The "Problem" of the Archive

For many of us, archives are a central feature of our day-to-day work practices. In research practicums we learn about how to identify archival sources and begin piecing fragments into coherent accounts. However, I often find myself thinking about the epistemological (and ethical) status of the archive. This is a gap in our pedagogy that warrants attention. At the most basic of levels — how did this material come to be available to me as historian and what are my obligations to these material traces?

Cultural critics, anthropologists, and social historians have done important work in this vein — the translation of Derrida’s Archive Fever into English spurred a flurry of scholarship in the late 1990s, including one of my favorites: Carol Steedman’s Dust: The Archive and Cultural History. Steedman is an interpreter of Derrida, who draws on the archive as source of power in order to probe the politics of doing ‘bottom up’ history with records that were produced by the state (prison records, tax records, birth and death certificates). More recently, Ann Stoler has drawn on her considerable ethnographic and historical expertise to problematize the archive in colonial history in her book Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Along this grain, indeed, the archive has increasingly become an intellectual boundary object, bringing historians into dialog with anthropologists. A recent example is Andrew Wilford & Eric Tagliacozzo’s edited volume, Clio/Anthropos: Exploring the Boundaries between Anthropology and History. The essays, by practitioners of history and ethnography, consider how the archive structures knowledge production . . . and vice versa.

My own work as a historian of biology deals with the construction of archives (this is an actor’s category) made out of human and non-human blood samples. The scientists who have assembled these collections view them as repositories that will be used to generate knowledge about the past and engage in various memory practices (ala Geoff Bowker) familiar to me from my own experiences in textual archives. This leads me to my questions for the blogosphere:

(1) What are the epistemic & ethical anxieties that you — as historians of science — have faced in your own encounters with the archive? To what extent are we uniquely positioned to contribute to this broader discussion? I have a few ideas of my own, but want to hear from you.

(2) And, what are the range of non-text-based ‘archives’ that you have encountered in your research? What can we learn about our own historical knowledge production practices by studying the archival techniques of other kinds of experts? How does this work intersect with or diverge from the literature on the history of collections and collecting?

I leave you with a link to the Cryobook Archive, work of the artist Tagny Duff (thanks to historian of bio-art, Hannah Rogers for the tip!). Duff has fashioned a series of texts out of living, human bodily substance. Creepy, ‘cool’, and provocative . . .


5 thoughts on “The "Problem" of the Archive

  1. Dan

    Wow. Those cryobooks gross me out. I recognize their coolness (he he), but: yuck.

    Great questions. I'll respond briefly to #2. Early on in my own research into the work of “statisticians” employed by life insurance companies I realized that much of what made a statistician successful was his ability to aggregate and order all manner of data related to human health and mortality. Being a great mathematician did not matter nearly so much as being adept at developing networks of correspondents who would send you new reports or grant you access to data compiled by other private institutions, such as hospitals.

    I had never considered “statistics” to be a collecting enterprise, but it certainly was in the 19th century. Ted Porter's recent work on statistics and turn-of-the-century genetics takes a similar approach to the history of statistics.

    Do statistical archives count as non-text-based archives? I suppose they might not…


  2. Hank

    Joanna: Great post. This touches on a lot of the issues from other conversations (here and here and here), but from a fresh perspective. Bravo.

    I'll just respond briefly by saying that I like your summary of some of the literature on the topic. To add to it, I think people like Etienne Benson in the Sciences of the Archive Project in Daston's group at the Max Planck will have a lot to say on this topic. Perhaps we can get him to weigh in, here.

    I'm coming to realize that my take on (1) is perhaps less anxious than some others'. That is, I feel like my issues with the archive are less particular to my being an historian of science and more general to the practice of history today.

    We all want to access some axis of what “really happened” in the past – whether the development of ideas, the lives of objects, or something else. This is the only sense in which I feel an “obligation” to the past, and it's less crucial to me how actors (or their inheritors, acolytes, or legatees) respond to my account.

    I have a question about reading between the lines: there was a period in the past in which this took the form of psychologizing the historical subject. Now, my sense is, this is anathema, or is at least veiled in non-psychological language. Is my sense accurate? If so, was this a good move for the discipline to make, and what has it done to our level of obligation to and/or dependence on “the archive”?


  3. Lukas

    Lately, I've been thinking about a related “problem,” if you will. I've been reading an fascinating new book written by some journalists from The Guardian about the Wikileaks controversy. One thing I was really interested in is the challenge they faced in mining this massive trove of leaked documents for newspaper stories. The US Embassy cables, for example, consisted of some quarter million documents! Obviously, you can't just read them all. So you have to find clever ways of sorting and filtering the information. They did this by building a database that lets you search by particular keywords and then sort by region, date, etc.

    It strikes me that historians will face a very similar problem more and more frequently going forward. Does that mean we should all start learning some basic database programming and familiarize ourselves with a decent scripting language. My sense is that if you work on 20th and 21st century history, you almost certainly will. It might even make sense to make computer literacy a formal requirement, much like the ability to read a foreign language.

    The obvious place to look for help and inspiration is computational biology. One thing that really struck me as a major difference between the approach historians take to their archives and that of biologists is our respective attitudes to openness and access. If a biologist wants to publish in a reasonable journal, they must first show that they have deposited all of their DNA sequence data in an online database like GenBank. This is to ensure that big, well funded labs are not in a position to monopolize basic research. Anyone can download sequence data — including, for example, the entire human genome — and analyze it for themselves.

    The practice of biologists to share sequence data has always struck me as a really productive and enviable approach to what we might call archive-based research. When I visit an archive, I do not just take notes on the documents I find interesting, I also photograph them. Right now, I have a substantial portion of the AMNH archive stored as jpg files on my hard drive. And I am sure that several other people have much of the same information on theirs too. Does this strike anyone else as slightly absurd, a vision of streams of people traveling around the country photographing many of the same documents but not sharing the fruits of their labor? Obviously there is a disincentive to sharing, but what would happen if we all did it? What would happen if major journals and publishing houses made it a condition that we deposit our primary source material on an online database when we publish our research?

    I realize that most archivists would find this suggestion abhorrent. Once a document is posted online there is no longer any need to visit the archive. And once there is no need for researchers to go there in person, there is also less of an argument for funding archives. I do think there is a genuine problem here. For the GenBank model to work there would have to be some mechanism to ensure we don't destroy the very institutions on which we rely to collect our material in the first place.

    That said, I still think it is worth thinking about. I am extremely lucky and privileged to study at a large and well-financed institution like Harvard. I can get my hands on almost any published text without having to leave Cambridge. And I have access to fairly generous funding that lets me travel around and photograph unpublished material. But not everyone is in the same position. Google books and other similar projects (like EEBO for early modernists) are absolutely fantastic for having democratized historical research. Why not try and take the next step?


  4. Ben Schmidt


    This is an important point, and in fact the whole framework basically exists already. The Zotero Commons encourages you to upload all those scanned archival documents, with the the bibliographic information you could have tagged it with in Zotero, and the Internet Archive agreed to host them. There's probably no way to force people to upload their sources for publications since so many archival documents still aren't photographed, but they've even figured out a clever way to encourage people to upload: free OCR translation of your files to text. Of course, that would be of more use if historians had a clue what to do with large document dumps, but some combination of topic modeling, easy-to-use text analysis tools like Voyeur, and castoffs from groups that are more professional in their approaches to sources (like this sort of thing) would get us halfway there. The other half involves historians thinking slightly differently about cooperation, the profession as a joint endeavor, etc, about which the less said the better.


  5. Joanna

    I have a few quick replies about these super interesting comments:

    Dan, re: life insurance data as collections/archives — at the very minimum, the statistical collections made by your actors can become archives for historians in subsequent generations (ala Steedman's claims in Dust).

    Hank, re: reading between the lines: 'psychologizing' the subject is somewhat ancillary to what I was thinking about in terms of reading between the lines. I had in mind some of the structural/institutional factors that lead certain papers to be stored in certain kinds of ways. That said, it's worth thinking about the motivations of actors to become historical subjects (is it one's self, spouse, colleague or archivist that makes the first move to get ones papers into the archive?) . . . Related, not all of the archives we historians encounter are personal ones. What to make of collections of papers from meetings, organizations, etc?

    Lukas & Ben re: the archives historians (re)make. This is such an interesting point! We are reproducing and distributing the archive through our own digital-media-aided knowledge production practices. This is exactly the kind of revelations that result from taking the archive, itself, as a subject. I'd love to talk more about the nature of collaboration in the history of science. I'll post on this in the next week.



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