roll, the use of treasury tags…the archivist’s intervention here – putting the documents in order, describing them and producing finding aids – simply reinforces this notion of importance…signs of conservation are similarly significant…electronic records have no such signs, no way of saying “I’m important!”. [Craven, p.22]

Michael Moss describes digitisation as “undermining the fiduciary responsibility of the archivist” [Craven, p.23]. I suspect that many archivists (so too academics and traditional scholars) feel threatened by the digital, and what could be seen as the erosion of archival practice. Furthermore, Craven’s conclusion mentions the fact that archivists are being asked to “become skilled in old and new technologies and to make decisions on cultural and heritage grounds without giving them the knowledge and skills they need to do so” [Craven, p.25].

The next chapter is by Andrew Prescott, and discusses Foucault’s idea of heterotopias, a notion that I think will further support the discussion within my thesis of the places within which we do our learning. I will write further on that within the next week or so. In the meantime, my evaluation of the archivist’s trade and the rebalancing of my work to acknowledge their role as conservationists, rather than wardens, continues apace.


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