The Archive as a place and the place of the Archive
According to Jacques Derrida, in his 1995 essay “Archive Fever”, the meaning of “archive”, “its only meaning, comes from the Greek arkheion: first a house, a domicile, an address, the residence of the higher magistrates, the archons, those who order. The archive is thus both a place (office or building) and the archives it houses. To quote Derrida again: “It is therefore, in this domiciliation, in this house arrest, that the archives take place. In other words, it is housing, the literal in law of the archive, which gives it legitimacy, as much as the archives themselves.
Archival research is a touching subject for historians: the nostalgia for cramped reading rooms and dusty files, the excitement of discovering new towns and neighborhoods. While historians may differ on what constitutes an archive, they are unanimous on the essential character of archival research. But there is little to no debate on how a lot archival research is sufficient for a project. Researchers limit their archival work on the basis of time, resources, and access, and these opportunity costs usually help decide how much research is “enough”.
Yet in our current pandemic, none of the usual measurements are true. Resources available for archival research have been reduced and researchers face travel limitations and social distancing requirements that hinder access. Many archives have simply closed for the duration. Plus, even when they reopen (if they all do), it’s hard to imagine that we’ll just go back to the old normalcy, as if COVID-19 was just a bad dream, which is not. will never bother us again.
The current crisis has already rebuilt our future in a sustainable way. On the one hand, few will be able to fly to another continent on an archival trip for months without feeling the lingering feeling that their stay might be unexpectedly shortened.
For historians, the archives provide evidence to support their arguments, but that evidence could be digital. As Ian Milligan argues in his 2019 book, History in the Age of Plenty? : How the Web is transforming historical research, anyone who works on recent history – that is, since the mid-90s – will be at a disadvantage if they do not use Internet archives. But Milligan’s ideas also apply to more conventional archives, which increasingly evolve in the digital realm. Such digitization fundamentally disrupts the Derridian idea of ”no archives without residence / place”.
Paywall restrictions on digital databases, such as the UK online archives, have replicated the type of surveillance that occurs in a physical archive by controlling who accesses databases and tracking what each user does on the platform. But it is quite another thing to say that these archives constitute a in law; rather, what we access online is a dismissal – a moved or lost archive. Moreover, such restrictions show that digitization is unlikely to make archives more egalitarian: resources are still needed to access the expensive databases that “house” these archives. Yet digital archives challenge the very idea of what an archive is, leading us increasingly to a more decentered and deregulated research world.
The wide availability of digital archives is forcing us to rethink old notions about what makes research “sufficient”. When drafting research project schedules, historians generally only mention the time needed to get to and browse through the archives on site; little or no mention is made of the time it takes to view an online archive. In addition, research grants always favor in situ work. Obviously, dissociating archives from place cannot be meaningful without corollary changes in the research culture of universities.
These changes include teaching students the tools of online research, preparing them for the possibility of fully digital research projects, and helping them use the time and resources freed from travel to learn new skills. These can range from an exchange with a foreign university to obtaining a coherent one-year diploma within the doctorate, including the acquisition of new quantitative or linguistic skills.
There will always be a certain romanticism in old-school archival research, which is why impatient researchers line up on winter mornings to enter the British Library. But there is no time like the present to rethink the archive as a place, and to reject the false binary near reading versus distant reading. In fact, digital (or remote) reading tools allow us to scan texts much more accurately – and clearly – than if we were trying to read a delicate parchment held in our hands. And finally, if we do not want to rethink the question of what constitutes sufficient archival research, we may be required to do so again in the future, on terms and conditions that are not within our control.
Sarath Pillai is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Chicago. He holds an MSL from Yale Law School and a Post Graduate Diploma in Archives Management from the National Archives of India, Delhi. His writings have been published in various publications including Law and history review, Archives and files, Economic and political weekly, Book review, Scroll. In, and The diplomat.
Featured Image: “TSLAC Behind the Scenes: THF Tours the Texas State Archives 1.17.14” by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission is licensed under CC BY 2.0.