Living in the Archival Moment

The archive has been and continues to be a key concept in Digital Humanities discourse, particularly in India. The importance of the archive to knowledge production in the Humanities, the implication of changes in archival practice with the advent of electronic publishing and digitisation, and the focus on curation as a critical and creative process are some aspects of the debate that this blog post looks at.


In a rather delightful essay titled ‘Unpacking my Library’, published in 1968, Walter Benjamin dwells upon the many nuances of the art of collecting — books in this particular case — on everything from the sometimes impulsive acquisition to the processes of careful selection and classification which go into creating a library. This figure of the collector and practice of collecting are important to our understanding of a central concept in Digital Humanities - the archive - particularly as it occupies a predominant space in the imagination of the field in India, and processes of knowledge production and the history of disciplines in general. The influx of digital technologies into the archival space in the last decade has been an impetus for the large scale digitisation of material, but it has also thrown up several challenges for traditional archival practice, including the preservation of analogue material, the problems of categorising and interpreting large volumes of data, and the gradual disappearance or re-definition of the traditional figure of the collector — a concern echoed across several spaces extending from private online archival efforts to large collaborative knowledge repositories like the Wikipedia.  With the questions that the Digital Humanities seems to have posed to traditional notions of authorship or subject expertise, the ‘digital humanist’, when we imagine such a person, can be seen as a reinvention of this figure of the collector — a curator of materials and traces, here of course, digital traces.

The concept of the archive has been important to knowledge production and particularly the development of academic disciplines; whether driven by concerns of the state or the impulses of the market, there have been different ways of defining and understanding the archive, not only as a documentary record of history, but as a metaphor for collective memory and remembrance which includes technology in its very imagination. One of the most elaborate formulations of the archive has been in the work of Jacques Derrida, where apart from proposing the death and preservation drives as primary to the archival impulse, he also highlights the process of archiviation, or the technical process of archive-building that shapes history and memory. Michel Foucault in his concept of the archive looks at it as ‘a system of discursivity which establishes the possibility of what can be said’,[1]thus pointing to the archive as a space not just of preservation but also production, with an impact on the process of knowledge creation. There is today a consensus, at least in its academic understanding that archives cannot be relegated to being self-contained linear spaces of objective historical record, but that archival practice itself has political implications in terms of how collective memory and history, or as indicated by Foucault, histories are preserved and retold through a process of careful selection. Disciplines themselves may therefore be seen as archives of knowledge, and one may stretch this analogy to say that they may also appear as self-contained spaces with restrictions on entry for different ways of remembering and reading. More importantly, the question of what constitutes the archive and what objects or materials may be archived reflects a larger debate about problems with the definition of disciplines and shifting disciplinary boundaries.[2]The issue of access is what several archival and digitisation projects in the early phase of Digital Humanities in the West seemingly sought to address, by ‘opening up’ and animating the archive in some sense through the use of digital technologies, which has allowed one to envisage a model of the networked or conceptual archive developed through a process of sharing and collaboration. However, as is apparent, the conditions of access to such archives and their interpretation have not been problematised enough, if at all, particularly with respect to how they contribute to generating new kinds of knowledge or scholarship. (For more on a theoretical overview of the concept and function of the archive, see the post on ‘Archive Practice and Digital Humanities’ by Sara Morais).

While the focus of Digital Humanities debates in the West now seem to primarily encompass methods of visualising data that the archive is an important source for, in the Indian context it is the ‘incompleteness of the archive’ that still seems to be a bone of contention. Many scholars and practitioners we spoke to see archive creation as one of the key questions of Digital Humanities as it has emerged in India, and the possibilities and challenges that this brings to the fore, (particularly in terms of access to rare materials and extending these debates to regional languages) as something that the field will need to contend with at some point. The role of digital technologies in fostering this activity of archive-building is stressed in these debates. In an earlier monograph titled Archives and Access produced as part of CIS-RAW, Dr. Aparna Balachandran and Dr. Rochelle Pinto trace a material history of archival practice in India, specifically looking at conflicts and debates surrounding state and colonial archives, and the politics of access, preservation and digitisation. The monograph also points towards in some way the move of the archive from being solely the prerogative of the state to now being within the reach of the individual, engendered by increased access to technology, and the ‘publicness’ that the visual nature of the internet fosters. However they also talk of the possibility of continuing forms of state or market control over the archive precisely through the internet and digital technologies, with the nature of individual access and use again being mediated through digitisation. Abhijeet Bhattacharya, Documentation Officer with the archives at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata who was also part of the Archives and Access project, speaks about this change. From a time even twenty years ago, when it was difficult to define the archive, it has slowly transformed into a practice that encompasses various methods of digitisation and has become increasingly personal. While digitisation may have resolved the problems of physically accessing archives to a large extent, it may not always be the best option, as the archival or analogue material needs to be in good condition so as to make for good digitised copies, thus emphasising the need for preservation. The growth of private collections, which create new kinds of intellectual and nostalgic spaces, have also been important in this shift to archiving the personal and the everyday, though in many instances such material may not be available for public use or consumption. The publicness or hyper-visibility that the visual nature of the internet and digital technologies accords to the archive is seen tied to a narrative of loss here, and against the rhetoric of preservation which is still in many spaces deemed to be the primary function and imagination of the archive.

The increased availability of space for data accumulation due to digital technologies also contributes to a ‘problem of excess’, and that is where curation and building new kinds of tools come in as a critical and creative exercise. Dr. Amlan Dasgupta, Professor of English and director of the School of Cultural Texts and Records, Jadavpur University reiterates this opinion. He talks about the internet as fostering an ‘age of altruism’, where the proliferation of technological gadgets has brought about a culture of voluntarily sharing materials online. This of course challenges notions of authority and brings forth the problems of the unarranged library which Benjamin’s essay also points towards, but the archive can be used as a metaphor to understand how notions of authorship and authority are being challenged as is apparent in the Digital Humanities discourse. The theory-practice divide is also something that ails this particular domain like many others; not only is there an inadequate understanding of how to access and use the archive on the part of students and researchers alike, but there is a lack of standardisation of the practice of archive management and the science itself, in terms of metadata, problems of ownership and copyright, and most importantly inadequate infrastructure, training and expertise on preservation of analogue materials. While it may not be within the ambit of digital humanities to address all of these questions, the renewed interest in archival practice and the diversification of its modes is something is that would continue to be an integral aspect of its practice. In fact what digitisation has also led to is diversity in the modes of documentation itself, and the larger process of archiving, which has important implications for the kinds of questions one may ask within certain disciplinary formations, history being an important example. The nature of material in the archive is never quite the same, so is the manner of working with and interpreting them. Dr. Indira Chowdhury, historian and faculty member at the Srishti School of Art, Media and Design, Bangalore and the Centre for Public History (CPH) speaks of the changes that digital technologies have produced in studying oral history, specifically in terms of recording and interpretation of interviews. The mode of documentation, particularly the digital, adds a new layer to the manner in which the voice, sounds or even silence is recorded or interpreted. Although there are still some basic but crucial obstacles such as with transcription, the digital space may allow for tools that help with more nuanced interpretation of recorded material, and large volumes of it; a possibility that CPH is looking into at the moment. One of the approaches of Digital Humanities may be address these knowledge gaps through critical tool-building, in terms of how one may work with different ways of reading and interpreting material.

The digital archive is one space where many of these questions about the process of archive-creation and the separation between preservation and production that is often made in the existing discourse come into conflict, thus inflating the definition of the term much more. New technologies of publishing, the proliferation of electronic databases and growth of networks that in turn encourage production and the increasing amount of born-digital materials then present new questions for the concept of the archive and scholarship.

The role of technology has been significant in the development of the concept of the archive; in fact the archive, in its very nature would be a technological object, or a space where one can trace a history of the disciplines in relation to technology. The introduction of the digital has added yet another dimension to this question. Dr. Ravi Sundaram, Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, who also initiated the Sarai programme speaks of how the advent of the digital has brought about several shifts in the imagination of the archive, which he sees as two distinct phases. Sarai was one of the early models of a concept driven, networked archive, based on a culture of ‘mailing lists’ that built conversations around topics which in themselves constituted the archive. The shifts came with Web 2.0 with which archiving the everyday became a possibility, given the access to inexpensive gadgets and the pervasiveness of social media. While the model of the networked, curated and public archive still has valence today, a significant next step would be to see how one can extend these questions to thinking differently about the archive, by developing new protocols for entering, sharing and circulation of material, and producing new knowledge or concepts around these ideas. This would be crucial in terms of generating research and scholarship around the archive itself as a concept, and realising the full potential of network-generated information. Another pertinent question is that of infrastructure, which is a political question as well. The investment on infrastructure for the archive is determined by different kinds of interests and will play an important role in how archival efforts will ultimately develop. As Dr. Sundaram reiterates, the point to note is that new archival efforts are not only general repositories, but critical interventions in themselves. They foster new kinds of visibilities, like the archive for example which works with existing footage and reinvents or adds new layers of meaning to it through annotations and citations. This also opens up possibilities for new kinds of questions to be asked about existing material. Private archival efforts, many initiated by individuals are also becoming more niche and specific, driven by a specific research agenda, public interest in conservation or as critical and creative interventions in a particular area. Some examples of this are the Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women (SPARROW), and, the Indian Memory project and Osianama. In some of these examples, the archive may be used as more of a metaphor rather than a description or classificatory term, because of the layers of meaning that they generate around an existing object or ‘trace’. However, while entering the digital space may have enabled more sharing and dissemination of material, how much of these efforts also make their way into larger civil society and policy debates, scholarship and pedagogy is a crucial question. Arjun Appadurai, in an essay titled ‘Archive and Aspiration’, which was also reproduced as part of a research art project,[3] traces the growth of the migrant archive and how electronic mediation shapes collective memory and aspiration. He points out that ‘The archive as a deliberate project is based on the recognition that all documentation is a form of intervention and, thus, that documentation does not simply precede intervention, but is its first step. Since all archives are collections of documents (whether graphic, artifactual or recorded in other forms), this means that the archive is always a meta-intervention. This further means that archives are not only about memory (and the trace or record) but about the work of the imagination, about some sort of social project. These projects seemed, for a while, to have become largely bureaucratic instruments in the hands of the state, but today we are once again reminded that the archive is an everyday tool. Through the experience of the migrant, we can see how archives are conscious sites of debate and desire. And with the arrival of electronic forms of mediation, we can see more clearly that collective memory is interactively designed and socially produced." In another essay reproduced as part of the same project, Wolfgang Ernst talks about the change in the notion of archive from ‘archival space’ to ‘archival time’, in a digital culture, in which the key is the dynamics of the permanent transmission of data. Cyberspace or the internet, according to Ernst produces a new kind of memory culture, which is devoid of organisational memory that is essentially the premise of the traditional text-based archive. He says "In cyber ‘space’ the notion of the archive has already become an anachronistic, hindering metaphor; it should rather be described in topological, mathematical or geometrical terms, replacing emphatic memory by transfer (data migration) in permanence. The old rule that only what has been stored can be located is no longer applicable.13 Beyond the archive in its old ‘archontic’ quality, the Internet generates, in this sense, a new memory culture. Digitalization of analogous stored material means trans-archivization. Linked to the Internet rather than to traditional state bureaucracies, there is no organizational memory any more but a definition by circulating states, constructive rather than re-constructive. Assuming that the matter of memory is really only an effect of the application of techniques of recall, there is no memory. The networked data bases mark the beginning of a relationship to knowledge that dissolves the hierarchy associated with the classical archive."

One can therefore trace the definite shift in the concept and nature of the archive from being a static repository to a critical intervention and creative exercise, and technology being quite integral to its imagination. Most significantly perhaps, the change has been one from the notion of record to that of affect. Archive-building as an affective practice, which has an impact on how knowledge is produced, organised and disseminated is a crucial aspect of meaning-making practices. Related to this is another issue in terms of the amount of data that is available in the archives, which demands new protocols of access and collaboration, and the role of curation in making such data relevant and comprehensible. The notion of the archive or as in this case data as an affective object becomes pertinent here. The problem of excess mentioned by many of the scholars and practitioners would be relevant to the question of big data or big social data; accessing or interpreting such large volumes of information would require critical tools and new kinds of architecture. These shifts also relocate the figure of the collector from traditional practices to new ways of visualising collections and the art of collecting itself, which are now beyond the scope of the human subject. The matter of immediate import here would then be the changes in modes of reading and writing that are brought about by the proliferation of and engagement with big social data. How do we read data, what are changes in reading practices, how do they affect writing and visualisation and what is the nature of the reader thus constructed form some of the areas of exploration for the Digital Humanities, and will be taken up in the forthcoming blogs.

[1]. Foucault quoted in Manoff  (2004), p.18.

[2]. Ibid.

[3]. Archive Public is a research art project that looks at bringing together archival art and solidarity actions. See for more on this.


  1. Benjamin, Walter, “Unpacking My Library”, in Illuminations, trans.Harry Zohn, Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schoken Books (1969) pp 59 - 67.
  2. Derrida, Jacques: “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression”, trans. Eric Prenowitz. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press (1995).
  3. Manoff, Marlene:” Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines.” In: Libraries and the Academy, Vol. 4, No. 1 (2004), pp. 9–25. Copyright © 2004 by The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD 21218. accessed May 5, 2014 :


Sneha PP

P. P. Sneha is Programme Officer with the Researchers at Work (RAW) programme at CIS. She can be reached at <[email protected]>.