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Madhu Narayan


February 10, 2013

What we talk about when we talk about archives:

February 10, 2013 | By | One Comment

On January 4th, I attended an MLA panel titled “Representing Race: Silence in the Digital Humanities.” Adeline Koh – a speaker on this panel – talked at length about her current project “Digitizing Chinese Englishmen: Representations of Race and Empire in the Nineteenth Century. (This panel provoked a great deal of discussion. For now, here’s a storify version of the panel: x Koh has also discussed her project on the CHI Blog: Koh introduced “Digitizing Chinese Englishmen” as a postcolonial archive intended to digitize and annotate “the Straits Chinese Magazine, a journal produced by the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” She talked persuasively about the need to decolonize archives and to also interrupt the logics of imperial archives that try to consolidate knowledge and power by effectively silencing and co-opting representations of the Other.

Koh’s discussion of this postcolonial archive got me thinking about the different notions of archives that I have been writing lately. More specifically, I am interested in how the concept of the archive itself has been taken up by DH scholars. There seem to be divergent understandings of archives: archivists’ notions of this term seem to be markedly different from humanists’ understanding of it. For instance, in her introduction to a special issue on archives, space and power (available in Archivaria 61), Joan Schwartz writes about the “academic/archival divide.” She argues that “differering conceptions of the archive/ ‘archives’ are at the heart of the ironies of postmodern, post-structural, and postcolonial scholarship. The ‘disconnect’ or ‘slippage’ between “the archive” of this recent and burgeoning scholarship and ‘archives’ where archivists live and work has a great deal to do with misunderstandings about the relationship between records and power, and the presumed role of archives as spaces of power” (8). She points out that there is a difference between the “metaphorical archive” (as theorized by scholars such as Steedman, Richards, Derrida, Foucault and Taylor) and the “material archives” that archivists deal with on a daily basis.

Schwartz also points out that academic conversations about “the archive” are taking place without the input of archivists. However, as she puts it

“ultimately, what these examinations of “the archive” have to offer archivists working ‘in the real world of archives’ is an important critique of the knowledge/power nexus which archivists occupy. Their lessons are not pointed, specific, tailored to our needs; their caveats are embedded in their observations; their suggestions are written between the lines. It is our job-nay, our duty – to attend the conferences, read the journals, learn the vocabulary, cut through the jargon, better to understand the power we wield and how others in many important sectors of society see us” (9).

Schwartz calls upon archivists to work with scholars in other fields in order to understand more about theoretical/academic formulation of archives. She explains that such conversations are important because it would help archivists re-evaluate their own practices in the light of theoretical critiques about archives. It would also allow archivists to explain their practices to scholars whose ideas about archives – in addition to being mediated by theoretical concerns – is solely based on their experiences as users of archives.

Admittedly, the term “archive” is used to describe many things. An “archive” can be a place, a collection of documents or an institution that collects documents. Additionally, theorists such as Derrida, Foucault, Richards, Tuhiwai-Smith would maintain that an archive is also a function, and an orientation/mindset towards collecting and creating knowledge. However, as Schwartz has pointed out, archives are more than an undifferentiated mass of documents and/or “knowledge.” Such a view obscures not only the complex set of arrangement and descriptive practices that help create archives, but it also writes out the careful planning and arrangement that goes into the creation of archival spaces.

I have been hearing more and more about what I think of as the “archives versus archives” debate. Last year, Katie Theimer wrote persuasively about the way in which the term archive is being co-opted in scholarly spaces ( Matt Kirschenbaum recently tweeted about the “long, idealized, and ultimately problematic use of the term “archive” in #dh project building” (Feb 5, 2012). There, however, does not seem to be general understanding of how scholars in the digital humanities are theorizing “archives.” And if the term “archive” is problematic, then what alternatives can we use to describe our projects? And how do we learn more about this subject from archivists who build and sustain archives on a daily basis?

(P.S. On a related note, please watch this space for a CFP from me that invites digital humanities scholars to theorize and articulate their understandings of archives).


  1. Archivists’ failure to engage with theory is actually an old story. What we call archival theory is really more like a body of discursive or ritualized practices. It’s not changing any time soon. Once a generation, there’s a flurry of articles amounting to “Archivists Have to Think Like Academics,” and everyone agrees and no one, especially not the people advocating for it, does the hard work of critique.

    I was at SAA in Chicago a couple years ago and a presenter, name-dropping French post-Althusserians, called Jacques Ranciere _Jean_. This is what we’re dealing with.

    Anyway, there’s no time like the present. Shameless linkage:

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