The Future Promise of the Archive

This post looks at the future of the archive and the tensions that have arisen from the emergence of digital tools and methods in archival work. The idea is to position the Practicum project within a wider framework of changing archival structures and practices. This is the third in a series of blog posts about the Practicum project. The first and second posts outline the purpose and scope of the project and give a general introduction to the challenges encountered so far. 

Derrida suggests that an archive is best understood as a question for the future rather than something that deals with the past. He writes ‘The archive has always been a pledge, and like every pledge, a token of the future’ (18). But can the ‘pledge’ of an archive be altered by changing archival structures and practices? And more specifically, is the promise of the archive affected by the emergence of digital technologies and practices in archival work?

Archives are changing and so too are the frameworks within which they are considered. Digital technologies offer the potential for much wider access provision, improved usability and greater participation. Mc Causland notes that digital tools have been changing the landscape of archival research since the 1990s (309).  Clement et al. identify a ‘fluidity’ to archives in the digital realm and argue that digitally-based modes of practice are beginning to shape new ideas about the purpose of an archive (127). While this may seem like an evolutionary process – an adaptive response in an increasingly digital world – it has, in fact, been somewhat revolutionary. And it has brought to light some tensions surrounding the future development of the archive, many of which are evident in this Practicum project. Some of the more significant tensions are as follows:

Sense of place

The idea of an archive as a ‘place’ or as a nation-based institution is challenged by the digital environment. Digital archiving projects can operate outside the constructed national tradition and are often created or collated by individuals or partnerships that might not be directly associated with the national apparatus of cultural memory institutions. Featherstone argues that a digital archive should be seen as a ‘paradigmatic entity’ as well as a physical place (596).  While this project takes place within an established cultural heritage institution (that is, Met Éireann Library) it engages a much wider audience by collaborating with universities, local interest groups, the general public and a range of different professionals.  As a digital archive, it will be designed as a different (albeit interrelated) ‘space’ to the physical location or traditional ‘archive’ of the records.

Users and usage

Digital archives attract new users who use the archive in new ways. Potter argues that traditional archiving practices do not always meet the needs of these new users. She writes ‘ …a new generation of researchers is increasingly using archives in ways they weren’t intended for and need a greater array of information on how those archives are created to anticipate biases and impacts on their findings’ (Potter).  This project aims to reach out to new audiences and to develop a new resource through which the archival records can be accessed, analysed and understood in new ways.  The current location and format of the archival records means that use and access is restricted to a select number of people within the organisation.  The proposed digital archive could transform the archive by enabling groups from various backgrounds to explore the collection and develop their own learning opportunities.

Access and mediation

Digital technologies and methods also re-adjust the role of an archivist as ‘mediator’ between the researcher and the archival collection. McCausland argues the archival mediation is critical to successful archival research and that it is a complex activity, which involves relationship-building and reciprocity (312). Interaction of this kind can be difficult to replicate online and, as Bailey points out, the value of an expert reference service is increasingly overlooked in today’s digital information environment (“Taking” 212). For this project, archival mediation will take place at an earlier stage in access provision.  The curator of the collection will be responsible for deciding how the records are presented, how they will be accessed,  the availability of certain records or images and the construction of a narrative to guide the user. The digital environment alters the nature of archival mediation but it does not diminish or extinguish it.

Limits of digitisation

But what does this mediation say about the content that future digital archives will offer? Potter argues that archives have traditionally operated as “opportunistic” collectors, attempting to preserve only a selection of records, which will provide a sample of documents for future generations (Potter). These appraisal techniques are also applied to digital collections, where the cost of digitising archival materials is a significant problem. To date, only a very small portion of material has been digitised (Dunning). This issue will almost certainly be applicable to this Practicum project, due to the size of the collection under consideration. Does this mean that digital archives are sampling only a small portion of archival collections? And if so, what does this limited content say about the ‘pledge’ of the future digital archive?

Archival structures and practices shape the content of the archive, and by shaping the content, they shape the promise of the archive to future generations. So what does this mean for digital archives in general and this Practicum project in particular? Theimer argues that archives must discard the ‘old business model’ (which was to collect, preserve and provide access to materials of lasting value) in favour of a more participatory model that aims to add value to people’s lives by increasing their understanding and appreciation of the past (“The Future”).

These reflections serve as a reminder of the complex framework of archival practice within which this Practicum project takes place. This is a digital archive project – one that is wholly concerned with the digital development of an analogue collection. But it is extremely useful to position this project as part of a broader reflection on the changes and developments in archiving standards and practices because doing this helps to identify the tensions that exist between traditional and digital archival work. This awareness will hopefully guide the Practicum towards a best-practice approach. Most importantly, these reflections emphasise the responsibility of the individuals who are working with the collections. Whether archivists, librarians, digital humanists or other practitioners, the custodians play a central role in the appropriate realisation of the ‘pledge’ of an archive.

Works Cited

Clement, Tanya, Wendy Hagenmaier, and Jennie Levine Knies. “Toward a Notion of the Archive of the Future: Impressions of Practice by Librarians, Archivists, and Digital Humanities Scholars.” Library Quarterly 83.2 (2013): 112–130. ERIC. Web. 19 Mar. 2015.

Derrida, Jacques, and Eric Prenowitz. “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression.” Diacritics 25.2 (1995): 9–63. JSTOR. Web. 20 Mar. 2015.

Dunning, Alastair. “Does the Digital Humanities Need More Digitisation? | Jisc Digitisation and Content.” N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2015.

Featherstone, Mike. “Archive.” Theory, Culture & Society 23.2-3 (2006): 591–596. Web. 20 Mar. 2015.

McCausland, Sigrid. “A Future without Mediation? Online Access, Archivists, and the Future of Archival Research.” (2011): n. pag. Web. 19 Mar. 2015.

Potter, Abbey. “A Vision of the Role and Future of Web Archives: The Web Archive in Today’s World | The Signal: Digital Preservation.” webpage. N.p., 22 May 2012. Web. 19 Mar. 2015.

Taking the Road Less Travelled By: The Future of the Archive and Records Management Profession in the Digital Age.” N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Mar. 2015.

The Future of Archives Is Participatory: A New Mission for Archives.” 14:46:24 UTC.

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