Mal d’Archive

You know you’re a pretentious academic blogger when you start titling your posts in French, and if you can quote one of the most notoriously abstruse French philosophers at the same time, well that’s just a bonus. Jacques Derrida is not much in style these days (if he ever was). His ideas, and especially his prose, have been the butt of many jokes over the past half-century, but his 1994 lecture series Mal d’Archive (later published and translated as “Archive Fever“) is a significant artifact of the early days of the digital revolution. Although I don’t quite agree with everything its author says, the book makes an earnest attempt to grapple with the intersection of technology and memory and offers some worthwhile insight.

An archivist works feverishly.

The idiomatic en mal de does not have a direct analogue in English, but for Derrida it means both a sickness and “to burn with a passion.” It is an aching, a compulsive drive (in the Freudian sense) to “return to the origin.” It is the sort of fever rhapsodized by Peggy Lee, the kind of  unquenchable desire that can only be remedied by more cowbell. Whatever Derrida means by archive fever (and I think he leaves its precise meaning deliberately ambiguous), it is a concept that has some resonance for historians. As a profession, we tend to privilege primary sources, or archival documents, over secondary sources, or longer works that analyze and interpret an archive. Yet even the most rudimentary archival fragment contains within it a narrative, a story, an argument. Every document is aspirational; every archive is also an interpretation. There is no such thing as a primary source. There are only secondary sources. We build our histories based on other histories. The archive, Derrida reminds us, is forever expanding and revising, preserving some things and excluding others. The archive, as both subject and object of interpretation, is always open-ended, it is “never closed.”

Of course, in a few weeks, in what can only be described as a stunning disregard for French philosophy, the Georgia State Archives will literally shut its doors. Citing budget cuts, the state announced it will close its archives to the public and restrict access to special appointments (and those appointments will be “limited” due to layoffs). For now, researchers can access a number of collections through the state’s Virtual Vault, but it is not clear whether more material will be added in the future. The closure comes at the behest of governor Nathan Deal, whose recent political career has been beset by ethics violations. The cutbacks are the latest in a string of controversial decisions by the Georgia governor, including the rejection of billions of dollars in medicare funds and a $30 million tax break for Delta Airlines, and will have a negative impact on government transparency. Coming on the heels of the ban on ethnic studies in Arizona, the campaign against “critical thinking” in Texas, attacks on teachers in Illinois and Wisconsin, and deep cuts in public support for higher education across the country, the news from Georgia seems a portent of dark times.

Archives are so essential to our understanding of the past, and our memory of the past is so important to our identity, that it can feel as if we have lost a little part of ourselves when one is suddenly closed, restricted, or destroyed. Historian Leslie Harris calls public archives “the hallmarks of civilization.” Although I don’t entirely agree (are groups that privilege oral tradition uncultivated barbarians?), Harris points to a fundamental truth. The archive is an integral component of a society’s self-perception. Without open access to archival collections, who could corroborate accusations that the government was conducting racist medical experiments? Who would discover the lost masterpiece of a brilliant author? Who would provide the census data to revise wartime death tolls? Who would locate the final key to unlock the gates of Hell? All of the boom and bluster about digitization and the democratization of knowledge notwithstanding, it is easy to forget that archival work is a material process. It takes place in actual physical locations and requires real workers. What does it mean for the vaunted Age of Information when states restrict or close access to public repositories?

However troubling the news from Georgia, all hope is not lost. This is not the end of days. Knowledge workers are fighting to preserve access to the archive. At the same time, efforts by historians to crowdsource the past offer a fascinating and potentially momentous expansion of archive fever. Several high profile projects are now underway to enlist “citizen archivists” to help build, organize, and transcribe documentary collections. Programmers at the always-innovative Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media have just released a “community transcription tool” that will (hopefully) streamline the process of collaborative archiving, transcribing, and tagging across platforms. The potential for public engagement and the production of new knowledge is stupendous. Because they rely on the same volunteer ethos as Wikipedia, however, it is likely that part-time hobbyists will be more interested in parsing obscure Civil War missives than the correspondence of Jeremy Bentham. A citizen archivist with a passion for Iroquois genealogy might have little interest in, let’s say, the municipal records of East St. Louis. And this is precisely where major repositories and their well-trained staff can help supervise, guide, and even lead the public. What if every historian could upload all of their primary sources to a central repository when they finished a project? What if there was a universal queue where researchers could submit manuscripts for public transcription, along the lines of the now-ubiquitous reCAPTCHA service? Perhaps administrators could implement some sort of badge or other incentive program in exchange for transcribing important material? As all manner of documents are digitized, uploaded, and transcribed in a lopsided, haphazard, and ad-hoc fashion, in vastly disparate quality, in myriad formats, in myriad locations, physical archives and their staff are needed more than ever – if only to help level the playing field. Among the most important functions of the professional archivist is to remind us that there is much that is not yet online.

Note recording the arrival of the Amistad survivors in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Jan. 1842. Liberated African Register, Sierra Leone Public Archives, Freetown.

One of the best experiences I’ve ever had as a researcher was in the national archives of Sierra Leone. Despite a century and a half of colonialism, a decades-long civil war, and other challenges that come with occupying a bottom rung on the global development index, the collections remain open to the public and continue to grow and improve. They have even started to go digital thanks to some help from the British Library and the Harriet Tubman Resource Centre. Sitting in the Sierra Leone archives, with its maggot-bitten manuscripts, holes in the windows, and sweltering heat, suddenly the much-discussed global digital divide seems very real. Peering out of the window one day, as I did, to see a mass of students drumming and chanting, then chased by soldiers in riot gear, the screams from the crowd as you shield yourself from gun fire behind a bookshelf thick with papers, it is difficult to look at knowledge work the same way again. When I enter a private archive in the United States, with its marbled columns and leather chairs, its rows of computers and sophisticated security cameras, I am grateful and angry – grateful that this is offered to some, angry that it is denied to others. The archivists and their support team in Freetown are heroes. Full stop. I worry about them when I read about the conflict in Libya, which continues to spill across borders and has led indirectly to the destruction of priceless archives and religious monuments in Mali.

Compared to the situation in West Africa, the more modest efforts to preserve and teach the past across the United States seem like frivolous first world problems. On the other hand, all information is precious. Whether physical or digital, access to our shared heritage should not be held hostage to political agendas or economic ultimatums. Archives are a right, not a privilege. I like to think that Derrida, who grew up under a North African colonial regime, would appreciate this. If Sierra Leone can keep its archives open to the public, why can’t the state of Georgia?

Cross-posted at HASTAC

About Joseph Yannielli

I study the history of slavery and abolition, with a special focus on America, West Africa, and the wider world during the nineteenth century. I began this site as a graduate student in the Department of History at Yale University. I have participated in discussions around the burgeoning field of Digital Humanities, and I use technology to enhance my research and my teaching. I have also served as the manager and lead developer for a few projects, such as the Yale Slavery and Abolition Portal and RunawayCT.

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